Getting Our Just Deserts

I’m typing this from our tent in the middle (more like the western edge) of the Sahara desert on Wednesday October 7, but it will be at least a couple of days before I can actually post it, there being, well, nothing here.

This morning we left our beautiful hotel in Erfoud with a certain amount of reluctance, knowing that we would be trading our enormous comfy air conditioned rooms for extremely non-air-conditioned tents located far deeper into the middle of nowhere than we already were. So I had this brief word with the staff, shown below, thanking them for their hospitality. (How many hotels do you know keep camels on the grounds?) And so we set off, divided up into a convoy of four 4 x 4s instead of our bus because the latter would not do so well on sand dunes and generally functions much better when there is an actual road.

“And next time, don’t forget the mints on the pillows.”

This region is known for its fossils, and so our first stop was a place that receives the quarried fossil-rich slabs of sedimentary rock (not granite) and turns them into exceedingly cool tabletops, counter slabs, fountains, etc., all swimming with the particular Precambrian creatures that were endemic here. They fall mostly into three types: ammonites (which look like nautilus shells), trilobites (which look like giant sow bugs), and a long pointy cylindrical squid-like creature. (We would actually have gotten our own granite countertops in this style, but they were astronomically expensive.) in any case, the factory guide showed us the raw stones, the cutting and polishing process (diamond drills), and so forth, all culminating in the inevitable showroom where they assured us they would ship to the US. There was in fact a lot of interesting stuff, and several of our group bought things Steve and Thumper bought a set of fossil-laden dishes, while we bought a couple of small ammonites variously for Alice and the teenager who lives across the street from us and looks after our house while were away.

“Huh, I could’ve sworn we had Han Solo frozen in here.”

Our next stop was a Berber town where we visited a rather poor household, of which there are many. This was a family of a mother (at left below), father, and five children, two of whom were grown and married while the other three were still at home. One of those three had Down’s Syndrome, which led to a discussion of how they handled and treated him. And the answer was: they don’t. It is considered a failure, essentially a mark of shame, to have had such a child, and so they let him wander the streets, sometimes not seeing him for days at a time. This is arguably an improvement of how some local families treat such children, which is by chaining them up in a back room so no one can see them.

This led to a discussion of health care — Momo translating all the while — which is free in this country if your income falls below a certain threshold (which hers does).

Our hostess’ husband is a porter, who earns very little. She makes ends meet by weaving and selling fabrics and dresses, one of whom she demonstrated on one of our group, as you see here. It was wound pretty tight; our travel partner/dressmaker’s dummy reports that she would have a hard time moving around in it.

I should mention that no visit to a Moroccan home is complete without achingly sweet mint tea, and this was no exception. We smiled with pleasure as the enamel of our teeth dissolved, and thanked our hostess for her hospitality. (More about the Berbers later.)

By this point we were far enough into the desert that the rate of camel sightings was climbing noticeably, and so it was no coincidence that our next stop was a camel farm, one specializing in camel milk. They had a small herd of the beasts, the lactating females penned with their offspring but kept separate from the males, who were uninterested in the milk but very interested in — wait for it — humping. (Rim shot) So to milk a camel (an activity that thankfully they did not offer to teach us), you first have to shoulder the hungry camel children out of the way so that you (the farmer) can grab the teats and spritz the milk into a waiting metal bowl. It took two guys, as you can see here: the guy with his back to us is holding the shiny bowl while keeping the disgruntled juvenile (at left) out of the way, while the guy on the far side of the camel is spritzing. It’s a lot: it only takes a minute or two to get 1 1/2 liters (~3 pints), and you see the result in the picture that follows.

Very fresh, yet strangely unappetizing

It is very white and creamy looking, and tastes — yes, we tasted it — rather like plain old whole milk.

I should say something about camel vocabulary here (I mean out vocabulary, not the camels’, which is mostly limited to FNAAAAUUURRRRNK, though I may be spelling that wrong. The main point that I need to convey is that these are not actually camels, but rather dromedaries. In the immortal words of humor poet Ogden Nash:

“The camel has a single hump, the dromedary two. / Perhaps the other way around / I’m never sure, are you?”

It is in fact the other way around: dromedaries have one hump, and those are the guys you see around here. The two-hump animals are technically Bactrian camels. But everybody seems to call the dromedaries camels except when they’re trying to look smarter than you. I’ll continue to call them camels for convenience. (But I reserve the right to correct you if you call them camels, because I am a hypocrite and want to look smarter than you.)

As we headed deeper into the Sahara we saw more and more of less and less. Here’s the view out my window as we drive; the other car is one of our convoy. We tend to drive in staggered formation so as to avoid eating each other’s dust, of which there is an infinite about. The terrain is mostly flat, a mixture of hard-packed orange sand and black volcanic rubble. There is an occasional milkwood tree or patch of rough scrubby grass. The Atlas Mountains lie in the distance, and there is the occasional field of sand dunes, some the size of small mountains. We traverse a few of these, which is great fun in a roller coaster sort of way, but overall it would be an understatement to say that the landscape is uninviting. The weather is of course hot, though not blisteringly so: no higher than the mid-80s, time bone dry. But the sunlight is like an ultraviolet laser that fills the sky, very very intense.

And of course, amidst the expanse of nothing, there are camels:

We stop for a lunch at a restaurant that incongruously emerges in the midst of a filed of sand dunes. Here’s the scene as we arrive:



The walls are canvas over a frame, the interior walls and ceiling embroidered hangings. The interior space is appointed in traditional style, and if you have a mental image of Aladdin walking among cushions and the embroidered walls to round tables with ornate silver tea sets, you are pretty close to the mark. Lunch was quite good, a beef tagine.

We continued on til a stop at another Berber village, these Berbers being if rather different ethnic heritage. Remember that Berbers are ethnically very heterogeneous, some being pale skinned and of European provenance, others descended from sub-Saharan Africans. This group is descended from slaves imported from Sudan and Mali, and they put on a musical performance (“colorful native dances”, as we cynically characterize them in these trips) in which they played drums, castanets (that’s what they’re holding in the picture) and a stringed instrument. They danced a shuffling line dance while chanting nostalgic songs about the pre-slavery era, e.g., about returning to Timbuktu (which is in Mali, to answer a question it may never have occurred to you to ask).

The performance involved inveigling the audience (i.e. the 16 of us) into getting up and participating in a circle dance,my he Sudanese version of Hava Nagila. I gave in, but frankly would rather have been in Timbuktu myself.

Still further on we encountered a Berber cemetery, seen here. Primitive and sad, with way too many 4′ long graves, indicating that children were buried the. The headstones are I carved rough stone, with no information at all about the deceased. The only fact that each grave conveys is the sex of the departed, which is indicated by the position of the headstone: when positioned in the way that you (the reader) are used to, there lies here a male; when turned 90 degrees, a female. You can see a few of the latter in the photo, e.g., all the way in the back, about a quarter of the way over from the right.


We reached our camp at about 4:15PM, a cluster of a dozen semipermanent canvas-walled one-room tents at the edge of a field of sand dunes. They’re primitive looking from the outside and basic but comfortable on the inside: the canvas hangs on a wood and wire frame, and the floor is wood with a large carpet. Each room has a flush toilet and very basic cold shower. There is a generator or solar-powered batteries in the c amp (I don’t yet know which) so we have electricity at night; there is a single lightbulb but also an electrical outlet so we can charge our various devices overnight. So in ither words, extremely basic but not altogether roughing it. The main problem is the sand, which is everywhere and gets into everything; we have zippered screen doors front and rear that work reasonably well to keep the outside outside.

Not the Hilton.

But make no mistake, we really are in the Sahara desert. If you need any additional convincing, here is the view out our back door.

You might correctly infer from that image that strolling into town to do some shopping is not a realistic option. But it is all very exciting and interesting. We received a cooking lesson (tagine) in the late afternoon, followed by a very good dinner (tagine, do you see the pattern?). The skies are quite beautiful here as you would expect, the Milky Way a glorious highway from horizon to horizon across the zenith. So I gave a little astronomy lecture, enthusiastically received, and led a star party, pointing out constellations and stars to end the evening.

Tomorrow: camel ride! We have been cautioned to wear long pants for this, so I suspect that some apprehension may be warranted.

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