If Moroccan roads are any kind of benchmark, it seems that Mercedes Benz cars don’t die: they live forever as long distance taxis. Not an easy retirement, I thought to myself, as our leather-seated 1973 classic, with about a million miles on the clock and a CD of the Koran hanging from the rear-view mirror, hauled us over the crest of the snow-peaked High Atlas mountains. We were heading into the desert. We left the smoke filled souk of the Jamaa el Fna behind us, climbed over the mountains in the early light of the morning and then headed down through the Draa Valley towards the low mountain range that marks the northernmost point of the Sahara desert.
I was nervous and excited. This was my first trip to Africa, and the thrill of the unknown stretched before me. Even the roadside stop along the way to buy dates felt like a little adventure. My instinct was to pass; my mind full of the bacteria they must surely contain. We stopped anyway, urged on by our taxi driver. We bought dates from the toothless, grinning hawker, rinsed them with water from a bottle and then ate. They were delicious. Of course they were delicious.
We followed the course of the Draa, a sluggish river closely hugged on either bank by a belt of lush greenery; olive groves in the middle of a stony wasteland. We passed ancient looking Kasbahs and trees filled with grazing goats. We were clearly not in Kansas any more.
After a long, dusty day on the road, just as the sun was beginning to dip below the horizon, we reached the desert proper. Not exactly the dune sea of my imagination, but a low, stony plain filled with rocks and scrub. Our camp had already been pitched, and we arrived to sugary, fresh mint tea. Tea making, you understand, is a ritual to be taken very seriously: put a handful of black gunpowder tea into your teapot; fill with water; add fresh mint; place teapot directly into the embers of the fire. As this boils, line up a your shot glasses. When the tea boils, add an enormous lump of rock sugar and then carefully remove the teapot from the fire. Hold the teapot at a great height over the first shot glass and pour. Put teapot down. Pick up shot glass and then, also from a great height, pour the contents into the second glass and repeat the process up and down the line until all the glasses have been filled at least twice. Pour the tea back into the teapot. Repeat. Probably repeat again, and then serve, always pouring the tea from a great height, so that it froths and bubbles. Add more mint and serve. Delicious, of course, but I can’t help but think that the tea itself is nowhere near as important as the ritual of making it.
As we watch our tea, a tagine, being prepared, there is much discussion amongst our guides. After ten minutes of animated discussion, one walks slowly from the camp. One of the other guides approached us, the one with the best English:
“We have looked at your bags and we think we need another camel. Hussein is going to get us one. He will return before we leave in the morning.”
“But it’s nearly dark”.
Shrug. “He will be back before morning.”
When we awoke the next morning and prepared ourselves for our first day of walking in the Sahara, there was Hussein, carefully preparing the tea.
Hussein was a Berber and he spoke only a little bit of French and no English. He communicated mainly with smiles. He seemed to find us remarkable.
“How did you find your way back in the dark? Did you use the stars?”
Hussein looked confused, and looked over to Brahim, the English speaker, for help. Brahim explained what we had asked, and Hussein began to laugh uproariously, as if he had never heard anything more ridiculous. We looked to Brahim.
“How did he find his way back in the dark? We’re in the middle of nowhere!”
Brahim shrugged. “He knows the way”.
Hussein laughed again, his eyes dancing as he shook his head at the sheer stupidity of the idea that he might need to navigate by the stars.
Over the next week, we got quite friendly with Hussein. It’s amazing how well you can get to know someone when you don’t share a language. Hussein sang us Berber songs around the campfire and we sang him Beatles songs. If memory serves me correctly, he found “Yesterday” especially amazing. He taught us an unfathomable Berber game that involved a grid drawn in the sand and goat droppings. He cooked us sand bread and meticulously made us endless cups of mint tea. We also learned that he was married.
“How did you meet your wife?”
With Brahim’s help, we learned that every once in a while, the Berber tribes meet. They spend almost their whole lives travelling across the desert, and a gathering like this gives them a chance to meet and to mingle. Hussein met his wife at one of these gatherings; a dance. She was, we learned, covered from head to foot, with only her eyes showing.
“So how did you know that she was the one?”
Hussein laughed and replied in his own language.
Brahim nodded and turned to us.
“It was” he said, “the way she moved”.