Last week I found myself on a bus at 4:45 AM with 45 other volunteers and students heading off in the dark toward southern Morocco and the mighty Sahara Desert. Our first stop was Marrakech where we had breakfast and some of the students treated me to bean soup, coffee and fried tortilla-like pancakes. We continued on to Ouarzazate where such films as Lawrence of Arabia, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Mummy and Gladiator were filmed. We finally arrived to the hotel where we would stay for the night with views in every direction of incredible jutting, red rock mountain ridges and fertile green valleys full of date palms.
We arrived the next afternoon in the Sahara, 15 miles from the border of Algeria and waited in the sand. Camels swarmed us from all directions and collapsed to their knees before us. Within minutes we were all atop a camel, heading east into the Sahara over dunes and sand valleys. The camels were docile, reserved, and almost shy. They seemed much more predictable than some horses I met recently in Norway. They seemed very friendly and did not buck or shy away from getting petted or having a human’s face squeezed next to theirs for a photo. I expected a strong musky smell like a goat or a cow pie but they seemed quite odorless. As soon as the camel was mounted it immediately stood upright and when dismounting, the camel would fall to the ground, front knees folding and hitting the ground first followed by the back legs which fold the opposite way a horse’s does. The saddle I sat in was made of rugs and had a steel handle to hold onto, and this obscured the camel’s humps making it unclear exactly how many humps the camel had. The ride swayed me back and forth and forward and backwards in a way that reminded me of a choppy ocean sailing experience. Our camels carried us toward our resting place for the evening: a tent made of wood and blankets in a flat sandy valley. After a restless sleep on a hard pad it was again 4:45 when my alarm chimed and it was time to climb onto the kneeling camels and head for breakfast. Once we were back on the bus the students sang songs in Arabic as the volunteers clapped along. After a trivia contest MC’d by one of the students we held a stand-up comedy/joke telling contest which I won, earning me the prize of a half-priced admission to the next school field trip.
Recently while walking in a market with two other volunteers from the school, I found myself surrounded by 20 or so women and children. The three of us were led away to the homes of two families to have lunch, which we happily accepted. We ate couscous and attempted conversation. Mustafa, the father of the house, made balls of food for me and dropped them into my hand. I ate three or four couscous and chicken fistfuls, even though I felt strange eating food that had been so thoroughly handled by someone. I loved sharing their food and felt very welcomed into their homes. It seems to be a relatively common practice here to invite visitors or travelers into your home and feed them and I’ve really enjoyed the several times I’ve been invited to people’s homes. In Morocco families eat every meal together and often times eat from the same communal dish in the center of the table. Sometimes people wash their hands before eating. Always they use only their right hand to scoop into the communal dish. On Fridays it is customary to eat a big lunch of couscous served scaldingly hot and saucy with a whole chicken or big pieces of beef in the center of the dish atop of a pile of vegetables. The eating technique as I have been instructed goes like this: grab a handful of couscous, sauce and vegetables in your right hand. Keeping your hand over the main dish, lightly toss the handful and catch it in your palm, squeezing it until it forms a large ball. Then move the ball so that it is resting atop your closed fist, where you eat the ball of food kind of like an ice cream cone, imagining that your fist is the cone. I don’t have the hang of it yet, but I’m getting there. I’m really enjoying learning more about Morocco and getting to know the people here.