Road to Morocco
by Alan E. Lewis
Entry: March 2011
Hope and Crosby’s Road to Morocco didn’t take them to the breathtaking dunes of the Sahara Desert.
Who didn’t love those “Road” pictures by Bob Hope and Bing Crosby? Whether they were shot in a Hollywood back lot or not, they certainly piqued my interest in exotic travel. But mostly, they were a lot of fun. The films, of course, were meant to be enjoyed as broad parodies. They certainly bore no resemblance to actual travel to these foreign locales—especially to a place like Morocco.
Extremes are a great teacher—and no more so than in this fascinating northern African country. Harriet and I have witnessed so much there, such varied environs, and such ingenuity in the face of foreboding surroundings. One day, early in our journey, I was peering out of our tent onto the seemingly endless expanse of the Sahara, never having felt quite so isolated. A few days later, I found myself boisterously bargaining in a bustling Marrakech market stall, fighting for every inch of space (and every centime!). Having just come from desert climes, and witnessing the perilous scarcity of even basic resources, I began to realize why bargaining is such a necessary ritual to the native Moroccans.
Tuaregs, an ancient Berber tribe, are also known as the Blue Men of the Sahara because of their long indigo turbans.
Before I even left Boston for Morocco, I knew the nomadic Tuareg men who were to be our Saharan hosts wrapped themselves thoroughly in dark blue and black, complete with veil. After watching that first glorious desert sunrise, the reason behind the garb was made very clear to me. The deep indigo veil and outer layers that the Tuareg have been wearing for centuries hold in the relatively cool temperature of the human body, minimize the intrusion of the outside world’s heat, and keep pesky grains of sand from irritating and blinding. I never thought that nearly 99 degrees F could be considered comfortable, but in comparison to the escalating heat around me, it was positively balmy!
Another thing that we learned from the people that we met while camping in the Sahara was that isolation and hospitality were by no means mutually exclusive. At first they appeared ominous: a small cluster of people, well-swaddled in cotton and perched on donkeys, emerging over the horizon through the clear, rippling haze of heat. After a few quick exchanges in whatever mix of Spanish, French, and Arabic I could muster, I saw the glimmer of a smile. The conversation flowed from there. With night falling soon, they laid down their pack not far from our Bedouin-style tents and we shared dinner and mint tea—the region’s national symbol of hospitality—over an open fire. There’s nothing like a fire in the desert, with the temperature dropping fast …
Hearty tagine, a spicy Moroccan stew, is served from its own elegant cooking vessel.
Pulling into Marrakech a few days later, it took some time to adjust to the transition from the tranquil splendor of the desert to the city’s undulating intensity. Here, too, the art of living was well on display—just reinvented to suit the surroundings. Buyers and sellers engaged in very vocal, seemingly contentious haggling, only to emerge smiling and shaking hands. The street performers struggled to top one another, pushing themselves to deliver more inventive and thrilling spectacles in order to capture the attention (and dirhams—the local currency) of locals and tourists alike. As I strolled the vibrant streets, it seemed like each food vendor, restaurant, and stall competed for my attention with an array of enticing aromas emanating from the country’s richly seasoned culinary tradition, which combines Arabic, Mediterranean, Moorish, and Berber influences into something overwhelmingly original and tempting. We couldn’t resist stopping for a tajine—an intoxicating mix of lamb, vegetables, and spices, slow-cooked in clay pots and often served with rice or couscous.
Sitting on a bench, well-fed and exhausted, we watched the sun descend beneath Marrakech’s storied walls. It gave us a strangely familiar feeling: despite the wonder of our foreign surroundings, I couldn’t help but think of the sunsets over the Charles River back here in Boston. It’s the same sun, after all—the Moroccan art of living just provided a new frame for a familiar canvas …
Alan E. Lewis
You can visit exotic Morocco with OAT on our Morocco Sahara Odyssey adventure.