Camels and tents and the Sahara! Oh my!

by Misty I.

What are the chances?  I have heard that phrase many times.  Life is unpredictable; we are unable to fully control it against the vagaries of chance.  Recently, though, chance was in my favor when I had an opportunity to travel to Morocco with a friend.  Talk about luck!Although we had many unforgettable moments during our time in Morocco, the most noteworthy was our camel trek in the Sahara.  Honestly, it was also the portion of our trip that I was most worried about!  I had never been on a camel and had never been to a real desert.  Would it be hot during the day, then sub-zero at night?  After what seemed like a million emails between my friend and many Morocco-based tour companies, we hired “Morocco Expert Tours.”  Thanks to my friend and her business acumen, Morocco Expert Tours agreed to drive our group eight hours across the Atlas Mountains to the Sahara.  Once we got there the plan was to hop on camels, trek into the desert, and sleep in a Berber tent for a reasonable fee.  I braced myself for the adventure ahead!

Our camel adventure officially started when our tour guides picked us up at our riad in Marrakech.  My first impressions of Mohammed and Hassan were unexpected. They were well-groomed, Arabic Tom Cruise types complete with gold rimmed Ray-Bans, designer jeans, and Italian shoes.We loaded our luggage, hopped in our van, and began our journey.  Boy, those Moroccan roads leading us through the Atlas Mountains were windy, narrow, and scary!  It brought back nostalgic memories of “nice” Sunday afternoon drives with my Grandpa Ramos where I held on for dear life in his 1965 International Scout on the twisty back roads of Kalopa Mauka near Honoka’a!  Oh, what fun!When we weren’t worried about getting sideswiped by other vehicles, we snacked on Pringles, Doritos, and addictive Big Island Delights Party Mix from Hilo.  We also made a couple of stops to break up the road trip.  First, we visited the Aiu Heddonou Kasbah where the likes of The Gladiator, Indiana Jones, and HBO’s popular Game of Thrones were filmed.For lunch that day we had tagines, shish kabobs and a foul-tasting concoction called “vegetable soup” that I can only describe as smelling sharply of Mauna Kea sheep!  We could barely bring ourselves to taste one slurp, and yes, it tasted as bad as it smelled.

Nine hours after leaving Marrakech, when the sun was low in the sky, we arrived at Zagora.

We met our camel handler and can you guess what his name was?  Mohammed!  He quickly rejected our carry-on suitcases and required some of us, myself included, to downsize immediately.  He didn’t care that I had carefully packed my “desert essentials” which included, well, essentials!

While I was still in shock over having to leave most of my stuff behind, Mohammed expertly tied on our turbans and helped us get on the camels just as the sun was setting.Riding a camel was a little unnerving for a first-timer like me.  Camels are very tall and pitch forward, then back as they stand up; which made me feel like I was going to fall!  My camels name was “Tifl,” which is Arabic for baby.  I can’t remember any of the other camelsʻ names but we joked about wanting to rename one of them “Jeffrey Camel” after shoe designer Jeffrey Campbell!Once we got to camp, we were pointed to tent #6.  We were ecstatic to find real beds!  I was worried that the accomodations would be awful, but they were fine.After settling in, we joined the other campers in what I’ll describe as a Berber drum party complete with singing, dancing and glasses of Moroccan mint tea.After the drum party, we were invited to dinner in a very large tent where tables were set with silverware and tablecloths.  This was special to me since my idea of a “camping dinner” is chili and rice with a side of kimchee eaten with a plastic fork.

That evening they fed us harira soup, khobz (traditional Moroccan bread), chicken tagine and fresh fruit for dessert.  We washed up for the evening, did some star gazing then went to bed pretty exhausted.

The next morning, we got back on the camels and climbed the towering sand dunes to watch the sun rise over the Sahara.  It was a magical.  It was as if time stood still while we took it all in; my heart swelled as I realized that this “chance” trip to Morocco was turning out to be my most epic adventure to date.After our morning sunrise trek we headed back to camp where we had a breakfast of freshly squeezed juices, Moroccan mint tea, yogurt, French pastries, and Msemmen, which are traditional Moroccan pancakes that you eat with butter and jam.After breakfast we packed up our gear, got back on our camel, and headed back to civilization.  When we reached the road our well-dressed Morocco Expert Tour guides greeted us with smiles.  We made the nine-hour trip back up the Atlas Mountains back to Marrakech.I am grateful for the time we spent traveling all over Morocco.  It allowed me to get a taste of the Arabic world without having to travel to the Middle East.  Moroccan culture has within it a set of practices and manners that caused me to constantly test the limits of my comfort zone.  What a gift to realize the more I put myself in uncomfortable situations the less uncomfortable they become.  I urge you to book a trip somewhere NOT on your bucket list, you won’t regret it!

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