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Castles in the Sand, Carpets in a Cave

THE WANDER YEAR / WEEK 36: MOROCCO * A yearlong series following one couple's journey around the world.

October 15, 2000|MIKE MCINTYRE

MERZOUGA, Morocco — The high beams of our rental car poked holes in the blackness and found nothing. The dirt road was rutted and washboard-ribbed; it paralleled and crisscrossed other unpaved tracks stretching into the void. We were heading southeast, 30 miles from the Algerian frontier. Somewhere on our left was Erg Chebbi, Morocco's only expanse of Saharansand dunes. We could not see where we were, but we were where we wanted to be.

At home, Andrea and I enjoy visits to the desert. We're drawn to the harsh but beautiful landscape, the vast emptiness and the things that fill it. So we were glad to tour the more desolate reaches of central Morocco, meandering 600 miles by car and camel.

We started in Marrakech, driving through the High Atlas, pine-swathed mountains that top 13,000 feet. A week later, crossing over a pass farther north, we'd get caught in a September snowstorm. But on this bright, sunny day we had a clear shot at the mesmerizing wasteland below. We wended through barren auburn hills studded with red-earth casbahs, fortress-like dwellings. We'd entered the domain of the Berbers, the indigenous people of North Africa who are fiercely independent yet uncommonly hospitable.

That afternoon, outside a dusty speck on the map called Amerzgane, we were stopped at a police roadblock for speeding. An officer handed Andrea's international driver's license to the chief, who sat behind a table in the shade of a palm tree. We braced for a shakedown.

"Do you have money?" the chief asked Andrea.

"I don't know," she said, stalling.

"OK, you can go," he said, waving us on with a smile.

We left the main road and climbed hairpin turns through the Dades Gorge, a narrow red-walled canyon cut into the High Atlas by the Dades River. We stopped at a quiet inn for lunch. After a tomato and cucumber salad, olive omelet, warm bread and melon, our waiter, Mohammed, showed us his home--a small cave. We weren't surprised to see it stocked with wool carpets, as common in Morocco as souvenir T-shirts, and after two weeks here we finally bought one. Our lack of cash was no problem; the cave took plastic.

Our arrival in Agdz made it a one-car town. We sipped cold drinks at a sleepy sidewalk cafe as youths faced off on an ancient Foosball-style arcade table. The proprietor indulged my interest in music, popping tapes into his boombox, settling on one that sounded like 1930s American folk music. It was Ezenzarne, a Berber group that uses tambourine, drums and the banjo-like loutar. I paid the man 30 dirham ($2.75) for the cassette, our theme music for the rest of the road trip.

South of Agdz, in the Dra^a Valley, we came upon one of the more striking desert vistas I've seen. Purple mesas towered in the distance, contrasting with a sea of green palms in the foreground. Old casbahs melted into the ground like sand castles claimed by high tide. Children and their elders along the roadside waved at us so benevolently and persistently that we felt as if we were riding in a parade.

In the oasis of Zagora, a billboard painting of a desert scene indicates it's 52 days by camel across the Sahara to Timbuktu. At the open-air market, men haggled over goats whose legs were bound by palm fronds. Buyers lifted the animals' lips to inspect their teeth and gums. One satisfied customer left in a taxi, a pair of goats lashed to the luggage rack.

It was not until the morning, after our arrival near the small village of Merzouga, that we saw how close we'd driven to Erg Chebbi in the dark the night before. About 100 yards from the hotel patio, the immense dunes appeared as sculpted blond mountains.

We needed supplies for an overnight camel trek. A hotel worker showed us to a store, which happened to be next door to the home of his cousin, the rug merchant. We succumbed to the offer of mint tea, knowing where it would lead. Ahda Achabo, owner of Depot Nomade, said the bold red and royal blue lamb's-wool carpet Andrea coveted cost $800. Andrea countered with $200, and I sighed at the thought of lots more tea.

In Moroccan carpet negotiations, there is "good price," "friendly price" and "last price." To these, Achabo added "nearly my last price." He and Andrea handed pad and pen back and forth, jotting figures until Andrea held firm at $400. "She is worse than a Berber woman," Achabo joked. "She wants a camel for the price of a sheep." Then he shook on it.

Late in the day, we joined seven Europeans atop camels and ambled into the dunes, our heads wrapped in scarves to protect against sun and wind. Multilingual Berber guides picked a route through shifting sands that changed color from brass to copper with the setting sun. After 90 minutes, ample time for our bottoms to discover the pointy end of a camel's hump, we stopped near a palm patch at the base of a dune taller than a minaret.

Dinner was served under a tent. We ate the tajine (thick stew) in the traditional way, with our hands. Our hosts placed our sleeping mats outside. I crawled under a blanket and drifted toward the sandman. In a dream, a faint voice called to me, "Turn around, turn around." I awoke and, rolling onto my back, beheld the brilliant starry sky. The camp was silent, not even the camels stirred, and for the first time in a long time, I heard my heart.

NEXT WEEK: Haircuts around the world.


Did you miss a Wander Year installment? The entire series since it began in January can be found on The Times' Web site at

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