The Doorway to the Desert (And Beyond)

Aït Benhaddou is a sprawling kasbah that sits along a former caravan route, connecting the Sahara to Marrakech. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the few “attractions” along the way to the desert. I doubt you’ve heard of it, dear Reader, but I can guarantee you’ve seen it onscreen at one point or another.

The picturesque kasbah is perched on a hill overlooking the Ouarzazate River, making it a desirable shooting location for many film producers and directors. It’s been immortalized in dozens of Hollywood movies: Lawrence of Arabia, The Mummy, Alexander and, most recently, as Meereen in HBO’s Game of Thrones series.

Mohammed introduces himself to our group. His family is one of only five that still inhabits Aït Benhaddou and he’s graciously agreed to give us a tour of his home and the kasbah. We follow Mohammed out of the new town and walk across the riverbed (currently bone dry) towards the kasbah in the old town.

Despite it being “winter” in Morocco, I’m beginning to sweat. And though it might seem an inopportune time to bring it up, the desert isn’t really my thing, dear Reader. Being exposed and vulnerable in toasty temperatures with no sign of water – that vital life-sustaining elixir – leaves me feeling vaguely anxious.

“This is where they filmed the first fight in Gladiator,” Mohammed tells us, pausing by a large open space adjacent to the kasbah’s entrance. “The people in the town… we were extras! Gladiator is the best movie.”

The idea of Hollywood’s elite coming to here, to humble Aït Benhaddou, seems strange to me. And where do the locals watch the movies once they’re released – is there one person with a DVD player in the new town? I’m not really getting that vibe. I feel protective and hope the locals are benefiting from this arrangement. Mohammed reassures me, insisting the film industry creates much-needed jobs.

After exploring the ramparts and climbing several sets of stairs, we arrive at Mohammed’s “summer home,” a two-story abode with dirt floors and no furniture. It’s dark inside and gloriously, mercifully cool – a welcome reprieve from the heat which Alexis, an Angeleno, tells me is not, in fact, even that hot.

Instagram v. Reality

There are few places in the world that offer such a clear delineation between here and there. The Erg Chebbi dunes are such a place. Stretching the length of the horizon, the fire-orange dunes stop just short of the small, adjacent town. I wonder if there’s a contingency plan for sandstorms when Billy articulates a far graver concern.

“I’m not sure what to wear on the camel ride to camp. Do I need a jacket for when the sun goes down?” he wonders aloud. “Or maybe my djellaba?”

Ali shakes his head, “No. Not the djellaba.” And then quietly, “It will touch the camel.”

“Right. Good thinking. Thanks for the pro tip, Ali!” Billy says, carefully tucking his djellaba into this backpack. “I’ll save this for tonight.”

Ali nods sagaciously. In our short time together, I’ve noticed he does not share my love of animals. Aside from the menagerie of beloved pigeons he keeps on his rooftop, Ali finds animals rather disgusting.

We mount our camels and wave goodbye to Ali for the evening. We’re off to the desert at a slow, petulant plod courtesy of our reluctant camel pals and a disinterested guide. The clear distinction between here and there begins to fade, giving way to ever-shifting sands. Tracking our progress and maintaining landmarks on the horizon becomes impossible.

**We now interrupt your blog post for a little Instagram v. Reality update. Though my photos show immaculate waves of cinnamon-colored sand, in reality, most of the dunes were covered in ATV tracks and discarded trash. To be honest, I was expecting something a little more… you know, pristine. Tourism is taking its toll and here I am, contributing to the disaster. **

Billy Joins A Berber Band

We arrive to camp after dark, just in time to have dinner in the dining tent. Billy dons his djellaba for the occasion. Coupled with his scruff and headscarf, he almost passes for a local Berber man. He’s so convincing that two of our young guides mistake him for a fellow coworker, nudging him to come along and help with the dinner service.

“Eh! Mohammed!” they beckon (Mohammed being the equivalent of “hey brother!”).

Billy turns to face them and our hosts quickly realize their mistake. Everyone has a good laugh about it, and I can tell Billy feels validated somehow.

“Did ya see that?” he asks proudly, smoothing the front of his djellaba.

After dinner we join several other guests around the fire. Our hosts sing and play traditional Berber music. Billy ends up with a drum and before I know it, he’s drumming so hard he’s working up a sweat. The man really goes all in, I’ll give him that.

I make conversation with the people next to me and learn the man is from Tunisia but spent over twenty years living in Weymouth, Massachusetts.

“Weird!” I say, “I’m from Billerica.”

The woman on the other side of me overhears this and says, “Billerica? My best friend is from Billerica! I’m from Connecticut.”

It’s a small, small world, dear Reader. Whether I meet guys from Woburn on the Great Wall of China or a Sox fan on Capri, reminders of New England are everywhere.

The Journey Home

I wake early the following morning and nudge Billy.

“Come on. Get dressed. The sunrise,” I say, grabbing my winter hat from the nightstand and covering my bedhead. Okay, I’m ready.

Billy isn’t a morning person, but he knows when I mean business. We’re outside moments later and we climb over several dunes before deciding on a good spot. One by one, guests emerge from their tents. Alexis and Triven are on the next dune over; we wave.

Billy and I sit quietly, leaning into each other. The sun makes its slow climb over the horizon, emitting bursts of pink and yellow. I think of the many beautiful moments we’ve had together – and in only a few short years. It’s almost more than anyone deserves.  

With breakfast in our bellies and our bags packed, we’re ready to return to town. If our desert overnight seemed brief, dear Reader, it was! The average desert stay is 1-2 nights if only because, well, there’s not a whole lot to do in the desert. Seriously, it’s just sand.

We take ATVs out of the dunes and, though I’m loath to admit it, they’re way more fun than the camels. With my arms around Billy’s waist, we speed up and over the dunes – it’s all very Mad Max. These are the moments, I think. The moments that go into the Marriage Memory Bank, the ones we’ll regularly pull out and examine with joy.

As we speed into town, I see Ali waiting for us by the Explorer. I smile and wave. He waves back, if only to humor me. He asks about our desert adventure and we eagerly give him the details as we assume our regular positions in the car. And did Ali have a comfortable overnight in town? He assures us he did.

Not unlike the ride to the desert, the ride back is alternately lively and sleepy. We’re hoping to get back in time for a late dinner, so we make only the necessary stops along the way.

“There,” Ali gestures to a man walking along the road, “a nomad.”

“I thought nomads lived in larger communities?” I ask.

“Not always,” Ali says. “Maybe he will ask to stay in someone’s home and that person must say yes. It is a duty to God to welcome a guest.”

This is a familiar story in many cultures. Growing up in Hawaii, we learned of Pele, the goddess of volcanoes and fire. She would often disguise herself as an elderly woman seeking shelter and those who did not extend their hospitality would inevitably invoke her wrath.

That’s all well and good, but I’m an introvert and a pragmatist, “How long can a traveler expect to be hosted? Couldn’t someone take advantage and become… problematic?”

Ali nods, “Three days is polite. And many families have a separate space for guests. The guest is not in the family home, just in a room attached to it.”

I nod, satisfied now that the expectations of all parties have been clearly defined.

“Some of my family are Berber,“ Ali continues. “They are free. Happy. They have no worries. They go where they want and get food when they must. They don’t worry about things because many things I worry about, they do not exist to the Berber.”

I’m skeptical of “the happy poor” theories. Though, to hear the Berbers tell it, all they really want is to be left alone to live the way their ancestors did. That may be so, but it also leaves them incredibly vulnerable – if not to the consumer culture of the west, than to harsh winters, unending droughts, poor infrastructure and land-grabbing neighbors. They’re free to live as they wish… but for how long?

Hours later, we arrive in Marrakech. I ask Ali how much longer his drive is after he drops us off.

“I live just outside the city… maybe 30 minutes,” he says.

“Oh good! Not too bad. I bet your family can’t wait to see you,” I reply.

“Yes, and my wife will have dinner ready for me as soon as I get home. And it will be delicious!” Ali boasts.

I smile and shake my head. I texted the riad hours ago so they could arrange dinner upon our arrival. Billy’s wife is no slouch either thankyouverymuch.

Throughout our desert trip, I kept thinking about the exploitative nature of travel. I LOVE going to new places, hearing new languages, learning someone else’s history and culture. But travel, too, has been subject to mass consumption. It’s destroying some of the world’s most beautiful places and communities. Even with the best of intentions and my attempts at meaningful exchanges, wouldn’t it be better if I simply stayed home?

Do you guys struggle with this too? Let’s hear it!


2 comments on “The Doorway to the Desert (And Beyond)”
  1. Bill Rosado says:

    Good read… I especially enjoyed the picture of you and Billy sitting on a dune during sunset

    1. Malia says:

      It’s definitely one of my new favorites!

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