Monday, October 13, 2008

Merzouga - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 5 (Part 1)

We woke up in time for a quick walk to the pâtisserie we saw last night on our stroll. The shop was very simple, with concrete walls, a scale to weigh the pastries, and a simple counter with a few trays of food, some with flies crawling on them. We picked up a few interesting looking breads and pastries for a very cheap price and ate them back at the hotel. At 8am, Mohammed showed up. After loading our gear into his car, we were off for a two day trip to the Sahara Desert. We agreed to take a southern route to Merzouga and a northern route back to see some different sights along the way. Although we had the choice of visiting Zagora for a lower price, we decided to visit Merzouga as it came highly recommended from nearly everyone we met. From what we had heard, Zagora was a town on the southern edge of the Draâ Valley, past which is the rocky rag desert which had only a few small dunes. Merzouga, on the other hand, had some enormous sand dunes which were supposed to be like the ones in the movies.

Our first stop was on a mountain road close to Ouarzazate. Mohammed stopped the car by a curve in the road where he told us we can get a very nice view. As we stepped out of the car and closed the doors, we noticed the car started up again and slowly drove off! We were scared that this was the plan all along, that Mohammed would steal our stuff and dump us in the middle of a desert to give him enough time to escape! After exchanging some nervous glances with each other, we decided to just enjoy the view and hope he doesn't drive away. However, Felix and I were interrupted by the sight of two men, dressed in the traditional robes and headscarfs were sprinting toward from a small mud brick building on the hill above the road. "Are they running toward us?" I asked uncomfortably. Felix responded "... I .... think so..." As you can imagine, we were quite confused and uncomfortable again, as we were standing on a deserted mountain road in the rocky desert of Southern Morocco, with our driver driving off with our gear in his car, and two men running at us full force from a small mud shack on a hill.

We just stood there as the men approached. As they did, we noticed that they were carrying lizards. It turns out that the the men displayed lizards that they catch in the deserts to passing tourists in hopes of getting a few dirhams out of the process. They were quite nice and showed us a chameleon and some spiny-tailed lizards, which had fat bodies and wide, segmented spiny tails. One of the lizards was obviously dead, which they did not realize until after showing it to us. The man looked stunned for a few seconds, then reassured us that is was sleeping and tried to explain that the lizard was a baby who needed his sleep, even though it was the same size as the others. He even petted the dead lizard to try to complete the illusion. The dead body just bounced a bit in response.

After taking some photos with us and putting lizards on us, they asked for a tip. When we asked how much, they said 50 dirhams. I knew this was too much, and luckily, I remembered that I didn't have much money left in my wallet as I carry most of my spending money in a hidden money pouch. I opened my wallet to show them it was empty, but to my dismay, there was a 50 dirham bill sitting right there. We stared each other for a few speechless seconds, then he pointed and nodded his head, saying "... yeah, 50 dirham." I quickly withdrew my wallet, and Felix and I both handed them 10 dirham and started walking toward Mohammed's car, which we were relieved to find parked a bit up the road. Although they followed us to ask for more money, Mohammed intercepted them and seemed to have a friendly chat. He claims that he parked the car up a bit to move it out of the way of the traffic. We are pretty sure that these were his friends and that they had an agreement for him to stop there with tourists. Felix was visibly angry at Mohammed and told him never to do that again.

Before heading off again, we enjoyed the view of the valley and took some more photos. One can see hills all around the area, rising into rocky cliffs. The terrain was dry and rocky, and had a dusty reddish brown tinge to it. There were some small but scattered plants on the hills. In the valley, one can see a few small towns and villages surrounding patches of green fields and palm trees. These were oasis towns. Although I was very excited to see my first oasis town, these turned out to be extremely common in Morocco, and other than towns surrounding three small rivers and streams, these were the only significantly inhabited places there.

A bit further into the drive, we stopped for another view of the gorges in the area. We saw a deep gash in the earth forming steep cliffs. We did not see any water, but can imagine that any rains in the area must form torrential flows as there were no plants or other obstacles to slow the flow of water. Mohammed mentioned that this was the "Grand Canyon of Morocco." We also noticed interesting rock formations as we drove. In this particular area, any hills or changes in elevation was composed of distinct layers of rocks. The rocks of the different layers all looked the same, but it was stunning to see not a single smooth hill. The layers were so distinct that the edge of each layer looked as if someone had built a rock wall there that had just begun to crumble. The entire landscape were made of slightly slanting horizontal lines, as if some cartographer had drawn close-together lines on the terrain to mark the altitude.

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