Bells are sounding off in the distance. It’s still dark outside, but I suppose this is to wake the residents of the monasteries. We hear them first from our neighbouring cliff, and then faintly from somewhere much further away. The sound bounces between the mountains and rocks to reach us in our little fort beneath the trees. The moon has risen and I catch a glimpse of more falling meteors before drifting off to sleep again.
I sleep pretty well considering the bumpy bus ride and upright position I must keep for 10 hours. The bus only stops once, around 2 in the morning, and I don’t even bother to get off and stretch my legs. Too sleepy. It gets COLD in the middle of the night but at least the driver has stopped opening the back door.
We arrive before sunrise, and as I groggily step off the bus there are a few men waiting for those who’ve booked hotels ahead of time, or are in search of one. The first man we speak to is dressed in a long royal blue top with gold detailing, and a scarf, twisted and wrapped around his head. Very desert chic. He suggests we come to see his “hotel” and the word prompts me to say we need something much cheaper, like a hostel. He says he can offer us a room for 50mdh (5€, $7cad) each, which is the cheapest price I’ve paid so far, so we agree to go. It’s not as hectic or invasive as the fresh-off-the-bus hostel scrambles were in Asia. People yelling, holding signs, waving things in your face, shouting prices. Again, everyone made it sound like this would be a nightmare, but really it’s chill af. So chill that I’m a little concerned, but for 50mdh I will sleep anywhere.
He takes us to this hotel by car. It’s literally right in front of a giant sand dune, with a beautiful backyard seating area where he leads us to discuss camels for hire. I envisioned this differently as well. Kinda pictured myself at the edge of the Sahara, bargaining for camels with individual guides. I don’t want a cheesy tour. I’m still hesitant, but willing to hear prices. We spoke to some people yesterday who said they paid 800mdh (75€, $105cad) per night. I just can’t afford that life.
We drink mint tea and watch the sun rise over the dunes while he explains our excursion options. I’m not even IN the desert yet really, and I’m already blown away by how beautiful it is. The sun looks enormous.
He quotes us 500mdh (46€, $66cad) each per night, but we talk him down to 400 (37€, $53cad) which is what we were originally hoping to pay. Sweet. Now we go to see the room which I’m expecting to be a dorm or another double bed we have to share, but instead he shows us a room with two singles, a double bed, and private bathroom. He says we can share this just the two of us. So basically a room for 4 people that we can just have, for 50mdh. I confirm this price again, because it seems too good to be true. He shakes my hand and looks me in the eye and says 50dhm. Alrighty. Realistically, we won’t even be sleeping here because we’ll be out in the desert camp tonight, but it’s a place for us to rest and shower now, and to leave our things. I’m cool with it. I claim the double bed.
I keep saying To Cesc how lucky we’ve been, and how it seems to good to be true. Usually just showing up somewhere doesn’t work out this well. Always works out, but never this smoothly.
I shower, take a two hour nap, and then we head into the town to find food. They offer to make us lunch but we want to check out Merzouga (and find some wifi because there isn’t any at the hotel). The man we met this morning, Mohammed, drives us separately on a sketchy little motorbike to the town, kicking up a ton of sand and dirt when we do some off-roading as a short cut. He tells says something about a market which sounds to me like the perfect place to find cheap eats, and he leads us from the motorbike to a car driven by his “friend”. Surprise surprise surprise the “market” is in the middle of no where and is actually just a shop to buy rugs, jewelry, scarves and everything else I have no intention of purchasing. I realize what’s happening as soon as we pull up and say look man, I have no money for shopping, I just want some lunch, but we’re ushered inside anyway.
Obviously, the shop people are pushy and get pissed off when we don’t buy anything, which always pisses me off in return. They do it to everyone, it’s the cost of being a tourist, but I’m not stoked when they make us walk back to the town. Dickheads. It’s not that far, but still rude. I didn’t ask to come here.
On the walk back Mohammed continues to explain more about the rugs and how they’re hand made by the desert tribes etc etc. They’re obviously super cool but I’m not buying one. I think that’s clear. How many times do I have to say no?
In town, we go to find a restaurant and are followed by Mohammed, who’s trying to tell us where to eat and what to order. We ask for some space and time to wander around on our own. I’m about to start tossin’ elbows. Even when I speak quietly to Cesc Mohammed butts in and tries to take over the conversation. Once, I ask Cesc how to say a word in Spanish, and Mohammed gives me the answer. How is that a thing? We offer to walk back to the hotel so he doesn’t have to wait or tag along all afternoon.
He agrees and backs off, but not actually, because later we see him lingering outside the cafe we chose for lunch. During our meal he comes inside to ask if we want to join a couple at our hotel who are taking a 4×4 out into the desert to see the nomad tribe, but wants us to pay 250mdh each, and wants us to leave now. Like I literally have food in my hands. Faaaaackin hell, mate. No.
I know this is just part of the deal, part of being a tourist in Morocco, but it’s so frustrating when you just want to chill and enjoy yourself but are being pressured to buy things, pay for extra excursions, stay a few more nights, upgrade to the luxury camp. No. No. No.
He ends up hanging around outside until we finish eating and drives us back, which is actually nice because I’m wearing my new Moroccan slippers and didn’t really want to walk 30 minutes down a dusty road. Now he’s offering to take us to his house tomorrow night etc. etc., and I basically just tune out because, guess what? I’m not going. Please just take me to the desert and back sirrrrrr. Can’t you just let me live my life?
I stand by the fact that we’re paying a good price, but at what cost, ya know?
We meet a group of Spanish people at our hostel who will be coming on the trip with us. I am now convinced there are more Spaniards in Morocco than Moroccans. It’s great practice for me to listen and attempt to take part in the conversations but it’s also exhausting to have to work so hard to understand basic things. I get lost a lot and give up on asking Cesc to fill me in.
Another group of Spaniards, a family traveling by caravan with FIVE children, is also coming on our desert trip. If I’m not fluent in Spanish by tomorrow, I’ll be disappointed.
Super bonus though, we compare what we’ve paid for the excursion to what everyone else has paid. The whole trip including camels, camping, meals, and our room, is 450 each. Everyone else is paying 800. Legendary savings status.
Wowzers. Another group of humans has just arrived. And another. Another couple. Will it ever end? What kind of desert “camp” can accommodate 50 people? We were told no more than 20. I hate being swindled. I can’t think of a way I could have done anything differently to avoid this tourist trap. We took our own bus. We actively refused tours. We chose a cheap hostel, and agreed to a guided tour through the desert, but not this. Yet, here we are; being told we’ll be driving to a God damn parking lot before getting on any camels.
We’re told to be ready by 3pm, we wait wait wait wait, and by 6pm we actually leave. The camel riding is fun, though I question the ethics. I don’t see camels being beaten or anything, but I think I’m done with any kind of animal related tourism. Unless it’s cage shark diving. Or swimming with whale sharks. Or regular diving. Or a safari. Definitely no more animal riding, though.
I skip the tourist head wrap, but the 5 girls in front of me have never been more excited. They spend much of the camel ride taking selfies and discussing how to get the best group jumping photo when we arrive at the dunes. Cesc asks me the English word for “pija” which I’m unfamiliar with. In Spanish it’s what you call girls who are overly concerned with how they look and wear a lot of make up. I love it.
Once in the camp I’m in better spirits. Our crew of Spanish people took a different group of camels are no where to be seen though, which is disappointing. We walk out into the dunes to watch the sun set, and meet new people within the camp. Most are, of course, Spanish, but we also meet a nice Danish couple, some girls from Macau, and an American family. There are about 30 people in the camp total so it’s bigger than expected but I was starting to think there’d be 100 of us here.
Dinner is Moroccan salad and a giant tagine for each table of 10. The topic of trip prices comes up, and Cesc and I are victorious again. People have WAY over paid for this on many occasions, but I totally understand how it happens. Im pretty confident they make a quick assessment of you, and set the price accordingly. No one else we meet is backpacking, they’re here for a comfortable vacation, so while they’re surprised by how little we’ve paid, no one seems bothered.
After dinner a fire is lit, the guides are playing drum music, and a dance circle has formed. The moon is so bright it drowns out the stars; pretty amazing when the only light pollution is the moon itself. I lay in the sand and chat with some others until the fire dies.
Our camp is more comfortable than I expected. Thick Moroccan rugs are laid over the sand to create the illusion of flooring, and heavy blankets are laid on the bed to keep us warm during the cold desert night. No idea what the bed is made of though. Legit might be a mattress filled with sand – I’m not joking. No one warns us of snakes, scorpions, poisonous beetles or anything of the like, so I assume I won’t be bitten to death in my sleep.