“Take off your clothes,” said the woman who’d escorted me into the small room. She waited as I disrobed, then pointed to an arched door. “That way.”
She followed me into a low-ceilinged, steamy chamber with a large, knee-high slab of granite in the middle. “Lay down on your back,” she instructed. I eased myself onto the table and closed my eyes. They flew open when she doused me with a bucket of warm water. I closed them again for the second bucket and waited for the third, but instead, I felt her soapy hands washing my feet, and then my entire body. I rolled over and had the back side done. I’m going to fess up and tell you that she didn’t miss any spots.
I was experiencing my first hammam, a cleansing bath ritual that Moroccans do once a week. But unlike the Moroccan men, women and children who go to a public bath, I was having a private session at my hotel’s hammam.
“I’ll be back in ten minutes,” she told me. I could hear her turning valves before she left the room, which immediately filled with more steam. She returned with a kessa, an exfoliating mitt equal to a piece of coarse sandpaper, and repeated the total body once-over.
“You have a lot of dead skin cells. You should have hammam more often,” she told me before leaving again, only to return to cover my skin in a black mud masque. My moist, greased body almost slid off the slab when I tried to move so she could wash my hair as the next step. For the final rinse, I stood while she splashed buckets of cool water over me.
How strange to be naked and touched and exposed in this Muslim country where women don’t show legs or arms even if in Western dress and the more traditional only show face or eyes. It was one of many cultural surprises I’d find in Morocco.
In the Atlas Mountains, I learned that the Moors of Spain were originally of Berber descent, the people who lived in Northern Africa before the Arabs arrived. Berber culture is over 4000 years old and I became enamored with their many variations of weaving and rug-making. In contrast to Bhutan, where there is strict adherence to traditional patterns, Berber women never use a pattern and make up the design as they go, telling a story that only they know.
In Ourzazate and Ait Benhaddou, I didn’t see any Moroccan women on the streets or working in the shops, but I did see movie studios and landscapes from films such as Lawrence of Arabia, Jewel of the Nile, and the new James Bond movie. I had arrived in the country two days after the Paris terrorist attacks, and everywhere I went, Moroccans were eager to tell me that Islam is a peaceful religion and violence or killing of any kind is not condoned by the Koran.
In Essaouira, I stayed in a hotel in the walled city that was originally a wealthy merchant’s riad (a traditional house with an interior garden), then became an orphanage and school, and is now a Relais & Chateaux property. In Marrakech, I learned that I could not buy a bottle of wine anywhere within the walls of that city, but only in a few specialty stores in the “new” town.
However, in the Marrakech souk, I could buy just about anything else—and see it being made. There was the hide auction every morning, with bundles of goat, sheep and cow skins for sale, which were then taken to a separate alley by the buyer where they would be hand cut and stitched into shoes, purses, and belts. There was raw wool being dyed, then carried elsewhere to be woven into clothing. Tailors sat at sewing machines, powered by foot treadles. Blacksmiths heated and hammered large metal frames for furniture or created delicate lampshades with filigree designs. Woodworkers carved and shaped precision pieces for intricate inlay designs on tables, bowls, and boxes.
The souk was everything I’d ever imagined and more. Narrow alleyways with passages and dead-ends truly formed a maze. Men in djallabas saying “come look” in English, French and Arabic, doing whatever it would take to lure you into their shop to bargain for a sale. Smells of leather, sweat, smoke, and food (including fresh bread from the community oven) changing around each corner. Carts piled high with merchandise being pulled by men through the byways. And everywhere, tea. Made by each merchant on-site using little camp-stoves for heating the water, they both drank it themselves and offered it to prospective customers.
Emerging from the alleys, dark even in the middle of the day, Jemaa el-Fnaa, the main square of Marrakech was a stark contrast. Large, bright and brimming with people, it truly came alive in the evening. It was like flipping channels—scores of food shows (stalls for eating everything from snails to sheep’s head), lots of entertainment (singers and dancers–all male although some were dressed as women), animal shows (snake charmers and monkey tamers), shopping shows (stationary stores and roaming vendors), and travel shows (tourists from China, Europe, and even a few from North America).
From the urban beautifully tiled buildings and bejeweled caftans, to the striking landscapes of the Atlas Mountains and the dusty desert towns, Morocco did not disappoint. But the thing I will remember most is my experience in the Sahara.
A lot of people visit Morocco for the famous cities of Fez, Casablanca, Rabat or Marrakech, with their hint of majesty and intrigue. Others come for the beaches, small port towns and coastal magnificence. All of which is wonderful. But I knew I had to spend some time in the desert to really understand the place. I had the good fortune to stay at Nick and Bobo’s camp, Erg Chigaga Luxury Desert Camp.
It’s a nine-hour drive if you come straight from Marrakech. (I took several days on a roundabout route.) It’s three hours from the nearest town. It’s definitely “out there.” It’s not a place for those in a hurry. Or who need internet or cell coverage. Or who don’t like sand unless it’s a beach. It is a place for those who appreciate an unscheduled day, Berber guides drumming and singing around the campfire, and the magic of seeing a billion stars at once.
I must have good karma, because I was lucky enough to have a day and night at the camp when I was the only guest. I thought I had heard silence before, if such a contradiction in terms is allowed. I’d heard it while hiking in a mountain wilderness, sleeping in a safari camp, or most recently, trekking in the outer reaches of the Mustang region of Nepal.
But on a windless night in the Sahara, completely alone in the dunes, I knew I was a virgin of true nothingness. No leaves rustling in the trees, no camp generators humming in the distance, no night birds randomly calling, no dogs barking, and not even the sound of another human being’s breathing.
Silence. Sublime. Morocco.
Added note: My trip was completely organized and planned by an expert in Morocco: Carol Prior. She has arranged customized trips there for several decades. She will listen to what you want and design your perfect itinerary—shopping, sights, city, sand or even cooking lessons. I had a personal driver/guide for my entire trip and local guides when needed—all top-notch and arranged by Carol. Find her at bypriorarrangement.com.