Disaster in the Desert

Last week I went to the Sahara Desert.

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The trip I thought I was getting:

  1. Transportation from Fez to Rissani
  2. 4×4 to the desert
  3. Desert sunset on camel
  4. Two nights in the desert
  5. Two nights sleeping with Berber families
  6. Two days of riding camels in the Sahara
  7. A couscous picnic lunch with Berbers
  8. Transportation back to Fez

Simple enough.

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The trip I got:

Short version:

A series of misunderstandings lies, blaming, broken promises, lies, creepy camel guides, creepy Czech tourists.

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Long version:

  1. A ten-hour bus ride to Rissani with one stop for food after 8 hours- I realize this sentence makes me sound like a princess. When it comes to food, I have to be a princess. I eat every couple hours, otherwise I get weird, just trust me. It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for Yousef (the man who set up the trip) who had promised the bus stops every few hours for food.
  2. A 4×4 ride to the desert, and a stop for sunset (a very beautiful sunset)
  3. A rush to put my bag in a hotel room and take only my camera and toothbrush to the desert with me on the camel. This was quite confusing as I said that I was meant to sleep in the desert two nights, and would need my stuff. No, you will not, was my reply.
  4. A dark camel ride to the desert
  5. Tea and chicken tajine made by Aziz and Hamed
  6. Fire and drum circle with Aziz and Hamed
  7. Drum lessons from Aziz and Hamed
  8. Wake up sick in the middle of the night, rush outside the camp to do what my stomach was shouting at me to do. Being that it was a full moon, the desert is a clear landscape. Hamed came out of the camp as well, pacing back and forth by the camels, watched me. Watching and watching me in my private moment. When I finished and came back to the camp, I said “what are you doing?” To which he spoke to me only in Spanish (previously he had spoken to me only in English), and asked if I were ok. I said no and that I felt sick, to which he offered to give me a massage. A special berber stomach massage. No thanks, I said, more than I should have had to. As I went back into my tent, Hamed let me know that he’ll be awake and if I change my mind and want a special berber massage, I could feel free to meet him in his tent. Alone. Again, no thanks.
  9. Next morning, a sunrise and a rush back to the desert hotel
  10. Breakfast and goodbyes to my lovely Australian Morocco travel buddy, Danielle
  11. “Free day” at the hotel entailing being stared at uncomfortably by the creepy Czech, Tomas, and watched by all the men working at the hotel.
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  12. That night, I asked Mubarak- the boss man of the hotel- what time I would be taking the 4×4 back to Rissani the next day to catch my bus back to Fez. Thus began the misunderstanding of the disaster in the desert. Mubarak informed by that I would leave at 9am, as well as pay for my lunch, to which I protested, telling him that Yousef promised that what I had already paid included everything, even lunch. Mubarak laughed. I told him I would pay him, since I knew that his business and that of Yousef was different, but I explained to him all the grandiose lies I had paid for but didn’t experience. Mubarak blamed Yousef. I went to my room. Suddenly Mubarak showed up telling me it was in fact his brother’s fault, and offered to give me one more night for free in the desert, which I could not do due to time. Ten minutes later, Mubarak was back, with Yousef on the phone, repeating what Mubarak had stated- one more night. Again, impossible. So Youssef told me that I must leave to go out to the desert again at that moment (nearly 9pm) to sleep in the desert. Again, I declined. I had wanted to spend a full day in the desert, not two-night time rides by camel. Yousef then stated that he doesn’t like to make promises and not follow through and he would allow me to stay at the Fez hotel for two nights for free, and would return to me the money I had already paid for those nights.
  13. Next morning, 4×4 back to Rissani, met Ismail, brother of Mubarak, who blamed Mubarak for the misunderstanding. They gave me a gift of the hand of Fatima from their shop as an apology.
  14. Ten hours back to Fez (this time prepared with food)
  15. Yousef gets on the bus as we are nearing the bus station in Fez and sits down next to me. He blames me, but says he will pay half of my taxi ride to the airport the following day.
  16. The next day I speak to Yousef who tells me that he will no longer give back the money from the hotel since he’s now paying for half of the taxi ride. This is a difference of about 200 durhams. Also, when he told me the price I would have to pay for the room, it was 120 durhams/night. Suddenly when it was a number he was meant to return, the value of the room was 100 durhams/night. Convenient. The first day when Yousef told me the taxi price to the airport, it was 150 durhams. Suddenly when we were to split the cost of the taxi, it was 150 durhams each. Convenient. When I asked him about the sudden price differences, he was very affronted. He then told me about his five children. His attempts at guilt and manipulation are too familiar. I know these games.
  17. In the end, it’s decided that he will in fact return the 200 durhams from the room, but I will pay for the taxi, which he was to call for me. I wasn’t trying to take advantage of him afterall, I just didn’t want to be taken advantage of myself. Therefore, he was going to return to me 50 durhams, the difference of the room and the taxi. Conveniently, he did not have it on him and said the owner of the hotel would return it to me the next morning. The next morning of course, the owner had no clue what I was talking about, and I was never honored what was promised.
  18. Yousef is very interested in publicity. He is constantly begging for good publicity for his business. This makes sense. However, it is not good publicity for him that I can offer to anyone looking to head to the desert. The opposite, in fact. So if you meet a Yousef who works out of Riad Malak in Fez, please, do not trust him. Do yourself this favor.

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There is a lot more to this story, but as I’ve already gone on too long, I will not include it. Unfortunately, Danielle also had a terrible time upon leaving the desert for Marrakech as well. Her story of course includes, but is not limited to, sexual harassment by employees of the desert hotel, dishonesty, lies and more lies.

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I was not upset with the misunderstanding. I understand that happens. What bothered me was the series of blaming, the blatant lies, the cheating and most of all, the idea that the men who work there seem to think they can get away with anything. Although, I was informed by Yousef after telling him about Hamed’s massage invitation, that many female tourists go to the Sahara looking for love with a Berber boy, and because of that, they assume all tourists are all the same. Yousef told me that because I was strong and said no and put up an obstacle between Hamed and myself, it did not go further. But what if I wasn’t stronger? What if I were more naïve? What if I truly believed he would just give me a massage? What then? Alone in his tent, what then? This travel company sent two girls to the desert with two men who grew up in the desert, expecting to have sex with them. This, more than anything, is what bothers me.

That being said, The Sahara Desert is beautiful, amazing, and incredible.

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To Fez, with hate

Not sure what to say about Fez other than this: I hate it. Fez, to me, is the New Delhi of Morocco. This, however, is not an attempt to sway anyone from visiting. As most travelers know, memories of cities are made up less of the sites you see, and more of the people you meet.

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For me, Fez was a jumble of men who wanted to do disgusting things to me and let me know very vocally. Fez was a city of liars. A city of dishonesty. A city of ugly, dirty, winding roads. And lying. My favorite person was the man at the post office. The one who asked how I was doing. The one who let me cry.

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I hope that My Fez will never be Your Fez, Inshallah.

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Morocco of my dreams

Chefshaouen was the Moroccan city I never knew could exist, the Moroccan city of my dreams.

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With its blue walls, surrounded by a wall of mountains, easy to manage medina, avocado shakes, hamams, kind people, I don’t think I would ever be ready to leave regardless of how many days I spent there. Even the self-proclaimed “Mohammed Big Cock of the Sahara” was charming in his own way.

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Chefshaouen was a place I felt I could genuinely make local friends. Any visitors to Chef would do themselves a favor to stop and have a chat with the lovely Mohammed at his main square café. Mohammed is the most common name in the world. Lovely Mohammed is certainly not the same the as the aforementioned Mohammed.

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One last word about cats- people coexist with cats. They don’t hate them, they don’t shoo them away, they don’t kick them. They live in a beautiful co-existence. They feed them, they pet them, but they don’t name them. They allow them into their shops, their businesses, their restaurants. So much love for the street cat.

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Burroughs is in Tangier

Bus from Sevilla to Tarifa, ferry to Tangier, walk to the hostel through crowds of men and boys offering to show us the way for 10 durhams.

Tangier, for me, was love at second sight. Once recovered from the initial shock of my welcome to Tangier, I set out with my new friends for a walk, a chicken tajine, and of course a mint tea.

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This became a theme for the rest of my time in Tangier- walk, eat, mint tea, repeat.

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And of course, I made the obligatory stop at the Grand Café of Paris- searching for the generation I should have been born into- the generation of the Beatniks.

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“…Burroughs is in Tangier, I don’t think he’ll come back, it’s sinister. Am I being sinister or is this some form of practical joke…” – Allen Ginsberg, America

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My First Home Away From Home

After twelve years away, I returned to the first place I lived abroad, the first time I went abroad, where I studied abroad: Sevilla, España.

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My train arrived late, at nearly midnight, and as I walked through the dark streets of this city, the first of many foreign cities I would eventually call home, I found myself taking short cuts through winding and narrow paths, that I had forgot existed.

I passed by many things I forgot existed: the Rayas where we would get dulce de leche ice cream and the Plaza de Duque where the Sunday markets used to be, the liquor store where we would get our botellon packages (4 cups, bag of ice, bottle of cacique and a bottle of coke- before botellon’ing was illegal in Spain).

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I found myself recalling memories and simple moments that would have been easily lost forever in that old life that feels like a lifetime ago; this street suddenly reminds me of a conversation I had with Judith, this café reminds me of a night of tapas with George, this plaza reminds me of a joke Tim told me when we once stood in that exact same place.

My hostel was one block away from my old flat: San Vicente 44

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While a lot has kept its same old charm, even more has changed and modernized, like the addition of the largest wooden structure in the world, known locally as Las Setas (The Mushrooms).

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My local pharmacy is now a hair salon. The Irish pub is now a wine bar. The Carboneria is closed down (maybe temporarily) for mysterious reasons. Buses from the Plaza Nueva have transformed into trams. The busy street in front of the university is now a hip café-lined pedestrian path. And I could swear they’ve changed the color of the Cathedral, which is now a light ivory color. The Residencia where I spent two months inhaling second hand smoke from the University girls watching Operacion Triunfo (Spanish American Idol) while consuming cans of Cola-Cola as if they were air, is now a hostel. Calle Betis, however, I imagine, is still taken over by American University students come Friday and Saturday nights.

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Camino de Zapatos

I walked on the Camino de Santiago for 25 days from Pamplona to Santiago de Compostela, 725 kilometers. Twenty five days. Three pairs of shoes. Is this ridiculous? Absolutely. I had trained in one pair of boots that I thought would see me to the end of the journey, but ultimately lasted only two days on the Camino.

While training, they never gave me blisters. But they did rub. I just kept thinking, they’ll get better. They didn’t. I started the Camino with this lovely pair of semi-stylish boots that I bought in the Sechuan Province of China about 7 years ago for a horse trek. Turns out that horse trekking shoes are not ideal for 20+ kilometer walks in the north of Spain.

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Two days and a dozen blisters in, I realized that with these boots, I would never make it to Santiago. Although many people advised against it, I knew in my hear that new shoes were the answer. As soon as I arrived in Estella, I went shopping and found the ugliest pair of velcro shoes that looked like my grandfather might wear, but felt like walking in pillows.

These shoes were a damn darling, until one day, about two weeks later, my foot felt wet. I thought that they may have gotten a little from being outside the night before. But as the day went on and the rains got worse, my foot got even more soaked. At the end of the day, I peeled off my completely drenched shoes and then socks to find a hole that went through my sole and out the bottom side.

The next town with a shoe store was 45 kilometers in front of me, a two day walk. So for the next two days of rain, and prune feet, I carried on, pretending it was comfortable. The elation of sitting in a sporting store in Ponferrada wearing new, warm socks is indescribable, one of the best moments on the Camino.

After tossing my second pair of shoes into the trashcan, I walked out into that pouring rain, ready for anything.

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If I were to do the Camino again, I would DO these things:
1. Buy a few of those microbial undies- cotton doesn’t dry so fast in November
2. Make sure my shoes were a good fit
3. Bring foldable walking sticks
4. Get one of those really light backpacks that is basically just a frame

The things I would do again:
1. Bring a Camelbak water pouch
2. Bring my GoPro (light, tiny, water proof, fits in my pocket, shoots photos and videos)
3. Bring only one walking outfit and one night time outfit
4. Put hydrating cream on my feet every night, and vaseline on my feet every morning

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Camino de Santiago, just because

I can’t say exactly why I did the Camino de Santiago. I just felt it. Me llamó la atención. It’s something I had been thinking about for over 10 years. And suddenly, the time came. I had a lot of changes in my life, and this felt like the right time to start again, start with the Camino.
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My first day on the Camino, leaving Pamplona in the darkness, I felt like I should have a reason, a goal. I felt like I should have something concrete. I didn’t. I just wanted to. Ultimately, I decided to let the Camino tell me.

And now, four days after finishing, I’m still not sure. I know I met some amazing people. I met some goofy ones too. I endured days of ampollas (blisters), not to mention an entirely new vocabulary in Spanish, fitting to the Camino, e.g. blisters (ampollas), thread (hilo), needle (agujas), pace (ritmo), cobblestone (empedrada), steep hills (subidas pendientes), completely dead tired (estar hecho polvo), etc.
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I went through three pairs of shoes, I walked three days in a row with soaking feet which felt like three days in a row of walking through swimming pools. I walked 52 kilometers one day by accident. I got sick, I puked and had diarrhea, the Brazilian guy picking me and my blanket off the bathroom floor and convincing me I needed a bed.

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Everyday I looked up and said thank you to whatever is out there for allowing me to walk tens of kilometers each day without knee pain. Everyday I woke up, brushed my teeth, and put on the same outfit I wore for 25 days in a row, and walked. And walked. And walked.

I saw sunrises, sunsets and rainbows. I saw a lot of rain. Days and days of rain. Hundreds and hundreds of cats. Not the dirty, scary street kind with crusty eyes. But the sometimes friendly, well-taken care of kind of street cats. There were stray dogs, but not scary ones like I heard about from other people.
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I had easy days and hard days, sad days and happy days. I had lonely days and days when I wished I had more solitude. I climbed steep hills, and not so steep hills. Then went down them on the other side. Subidas y bajadas, a lifetime in 25 days.
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I don’t think I fully understand yet what the Camino means to me, but I do know that I feel something when I listen to Lucio Battisti’s “La Canzone del sole,” and remember Filippo playing guitar in Grañon’s Iglesia de San Juan Bautista. I know I’ll think of Jake every time I see NEPA brand. And I know that the three days of risa and jokes with Jose will never make sense to anyone else, “per favore, acqua con vino, per favore… Yo no soy una chica asi.” I know there was nothing sweeter than reuniting with my friends for the 12:00 mass in Santiago de Compostela, a moment that always seemed so far away.

I know that the words “buen camino” will never be just words, but feelings and memories and friends.
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Nugget of Peace

Castellon de la Plana.
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That place in Spain you’ve never heard of. A thirty minute bus ride to the Mediterranean coast, and where if you go just a little bit further, you’ll find Voramar, a little place frequented by Ernest Hemingway in the 1930’s; inspired by the calm waves and the white sand, it’s entirely possible it’s where he wrote, “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

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My favorite part of Castellon is this little nugget, Ecamps. So full of love, joy and peace, peace, peace. She’s working on her Masters Degree in Peace, Conflict, and Development Studies. From here she’ll move on to possibly the UN, but assuredly to change the world.

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Barcelona a muerte

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Barcelona passed by quickly in a blur of admiring Gaudi, sitting in plazas, eating tapas, cañas en plazas, copas en casa, hiking en las montañas, meeting new friends, catching up with dear old friends- one of which I hadn’t seen since my time as a study abroad student in Sevilla 12 years ago- when he was just 18 and I 20.

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Amsterdammit

Fourth time in Amsterdam, four days in Amsterdam. Four rainy days, four lazy days.

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Journal writing, photo posting, museum viewing, casual bike riding- sometimes in the rain, sometimes not.

Highlight: Buraka

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A kickass, African Beat inspired band from Portugal who put on a show like none other. Down to Earth, they allowed us up on stage, they came into the audience after and mingled with the fans, they smiled, they love what they do. It shows and they shine.

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