Morocco – from the coast to the desert

The morning begins in Essaouira. The call to prayer. Sitting on a roof, the medina livens. The mass of buildings, it’s tough to picture the life going on below. Thousands of seagulls squawking. Children playing on the roofs, clambering across. We leave the sky above and plunge into the alleys. Walls everywhere, seemingly blocking you in, forcing you along.

 A little hole in the wall. A wood-sculptor chiselling away inside, he invites us in. He describes his previous life in the mountains, he smiles. He brings us a few doors further down. Here we sit and have breakfast. A woman sits with us and brings us bread, argan oil, honey and spices to dip our bread into and tea. She has set up a new life here, selling hand-made food products with the profits going towards women’s emancipation in Morocco; to support women and for their children to be able to go to school. We talk of her home back in the mountains. A beautiful interaction. Leaving, we ask to pay, she shakes her head and simply asks we put a donation in her family box. The box is marked with a symbol, the symbol of the free man Amazigh. A man with his hands and feet spread out – unchained. A symbol of freedom. As she described, meaning free from discrimination, from hate, from everything oppressive.

To get lost in Morocco. Winding streets. You follow these alleys. Observing the life that thrives in these gaps. Nowhere, are you so affected by the smells wafting in your nose. Every alley a new smell. Smells that lure you, drive you through these winding, coloured streets. Smells that haunt you. Smells I will never forget. Spices, food, tea, everything. A sensory experience. Bicycles the only thing drawing you out of this haze. Cyclists rushing around corners. An ordered mayhem. Every alley leading somewhere, and yet you are going nowhere. Children kicking a flat football. Vendors selling jewellery. Everything is happening at once in this maze contained within the medina walls, and I am happy. Life beyond these walls ceases to exist. The whole of life seems to be contained within these walls. Drifting from alley to alley, turning around when you hit a dead end. Eating pastillas and drinking tea. Watching the waves come crashing in. Sitting on the fortress walls, looking out to sea. One cannot help but smile. To be in beautiful places with beautiful people. The sun warms the skin.

We went back to the woman’s house for dinner. Sitting on benches, we devoured a fish tagine and a keftka tagine, with bread kept warm under a cloth. Flavours that astounded our taste buds. Afterwards, Royal tea and almond cookies. We said our goodbyes to this woman who we had known only very briefly but is someone who I hope I will never forget. True kindness is tough to forget.

The sun has set, and the day ends as it started, back on the roof. Looking out at the medina. The darkened sky, the buildings glowing from the light below. Like a fire burning in a deep pit. Squiggles all-around of glowing fire. The stars above. The moon clear in its different shades and patterns. The night filled with dancing. Thoughts of the next day set in. An excitement that can be replicated in no other way. The excitement drawn from the unknown. Starting a day where you don’t know what will happen or what you will see or do. The excitement of spontaneity. Like the slow fizzle of dynamite and when the sun rises tomorrow, it will go BOOM.

Bags all packed up we went to the rental shop to pick up a car. A silver Dacia Logan. Bags in the trunk we hopped in. For the week the car was going to set us back £35 each and a full tank was £20. And so, we left Essaouira for the Sahara.

I guess this was turning into a Moroccan road trip. We had all the stereotypes of a road trip. Indie rock playing, sitting in the backseat dancing, heads out the window whooping. Stopping for fruit stalls, bathroom, and smoke breaks. Ridiculous conversations that only seem fitting for car rides. Watching the landscape continuously evolve. Immediately arid. From aridity to luscious oasis. Green, thriving vegetation.

We slowly pulled over. Our first police check of the trip. Hands fidgeting in nervous anticipation. All smooth sailing, Xander hands over his passport and driving license. I see one of them pointing at me… He pops his head in through the window and starts asking questions in French. My French is limited. ‘ahhhh seatbelt’. He’s not pleased I don’t have mine on. I tried to explain I undid it when we stopped. I wish I could say he was smiling. After a bit more angry conversing, which I didn’t understand, he waved us on. The group wasn’t too thrilled with me. Every half an hour there on Sophie gave me a seatbelt check without fail.

On we soared. Rambling through town and countryside. There’s a beauty to driving through a country. Passing from one place to the next without stopping. You go through without looking back. You stop off at these magical places for such a blip on the scale of time. Somehow it makes it that bit more special. You revel in every moment, in every place because you know that never again will you see these people or landscapes. There’s beauty to be found in the finite.

The miles pass by. We spot a hitchhiker on the side of the road. There’s space in the car. We pull over, and shout to him to jump in. He dumps his rucksack in the boot and hops in. The excitement that floods through the car. Pushing on, we all introduce ourselves and he tells us his name is Sebastian. It’s now a crew of 5. Gili on my left, Sebastian in my right and Xander and Sophie up front. He’s from Czech Republic, a geology student who’s on break before his second semester. He flew into Morocco and has been hitchhiking around for about a week. He’s also heading into the Sahara before heading back to catch his ferry to Spain, where he will then hitch back home. He tells us about his tales from the road. From hitching to Turkey, being stuck with drunk lorry drivers in Georgia, to spending last night in the basement of a hash factory.

We slowly climbed up into the Atlas Mountains. Everything around slowing turning into a mountain range. Up and up. We reached the point where the mountains were covered in snow. This disturbingly beautiful juxtaposition of snowy mountains and desert. Driving across snowy mountains was not something I expected from this trip. You really will never be able to predict what the road holds. Four best friends and a stranger all joined in awe of what surround us. Blinking became a fear.

We went over and down from the mountains. Down into the outskirts of the Sahara. Tabletop mesas cutting across the horizon. The moon shining clearly in the blue sky. Everywhere you look, it’s something else to gaze at. Red mountains all around. Dried up river beds. Patches of green palm leaves breaking the sea of red.

We eventually arrived at the village where Abdullah lives. Sebastian is continuing further, so we say our farewells and wish each other the best of luck. We shared a day together and now we will most likely never see each other again. He got his cardboard sign and put his thumb back out. We parked outside the Abdullah’s house, as he waved to us. He welcomed us in.

Abdullah and his village are Berber. They live permanently here in the Sahara. A village of 450 people, 300 of which are his family. Even he doesn’t know how old his village is. All the buildings built from clay and rock. Inside, pictures and drawings from other guests and from his family lineage. Abdullah is the village musician and clown. We sit on his roof, drinking tea with him, talking of the place he calls home. Sheltered from the sun in a canopy awning, eating peanuts. Strolling through the village, everyone greets us and expresses their heartfelt welcomes. The sun sets below the mesas, lighting the horizon in greens and blues. It’s impossible to not blown away by the vast expanse of desert.

After a dinner of tagine, the family gathered in the dining room. The music begins. Abdullah playing his guitar, his baby with a blood-stained napkin around his head as a bandage; and his son Muslim next to him. Cousins and uncles with drums and Krakchs, his mother and many others clapping along. Three generations were gathered in that room. All of us singing and dancing. Abdullah welcomed us into his home and here we were taking part in the nightly family gathering of dance and song. As a writer it’s sad to admit, but I genuinely don’t think that I could possibly string together any number of words that could convey what occurred in that room. 

Here I sit; on the roof writing this. Under the awning, wrapped in a thick blanket to warm me from the cold. The silence is the first thing that strikes you. it’s been a while since I’ve heard the purity of silence. Stars truly twinkling, the moon too bright to look at. It’s tough to ignore the absurdity of life. it’s only been a few days but sitting here, I struggle to picture normal life again. Going back seems like this faraway idea that will never materialise. I know it is slowly creeping up but till then, I must block it out. To live for the day and to adventure in this beautiful country.


All photos by Thomas Russell

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