The next morning we woke up early (to the Muezzin’s call) and poked around the now eerily silent and empty Djemma El Fnaa, then we had a nap to reset our jetlagged internal clocks. After a little bit more souk exploring, we trudged back up Mohammed V to pick up our rental car.

The next several days were to be a wholly unscripted jaunt through the south of Morocco, the Bled Es Siba, or, "land outside governmental control.". Our loose plan was to cross the high Atlas east of Marrakech and wander southeast, into the Sahara.  This was it. We had no further plan, no reservations, and no obligations.  It is a good way to go.  We were issued a Hyundai Accent with a peppy and parsimonious diesel engine and off we went. 

Traffic jam in Marrakech

Our next move was inspired. A larger hand was guiding us because right off of the main road out of town there was a hypermart, which we pulled into and loaded up the trunk of our silver camel with bottles of mineral water, tubs of olives, chips and a case of beer (Flag Special, a stalwart companion) We were new to the country, but not new to the desert.

And so commenced the great Moroccan road trip with an American accent.

The road that crosses the Atlas east from Marrakech is called the Tizi ‘N’ Tichka, and it is a knockout. A spectacularly switchbacked road that winds tortuously up out of the coastal, green side of the mountains and into the dry interior.

Descending into the dry side.

We made stately progress, stopping to shoot photos as the whim took us or the scenery demanded. We bought rocks from roadside vendors, glittering geodes in amazing colors. Once over the Atlas and just before sunset we arrived at Ait Benhaddou. Ait (tribe, or ‘sons of”) Benhaddou is one of the many Kasbahs that used to line the caravan routes. Before the West African coast was opened up to ocean based trade, the brisk commerce in salt, slaves, ivory and gold all went overland.

The evening light played amazingly on the sandstone, with the snow capped Atlas looming behind. We buzzed through town to get the lay of the land, then circled back and met, or rather, veered off the road to avoid running into, Abdul. Swathed in traditional nomadic dress- long blue robe and cheche wrapped around his head-he greeted us in English, directed us to a decent hotel and showed us the view of the Kasbah from the terrace. He spoke English well, interspersing his phrases with a deep, James Earl Jones laugh. He joined us for tea, prepared and presented in the Berber fashion. The first glass is poured back into the pot to aid the brewing process, then all 3 glasses are poured from a height of a foot or two to aerate the tea and create a foamy head.
“Berber Whiskey!” “Bismallah!”
We had met, indeed run right into the arms of our first hustler. If guidebooks are to be trusted (and I implore you not to place unwavering faith in these useful tomes) this would be the first of many annoying confidence games to be played out here in the south.

In reality, it was not so bad. Thought the game was clearly afoot, Abdul had a likeable, gentle manner. Through our meal he drifted to our table to check in on us and chat. He was, he claimed, a nomad. Based in the desert outpost of M’Hamid he spends much of the year caravanning his camels across the Sahara, trading for carpets, silver and other goods. He comes to Ait Benhaddou to see family a few times a year.

So he said. The story seemed too good to be true, but it was sugary sweet and we were in his country, so we accepted it.

That night we had a protracted battle with the lock on the door of our room. It locked us in, a wicket we were only able to unstuck ourselves from by taking apart the doorknob, pulling sideways on the door, and prying the jamb with a Leatherman. We jury rigged the catch with a Band-Aid, had a celebratory beer and went to bed.

Copyright Estate of Anthony Vail Sloan 2009