With a passion for travel and particularly Morocco, I own and manage Sun Trails.
In these series, we detail how the Covid restrictions and the trend to work from home, have but amplified our natural propensity to explore Morocco. After all, it's about trails. And sun.
Part 1: The desert, the water and the djinnoun.
Water diviners. Overhanging fortresses. Gold diggers. Sculpted boulders, wells in the desert, trees sprouting out of rock. Treasure hunters, tears of lava - is this how legends are pieced together ? I am told of an aged man fetched all the way in Tiznit, treading these hollows holding olive tree twigs. When water is nigh, leaves flutter. At least, in his hands they do. Yet, it appears the olive tree is not absolutely necessary; a youngster from a nearby village bears the gift of 'hearing' the underground sources. The spell is cast, yet my more rational side pulls me back to the immediate reality. Hassan, my local guide, is quite the story teller, but I start wondering if he's not making things up as we trail along.
In this barren immensity, rolling brows and crags of rock dotted by tufts and shrubs, one has to possess a sharp eye. Discern intention. Nature or man. A heap of stones or a an ancient burial chamber ? Rocks piled up on top of each other, erosion's natural outcome ? Or a shepherd’s den ? A vantage point ? Mountain tops or village fortresses ? Without doubt, the too many hours spent in front of a screen don't give me an edge.
I have taken up a two day trek in the Anti Atlas mountains and our departure point this morning was somewhere south of Tafraoute . The ruined village we leave behind is said to have fostered a Jewish community. Hassan points out the marks of someone's recent excavations, testimony to the local myth of treasure hunters. If there's smoke, there is fire... Later, I hear about some which did strike it lucky.
Despite the appearance of a rubble desert, not one hour goes by that we don't cross another soul, mostly nomads, going about their business, which is taking their camels and goats to the next pasture land. And what can grow in the desert ? While crossing a gully, I stumble upon a giant snake burrowed in the rocks. It turns out to be the root of an argan tree. How could it make its way across, or rather through, it's beyond my comprehension. Later in the day, sundry colours grace the stones around us, from the ubiquitous beige and dark grey to burgundy and even turquoise.
Ancient rock engravings etched on canyon's wall portray goats and bovines. At least that's what I make out. Nearby, the water surfaces, creating natural pools deep enough to bathe in, the gueltas. Bordering them, a 30 feet horizontal slab gave birth to most peculiar rock shapes, like horizontal and parallel rows of miniature sarcophagi stacked one next to each other. At night, my guide relates, it becomes the ideal spot to spy on wild animals , gazelles, rabbits or foxes looking to quench their thirst.
Late afternoon, we descend onto dramatic canyons, the gigantic slab walls ominous, humbling, their protruding jabs almost menacing. At the bottom of the gorge, we pause and drink straight from the source, rewarded, grateful. The lava caught in time on the side of the canyon, is redolent of wax dripping on candles, silent testimony that at some point in time, year ago ( thousands, millions ?) a volcano spilled over. As the night falls, the call of the muezzin resonates through the valley, a mundane reminder that the supernatural reins.
Next day, I wake up refreshed after my first night in a real bed in a few days. If my legs seem to have recovered from the 9 hours of walking of the previous day, my feet not quite so: I feel blisters shaping up, double- layer socks or not. Yet, who can fret about such trifles when the sun already bathes the valley with its rays ? The girls are preparing for school and giggle around the house, while Hassan is busy performing his morning prayers. Before long, the breakfast is ready and we're feasting on pancakes draped in honey and coffee, a once a day exception for my guide who is otherwise addicted to atay, like any other Moroccan. After breakfast, I saunter around the village alleys and muse about the distance both literally and not so, between here and the world out there, quelled by an invisible, yet ravaging pandemic.
With only 5 hours of walking ahead of us, we allow ourselves a late morning. Later, we climb north and leave the village behind. To my left, I wave a silent goodbye to the granary, the stately guardian of the valley. Soon, we are aspirated back into the immensity and desolation of the rubble desert.
Beyond the next brow, lies a cave. A cave large enough to live in, my guide insists. In principle, grottoes are for animals when rain falls over, while the nomads shelter under their tents, waterproofed by plastic layers. Wouldn't you protect first your most precious goods ? Unless, it is that kind of cave... For the ones that come at night. The ones that can not be seen. The djinnoun. Mentioned in the Qor'an, the spirits, still hold a special place in the collective imaginary of the Berbers. Traditionally, they are believed sometimes to dwell in caves and it used to be a local wont to leave offerings for them ( grains or other edible goods) at the mouth of certain such caves, to appease and propitiate them, a practice somewhat still heathen to the more orthodox Islam. Gradually, we settle into a mute mechanic trudge. The repeated pattern. Oued, brow, oued, brow. How can one explain what oued is ? Not a river, rather an intermittent stream, whose flow relies on rain and the water table.
Today will be completely distinct from yesterday. From 11 AM until 5 PM when we finally arrive at our destination, the only living soul we cross is a wild rabbit. The silence and the humdrum trek are only punctuated by my guide's remarks. Here, he points out how traces of wild animals, rabbits, gazelles, coyotes, and how they converge on the same trail to mean that water is not far. There, he motions me to glimpse in the distance to a chink in the thicket of piled- up slabs; what I thought was a tiny cave turns out to be a well, furnished with a string and bottle, so that any itinerant can help himself to drinking water. Where two dry bed rivers meet, a cemetery lies, its pointed slabs jutting out skywards. A nomad cemetery, by all evidence, as no traces of a hamlet or den litters the site. Hassan lifts his two palms towards the sky and from his whispers comes out a hushed litany to honour the dead.
Later, we stop for lunch. My guide offers canned sardines. I offer half a pack of camembert cheese and we end up spreading it on the freshly baked bread that we fetched with us from the village. Moments later, atay is poured and our occasional sluices is the only thing disturbing the monumental, almost baleful silence. I wouldn't trade this moment for the best restaurant in Bordeaux. Instead of itching to check my phone for instant gratification, I feel gratified when the No Service mention shows up. Has anyone picnicked here before ? On the same spot ? Treaded in the same steps ? Boulders abraded by sun and wind, has anything else brushed against you ?
Everything surrounding us makes it unlikely. For there is no trail or signs to speak of. I'm relying on Hassan's experience and intuition and my compass that tells me we've been headed NNE all morning. But does it matter ? As long as we're not walking in circles, I'm happy to press on. At the end of the afternoon, when I'm tiptoeing around trying not to step on my soon- matured blisters, I realize how fortunate I am, to be able to glimpse into, dip my toe into other ways of living and feel, if only for a few days, immensely grateful. For in less is more, what is really less ? And what is really more ?
Lunar landscapes, pink washed kasbahs and dramatic summits.
If Titans of Greek mythology, those giant supernatural beings fighting gods, ever had played in their childhood at molding boulders and cleaving rocks, Tafraoute, a little town 3 hours drive south of Agadir, must have been their playground. One hardly ever tires of happening upon most peculiar shapes. As I survey the horizon from the top of the highest crag of the area, vis -a- vis Napoleons Hat, never met the chap yet it's awkward how a French general's name has stuck here out of all places, it dawns on me that we are in the presence of a geological accident. It is only Tafraoute and its surroundings where rocks seem to be piled upon each other forming granite crags jutting out of the ground, as some kind of absurd dream of a pharaoh renouncing too early the endeavour of erecting a colossal pyramid and leaving all detritus behind.
Besides me, the barren ridges of the Anti Atlas glint in the distance, half brazen half charred, depending where you look from. Except for the astute acacia tree, sprouting sometimes plain horizontally out from between the stones, no stain of green or pasture greets the eye, if you except the few scattered shrubs here and there past hoping for the next rains. There is a time of day, not too long before dawn, where the sun slants the rocks as they gradually transform into metal mirrors, slick with the last rays of light. The lumps of stone, eggs, potatoes, ice cubes, slabs, shards, at least that is what they seem to me, are piled up on top of each other. Come on, who dropped that on top of that ?! I hear myself speaking out loud. Not so far away, an gigantic stone egg seems to be tipping on top of a stool. For a second, I could just dart over and nudge it, see if it wobbles. But who'd want to alter anything in this Martian landscape ? Not that I'd know how that looks like. What is undeniably not Martian is the winter sun. Morning brought along a layer of frost on the window of the 4x4 that has by now long thawed away, as the thermometer shows 21 Celsius. Not bad for 1 January.
Tafraoute used to be a small picturesque village where French tourists would be taken to on a day trip while holidaying in Agadir. It was also a Mecca for the hippies in the 70's, a tradition that still endures nowadays ( minus the flower power), to the extent that a board now says 'Caravans forbidden to park' on the off road to Painted Rocks. The construction of its main hotel, Hotel des Amandiers, was even inaugurated by no less than King Mohamed 5 in 1959, which says not a little about the ambitions of a tiny village to become a booming tourist destination. Needless to say, that boom never happened, not in the 1970's when Agadir was Morocco's star in the golden age of sea and sun tourism as hordes of sunken Europeans were disembarking on the Moroccan coast in search of vitamin D and exoticism, and neither in more recent times when culture shock and local everything are banners highly flown. After all, Chefchaouen today is not the Chefchaouen from 2005, mostly prized by Spanish backpackers looking for cheap hashish. Yet, why not keep things as they are ?
To this day, Tafraoute is devoid of any red light, which is probably why it would take about 2 minutes and a half to cross it with your vehicle. In all, I've counted around 2 (two) restaurants where one can be served a decent tagine ( if you except all the hotels - closed due to the curfew at the time of this article). At 9 PM, it has been night for at least 2 hours and in the empty camping site where I choose to spend the first night of my voyage, the owner and few friends roll away the iron balls of petanque, amidst sluices of mint tea and occasional snickers.
Next afternoon I find myself in a carpet shop, where Hassan takes me through a grove of books about hiking, rock climbing, canyoning and trekking. After all, the area yields plenty to satisfy the most demanding. The lofty Anti Atlas ridge, culminating with Jebel Kest summit at almost 2400 meters high towers over the town and would stretch a few glutes, Tafraoute itself lying at 900 meters altitude. On the way, beware of the Lion's Head. No, not the animal, the Moroccan lion being extinct now for at least a century, but a rock formation on the southern slope resembling the said feline. Speaking of rock climbing, an English couple and their friends have set up hundreds of climbing routes around Tafraoute, published a book and created a website .
Seeming a bit dishartened, if I were to take a guess, most likely by the drop in tourism caused by the pandemic, Hassan doesn't even bother to try and sell me a carpet from the thorough selection. A Jewish wool cape hangs on the wall next to the entrance and I stop to admire it briefly. The last rays of sun caress the boulders as I make my way to the Painted Rocks, just a few miles outside the village and pitch camp for the night.
The morning is chilly. Clouds have gathered on the horizon and even the stone lumps have been engulfed by the fog. Later in the morning, the fog dissipates and an azure blue sky prevails. The surrounding villages are a joy to behold with their vintage pink- washed kasbahs. I briefly stop for a chat with Jean and Bernadette, the owners of El Malara, where many of our guests have resided in the past. Part of the reason for my travels this time is to acknowledge how our partners, guest houses and local guides, are holding up through the covid pandemic. The plight affects them too, yet they remain optimist and relate how many of their former guests expressed their wish to return to Morocco as soon as reasonably safe to do so.
When is time to leave, only one thing is on my mind: when will I get back ? A silent vow is made, to return before summer and not solo. Hidden wonders like this one are best enjoyed in good company... Fifteen years of living in the country have perhaps blunted my ability for being easily enthused and the bias internalised as a private tour organiser also plays its part as the focus lies on what makes a location unique among others in Morocco. Here, in Tafraoute, the martian landscape makes almost all of the caché. There is no doubt about it. Yet, overcoming it, a feeling of a place that hasn't changed much, that in a way is still redolent of... Morocco. Unimpacted yet by the mass tourism. And likely to continue so. For many of us, that's priceless.
© Sun Trails 2021. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Vaccines are here. Is Morocco ready to welcome visitors ?
As I am writing these lines in my office in downtown Marrakech, Morocco, a favourite destination with the well - travelled intrepid traveller, having become increasingly popular over the last few years owing to Sahara desert , Biblical villages, verdant palm groves, innate hospitality and those inconspicuous palaces called riads , is suffering the effects of the COVID 19 pandemic with a nation- wide state of emergency, local curfews, in- country travel restrictions and compulsory mask wearing. With the imminent start of a national campaign vaccination and lowering new cases, is it a safe destination for 2021 ? This is our attempt to answer that as objectively as we may endeavour to, short of a crystal ball.
VACCINES AND TESTS
After a gruelling wait, the much anticipated vaccine is finally here and although some dispute the reduced time of developing a vaccine, it is after all nothing short of a milestone . As we speak, the UK has started vaccinating its doctors and medical staff a week ago. The US and Canada, just a few days ago. Major airports are introducing or have introduced already on- site fast Covid tests . In Morocco, his majesty, the King Mohamed ordered the Health Ministry of Morocco to commence a nation- wide campaign of vaccination by latest mid- December . Will this terminate the pandemic ? Of course not. Success depends on quite a few factors, among which: how well the vaccine will be distributed and available to the population at large, how many people will be willing to take it, the rate of contagion, etc.
HOW DOES MOROCCO COMPARE TO OTHER COUNTRIES ?
Currently, the situation in Morocco is considerably better compared to countries where its visitors come from, in terms of number of cases, evolution of contagion and safety measures. Whereas numbers of new cases have dramatically increased in the US and Canada since at least Thanksgiving, Morocco has seen a steady decline in new numbers since end of November . In terms of total number of cases related to the size of the population, Morocco boasts 11.000 cases per million people while the US is at 50.000 cases, almost 5 times the figure in Morocco. A few months ago, Covid testing facilities opened up in major cities. In some locations, like Marrakech, for a little extra, you can have a specialized professional coming to your house and giving you the test for a cost of about 800 Dirhams ( 80 USD). In November, private clinics in Morocco were finally allowed to treat Covid patients , assuaging the over- burdened public health system.
IS MOROCCO READY TO WELCOME TOURISTS ?
This past summer, Spain and Portugal, among other countries opened their borders and welcomed tourists from abroad. The logic was to restart the tourism industry, particularly hit by the pandemic and make up for the losses incurred in March, April and May. Access to beaches was regulated, nightclubs, cinemas, attractions parks and other popular hotspots were kept shut down, restaurants were limited in terms of how many customers they could serve at one time, etc. Portugal had put into place Clean and Safe label and some regions in Spain even went as far as to relodge and compensate for all associated expenses for those tourists that contracted the virus while on holidays. Did it work ? No. Partly because population at large was still afraid to travel, partly because quarantine measures upon return made it impossible.
In that respect, Morocco trailed behind. The government thought it too risky to open the borders and allow travel agents and hotels to recommence their activity. Besides, summer translates into low season in Morocco, generally. Yet, in the long run, it seems that Morocco's strategy worked better as both total number of cases as well as new cases are significantly better in Morocco as of mid - December compared to Portugal, Spain or France and the recent figures show a tendency towards a descendent trend. In the recent months, groups of French and English tourists have started to visit Morocco again. For Christmas and New Year's Eve, well established hotels such as La Mamounia and Four Seasons are said to be fully booked, most likely with tourists looking for some winter sun and less daily restrictions than in their own countries of residence. Let's not forget that in many countries, governments have asked their citizens to avoid large reunions and traveling in- country during winter holidays, a measure largely unnecessary in Morocco, where Christmas and NYE are only celebrated by expats. In Marrakech, Majorelle Gardens, Yves Saint Laurent museum, Le Jardin Secret, Dar El Bacha museum, among others, are already open to visitors. Our partner riads, kasbahs, lodges, boutique hotels and desert camps are either already open or looking to open latest January 2021.
TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS INSIDE MOROCCO AS OF DECEMBER 2020
As we speak, Morocco has extended its state of emergency until 10 January at least. But what does that really mean ? Compared to other countries in Europe , the situation in Morocco is covetable, to say the least . Whereas Italy will see no Christmas markets, with many regions will be under partial lockdown, Spain prohibits citizens from moving between regions, in Morocco terraces, restaurants and hotels are open, from early morning till 11 PM, although night clubs and bars are still shut. Travel between regions is allowed, subject to a permit relatively easy to obtain from local authorities. Wearing a mask is compulsory nation- wide in public spaces and on the street.
WILL IT BE SAFE TO TRAVEL INSIDE MOROCCO ?
We expect the vaccination campaign in Morocco to curb the rise in new cases in the next couple of months. Although Morocco is a country where still many people live in remote regions, previous experience indicates that a vaccination campaign will be successful. 11 million Moroccans were vaccinated in 2013 against measles in only 4 weeks.
Considering the above, we estimate that it should be safe to travel inside Morocco by spring 2021 . With the vaccination campaign in full swing and the new- cases rising curb bent, safe travel around Morocco should resume as early as end of February. When we say safe, we mean that the probability of catching the virus will be scant, yet not inexistent. We also mean that travel restrictions will be relaxed, if not completely removed.
IS IT POSSIBLE TO TRAVEL TO MOROCCO RIGHT NOW ?
Flights between US and Europe are presently at a halt, following a decision back in March this year by the US to impede the entrance of all EU citizens in the US. An exception to that is the Atlanta to Rome flight Delta Airlines offers . It is, however, very likely for flights to resume soon, pending approval by the US authorities, as United Airlines and other major carriers in the US are already offering flights in March, April and May to some European capitals.
With airports and airlines struggling in the last 9 months, the approval of the vaccine and the widespread introduction of fast express Covid tests at the airport terminals, it seems plausible to believe that international flights will resume soon. The good news is that you don't need to book your flight through Europe if you wish to fly direct to Morocco. Royal Air Maroc offers direct flights into and out of Casablanca from New York, Montreal, Miami and Washington. Recent weeks have seen the reopening of air space between Morocco and at least Europe. Moreover, Air Arabia, EasyJet and Royal Air Maroc have added new destinations to connect visitors to Morocco. Recently Spain has also opened its air travel to and from Morocco .
Presently, those flying to Morocco are asked to present a 72 hour PCR test when embarking and upon arrival at the airport in Morocco together with a hotel booking. The good news is that you are dispensed of the obligation to quarantine for a week or two , still required in many other countries . Naturally, most of the travelers will already have a booking confirmation whether booking just their accommodation or more comprehensive travel arrangements, such as a private tour to include accommodation, transport, activities, guides, etc.
WHY BOOK YOUR HOLIDAYS TO MOROCCO NOW ?
Less tourists around : We estimate that it will take some time before Morocco's visitor numbers will return to a 'normal'. How does that translate for those wishing to visit soon ? Popular sites, such as Jemaa El Fna square, UNESCO world site Ait Benhaddou or the picture perfect village of Chefchaouen will see much less of the usual hustle and bustle, rendering them all more genuine and picturesque (yes, you can actually walk around Jemaa El Fna without being pestered by a monkey...). So, no danger of confining yourself into people- packed spaces . What is more, booking a Morocco private tour will include a lot of travel to remote, off- the- beaten- track areas, such as Draa Valley , the Sahara desert or the Gorges of Dades. No chance there of being jostled. A private tour could, or rather should, include a traditional hammam and body scrub treatment or a cookery class , both of them private experiences. All our local guided tours are private, your only escort being a local, well- informed guide.
Discounted rates : It is no secret to anyone that everyone working in tourism in Morocco has toiled and strained from March until now, from the informal food stalls on Jemaa El Fna square to the booking department of uber- luxury hotels such as La Mamounia or Royal Mansour. Therefore, you are likely to be offered last minute and/ or early- bird discounts, part of a nation wide effort to attract tourists back and ensure a more than necessary money flow to a depleted trade.
Help local populations : The pandemic has hit everyone, that is true, but unevenly. Before the pandemic, populations in remote areas of Morocco, where climate change and rural exodus are contributing to social inequalities were helped by the slight, yet constant passage of visitors. The few teas with the nomads, guided tours, bread- baking classes and the likes helped making ends meet. These populations living on a day to day basis are currently the most affected. Each of us can make a small difference in our own way by inspiring people to travel again to those areas.
We've all been through a lot in 2020. I can't think of a better place to put it all behind, than the top of a dune in the Sahara, soaking in the oceans of saffron- couloured sand, while the sun rises on the horizon.
Marrakech, 17 December 2020
Here is a constantly updated Covid Travel Regulations Map showing the actual travel restrictions of each country: https://www.iatatravelcentre.com/world.php.
You can follow the evolution of vaccination world wide on the following page: https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/covid-vaccine-tracker-global-distribution/.
'I would expect by the time we get to April, it will be what we call open season on vaccines. Everyone will be able to get a vaccine'. Interview with Anthony Fauci here .
The US has passed the bar of 10 million vaccine doses administered. Let's keep it going !
Right past the next boulder. And what about that one over there ? Could it be ?... Springing over clefts from rock to rock, I crave to uncover the most impressive rock engraving of the ridge. Moustapha and Majid are leading the charge ahead, with Leila somewhere abreast of us in the distance and even Boujeema, usually so composed, fallen victim to the enthusiasm of the group and is earnestly gushing water from a bottle on a stone, hoping to win this spontaneous yet imaginary competition. The engravings are etched on the surface of the rock - the dust and the slanting of the sun rays shroud them partially to a non- expert eye. If someone were to watch us, he'd probably think we're looking for gold. Now and then, I raise my head and squint around, weary of an army vehicle. We were warned by our 'source' that the ridge we are currently treading on lies right on the border with Algeria. On the top of the opposite ridge, past the sandy hollow, a rudimentary military vantage point scrutinizes the horizon. A few steps too many and we could be in trouble. From time to time, I hear afar Leila's voice signalling her sundry trophies, beckoning us to come and see for ourselves.
Someone's loud and persistent laughter pulls me back to the present. It's Majid and as usual, he's making fun of something. It's the beginning of November and we've gathered to, well, take stock of things, sitting around a table in a cafe in Marrakech. Although, to my discredit, my mastering of Moroccan derija is still quite limited, by now I can discern his habitual sense of humour which consists of a language game whereas he talks in ironies that do not seem ironic: of turning a question back on the questioner, mostly when the conversation is about a predicament or a disagreeable obligation. He's always been a bit of a joker. Just like the good old days, I almost hear myself thinking out loud. Leila, Majid, Daoud, Moustapha and Boujeema. More than the Sun Trails team, and the sum of its constituents, I look around me and what I see, ultimately, beyond personality, sense of humour, qualities and faults, is people I could always rely on. It fills me with hope.
The 10 months elapsed from our expedition back in January, now in retrospect seem years. Who could have foretold in those days the tsunami that was going to take over the world just in a few weeks ? Naturally, back then we already had heard of the few cases in China, but just like the ebola or malaria, something distant, something remote, a vagary that is not supposed to spill over a country's or a continent's border, a plight circumscribed to people less lucky than the average you and me. And yet. The first cancellations in February. The swell of them in March. Getting myself stranded in Spain for almost 6 months, when initially I was visiting a friend for a week, not being able to return to Morocco, away from my daughter, my friends, my colleagues, my home. Because yes, I wasn't born here, in Morocco, but I've lived for 14 years and so it's somewhat reasonable to call this home. Or is it ? Facing emotional seasons, from the shock of being imprisoned in your own house to resignation, to rage and finally to hope again, now that the much talked- about vaccines are on their way to being mass- distributed. Months and months of learning how to live with constant uncertainty: what next ? Is this it ? Are we bending the curve ? How am I going to make a living now ? When will the things be the way they were ? Get a 9 to 5 job ? Do I have to ? Do I want to ?
Reality is grim: in a country that depends considerably on tourism, most restaurants and hotels in Marrakech are closed. People on the street strike me as gloomy and tense- and who can blame them ? Many companies have shut down, lacking the resources to outlast the crisis. The government has offered some assistance to the employees but little, if any, to businesses. Sun Trails has also felt the toll of the pandemic: since March the only thing we've incurred is expenses. Back then, I had told my staff that whatever happens, there will be no layoffs until at least September and I kept true to my word. We're now in November and with what we've haemorrhaged so far, we could have added 2 brand new 4x4 vehicles to our fleet. Even with the vaccines around the corner, no one can guarantee that business will return and it's almost certain that if it does, it will take years to return to 2019 levels. Yet, did I loose someone dear to this pandemic ? Have I become one of the 100 million people that were pushed into extreme poverty ? And what to say about doctors, nurses and all other medical personnel that continue to put their lives at risk every day to save others' and some of them lost it in doing so ? So no, I do not see the glass half empty.
'So Majid, is it not better to have your own business ?' I ask, half jokingly. Majid has launched himself into the business of restoring houses and businesses with a team of a dozen workers. He looks tired. The extra kilos and random working hours are visibly starting to affect him. His countenance changes and with a sorrowful voice he retorts: 'If only I could go back to driving around Morocco...' He follows that statement with a tirade on how construction work in Marrakech is a whole different world from taking foreign visitors around Morocco, lavishing them with the most beguiling landscapes and local experiences. Alas, this is the same person that would take a detour from his route just so he can impress a couple of Australians with the desktop- saver view of a field of just- in- bloom poppies. Next to him, Boujeema, having gotten his state licence just a couple of years ago, had tried working as a local guide in the medina of Marrakech. In vain. The only tourists , and a scattered few, are Moroccan. Daoud is doing his own thing and wittingly asks Majid if he doesn't need someone to hold and push his ladder, when painting. Everyone's laughing. Moustapha wasn't reachable for a few weeks and when I finally managed to have him on the phone, he confessed he had been away for two months out in the desert with his people. He needed to disconnect. Or rather, reconnect. Leila had joined me for a while in southern Spain this summer and we indulged ourselves in some serious treks around Sierra Nevada, reminiscing about the High Atlas mountains of Morocco and how similar they are. Lately, with no hotel bookings or accounts to look after, she has been busy applying for a part time job, without any luck so far.
And myself ? With no work for the last 9 months, it has crossed my head to start applying for a job, of course. Yet, I can't get myself used to the idea of working as an online sales rep for Amazon, Google or the likes. I've only worked in travel and hospitality, since becoming a bartender in Portugal at 21. I'm now 42 and before Sun Trails, I managed a boutique hotel ( riad) in Marrakech for almost five years. Which should make me reasonably good at what I'm doing. Hence I'm not jumping ship. As a matter of fact, I've worked for the last three months on rolling out a new updated version of our website. I also hired a young and dedicated team from Casablanca to work on our search engine optimization. After New Years Eve, once the vaccination campaign in Morocco gets on its rails, I envision touring the south of Morocco, all the way from Tiznit on the Atlantic coast to Zagora, on the edge of the Sahara desert, checking on our partners.
Beyond purely financial concerns, our travel agency is exposed to the risk of more disruptive patterns. Since we focus on experiential travel around Morocco, most of our 'local' guides are mainly local residents proud of their area, culture and heritage. Most of these areas are blighted by rural exodus where local youth emigrate to big cities where they work in construction or grocery stores and send money home. The much talked about panacea of tourism making a difference in thwarting rural exodus has obviously lost plenty of steam in the actual context. I've never thought that local populations should rely 100 percent on tourism and abandon agriculture or crafts. And at Sun Trails we never endorsed that either. But I am aware that the more this crisis endures and no tourists visit the areas, the more likely is for these local guides to fend by traveling to a big city where the chances of faring well are much higher. Thus Moroccan countryside needs travellers even more than before the covid.
A couple of weeks ago, I received a WhatsApp call from Colombia. Dan and his wife are from Mexico but have lived in Colombia for a few years and were quite interested in booking a private tour of Morocco for next May. The half hour we spent talking on the phone ( mostly me) slipped by so naturally, and I surprised myself of how easily I could recall everything: routes, activities, cooking classes, treks, guest houses, Nelly from Wild Junket. I was going to get back to Dan with an email which would include a sketch of a suggested itinerary. And the moment I hung up, I also became aware of how swiftly I could glide back into the skin of my old life. There was a pang of adrenaline riding on top of that, since this would be the first booking in more than six months. Six months where every day you sit in front of a screen filled with all but spam emails, it was hard to stomach in the beginning but you eventually grow numb to it. Or almost.
Reverting to our tour of Morocco in January, just the day before we had spent the night in the dunes of Erg Chigaga. Next morning, we drove through the desert, sped up on the dry lake Iriki, with Moustapha in the back of the car constantly abetting me to pick up speed and forget the breaks, as he would put it: 'brake pads are expensive, so better not wear them out'. I was looking forward to this team adventure and introducing Leila and Daoud to the rest of the crew. They only had been with us for a little more than 2 years and although it seems a long time, my drivers don't cross each other much, being most of the year on the road or else back with their families, a long way from Marrakech. Leila is a very good friend and I was glad to finally get her on board to help me with bookings and accounts. A hard worker, brisk and companionable, that made everybody laugh, she blended in from the first day. Daoud came in to replace Walid and had been strongly recommended by Majid. After a few tours he's proven himself more than worthy. Originally from Zagora, conscientious, discreet and loved by his guests, he fitted right into the team.
The fruition of 11 years of offering private tours in Morocco was coming to this trip. I felt that we had a stronger team than ever before and this was the trip to celebrate it. Each and every day we'd have one or several round tables to discuss what and how we should approach the area ahead of us, what's worth exploring, what we should leave out, how long will it take to get there, etc. We've lit bonfires in the dunes, found new trails to explore amongst lush palm groves and barren ridges, we raced our 4x4's on virgin beaches of Plage Blanche, we taunted and teased ourselves and downed dozens of glasses of atay, all the way besotted by the intangible beauty of a land that won't stop enchanting us. And it's those memories that help me keep the faith. And being reunited to them in this cafe around a cup of tea. And all those hundreds of people that weren't quite the same after having toured Morocco with us. And all those other ones here, in this country, making such a difference, conferring a meaning to the word: hospitality. I never grasped the meaning of that word until I arrived here. I will forever be in debt to them.
Presently, it's not easy to not give in to the deluge of gloomy news that we're being bombarded with every day, among rising curbs of new cases and economic downturns. Not easy to tell yourself that things will get better. We'll have to get used to being ourselves again. Normal. Forget the fear. The virtual concerts and museum visits and the instant prophecies of how the world will be so different. I don't know if we'll be better travellers once this is gone. What I'm sure of is that travel is intrinsically part of human nature. It's one of those last resorts that keep us sane. No pandemic will change that.
P.S. In the meantime, Dan and Carla have booked their holidays with us and we're expecting them next May.
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