Carpets and Camels


This blog entry about the events of Sunday, June 20, 2004 was originally posted on June 24, 2004.

DAY 246:  I once read a story about how persuasive Moroccan carpet salesmen can be, using not a tactic of aggressiveness, but the strategy of feigned friendliness and hospitality to guilt one into buying a genuine Moroccan rug.  That day in Morocco, I finally got to see these salesmen in action.

“DO YOU WANT TO KNOW WHAT I THINK?” the good-natured Palestine-Californian Waddah said as we packed up the minibus that morning at the hotel.  He always seemed to start a conversation with a rhetorical question that was either reciprocated or not, this time not.  “I think we have a good group.”

Waddah had a good point there.  As I’ve discovered in my travels, a travel companion can make or break a trip, and so far our group dynamic of fourteen seemed to be a pretty good one, a cast of unique characters.  Before deciding to join the group, Sebastian was wondering if we’d be stuck with a bunch of old timers but in fact, our two oldest members — both forty-five, a decade the senior over the next highest age — were young at heart:  beer thirsty Englishman Russ and Korean Kim, who was blessed (or cursed) with Asian genes that make one appear far younger than he/she actually is.  (I thought he was 27.)

Hassan the driver drove our “good group” on the continuation of our three-day tour.  I passed the morning time in the third row laughing and joking with Sebastian about how funny it’d be to travel around the world while wearing a Spider-man costume — Spider-man, sitting at a Parisian sidewalk cafe with a cafe au lait and a newspaper, or riding on the back of a camel.  Classic.  However, cons existed, like explaining the costume at a border crossing.

No one else in our vicinity was into the humor of our conversation; perhaps some things didn’t exactly translate in big group dynamics.

“WHAT’S HIS NAME?” I asked Miguel the bearded Portuguese in our group.  I was referring to the new guy leading us on foot around the crop fields of the Todra Valley that Hassan our driver brought us to unexpectedly.  (We didn’t know we were supposed to stop at such a place.)

“It’s either Mohammed or Hassan,” he told me. 

“Or Moustafa,” Aussie Lucy added.  True, essentially every Arab I met so far went by one of those three names, like there was some sort of shortage of other ones.  Then again, I couldn’t picture any Arab named “Herb.”

The new guy was Hassan (another one), and he took us through the fields of the valley where individual families were allotted a plot of land to grow their vegetables and fruits:  olives, grapes, pomegranates, dates, wheat.  We walked through the fields towards the village of Irem Naït Haja Agi, a neighborhood of the larger Tinghir city, passed cameraphobic women washing their clothes in a nearby river.  Irem Naït Haja Agi was a former Moroccan Jewish town, complete with a central synagogue that still remains today.  Since the exodus of its Jews in 1945, the synagogue wasn’t used often, but still exists today for the occasional Jew passing through town.

Nowadays the town is populated by many of the Berber people, the indigenous people of the High Atlas Mountain range, who live in the town to lead normal lives.  For some of the people, normalcy includes showing tourists how they weave carpets.  Our new guide Hassan led us to one such house where carpets were weaved, and left us to be guided by a guy in traditional Berber garb who went by the name of (guess) Mohammed, who said that if the former king of Morocco was “Mohammed V,” he was “Mohammed 0.” 

Mohammed 0 had us sit on the floor of a big multipurpose room — the “living room, dining room, sleeping room and guest room” as he put it — where he served us the usual hospitable mint tea while his sister processed wool into yarn on one side.  One by one, Mohammed 0 explained the patterns and symbols of the different carpets of varied sizes and colors that he brought out to show to us (picture above).  “This is for peace, this one for hospitality, this one for history,” he told us, pointing to the colored symbols woven into the sheep wool, camel wool and vegetable sink fabrics — the colors came from natural dyes of saffron, henna or indigo. 

“I know these are definitely handmade and do you know why?” Waddah said, scrutinizing the craftsmanship of a carpet.  “There are imperfections.  If it was made by a machine, it would be consistent.”  He also noted that we weren’t just there to learn about the carpet making process; a sales pitch was inevitable.

“Oh, I see it coming like a freight train,” Russ said.

Sure enough, the subliminal sales pitch became more obvious as Mohammed 0 brought out more and more carpets and flat out said that they were for sale if we just so happened to be interested.  Over time, the sales pitch got even more obvious, but in the charming, non-aggressive way I had read about:

  • “If you can find a place in your heart, you can find a place in your home for one.”

  • “If you buy in Marrakesh, it costs more because there are five middlemen.  Here, you get to meet the women who make it and the money goes straight to the families.”

  • “You can trust me that is a good price.  If there is trust, you have everything.  No trust, you have nothing.”

  • “If you don’t want it, you keep your money, I keep the carpets and we’re still friends.”

  • “If you don’t have the money in dirham, we can take plastic.”

He really tried to sweet talk the ones in our group who were even just remotely interested, but as much as he tried to use charm to win our money over, he was no match for charming retort of the Swede in our group.

“Don’t you want a carpet for your beautiful Fatima?” Mohammed 0 asked Hendrik, sitting across from his girlfriend Tina.

“No, she is beautiful without the carpets.”  His reply was greeted with applause from the rest of us.

In the end, everyone in our group left happily empty-handed.

THE TODRA GORGE, a tremendous fault in the plateau between the High Atlas and Jbel Saghro ranges, was our next stop on our way down towards the desert.  We were dropped off at the bottom of the chasm for photo opps and to explore its deepest part on foot, where a cold, flowing river ran through.  Vendors were there of course selling the usual souvenirs of jewelry, fossils and ceramics, as well as a guy with a mule who sold rides back and forth the canyon — Kim took a ride and appeared as happy as a kid on a pony.  Some vendors, unlike Mohammed 0 the carpet salesman, actually tried harder to buy things from us (rolling papers, cigarettes) instead of the other way around.

There was a deeper section of the little river where local guys were swimming in, and it looked really inviting, too good not to pass up.  “I’m going in,” Miguel from Portugal said, leading the charge into the cold, refreshing swimming hole.  Japanese Mazza and I followed and soon after Spaniard Serbio, Waddah and Russ couldn’t resist but join in on the fun as well — all of us swam around in our underwear.  Waddah’s wife Coral couldn’t resist either and approached the bank of the river, only to hear that it was forbidden for women to share the same pool as the men.

“Do you know what it felt like to be in the river?” Waddah said at the lunch table at the restaurant just outside the gorge. 

Spanish Maider, having been forbidden for being female, reciprocated, “I wouldn’t know.”

“It felt like when you put hot metal into cold water.”  He raved and raved about the refreshing dip as we ate lunch, unintentionally making the girls even more jealous for not being able to enter.

“Give the [last] melon to the girls since they didn’t get to swim,” I said. 

“NEXT STOP, THE DESERT,” Coral said as we boarded the minibus again for our final leg towards the edge of the Sahara.  Hassan drove us a couple of hours more, passed small sand storm tornadoes twirling in the distance.  Mountains were replaced by dunes the farther we went, and right before sunset, we arrived at a hotel in Merzouga, on the edge of the desert, where the presence of locusts was more prominent.  Fourteen camels were waiting for us there, so we left our big bags in the hotel for storage and mounted the one-humped beasts.  Wearing a Berber turban that he bought the day before, Sebastian rode the lead camel like Lawrence of Arabia.  As much of a leader that made him appear, it may be of note that his camel was named “Bubbly Wubbly.”

The sun set as our caravan marched about a mile into the true Sahara desert, far enough that we were surrounded by nothing but dunes, but not so far that we would have ended up in Algeria, just a few miles more.  We were guided by a guy named Mohammed (surprise, surprise) and another named Omar (no way!) who led us to a camp of bivouac tents in the middle of the desert, far away from anything else in an almost completely silent environment (if not for the occasional grunt of a camel).  Nightfall came upon us as the guides prepared dinner.  In the meantime, a few of us went to climb to the top of the big dune nearby, a much more tiring experience that sitting in a car all day.  Mazza and I struggled to the top and sat on the ridge with Steve and Lucy.  “Sebastian of Arabia” made his way up too, and tried to take advantage of the soft sand dunes by doing flips

A tajine dinner under the stars was followed by theological discussions led by Waddah, as two domestic cats roamed the area to look for scraps.  Mohammed and Omar entertained us with songs on the bongos, and afterwards we transformed the middle of the camp into one big desert slumber party.  Lying down amongst the occasional crawling dung beetle, I stared up into the sky with others, admiring the shooting stars, the planets, the constellations and the clouds of the Milky Way.   

What a way to end a day, I thought, staring up at the heavens.  If Mohammed 0 promised me something like this, then perhaps I would have bought a carpet after all.

Next entry: Profit Mohammed

Previous entry: Rock The Kasbah

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.

Comments for “Carpets and Camels”

  • Just staying true to my name. Isa in Filipino is One smile In this case, first.

    Congratulations Erik! You are a living example that Anything is Possible.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/24  at  02:48 PM

  • Cats in the middle of the desert? Wow.  They must hate licking all the sand out of their fur.  Ya think?
    Fab picture of the locust!

    Posted by Liz  on  06/24  at  04:10 PM

  • wow…that day sounded just awesome!...

    so do the camels pee as much as they do in australia?

    if you haven’t been to australia and don’t know how long they pee for…check out

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/24  at  05:35 PM

  • Isa…is that short for isabella?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/24  at  06:10 PM

  • MARKYT:  These camels didn’t pee, but where we parked them by the desert camp, there was a whole plot of camel turds… TONS of turds.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/25  at  03:53 AM

  • Oooh, dinner - yummy! I’m jealous - yes, I’m starving.
    Never mind the really cool and refreshing pool and the camel ride - so much fun…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/25  at  04:09 AM

  • TONS of turds! where’s the picture or video footage?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/25  at  03:15 PM

  • That shot of Sebastian is perfect! Although, I’m with Markyt on the lack of turd picture… it’s been far too long since our last exposure!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/26  at  03:37 AM

  • this is awesome

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/26  at  08:47 AM

  • My husband is originally from Morocco, and this made him really want to go back (he is now 37, moved away 30 years ago). Love the WHOLE site too!

    Posted by Sandy  on  07/04  at  11:29 PM

  • SANDY:  Awesome… thanks for the kudos… and welcome!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/05  at  05:38 PM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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Next entry:
Profit Mohammed

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Rock The Kasbah


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