Merzouga and the Saharan fraud-part 1. April 6-9, 2019
My bitter anger for Merzouga, and the entire Sahara scam, is disproportionate to the crime. I know that. It is the kind of contempt reserved for the murder of a child. However, my bitterness is so great that only an erupting volcano, swallowing the region in thick layers of lava could sooth me. Shifting dunes, could be dug through, so it must be lava. Oh Linda, you fell into a tourist trap, neither the first or the last. Why then, you ask, are you so bothered? Hmmm, well, first, we feel how we feel. It is not always justifiable, but I will try.
First, there is my disappointment over having my Sahara dream crushed. Oh, how I wish they had just said “sorry, no room at the Oasis for you”. In fact, they did say that there was no room on our requested night of Sunday. We had to stay an extra night at the hotel, in order to have the camel ride to the Saharan Oasis, spend the night at the remote camp in the desert. This was the one and only purpose to traveling here, to just skim the history of the area, when 20,000 camels would leave at a time for trading treks, when Moulay Ismail staged his battle to push back the Saadians, to lay under the stars and ponder what the life was like for these nomads. This is why we came. But then came the actual experience.
I will talk about our travel to and from, how we passed the time, between arrival and the unveiling of the despicable reality, in a separate post. But, just briefly, what you see on arrival. The entire region of the desert looks like millions of acres of abandoned chip-seal parking lot. Mostly flat, some hills, covered with black rocks. Some as big as your fist, but most the size of gravel. I was later told that these are volcanic deposits. Soon, looking off to the left of the road, to see gigantic piles of rose-colored sand, the dunes. The sand is bordered by and endless stream of hotels, hundreds? thousands?, reaching to the small village of Merzouga and beyond. Merzouga is one commercial street, surrounded by small residential areas. On the commercial street there are a few restaurants and numerous stores selling the requisite desert Bedouin head scarves, hotel worker galabias (a man dress, also worn over street clothes, like the jellaba, but shorter and open at the collar), and other souvenirs. And the buses. Most people come here in tour buses or intercity buses.
Our driver for the afternoon, kept wasting our time, and delaying delivering us to our camels. The sun was far enough along that I knew there was a problem. But I got no answers, only more delays. The final delay was to take us to a lookout point on a small hill, bordering the road at the farthest end of the dune from our hotel. I was fascinated to see a huge industrial park, that stretched as far as the eye could see along the edge of the backside of the dune. I pondered that they must be storage units for the camping companies in the off season. Groups of white plastic, steel framed boxes.
I soon learned that I was looking at the camps themselves. These industrial complexes, the camps, were separated my small hills of sand. This way, you don’t see the neighboring camp until you walk to the top of the separating sand pile, though you can hear them. We were delivered in a soccer-mom style SUV to our camp. There is a road off to the side, but they take you through a little sand to make it feel adventurous, so they can tell you that your regular driver would get stuck coming to fetch you. They sold our camel ride to someone else, hence all the delays. Even so, they just load you on a camel in one parking lot, let you ride the camel for an hour or so, then walk you into the desert side of the industrial complex. Had I been in charge, I would have refused to get out of the car. I am still so angry I cannot see straight. I tried to be a good sport, but could not manage it. At least back at our hotel there was good food, and a 75% chance at hot water. In the morning, I could not get a ride out, nor would anyone at the camp tell my own driver how to get there. I thought that would be the final straw, but there were several more to follow (in a later post). Had I been alone I would have started walking, but my sister and her 6-year-old made this inappropriate.
Second, there is the betrayal of my Baby Brother by his “friend”, the owner of the hotel, who worked with him to make the arrangements for our desert experience. Our brother wanted so much to give his sister, and me, a really special experience. He spent so much time, and money, to make everything perfect, to cover every detail. Indeed, I did not pay a thing except the transportation and tips (but even that was 2 months of my living allowance).
And there are people who receive that dream experience. Even in our own hotel, a family from Portugal said they had a great experience, at a beautiful Oasis camp.
Third, there is the vast depth of the fraud. Not just one dream crushed, but millions, every year. One of the ladies in our camp was a Chinese-Canadian. She told me that her agent told her that over 2 million Chinese people came here in last December alone! She talked about how travel was impossible, politically and economically, until very recently, for Chinese people. But, largely due to a popular book, when people started to travel, the Moroccan dunes of Merzouga were, and continue to be, their first dream. Indeed, everyone we met was from another country. We were the only Moroccans as tourists. She was disappointed, ya think? She tipped her camel guy and headed to the tent to use the facilities before the sunset. When she returned, her camel had left. Her complaint to the owner of the camp elicited “that was not included in your package”. Even though her travel agent told her she was booking the most luxurious package available. When she asked where were all the beautiful carpets in the pictures, he did go roll out some carpets. But it amounted to “lipstick on a pig” if there ever was an example of that saying. Merzouga is not the only place in Morocco offering these “excursions”. This is only one tiny point of the vast Sahara. I suspect these fraudulent experiences can be found in all of them.
I also suspect it would be difficult to find a Moroccan that would understand why all these foreigners want to go visit piles of sand in any event. So, when they ran out of capacity for the nice, oasis experience, the creation of the roadside experiences to take on the growth makes total sense. Why turn away business?
Most Moroccans I meet dream of visiting America. It would be like all the New York tour guides, bussing the visiting Moroccans to an industrial park outside New Jersey and putting them in framed tents (luxury packages would have their own toilets and showers, as in the desert) and saying “welcome to New York”. “Oh, you wanted tall buildings, delicatessens, live theatre, shopping, bustling streets? I’m sorry, those are not included in your package”.
And here we get to the fourth and most crucial of my complaints. For most of these millions of people, this scam is all they will ever know of Morocco. I love Morocco. The people here are kind and would give you the shirts off their backs, their food, their homes, anything and everything. It makes me ill to know that this fraud, this cruel scam, this systematic lying to and cheating of the visitor is all many of them will ever know of Morocco. Lava.