In 2008 I was at the height of my travel-writing career. Realistically that meant I
would take a trip, write a book about it, and sell a presentation to organizations through
the winter meeting circuit. There were certain perks that came with the notoriety of
published stories and being brazen enough to ask for them.
I had negotiated a deal with On the Go Tours of London for a camel and truck trip
across Morocco. It was one of the packages they were promoting and I thought would be
a saleable topic on the meeting circuit. Then I contacted the Tilley Clothing Company in
Ontario and told them of my trip, and how I would like to appear in their clothing in my
book and slides. I asked for a hat and a couple of shirts. The marketing person replied
that if I had a mix of clothing in my suitcase I would invariably be wearing the wrong one
in a picture. I had to agree with her, and they outfitted my entire wardrobe down to my
underwear. There is no doubt technology had made advances in fabric; their clothing
dried overnight after a rinse in the sink and was ready to go in the morning. I had been
wearing one of their hats for several years and the new one was an upgraded fabric, it was
better. The pants had so many pockets I could lose things in my own trousers and needed
the manual to find them again. Yes the pants and sport coat came with an owner’s
After flying into Malaga, Spain and taking the ferry across to Morocco, I met the
group I would be travelling with. We were an assorted collection of 24 who would spend
the next 1,500 kilometres being driven through the desert on the back of a truck: There
were two senior women who got to sleep there; myself and Kerry were middle aged on
the tour and in life, and the rest were twenty-something on a bold quest. Many of them
were young ladies on their own who had chosen to travel with a tour rather than alone,
for the safety factor. Off we went on the adventure. This was not to be a ‘stay together
and everyone hold on to the rope like in kindergarten’ tour; this was a ‘meet back at the
truck at the prescribed hour’ kind of freedom.
Because we were of a similar age and more used to a quality hotel than back
packing, Kerry and I quickly became friends. She sold advertising for MSNBC in
England and was also on the invited guest list.
The market place in Marrakesh was one of our early stops, a foolhardy venture by
itself. I loved the market, was ready to attack it, but found this one backfired.
I am mildly claustrophobic and do not do well when things close in one me. I am
also not good at uninvited people touching me. I am not a hugger. I headed into the
market place, enjoyed watching cages of chickens arrive to the stalls, visited with a
gentleman selling milk in used pop bottles in the noon day sun, and was contemplating
buying a woven straw hat but thought the better of it. I do not remember what I did to
bring this about, perhaps I gave one of the begging children a coin, or two for taking their
picture but suddenly I was swarmed. I was surrounded by a group of children, who were
getting bigger, the kids and the group, and they were pawing at me and tugging on my
shirt. It was too much. I lost it. I was having trouble breathing and felt the anxiety
growing, I started yelling and motioning the kids to be gone. I am sure it was only
seconds but it seemed much longer before they left me and I made my way to a place
were I could be alone to catch my breath and regroup—as alone as you can be in the
market. I was done for the day and headed back to the truck—I was the first one back,
and that was fine, I needed some time to catch another breath and clear my head. Let’s
just say this one was a less than positive experience.
On the whole, staying at a mix of tenting and various affordable hotels, our trip
provided great experiences, just what On the Go had promised. At one of our hotel stops,
I went out shopping and purchased a quality leather brief case, more than I wanted to
spend but it too met my needs and it is still in use.
When I returned to the hotel with my package some of the ladies were in the
lobby and asked what I had bought. I was pretty proud of my new purchase and showed
them the case.
“What kind of leather is that?” asked one.
“I don’t know, the guy said it was some kind of antelope from a country in Central
Africa and there were only four of the animals left in the world,” I replied. “Now there
The look of sheer horror on their faces told me they had not understood the joke,
or at very least did not think it funny. It took a while for me to explain it was indeed cow
leather treated to make it soft and create the desired finish. Oops.
While we are on the topic of leather, I was often asked by young ladies on the trip
for ideas on what their Dad might like, adding “He is about the same age as you.” I was
not offended and took their trust in my opinion as a compliment. After that trip a number
of Dads were gifted with either very nice briefcases or quality writing tools.
My quip about the antelope was not my only faux pas on the trip. One of our
excursions was to a Bedouin camp in the desert where we were treated to all the
entertainment you would expect—the belly dancer inviting someone up to the stage to
join her, then a great meal and as a part of that one of the Bedouins offered a hot pepper
from a small bowl. He treated the bowl with utmost respect as though even a drop of the
juice would have the camp burst into flames and then as a show of masculinity he ate a
pepper and offered the bowl to anyone in the crowd.
I like hot food, so when it came to me, I took one. It was not even jalapeno, never
mind Scotch Bonnet or Ghost pepper. I ate it, and he took it as a challenge to show me
up. He took another from the dish, as did I. The crowd loved it. He took one more, I
reached in the dish took the handful and popped them in my mouth. They were great.
Oops he did not have another jar backstage, I had upstaged him and he had no more
peppers—leaving an awkward space of time as the next act scurried to get ready.
It was clear, I should have played along and just been in awe of the guy eating
what I consider a great topping for nachos.
Kerry and I had become travelling companions because of similar interests and
some days when we were given free rein, we would make our way into town. On one
such day we were walking past a school and stopped at an open window. The instructor
saw us and invited us into his class, seizing the opportunity to have his students speak
English to some English speakers. One thing led to another and he invited us to his home,
an offer we could not refuse.
We were visiting during Ramadan which requires fasting until sunset and we
could work with that. We went to his home, his wife reacted like this had happened
before and the amount of food she had prepared would have fed at least four more guests.
The teacher explained that during Ramadan traffic accidents increase as grumpy
aggressive drivers populate the streets and a sugar rush does not help. After dusk is just a
dangerous time to drive, but nonetheless his cousin appeared, his cousin the rug
merchant, and our host insisted we go to see his wares. We felt obligated because of the
hospitality he had shown at the school and in his home, and recognized we were not the
first tourists going down this road.
We went with the rug weaver and it was impressive, just as he had said, some
hard bargaining and I was the owner of a magic carpet, which he shipped to Canada. It
stayed rolled up until my office remodel in 2021. Why save it?
On another day Kerry and I headed to the local market, she was shopping for
some metal art. I went down the street to happen upon a denturist, or at least a fellow
selling false teeth. He was set up on the sidewalk with a table top about 3’x3’ about a foot
off the ground displaying his wares: individual teeth he had extracted and about a dozen
sets of dentures, not only to show the quality of his work but for you to try and buy. You
could buy used dentures, and he was quite proud of his selection.
One of the site tours included in the package was a leather tannery. I had visited
this kind of establishment before so I was prepared for the odour. I was not
disappointed—the smell was everything I thought it would be. At the same time, vats of
dye being heated by the sun on the rooftop, i.e. the visual of colours and bright sunlight
did make for a bit of burning in the nasal passages. The retail outlet connected to this
operation offered more types of leather in more colours than I had ever seen—and they
were willing to ship anywhere in the world. I selected a piece of the softest, almost
yellow leather and purchased it with the intent of doing something with it when I got
home. It stayed in my office for a few years till I got tired of moving it around and it went
out with yesterday’s newspaper.
I did buy a used camel hide leather bag in the bazaar and after a good deal of
haggling thought I had got a fair price. When I got back to my room I found the zipper
was poorly installed and gave way. I went back to the merchant the next day and reported
the faulty work, to which he replied, “That is life, sometimes you win sometimes I win,
yesterday I won.” Fair enough, we laughed shook hands and went our way. I had
overpaid for the bag, but got the life lesson for a deal.
‘A camel is a horse built by committee’ is an adage often used in our culture to
describe the result of having too many people provide input and no one able to make a
decision. I found that the origin of the phrase is really from someone who was already
familiar with the difficulty of committee work and then tried to ride a camel. That is how
the phrase is used in Morocco.
It begins with the animal’s defiance. A camel can expel large balls of mucus from
its nose aimed at those things it does not want to come any nearer, i.e. people. Then the
height makes it difficult to mount, the camel has to lie down to allow you to get into the
drivers seat, where you only think you are in control. Then when it is walking, it lifts both
feet on the same side at the same time, not cross corner like a horse. This ensures you will
get the maximum amount of sway for your perch, which by now you know is not the
Suffice it to say that a day of camel riding across the desert was one of the most
daredevil achievements of the trip. I do not have the space here to make an adequate
report of the rest of the day’s activities or the soreness of the next day so I will leave it to
the pictures and your imagination.