Motorcycle Diaries

On our last day in Merzouga, Rachel and I rented a motorcycle for an afternoon. We both had ridden previously but it had been awhile for us both. The desert seemed like the perfect place to try again.

Boy, did we have a fun day.


The rental place only had a very old motorcycle available, which needed to be pedaled like a bicycle to start, but it was an absolute blast. We couldn’t ride on the dunes because the motorcycle would sink into the sand, but there is plenty of flat desert around the town that we got to explore.

It was great and so empowering.

At one point, we stopped to switch drivers and a group of children gathered to watch us as we struggled to get the bike started.  Eventually they asked for a ride and started climbing on! (Unfortunately we lost the pictures of this, but it was adorable.)

It was quite the experience as I drove them very carefully around in a small circle one at a time, trying to keep track of who had already ridden and who hadn’t. I was sure that some Moroccan man was going to appear any minute and yell at us, but none ever materialized.

IMG_4479(Rachel McCoy Photography)

It was the first real interaction I had with children in Morocco and it was refreshing. I had been wondering why I didn’t see children running around and playing here. I did see boys out playing soccer, especially on Sundays, but never the kind of carefree playing that I had seen elsewhere. And I almost never saw a girl out playing before this day.

Eventually, things got out of hand as they all started trying to cram on at once, which significantly increased the chances of someone falling off.

We ended up having to make a quick getaway from a small mob of children! (Which was difficult because of the aforementioned difficulties of quickly starting the motorcycle.)

But it was fun and we laughed a lot.

fullsizeoutput_2383(Rachel McCoy Photography)

Happy New Year everyone!!

A camel trek in 2017

From the main street in Merzouga, it takes only about 15 minutes to walk to the edge of the Saharan sand dunes.

The view is breathtaking, every time.


You can simply walk into the desert as far as you want, but almost everyone in the town will offer you a guided camel tour (at a good price “for you, my friend,” of course).

Rachel and I are both vegetarian types, concerned about animal welfare, so we had been debating for days about the ethics of taking a camel tour. We also had concerns that this type of trek would be a kind of fake, overly hyped tourist thing, so we considered just walking in by ourselves.

In the end, though, we decided to go for the tour offered by our hostel. After experiencing a desert sandstorm, it seemed safer to go with a guide who knew the desert and what they were doing. We also hoped to learn some cultural things from a guide that we would miss by ourselves. And it was quite affordable – about $35 a person for an overnight trip.


As for the camels (the Moroccan type is a dromedary – a single-humped camel), they seemed well-cared for and not over-burdened by gear fastened to their bodies or excessive baggage. They are remarkable animals and so at ease in the desert and adapted for life there. Some fun facts about camels: they store extra fat in their hump so they can use it when food and water aren’t available; they have an extra clear eyelid and two sets of long eyelashes to keep sand out of their eyes; they can close their nostrils to keep sand out during sandstorms; and they re-hydrate faster than any other mammal when water is available. So interesting!

The part of the Sahara that I visited in Morocco is only the very northwestern tip of a huge expanse of desert. It starts here and continues all the way south through Mali and east through Egypt, on the other side of Africa. It’s a pretty incredible distance.

Sahara Desert

In fact, the Sahara is larger than the entire continental United States.

The vastness is powerful. I definitely felt awed by it.

IMG_7658Rachel in the desert

One of the best parts of the trek was getting to know Hassan, our guide. He is about my age – slightly younger – and has never left the desert. He only attended a couple years of school but speaks at least five languages. (A lot of Moroccan men have learned additional languages in what they call “the school of life.” This school seems to have also taught them the phrase “see you later, alligator,” which always makes me laugh. In contrast, 70% of women in Morocco are illiterate and speak only Arabic. Pretty unequal.)

IMG_4401Our guide, Hassan (right), with another guide and our camels behind them (Rachel McCoy photography)

Hassan belongs to the Berber ethnic group (also known as Amazigh – Berber is actually a variation on “barbarian,” a name unkindly given to these folks by the Romans but is widely used in Morocco now). Amazigh are the main ethnic group in this part of Morocco, and were actually the original inhabitants of the region. They were pushed into the desert when Arabic people moved in from the middle east. Though one finds Berbers throughout all of Morocco, many are still living a nomadic life in the desert throughout the region. In this part of Morocco, being a desert guide for tourists is a job that many Berber men embrace. Berber women are famous for weaving intricate and colorful rugs, which are sold throughout Morocco and are true works of art.

img_7750Hassan was an expert in where to take the best pictures

Hassan has a great sense of humor and kept us laughing throughout the trek. He told a lot of riddles, like “how do you put a camel in a fridge in three steps?” (answer: Open fridge, put camel in, close fridge) Rachel asked him if he used the internet, and he said “Internet? Why do I need the internet when I have the desert?” However, I can attest that he does indeed use the internet – we have kept in touch through Instagram since we parted ways a few weeks ago.

Top of DuneThe scarves/turbans look silly but were actually super necessary to keep blowing sand out of your face as much as possible

We spent the night in a Berber camp about two hours into the desert, near a huge dune which we climbed to see the sunset. The camp was in an oasis, a patch in the desert where plants grow and water is available. I had seen camps similar to this in Benin, where there are also nomadic people, but I had never slept in one. In the oasis, the tents were large and spacious, more like houses made of canvas, and the only disconcerting thing about the stay was the part when Hassan said, “the toilet is anywhere outside of the camp.” Oh, I see.

Rachel and I on top of the large dune at sunset

We spent the night sitting around a campfire with Hassan and a few other Berber men who work in tourism. The camp was large, but mostly empty. They explained that because we visited during the school year, all of the women and children had relocated to the town so the children could go to school. On break, they said, everyone would move back to the camp.

IMG_7700Berber tent (with Flat Stanley in front – that was our addition)

This  intersection between tradition and modernity struck me as fascinating. I imagined the pull for children between learning the ways of the desert like their parents and learning things to keep up in the modern world. It must be a confusing thing to navigate. The people who live in this camp are so close to the town that they seem to have a foot in each life. Hassan says that there are other people who live much deeper in the desert and whose children will never leave the desert. They are born there, they live there, and they die there, he says. According to Hassan, these people are also the ones who truly know all the secrets of the desert – like how to navigate by the stars, which he says he cannot do.

IMG_4034(Rachel McCoy Photography)

Around the campfire, our hosts treated us to some traditional Berber music with drums and a flute. It was obviously something they knew tourists would like, but I also got the feeling that they would probably be doing the same thing if we weren’t there. There is no power in the camp and music seems to be an important part of the Amazigh culture.

Rachel and I shared a tent and set an alarm for 4:30am so we could see the stars after the moon had set.

I am usually not a fan of 4:30am, but the view of the stars from this remote place was absolutely phenomenal.


The next morning, we almost got up in time to see the sun rise (close enough, still a beautiful sight) and then headed back to the town.

One of the young men on the tour with us took this opportunity to video chat with about eight of his friends and family members back home in Australia, thanks to the 4G cell reception available even in the Sahara desert. It was a very incongruous thing for me, but his contacts did seem to enjoy the call.

I spent the time forcibly eavesdropping (no other sound out there – it was impossible not to) and reflecting on the way that modernity is creeping into all corners of the world – even those that used to be the most remote. If you can video chat from the Sahara Desert, is there anywhere that is still off the grid? And what impact does the omnipresence of technology have on the people who have been living here for so long?


Rachel and I took Hassan out to dinner that night in town to say thank you for a great experience. He took this opportunity to tell us about the scary creatures you can encounter in the desert – like snakes and scorpions – and how to treat injuries from each with traditional medicine. It was fascinating but I am glad I was blissfully ignorant of these creatures while I was there. We had a great conversation of cultural exchange – him telling us about growing up nomadic and living in the desert, and us telling him about life in our countries and living a life that is nomadic in its own way right now.

For the record, Hassan says that we did not see the real desert.

According to him, the real beauty of the Sahara is at least two or three days’ journey by camel. He says life is quite different that far into the desert and he invited us to come back and see the real thing. I must say, I am intrigued. I don’t see how the desert can get any more beautiful than what I witnessed, but I hope to be able to find out one day.

Inshallah, as they say here: God willing.

I would love to return to the desert.


The Sahara, my love


We disembarked the night bus in Merzouga around 5:30am, in the total darkness of an unfamiliar town, which was so still that it seemed uninhabited. The bus had emptied out as the 10-hour journey from Fez went on and people got off at small villages along the way, so there were only three of us, all foreign women, left on by the time it reached Merzouga, the final stop. We tumbled out of the bus onto the dusty street, clumsily hoisted our bags, and suddenly the bus was gone. Was there actually a tumbleweed blowing gently towards us or is that my memory playing tricks? “Whoa, where are we?,” I thought groggily.

IMG_7625Camels on the move during a sandstorm

Merzouga is situated just at the edge of the Sahara Desert, on the way to nothing else, other than Algeria, but the land border between Algeria and Morocco is closed. There’s no way to convince yourself that you can stop here on the way to somewhere else. If you come to Merzouga, it is on purpose, and it is to experience the desert. The town is a 10-12 hour bus ride away from each of the two nearest major cities, Fez and Marrakesh, though both trips are significantly faster if you have your own car instead of taking a bus. I almost skipped this part of Morocco because of the distance, but wow, I am so glad I decided to make the journey.

Put simply, the Sahara Desert is one of the most incredible places I have ever experienced.

I fell in love with this peaceful, sand-colored town and the desert that blends into and out of it like I have not fallen for a place in a very long time.

IMG_4137(Photo courtesy of Rachel McCoy, my travel partner and amazing photographer)

Merzouga, with its unassuming mud and concrete buildings, is laid back and peaceful. In the mornings, the sun peeks over the dunes and the town wakes up slowly from the cold night. Lone men wearing long djellabas (a Moroccan cloak that looks like a wizard’s, complete with a pointy hood — think Gandalf in Lord of the Rings) quietly drift down the middle of the dusty main road. As the sun gains strength, traffic comprised mostly of old bicycles and rickety motorcycles with a few tourism vans thrown in kicks up the dust and sand coating the road. The men trade their djellabas for long tunics and colorful turbans to combat the blowing sand. In the evenings, the dust settles and the air fills with the smell of meat being roasted over charcoal fires on a few grills along the street as people congregate in cafés, drinking tea and exchanging news. After sunset, most people are back in their homes or out in the desert and the town is quiet.

IMG_7799Merzouga main street at sunset

Life in the desert is intense and inextricably tied to the mother nature.

As soon as we arrived in this desert town, I felt the moisture instantly sucked out of my skin, hair and throat by the dry air and wind. Dust coated my entire body and all my clothes the whole time we were there. Though it is winter, the sun is still intense (but the temperature is moderate, even cold at night) and I was perpetually sunburnt and windblown, despite an obsessive use of sunscreen. But maybe the intensity is part of what makes this place so arresting.

Most people who live here depend on the desert in one way or another. Some are nomads who move through the desert with their camels, relying on the desert to provide water and plants while coming to town occasionally to buy or trade goods, and some are permanent town-dwellers who make a living from the tourism provided by the desert. Regardless, no one can forget the desert, and everyone here respects it. There is no other way.

The first day we arrived in Merzouga, we were greeted by a sandstorm.

Rachel and I had walked out to the edge of the dunes when the wind started picking up and we realized we should turn around. It was unpleasant and painful, being whipped by flying grains of sand that got in the eyes, nose, mouth, everywhere. But it was also exquisitely beautiful – the power of the desert was clear and magnificent that day.

img_7626-1Sand blowing in a storm

And after it ended, everything was clean and new. The dunes had shifted shape slightly, all footprints and traces of human activity had been erased, and the desert looked untouched, as if it had just been reborn. There is something mystical about a place that is ever-changing, never the same. To know that what you are witnessing is only there for that moment that you see it, that later it will be different, that it can never be recreated quite in the same way…wow.


What a phenomenal place. What an incredible world we have.




Coming soon: More desert! A post about trekking with camels into the Sahara on its way in the next week.



After two lovely months spent in Chefchaouen, I decided after Thanksgiving that it was time to move on and see the rest of Morocco.

Daniel didn’t want to leave yet (he says, “I don’t need to see the rest of Morocco – Chefchaouen is the best city. I know already,”) so I left him to keep working at the hostel and saving money while I explore the rest of the country. We will reunite in about a month to fly to our next destination – probably Senegal – and continue the trip.

We became friends with a young Australian woman who was also working at the hostel, and she was heading in the same direction as me, so we are traveling together for now. Though we are both independent women (she traveled India and Nepal solo), it’s nice to have a partner when traveling in Morocco, and we’re having a lot of fun together.

We spent a couple of days in the large city of Fes, known as the intellectual capital of Morocco. Fun fact: it is home to the world’s oldest university, University Al Quaraouiyine, which still operates today.


Fes was energizing after being in a small town for so long. I liked its energy and its beautiful architecture.


The medina, or old city, in Fes is old architecture, small alleyways, beige colored buildings and walls with traditional markets, or souks, sprinkled throughout. It is notoriously hard to navigate, with small streets that frequently culminate in dead ends if you get off of the beaten track. We did get lost a few times, but what is getting lost when your only goal is to explore a city? Fes also has a very modern part to the city, featuring a massive supermarket and shopping mall that could easily be an American mall.

(Doorway featuring random Moroccan man who wanted to pose)

And now we are in Merzouga, a small desert town in eastern Morocco at the edge of the Sahara.

It is breathtaking and one of the most incredible places I have ever been. I will write more and upload some photos soon, but I am absolutely loving it here. Feeling so fortunate to be able to experience such a phenomenal place. Wow, wow, wow!