We took an overnight CTM bus that evening from Fes to Rissani ($18); that was mistake #1. Rissani is on the very edge of the Sahara desert, but still a good 30 minute drive from our riad in Merzouga. Had I booked seats on Supratours instead, we could have taken it all the way to Merzouga.
The overnight bus was a nine-hour trip. That was mistake #2. Although it was a modern coach with comfortable seats, the bus was lacking something key: restrooms. The bus make a couple of highway rest stops at what we Americans would call oases, but that doesn’t eliminate the waiting and wondering.
It also doesn’t eliminate the fact that a public water closet in Morocco is a herculean exercise in patience, endurance, and stamina. We’re talking a hole in the ground with two footholds for standing, or – Allah forbid – squatting. There’s always a nearby bucket of water, often with a small hose, for washing if necessary. I didn’t have to deal with that so I can’t properly explain it, but the bathroom in the rest stop I encountered was a challenge all its own. It was in a dark, dank basement, but the entrance to the restroom itself was up a two-foot high step. Inside, the ceiling was around five feet tall, making for some awkward standing and aiming. By the way, you have to pay to use one (usually one dirham).
Anyway, we arrived in Rissani a little worse for wear around six a.m. The place was a ghost town. Everyone else on our bus appeared to have ground transportation awaiting them. I had erroneously supposed that a few taxis would be present, figuring they knew the bus arrival times. No dice. There were also no pay phones. Eventually, after all the other travelers left for their hotels, and the bus pulled out, it was just Luciana and I, in the middle of fucking nowhere.
But a taxi did arrive, after a few minutes. One lone 70s-model Mercedes pulled up, and a turbaned man rolled down the window. “We are going to Merzouga,” we said in that do-you-understand-the-words-that-are-coming-out-of-my-mouth tone. The man looked at us, or perhaps through us, and mumbled, “Merzouga.”
“Yes,” we said, “you know, the only other village within an hour of this place. Surely you’ve heard of it.”
He motioned for us to hop in. Driving around the small, empty town of Rissani before dawn, our valet mumbled to himself repeatedly. He stopped at one gas station, then another, trying to find one that was open (and we think, someone to ask directions). Finally, he found one, and as he filled up the tank with the engine still running, we waited while he (we presume) got directions from the attendant.
We drove out of Rissani and flew onto the highway, and as the town receded and the desert enveloped us, Luciana and I looked across the vast, Martian-like landscape. After a long night’s journey and a difficult early morning, it was beginning to dawn on us where in the world we were. This was the Sahara Desert.
Something else was dawning on us, too: Dawn. There was already light – had been since right after we got off the bus – and we could see for miles. Then, suddenly, its source emerged from our left, on the distant horizon. The large, white, blinding disc was peaking out from behind the planet’s edge, moving up in real time, and laying its claim over this wasted land. I had forgotten the hotel and the cab and was now thinking about time, and history, and how many lives had been swallowed by this desert, from one end to the other, and how many allowed to pass.
Our driver was focused on the road ahead, but that didn’t prevent him from almost running off the car ahead of us – the only other car on the damned road. Both vehicles pulled over, and both drivers got out. Uh-oh, we thought. But this was not the 405 and there would be no gunshots. The two men argued in animated fashion, stating their cases, in each other’s faces. They seemed to be shouting at the same time. After a minute or two, they both retreated – back into their respective vehicles, as if nothing had happened.
Arriving at Riad Totmarroc (60 euros, or around $83, including dinner and breakfast), we were greeted by Fouad, its friendly manager. Fouad was a most gracious host, and after we took a hot shower he immediately arranged breakfast for us in front of the hotel. We drank coffee and ate crepes in the cold morning air, then went to bed to catch up on some sleep that could never be had on a bus seat.
Riad Totmarroc feels like the last stop ’til Algiers, and it probably is. It’s a colorfully-painted, modern riad with a handful of rooms. There is a rooftop from which the entire town of Merzouga is visible, and where you can watch sunrises, sunsets, or just camels grazing in the sand. In the center of the riad is a large lobby, and off to the side a charming dining hall where we had dinner with live music that evening. They offer guided overnight dromedary excursions into the desert (50 euros per person), which we initially had planned on but ultimately decided against. Two other guests had just returned from one and didn’t give it a glowing review. In any case, I have already experienced the novelty of riding a camel, and it seemed like something that would be more fun in a group rather than just us and two Berbers. From the rooftop of Riad Totmarroc, the Sahara was sufficiently impressive that we were not compelled to venture another few miles in to sleep in a tent with scarabs.
In the afternoon, we went with a young guide into the heart of the small town, for lunch and to check out some of the clothes for sale. Mostly, though, we were just tired, and spent our time relaxing and taking in the views. By the end of the night, we were starting to feel restless. We had escaped the madness of Fes looking forward to the tranquility of the desert. Now we were ready for a little more madness. There was plenty of madness to come.