Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Stories from Merzouga: Tourism and power.

I just came back from ten days in Morocco, where I did something that I very rarely do when I travel:

I went for an organised tour.

Le gasp, right? I did this once before in Chiang Mai, Thailand, because we didn't know any other way to hike in the surrounding mountains without getting lost. Both tours though, left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

This time, with a friend, I signed up for a three-day "Sahara Expedition". I figured it might be fun to sit and be driven around, enjoying the disproportionate privilege that my Global North money can buy in the Global South. A coach would drive us from Marrakesh to Merzouga over two days, stopping at various scenic points and tourist sites like Ait Ben Haddou, Ouarzazate, Dades Valley, and Tinghir, before reaching the scarred sand dunes of Erg Chebbi.

In Dades valley, a Berber named Hamid (practically anonymous without the family name) explained the division of land between tribes, crops important to them (alfalfa, olives, dates) for their economic and spiritual significance, and how the kasbah is still built and re-built the old way (adobe, palm trunks, bamboo), before bringing us to see how Berber carpets are woven the traditional way.


Land division
Another Berber man, Hassan, took over. He brought us tea and his sister, Fatima, briefly demonstrated the wool preparation process (for women only!). After explaining to us the significance of the materials, colours and symbols used in the carpets, he pitched his sales line: that these are hand-made, "three times cheaper than in Marrakesh", and the profits go straight to the family. And everything was of course, privately negotiable, so we never knew what the cost or market price was.

That was as much of a guilt trip as you are ever going to get. There was the longest, most uncomfortable silence after he asked if any of us wanted to buy a carpet, when no one did because we didn't know it was part of the tour -- but of course it is, the push to sell things to (rich) tourists.

When we reached Erg Chebbi, we were immediately told to get onto the camels (actually dromedaries, since they have one hump) and two Berber guys led a line of five camels each, walking for about an hour, to a 'camp', set up like a hotel with solar panels!

I couldn't bear to talk about where else in Morocco they had travelled and how much they spent, so I snuck into the kitchen and had a chat with Mohamed and Said, the two guys who brought us there, in a mixture of English, French and Darija. I found out that they were only paid 50 dirhams each, for walking with us to the camp, cooking dinner, 'entertaining' us, and then walking us back on our camels to the hotel.

The travel agency got about 10,000 dirhams from our entire tour group. Taking away the costs of petrol (400 dh), one night in a (cold) hotel (400dh), two breakfasts (200dh) and two dinners (400dh), it still makes a whopping profit.

Mohamed is the same age as me, but he always lived as a nomad and never went to school. He started working with this hotel as a "Berber guide" because a few years ago a drought killed off his family's animals. Said was 19, and he also never went to school and he didn't know where his family was. For both of them, working there is better than nothing, but it's difficult to find something else with no education.

I know another Berber who is the only one of ten children who was sent to school. Income and life chances change dramatically with education: he can access international tourists through the Internet and be paid 300 to 400 dh for each trip he does into the desert. He also lives in a more residential area of the Merzouga, where the dunes are not so scarred with the tracks of 4x4 and hundreds of camels...

Smooth dunes

Run over by 4x4s

I've never felt my privilege so acutely.

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