I awoke suddenly, my back aching from the rock-hard bed I’d slept in. A beetle scurried across the tiled floor into the bathroom and I drew the thin blanket around me. My partner was still asleep, his breath audible and gentle. I breathed in deep and thought back to the night before, weaving the thread of events back together.
Our bus had broken down in the middle of the Atlas mountains. I remember the stressed look on our drivers face and the tears he had shed. A couple young boys approached us, the only foreigners on board. They looked at the bus, then again at us and shrugged their shoulders. “Africa” one of them said with a smile, a phrase we would hear again and again traveling through the Moroccan desert.
After waiting in the cold for at least an hour we got on another bus and it brought us to Rissani in the middle of the night. I could see nothing minus the dull orange glow of the street lamps and a faded sign that pointed to a hotel. We followed it. The road was desolate until a car appeared in front of us, shining its headlights into our eyes. A young boy wearing a soccer jersey poked his head out, “You want camel?”
An older but handsome woman answered the door and with a flashlight led us to our barren room. She spoke in whispering French that I only half-understood and led me to the bathroom. A wretched odor filled the room as she removed a plug from the shower drain and then put it back, dulling the scent only barely. She handed me a key and quickly kissed me on the cheek before muttering “bon nuit” and closed the door.
We gathered up our things, paid 200 dirhams and walked out into the streets. It was warm, the warmest place yet, and the sun bleached everything into glistening shades of beige. Even the palms sparkled yellow rather than green. The air was dry, the heavy dampness that had followed us through Northern Morocco freed from our skin. I felt light and giddy. We had reached the desert.
We walked to the center, and as we rounded a corner a movie set appeared. A market popped up, people were riding bicycles, men sat in cafes drinking small glass cups of tea. Women walked together, shopping bags in hand, colorful beaded scarves and dresses flowing behind them, their steps filled with purpose. We had stumbled into a mirage. A frontier town on the edge of the desert. This was the Morocco I had been dreaming of.
I was snapped back to reality as a car approached, slowing down to a crawl to match our footsteps. I avoided eye contact but noticed a familiar soccer jersey out of the corner of my eye. “Lady want camel? I make you good price.”
Tea for three…