Casablanca, Morocco Burying Corpses in the Desert

Woke up in a tent in the Sahara desert. Feet cold. Wind howling. Camels barking. Wasn’t it David Byrne who once said, “Well…how did I get here?”

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Threw on some clothes and raced into the dunes to catch the sun peeking out over the horizon. Caught it. Shot a dancing clip beneath it. The moment only lasts a few seconds, which is amazing cause, ya know, it’s the sun. It’s not supposed to move that fast.

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The clip wasn’t great. In fact, nothing really leaped out as the perfect shot. Kind of a surprise and disappointment considering the majesty and uniqueness of the surroundings.

Part of the problem is that it actually wasn’t unique. The last video featured Sossusvlei in Namibia, which is also massive sand dunes and very similar – it being sand and all.

It was hard to find a shot that wasn’t just a rehash. I became taken with the idea of dancing with my shadow, since the morning sun casts such a sharp outline against the pristine sand.

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My pursuit of that shot wasted a lot of time that probably could’ve been better spent. And we didn’t really get it anyway. Then our guide started whistling and hollering for us to get going. With the language barrier, I assumed there was some pressing weather concern that meant we had to get out of the dunes quickly – like the desert heat rising or maybe a sandstorm.

Turned out he was just sick of waiting around for us. That pissed me off. I would’ve liked to get a good Sahara clip. Wasn’t meant to be.

But I should really shut the hell up. I got to watch the sun rise over the Sahara with my girlfriend.

The long camel ride back was a picture-taking orgy.

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This is how they keep the camels from running away.

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Sucks to be a camel, I suppose.

Partway through the journey, our camels’ legs became incredibly long and spindly…probably from being tied up all night.

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I considered sliding down to safety, but instead gripped tightly with my thighs and hoped for the best.

They soon returned to normal.

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Like the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, it’s hard to take a bad picture in the Sahara.

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Except when it’s of my butt.

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As we neared the hotel, Melissa crashed her camel.

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Here’s how the sand dunes look from the hotel; like a static, beige ocean at the end of a long beach.

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The drive back. Lots of nothing. Bad trivia filled the hours.

Name eight Bruce Willis films with numbers in the titles.

We stopped at a random old Kasbah ruin by the side of the road.

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I got the idea that it might be the place to get the dancing clip.

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It wasn’t.

Next we went to Ait Ben Haddou. It’s another old Kasbah ruin, but much bigger, fancier, and totally restored.

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It was used in Larry of Arabia, then again in Jesus of Nazareth, and later Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven. If you want an old city in the desert in your movie, it’s where you go.

Tried again to get the shot. Again, no.

Kept driving. Stopped in Ouzazat. Our bags were there waiting for us. My PSP had been stolen as well as the charger for my videocamera, but I was glad just to put on some clean clothes. There were worse things that could’ve been stolen – like our secret cash stash an inch away. Anyway, nothing irreplaceable, and that’s what travel insurance is for, right?

Nearing the start of the High Atlas mountains, James made a wrong turn that led us to who-knows-where. We entered a town with another set of fantastic ruins; broken remnants of high walls reaching up like spires over a low cliff side. Again I thought there might be a clip in it. We parked and got out.

As we approached the ruins, a band of children descended upon us like ambushing guerilla fighters. They wanted money. They followed us to the ruins, at which point I started dancing badly.

The kids found this puzzling. I invited them to join me. A few of them did. And once they got their heads around it, they became very enthusiastic. It was fun. It was the clip I’m going to use.

Afterwards, I faced a moral dilemma that is very common in Africa. The kids wanted money. I agree with the notion that handing money out to kids is a bad idea, as it creates beggars. If I’d simply ignored them, there would be no issue. But I’d invited them to join me. To boot, they were great dancers. They still wanted money, and I had a little bit of change handy, so I obliged.

To keep them from pouncing once they saw what I was holding, and also to prevent the biggest and strongest kids from grabbing everything, I threw the change up in the air. It seemed smart at the time, and it sort of worked, but there was also an air of degradation. It felt icky. Melissa, standing nearby through it all, got a sudden and overwhelming dose of what Africa is like. Even the best intentions turn out icky.

She was troubled. For a moment, while it was processing, she was a little upset at me. But what, exactly, was the right thing to do?

It would be unwise of me to dwell on this subject, but yes, what I’m doing has a large commercial aspect to it. The word ‘exploitation’ hovers over everything. Whatever is going through your head right now, please understand that I have considered it. The dancing video is something very simple, but it’s also complex. It’s sort of a moral prism; you can look through any facet and see it a different way. Suffice it to say, while I’m not a religious person, I am freakishly moral. I believe this video is, ultimately, a good. And it’s only a good if that’s how I make it.

What I mean is, by way of example…let’s say that acquiring each clip required me to strangle somebody and bury the corpse. Okay. Bit of a stretch. Nevermind how that would come into play. Let’s just suppose it was a necessary step. Even if the resulting clip turned out perfect, I don’t believe the final video would work. It would be tainted. It would ring false. People would say, “I don’t know where I get this feeling, but there’s something wrong here.” And they’d be right, because there would be mounds of dirt scattered throughout the desert marking the remains of all the people I had to strangle.

I just think that stuff shines through.

And I think I have, perhaps, made other more apt analogies in my day.

Where was I?

Ah, yes. Not dwelling.

We kept on driving and picked up a hitchhiker who appeared to be in dire straits. She turned out to be a Peace Corps volunteer from Ohio on her way to visit a friend. You don’t run into a lot of Ohioans in Morocco. You run into a lot of French. Some English. Also, of course, Moroccans. Not a lot of folks from Ohio.

Our hitchhiker, by the way, was a lesbian. Which I totally called.

Once we got her story, she asked what we all did. I explained that Melissa hires people for Google, James is Brad Pitt’s bodyguard, I get paid to travel around the world dancing badly, and we were desperately looking for a Peace Corps volunteer to round out the group.

A merry band were we.

We deposited our new friend and reached Marrakech after nightfall. The restaurants were all closed and we were peckish, so James took us to McDonald’s drive-through. And so it was that I discovered the McArabia.

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Actually, I discovered it a year ago in Dubai. That’s when I took the above picture. But this was the first time I’d actually eaten one.

Herb-rubbed lamb cutlets, lettuce, tomato, garlic sauce, wrapped in a pita. It’s the best thing I’ve ever eaten at McDonald’s. If it were offered in my homeland, I might actually eat at McDonald’s. It’s that good.

Back to James’ house for the night. Melissa took a mantle-worthy photo of James and his wife, Katie.

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On our last day in Morocco, we took it easy. Settled up with James, then went out to the market. He took us to the same shop he took Cate Blanchett to when she was in town shooting Babel.

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Moroccans make great stuff. Melissa bought a bunch of things. I agonized and then relented, for fear of the added luggage weight. Also, there’s a curio shop in Zanzibar I’m anxious to go back to and I know I’ll be stocking up once I’m there.

The highlight of the visit for me was when I picked up a particular scimitar and examined it. The shop owner, anxiously watching our every move for a milkable sale, strolled over, unsheathed the scimitar with care and whispered, “this blade…eet has keeelled.”

Melissa had trouble understanding why that detail was a bonus.

Onward to our flight out from Casablanca. Three more hours in the car, then three more for James once we left. His driving endurance is monumental and he never complained once.

We talked war movies. We talked westerns. Then we talked British TV shows. James was flabbergasted by our knowledge of Red Dwarf, Spaced, Black Adder, even going back to Doctor Who and The Tomorrow People – which once lurked in the higher digits of the US cable television spectrum. It made me feel smart and cultured, even though it really just means I’m a huge nerd.

There is a commonality, by the way, between all nerds. It crosses borders with ease. I have more to say to a nerd from Brussels than I do to most Americans. James is a nerd. We got along well.

And here we are, up to date. Flight to Mali leaving soon.

I’m a shameless liar, of course. Our flight to Mali left weeks ago. I started the post on April 6th and I’m only finishing it now.

Actually, I’m lying about that too. I didn’t even start writing the post at the Casablanca airport. I started thinking about it.

I’ve just shattered a carefully orchestrated illusion that I’ve been maintaining for years.

Devastating, isn’t it?

33 Responses to Casablanca, Morocco Burying Corpses in the Desert

  1. Rob

    “I gripped tightly with my thighs and hoped for the best.”

    Sounds like my wedding night.

    Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. I’ll be here all week. Try the veal.

  2. Mitch

    I would have asked who the blade killed. I mean, if it was used in some war in the 17th century, that’s wicked cool, but if it was used to execute some poor sap for stealing or whatever… well, I dunno if I’d want that hanging above my mantlepiece.

  3. Stephan

    Janet, the gum would obviously still have been in the luggage and hence unavailable at the time :p

    Matt, I find it funny, by the way, that you take Brussels as your — carefuly chosen, I’m sure — exemple of the total opposite from where you live. It’s not all that bad, really… :p

  4. Kathy

    6th senth
    5th element
    Die Hard 2
    12 Monkeys
    The Whole Nine Yards
    The Whole Ten Yards
    16 Blocks
    aaannnnndddddd

    damn i guess Lucky Number Slevin doesn’t count

    I can’t get an 8th without IMDB…. :[

  5. Neil Rabjohn

    Ocean’s 12!

    BTW, Matt, you’re a huge inspiration. I’m leaving for a 4-month trip this Sunday. Hope to find you on the trail.

  6. Laura Bruce

    Your posts always make me chuckle. Let’s just say that this gets me through many boring hours of work. Danke! :)

  7. Mac Johansson

    Great post once again, I love to just drift away imagining what all the stuff you do is like =) keep up the good work!

  8. San

    I hope you got the scimitar. As well as a recording of the owner.

    Interesting though – about the money. We think we’re doing something good and then we realize it could come across as not so good to others. Unfortunately, most times we’re not quick enough to catch all of life’s cruel ironies and paradoxes. Sigh.

    Will you be in China at any point this summer? I plan on going back for some bad, but awesome, dancing. 😀

  9. San

    I hope you got the scimitar. As well as a recording of the owner.

    Interesting though – about the money. We think we’re doing something good and then we realize it could come across as not so good to others. Unfortunately, most times we’re not quick enough to catch all of life’s cruel ironies and paradoxes. Sigh.

    Will you be in China at any point this summer? I plan on going back for some bad, but awesome, dancing. 😀

  10. Christine

    There is something to yours and Melissa’s feelings on poverty around the world. At least you give photos to people! Perhaps as you meet more volunteers, you will feel inclined to join us! It is very rewarding and a thousand times more addictive and life changing than just traveling. After events such as the Indonesian tsunami and Katrina, major news outlets have turned their attention to individuals who act on their feelings to help, without the bureaucracy…Stay safe! Enjoy! Your videos are very moving.

  11. Jacqueline

    Why do you have a dell? Do they sponsor you? Mine bit the bullet after a year. If they do sponsor you could you tell me please which sponsor you would have preferred?

    Thanks,
    A future traveler

    BTW – your email link doesn’t work

  12. Julia

    I lived in Tunisia for two years when I was 8 years old. (I recommend living in a “3rd World Country” to all Americans; it keeps them from being jerks when they grow up, and it makes the staggering poverty of other nations “our business” and not just something we can ignore.) So I totally understand your dilemma about throwing the coins in the air. I’ll bet the biggest bullies still got most of the coins, but this way there was a chance for the smallest to pocket SOMEthing! Really, a no-win situation all around…

    I also agree with your comments about tainted video…My favorite moment from your original is all the kids dancing with you. It brings back memories of Bophuthatswana (South Africa) and Morrocco, where I have also lived.

    If I may suggest a few dancing spots? I’d love to see you in a vinyard in Italy. The Palace of the Alhambra in Spain is amazing…likewise, the “house of the President” in South Africa. I’d suggest an oasis near Sfax or Gabes (Tunisia), but you’ve already done a great deal of desert pictures…What about Victoria Falls in Central Africa? Or the top of the William Wallace Monument near Stirling in Scotland? Or in front of The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford (watering hole of the famous C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien?) Just some thoughts.

    Blessings on you and yours; keep on dancing!

    –Julia <><

  13. Julia

    I lived in Tunisia for two years when I was 8 years old. (I recommend living in a “3rd World Country” to all Americans; it keeps them from being jerks when they grow up, and it makes the staggering poverty of other nations “our business” and not just something we can ignore.) So I totally understand your dilemma about throwing the coins in the air. I’ll bet the biggest bullies still got most of the coins, but this way there was a chance for the smallest to pocket SOMEthing! Really, a no-win situation all around…

    I also agree with your comments about tainted video…My favorite moment from your original is all the kids dancing with you. It brings back memories of Bophuthatswana (South Africa) and Morrocco, where I have also lived.

    If I may suggest a few dancing spots? I’d love to see you in a vinyard in Italy. The Palace of the Alhambra in Spain is amazing…likewise, the “house of the President” in South Africa. I’d suggest an oasis near Sfax or Gabes (Tunisia), but you’ve already done a great deal of desert pictures…What about Victoria Falls in Central Africa? Or the top of the William Wallace Monument near Stirling in Scotland? Or in front of The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford (watering hole of the famous C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien?) Just some thoughts.

    Blessings on you and yours; keep on dancing!

    –Julia <><

  14. Rich

    For the record, Matt’s e-mail link works perfectly. Look at it, think, fix it, and use it. 😉

    Rich

  15. Hi Matt,
    I’ve just caught on to your blog through another blogging friend. We live in Qatar, have for 4 years now with our three boys. I found your money situation interesting. We travel a lot. I find kids hard to resist, but I do not want to go broke by it. My children and I several years ago started carrying bags of candy with us. We’d keep sweets in our backpacks, and just hand them out to all of the kids. The family needs the money, ANY kid would prefer candy :)

  16. Ian from Atlanta

    Hey,

    I’ve been enjoying the site for a while now.
    My buddies and I are going to take a trip
    around the states. Not as cool as some of the world places but still pretty cool. Myself I can dance I can do the ‘shopping cart’ and the ‘sprinkler’! Though I don’t know if I could do them in public..

    Good to see other people that appreciate British Shows. I think Black Adder and Red
    Dwarf are my favs and I still catch Hugh Laurie and the hologram guy from RD from time to time on a movie of the week or something. In fact I found Baldrick has a show on Discovery called worst jobs in history. I can’t help but imagine him with a
    rat trap on his head.. 😉

    Love the blog keep it up!

  17. salwa

    hello matt

    i enjoy reading your journal, it s as if i see the laces that you discribe, i wanted to travel badly after i saw you dancing all around the world…

    i m actually from Morocco, and i agree with you when you said that you beleive that by giving them money, you encourage them to become beggars, that s totally right. and about throwing money to them on the air, well i agree that it s a little bit degrading, but by living here i know how sometimes little children can be very pushy and disturbing when they follow tourists asking for money…

    have a good trip,

  18. Adam

    I have been a faithful reader of your journal from the beginning of your first video. I absolutely love your pictures, and… without your witty little comments above each one, reading them would not be as satisfying.

  19. I am loving your site Matt. Very disappointing that I only now happened across it.

    I found myself in the same dilemma recently when in Morocco. I didn’t have too many run ins with children wanting money, but the one time I obliged is when I snapped a few photos of them. Maybe they figured out that was a better way to earn a few dirham than simply begging but either way, I felt I was receiving something at their expense and owed them.

    Your story about the sword made me literally laugh out loud. Maybe because I can totally picture one of those shop keepers saying that!

  20. Sarah Housni

    Hi,
    I’m a french moroccan girl, and I am leaving this note to tell how impressing is your whole work, ad I am sorry to add that it is not Ouzazat but Ouarzazat ^^ There I said it.
    Keep doing what you do, it seems very cool for you and it is a nice way for us to “travel” around the world without leaving our homes.

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