Otherwise it was exhilarating blasting through the desert road. Every now and then we would approach a village and figures would suddenly emerge from out of the dust before us. Some were on donkeys, others on bicycles, or other forms of motorised transport. Those on foot in black bernouses and turbans trapped the winds with their billowing garb, creating beautiful forms. Entire villages are exposed to these inhospitable winds—dealing with a different set of weather patterns.
The last town we hit before turning off onto unpaved desert pistes was Er-Foud. 32 kilometers from there is a town called Merzouga, and somewhere along the way was where we would be staying. We came upon a family of nomads camped out next to one of the main pistes. Ibrahim stopped to chat with another guide in an oncoming vehicle, giving the nomad children a chance to rush up to our car. At first we were all smiles seeing them, but as soon as they smashed their little faces up against the dirty glass windows, clutching the handmade dolls they were selling and pleading for bonbons, I was overcome with a desperation of a kind so raw it made me feel that everything was suddenly very, very wrong. Our coming here, buying a doll, not buying a doll, giving bonbons—it all felt extremely awkward. I shuddered as we moved on.
We eventually reached our auberge in Erg Chebbi, called Labaraka, around 5pm. Its only address is N:31.11.860; W:04.01.684—GPS position, that is. The front door of the auberge gives out onto the great dunes of the Sahara, the most impressive in Morocco. Without any trees or landmarks to give scale, it's hard to tell just how big they are, but we were told the tallest dune was an hour away on foot. In the late afternoon when we arrived, it looked as though the tip of the big dune was being filed down by the prevailing winds.
Labaraka (means 'the benediction' in arabic) is run by the Houssaine brothers—Assein (sp?), Zaid, and Hassan—and with the help of a few of their friends. It is essentially one large room with tables for meals to one side, and cushions all along the walls of the other. There is a bar (or more appropriately a 'counter', as no alcohol is ever served) that connects to the kitchen in the back. In the middle of the room are cots, low tables, and several tam tam drums inviting use. The room is painted a cheery pink and green in the traditional style of berber homes. It is the ultimate hang-out space.
During the bulk of the day between 11am and 6pm, it is rather unbearable to be outside, subjecting your bodily orfices to the penetrating sandy winds (without which would be even less tolerable given the heat). That means everyone is basically lounging about the room—reading, talking, napping, having tea, or simply staring off blankly—but always swatting at flies. This also means that hours tend to crawl by and a day can seem an eternity. It does, however, very quickly become your home. For travellers, it is a vacation within a vacation. There are no decisions to make about where to go, what/when to eat/sleep; your daily existence becomes entirely goal-less and the folks at Labaraka take care of you. When a new group arrives, the staff starts a tab without formally ever establishing an account. Instead, they label you with a one-line description and start the tab running for drinks and food you order during your stay. That way, you don't even need to think about money until the end. Gregg and I later had a laugh when we saw what they put down for us: 'Japon et son ami'—or, 'Japan and her friend'. (As an aside, since we've been in Morocco, I've been constantly greeted in Japanese by people on the streets. Only once did a friendly kid playing soccer ask if I were Eskimo. I nodded, jokingly, and when he asked me to sign his ball, I drew a picture of an igloo. He and the rest of his team broke out in laughter.)