When I first heard about Morocco (thank you Penny Lane at the end of Almost Famous), it felt terribly exotic, chic, a little dangerous. The key to the last sentence is the word “felt.” Morocco is a state of mind, a place you feelas much as you see. And after years of having it written on a piece of paper pinned to my wall (Erin will go to Morocco!), it’s finally happening. It’s the first curated adventure overseas by Sol Selectas, and I’m to be the caravan storyteller.
Like so many travel stories, this one begins at the airport. I get a thrill when I exchange money at the Bank of Africa. I’m in Africa! I take a selfie with my new dirhams, because I always do this with currency I’ve never seen before (and because I’m a nerd). I’ve already pinched myself several times that this is my real life, packed and repacked my bags, and brushed up on some facts about Morocco (told you I was a nerd).
Morocco is one of the oldest recognized countries in Africa, with its first declaration of sovereignty dating back to the year 788.
Berbers are the indigenous people of North Africa. Berbers proudly call themselves amazigh (m), tamazight (f) or imazighen (plural), meaning ‘free men’ or ‘noble people.’
The Moroccan national animal is the Barbary Lion. These are extinct today but were once the biggest lions the world has ever seen.
I’ve landed in Marrakech, taken selfie with dirham, and now I’m already on a plane again, heading east to the mysterious, magical Sahara Desert, as designed by the Sol Selectas itinerary.
From the plane, I’m surprised by how much green farmland I see below, and by how many languages are buzzing around me. In addition to the Moroccans, many of whom are quadrilingual, our group of 46 humans comes from 15 different countries. True to the spirit of Sol Selectas, this is a multi-cultural gathering of seekers from around the globe.
When we land I think we must be in the Sahara, because the earth is orange sand far as the eye can see. Except for a cluster of bushes and grass – I’m looking at an oasis! (maybe?) We gather onto fancy vans and head deeper into the desert. We pass small towns and kasbahs, a word I’ve always wondered about, which the Internet tells me can be all of the following: a fortress, an entire city, a mud castle, a song by the Clash, a party décor company, and a restaurant in Sacramento.
In the velvety night, under a galaxy of stars, we arrive at our first residence. Torches ignite as heavy wooden doors admit our arrival, like we’ve stumbled onto a Game of Thrones episode, or like we’re travelers in a caravan who’ve finally reached the warmth of their destination. Let’s go with the second option. Because GOT is fiction, and we Sol Saharans are in fact on a caravan. We are received by Sabo and Helia – the King and Queen of Sol Sahara, muses and magic makers who dreamt up this adventure while stuck in a red sand storm with their co-conspirator and enfant terrible, Moroccan DJ Amine K.
As we explore the rustic beauty of the dunes, we’re invited to enjoy a welcoming cocktail and the first sampling of the famous sweeeeeet mint tea and dessert combination, a decadence worth every splash of my dentist’stears.
We check into our dope ass room and find presents!! A Berber blue traditional Moroccan Tuareg scarf hand-dyed by the mother of our caravan guide Bouchta, a box of soaps and argan oil, a thumb drive of Sol Selectas music (yay!), a letter, from which this an excerpt:
…This ancient landscape changes its shape with the daily winds, and it is reborn with each passing of the sun. Be present, as no two moments are ever the same…
And now, our first family feast! Bowls of olives and tagines, couscous and meats – every bite more delicious than the last. After a few days in Morocco this level of culinary wizardry will become normal, but this first time, it’s surreal. After dinner, the waiters start an impromptu drum circle and hash joints are passed around. This is when I wonder if I’m actually in a dream. Did someone enter my mind and write down my version of heaven? If I don’t drum in Morocco with the dunes right outside and the stars overhead I will never forgive myself. I join the drummers just in case it’s real. The drumming goes late into the night. I stay til the end, which is too long, as we have a big day tomorrow. But if this is a dream, or if this is real, I’m going to be present for every moment of every moment. The gods have spoken. This is Sol Sahara.
The next day we eat at Maison Bouchrafine, a farm-to-table restaurant made of stone and clay that feels like at one time it might have been an outpost for passing merchants and messengers. But it could also be brand new, as evidenced by the pool and lounge chairs. All the buildings I’ve seen thus far here in Eastern Morocco have a similar aesthetic, natural materials maintain an authentic look. It’s hard to discern the new from old. As lunch is prepared we get henna tattoos and learn how to fashion head wraps, a practical tool for the trip through the dunes we’ll take tomorrow. On the way back to the bus, we find fossils in the sand.
Evening. The man has a weathered face and a deep voice. He is a Berber, and he’s come to teach us about his culture. It’s difficult to guess his age. He could be 50 or 70, though his wisdom feels old as the sand. We sit around a fire, asking him questions. His English is excellent, and his deadpan delivery slays.
A stone’s throw away, the scene is set for the night’s festivities. Three thousand candles rest in the sand, illuminating a gold spiked archway conceived by Moroccan event producer Safae that will be home base for the Sol Selectas showcase that will take us to sunrise. But for now, all our attention is focused on our Berber cultural immersion.
“The sheik was my great grandfather. Everyone respected his rules. How many camels do you have, how many goats, how many people in your tribe, these are what give him power to be sheik.”
“None. They learn the ways of the tribe. The ways of the desert. They learn how to respect each other.”
“As nomads we are always waiting for guests, guests are how we get news. If you are lost in the desert you will be welcomed and given dinner.”
He tells us marriage is the biggest celebration in a person’s life. That the tribe has no mechanical time, they follow the sun and the moon.
“Berbers trust what we have inside first, our intuition, and we believe in a circle, if you do good you will receive good. Life is changing very fast, with mechanical time our tribe is losing their intuition. But with my work I must follow the system. I have a Facebook page. Next month you will see me in America. Not driving a taxi (he pauses for laughter, gawd he’s good), but in the movie John Wick III. You know Halle Berry? I met her.”
A literal red carpet leads to the dance floor. A light art installation reads “Heb” (Love) in Arabic. For those wanting a moment of conversation, there are little tables where one can rest and sip mint tea. At one of these tables I’m asked where I got my snake bracelet and I replied “Amazon. The website, to clarify. You never know with this crowd.” And it’s true! All the Sol Saharans are so well traveled it’s not crazy to think I could’ve got the bracelet in the Amazon. But I didn’t, I got it on the evil website along with a few other items I thought I would need in Morocco. Like sunscreen. And a universal power adaptor. Now I’m here, next to a bar with endless red wine and cocktails. Beyond the stage is the deep, entrancing night. A darkness so complete there are security guards blocking the perimeter to make sure we don’t wander into the dunes and never come back.
Be Svendsen + Sabo + Goldcap + Amine K. With a line-up like this, no one is wandering off. The relentless call to boogie from these four global artists at the top of their game has us as entranced as the cobras in Jemaa el-Fnaa square we’ll see in a few days.
Let’s talk about Be Svedsen, one of the most unique and creative producers currently making magic on the global scene. Are we really here, in the Sahara dunes, dancing to the beats of this Danish magician? Then there’s Amine’s set, a high-energy booty shaker of a set, relentlessly danceable, endlessly cool.
And the cherry on top: a Sabo and Goldcap sunrise B2B set. The momentum has been building on these legendary B2B sets, from Burning Man to Tulum, people show up in droves to watch these two masters at work. And here we are, a private performance just for us, framed by the dunes, illuminated by three thousand candles.
I’m riding a camel. I never imagined a camel caravan could be so serene, so relaxing, but barely a word is spoken as the world melts into nothing but gold sand and stormy blue skies. After all the traveling and chaos and noise, the quiet of the Sahara is like a salve for the soul.
The only jarring sound is the protesting of the camels when they have to kneel and let us dismount. This sound might be described as a combination of a whiny whale and the gurgling of my stomach when I’m really hungry. I’m a bit worried for my camel when I hear this sound, but then she (or he) sits so placidly with her front legs tucked under like a cat, all long eyelashes and mellow energy, that I feel she’s okay. Then our barefoot guide kisses my camel and hugs her, and I am happy.
Night. Over an extravagant dinner we hear the beginning of traditional Gnawa music, performers in all-white singing stories of the Sahara. I speak with the waiter Abdel, who’s also a translator. He has two Master’s degrees and speaks 6 languages, but he chooses to work here in the dunes “Because the stars are good for my soul.”
Now the traditional music is merging into something else, something magical. I hear whispers of “It’s the desert blues,” and “Sounds like Tinariwen.” I now know that Tinariwen is a Grammy Award-winning group of Tuareg musicians from the Sahara Desert region of northern Mali, that they’re world famous and literally the only thing I’ve listened to since journeying through Morocco.
Almost all of the musicians wear white, their faces covered save for their eyes. Over the white they have on black leather jackets, creating a mystic, effortlessly cool vibe. Three of them shred electric guitars. Some are barefoot. Another wears Converse. The drummer’s pants have different fabrics patched onto them. We sit around a fire, clapping along, transfixed. A little white cat saunters from group to group, flirting for food.
I ask a Moroccan what language the band is singing in. “It’s Saharan, not Saharan Algerian like Tinariwen, a Saharan Arabic I don’t understand.” Later, I’m standing between two Moroccans and ask each of them to translate the lyrics, if possible. Abdel, the translator, is on my left. “It’s a Berber dialect, they’re saying life is hard, the storms are hard, the desert is hard.” The man on my right, I’m not sure who he is or how he came to be there, says “It’s a love story about a man who would climb to the moon for his woman, it’s a desert romance.” As I will come to understand during my time in this country, many things about Morocco are in opposition. Things don’t always make sense. But the facts matter less than the charm.
I walk out into the dunes for a different perspective, reflecting that sometimes a single night, a single experience that opens your senses in a new way is worth traveling halfway around the world for. The moon is an orange crescent, dropping low, almost behind the dunes now. The same candles from the party the night before have been placed thoughtfully throughout the sand, a touch of light to illuminate the seeker’s soul. I look back at the fire, at the Sol Saharans gathered around these mind-blowing musicians, sounding like tribal Jimi Hendrix, a sound that seems like it will go on forever. Like we live here, full on figs, sipping mint tea, listening to the house band, the moon the master of ceremonies, under a blanket of stars.
Walking back, I start a voice recording on my phone. I want to listen to this music when I’m back in LA, sitting in traffic. Voice notes usually auto title with the GPS location where it’s being recorded. Here in the Sahara, all that comes up is 6 numbers. No address here in the dunes, no address to this dream.
We rise with the sun. The Sahara in the early morning light is its own realm of beauty. The stuff poems are written about. After a breakfast feast we traverse the desert again, this time in an SUV, which makes for an Indiana Jones vibe. We hang out with a group of young Berber boys as our vans are organized to take us to our next destination. I get out my Instax camera and have the boys do jumping portraits, individually and as a group. Nothing brings me greater joy than handing someone a photo the moment after it was taken. The smiles on their faces are the best souvenir I’ll take home from the trip.
Next up is lunch in Ouarzazate, and on the way we have Bus Talks. It’s rare these days to have long stretches of time for conversation, free from phone distraction and social media demands. To really get to know each other, to really “drop in.” Because this is a heady group, it’s an elevated conversation. Topics discussed: cultural appropriation, death doulas, physics, dating apps, the nature of consciousness, the monogamy myth, bitcoin, space travel – you get the idea.
A journey through the Atlas Mountains at sunset is a cornucopia of visual treats. We pass women carrying wide bushels of hay on their backs, dirt patches where kids play soccer, ancient towns powered by solar panels, lots of hitchhikers.
And what a prize we had waiting for us in Marrakech! A party at the former home of Franca Sozzani, the dearly departed editor of Italian Vogue, still decked out with all her décor. A library with floor-to-ceiling books hid a staircase to a secret bedroom with a bathtub so big you could live in it. Courtyards opened to gardens opened to lounges with the finest pillows and tapestries. Did you know every riad has it’s own signature perfume? Did you know in my metaphorical state of still being in Morocco, Franca Sozzani’s riad is where I live?
Marrakech you beauty!! What a wild and wonderful place, a new city encircling an old one, an ancient one, a medina full of mysteries, smelling of horse manure, incense and orange blossoms. Today we venture inside your high walls, the market our destination, finding treasures the goal.
Much has been written about the main square in Marrakech, Jemaa el-Fna. It’s an overload for the senses, everywhere you turn a new sight, sound, smell. Am I in a movie? In a dream? Over there are the monkeys, next to the snake charmers who will demand money if you stare for a second too long.
And buying in the market is like the shopping Olympics. The most beautiful creations for a fraction of the usual price. I keep getting called Shakira. I buy a bag of nuts and wander into a shoe stall. When I request a pair of red leather slippers with curled-up genie toes in my size, the merchant disappears up a ladder in the roof, appearing to be swallowed by shoes. In another stall I buy a teapot and two purses. Okay, look I’m not going to list everything I bought but let’s just say I had to buy an extra suitcase to bring back with me, which a handsome driver with a unibrow helped me buy at Carrefour.
We integrate our shopping madness with a Blisspoint Breathwork session with Lisa. This time on a roof in a dream hotel outside the city. Breathwork merges into a rad sunset set with Be Svedsen, he plays live percussion as we dance and drink cocktails and marvel at the orange sun setting on the Red City.
Now our final dinner together, a last feast of Moroccan delicacies. We sit at long candlelit tables as Amine, Helia and Sabo say a few final words. Someone remarks how different this last dinner feels from our first altogether, only a few short days ago. We’ve since headwrapped, WhatsApp’ed, drummed, shopped, cried, hugged, enlightened. We’re family now. We’ve gone deep. And we’ve danced.
The final Sol Selectas showcase feels like the Berber night, that it will go on forever. That we live here now in this moment, dancing together, a private party for a tribe of wild children. The mood is like living inside one of the album cover arts Jamali creates. Surreal, exotic, transcendent.
But I am there, my spirit like a figure in a snow globe, eating a tagine, drumming and smoking hash, meeting Berbers and camels and waiting for the next Sol Selectas showcase to carry me away.
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