A Tale of Two Moroccos – or the night I was afraid of getting roofied in the desert

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For the last few weeks, as an attempt to distract myself from the impending Sword of Damocles that was the high likelihood of having to go back to Mexico, I’ve been travelling in Morocco. I flew into Marrakesh, and I must say that I initially had a very bad impression of Moroccans as a whole. I almost got scammed multiple times on my first day, and you get hassled in this city like nowhere I’ve seen in my life. Everyone here has a story of someone annoying them on the streets, or being massively overcharged; some stories even include the threat of violence and thuggery and I’ve even heard of someone getting spat on by a stranger.

After experiencing this sort of doings I was ready to write an article on the subject. About how in some places you’re little more than a walking dollar sign, instead of a human being. But then I ventured out of Marrakesh and I saw the true generous potential of the Moroccan people. By way of example, whilst travelling with my two friends which I’ve mentioned earlier, we asked a man for directions to a hotel or something of the sort to stay the night, as it was getting late.

He lead us to a cheap hotel, and we thought that was that. But on the next day, we happened to bump into him again with his child, and he jokingly said that he would tour us around if we wanted. We hesitantly accepted the offer, and for the next few hours he showed us the sights. He took us to the nearby pottery workshop, the small nearby dunes that look as if someone brought a dump truck full of sand and left its contents on a flatland, a beautiful oasis hotel and we had lunch in a very bohemian café, after he showed us some art by his friends. To finish off the day, he took us to his home to have tea.

Afterwards, we went to a small town called Tagounite and visited the extended family of a friend of a friend. Generosity does not begin to cover everything we received those days. They’re not a family of high means, but even so they threw amazing feasts in our honour: Couscous mountains, home-made bread with vegetable filling, and a meat tagine covered in dates, unlike anything else I’ve experienced, as well as enough mint tea to drown an elephant.

In that time, they showed us around an even smaller village, where to get there one needed to venture off road, as there wasn’t any path directly leading to the settlement. Here, we met another family of equal generosity and who showed us their small date farm. They also kindly demonstrated to us how to pick them, which surprisingly involves a lot of palm tree climbing, as they’re only to be found at the very top. Thus, whereas anywhere else it would be seen as a sign of senility to see a fifty year old man climbing a large tree, here it is more or less a necessity.

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Following all this, we had been so utterly charmed and convinced of the inner beauty of the Moroccan people, that we essentially forgot about the existence of the other more unsavoury side of Morocco – a crass mistake which would prove to lead us directly into a trap. It all started when my companion, Thomas, had mentioned that he had a couchsurfing host in a backwater town in the desert. Travelling together until then had been a joy, so we decided to stick together for the time being. So we cheekily asked the host, who supposedly had a whole camp in the desert and thus wouldn’t be a massive imposition, whether he could take in five people (a somewhat naïve German traveler, and a Berber called Sahid from the family we had been staying with, had managed to tag along for the adventure).

He said yes, and we climbed on a “Grand Taxi”, a local collective type of taxi that operates between cities, to go to M’hamid. At the end of that particular road we were greeted by a small village on the outskirts of the desert. A dustbowl of a town offering such exotic sights as “camel milk” and little much else.

Two men in a car, fully clad with the typical berber desert costume walked up to us and asked us whether we were the ones who were couchsurfing with them. We replied in the affirmative, but with much difficulties as they barely spoke a smattering of English or French. It is at this point in the adventure that a mild alarm was tripped in my brain. A lifetime of growing up in Mexico City makes one naturally paranoid of any and all circumstances that don’t seem quite in order.

From my understanding, the main currency of the couchsurfer is their ability to be good company. Eliminate that, and the average couchsurfer is little more than a serial freeloader with entitlement issues. So I found it odd to say the least, that these men would go through the trouble of hosting guests with whom they can barely communicate. With that being said, my trepidations weren’t enough to make me back away from the affair and I climbed into the already full car.

The auto was rather small, but with the elegance and vigour of a clown car we managed to squeeze seven people inside. The engine groaned under our collective weight, and at first refused to even start when prompted. Sure enough though, it sprang to life when we gave it a try or two, and we tentatively went into the desert with our “hosts”, little knowing that it was a trap.

By the time we arrived it was late in the afternoon, the sun had begun to set. So we went inside and offered them mint tea leaves, and sugar as a thank you for offering us a place to stay. They quickly swept aside the pleasantries and went to brass tax, and tried to convince us very forcefully to buy overpriced tours of the desert.

Perhaps when you’re isolated and alone, in a camp with two strange and scary men, the hard sell technique works phenomenally well. In such circumstances you might willingly throw money in their general direction to safeguard your safety and keep them on their good side. But when you outnumber them more than two to one, the game is mildly different and you grow bolder. So we rejected their offers politely but conclusively. The somewhat positive mood until then was smothered in its crib and everything took a turn for the worse. They tried their best to hide it, but you could clearly see that the two men were pissed and did not want anything to do with us.

Everyone noticed the somewhat hidden threat, except for our German companion, who almost jumped at the opportunity to do a bike tour of the dunes. It may be worth noting that he pretty much fell for every scam in the book in his few days in Morocco. So whilst a very kind hearted person, his ability to assess people and situations is severely compromised from a lifetime in a very safe environment. The Moroccan family we’d been staying with even jokingly started calling him “Client” instead of Killian, after he told some of his stories.

Hence when we were allowed to leave the tent, and discuss the situation on our own, our German companion was off doing cartwheels on the dunes and running around barefoot without a care in the world. The adults, on the other hand, took a very conspiratorial tone. We hid behind a dune, and in hushed whispers discussed the likelihood of them harming us in some way. Offhandedly, we rejected the notion of overt violence, as they were about to bring a group of paying Americans along (as the two Berber were prone to repeat whenever they were given the opportunity). Amongst their luring and pressuring of random budget travellers, they run a quasi-legitimate, hilariously overpriced at 50 EUR per night, Bed & Breakfast on booking.com – although how anyone would be so stupid as to pay that amount for such shoddy lodgings is beyond me. So the likeliest threat was theft of some important valuable, as the American tourists would unconsciously be our insurance policy against most other things.

Reluctantly, they gave us a cramped, smelly and isolated tent to pass the dreary and cold desert night; under the condition that we were not to interact in any shape or form with the paying guests. They tried to put on a facade of friendliness once more, but they were about as calm as a serial killer wearing his victim’s skin whilst in a police interrogation. Walking on eggshells does not begin to cut it, half the time one feared that they might try something if you were to say the wrong thing.

The Americans were soon brought in and we were quickly told to hide in the tent after one of the them happened to interact with us after going to the toilet, as he saw us loafing outside of our tent. At which point, one of the two initial “hosts” saw us talking to him, and came running to try to separate us from each other. Truth is, the Berbers just didn’t want it known that they had severely overcharged the Americans, as well as putting a light on their shoddy couchsurfing dealings.

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Be that as it may, we were confined to our quarters and told we ought not to make much noise. Tensions skyrocketted though when Killian fumbled along the camp, completely unable to find his shoes. The temperature kept rapidly dropping, so the impetus to find them grew ever stronger. Eventually, his search led him to the area of the main tent, and one of our “hosts” started screaming at him to keep his distance from the paying guests. The idiot was putting everyone in far more danger than need be through his fumbling in the dark, so we sent Sahid, our group’s Berber, as a form of ambassador of peace to defuse the tension.

Sahid was given free reign, as he blended in with the locals, spoke the language, etc. He could thus plausibly be an employee of the camp. After much conversing, he managed to barter some dates we’d received as a present, the day before, in exchange for dinner. The dates were given to the Americans as local delicatessen, never having learnt their true origin, and we received the leftover cooking.

Once more,we were told to eat it in the cramped tent but it definitely seemed like a step in the right direction. Almost none of us had left our eyes away from anything that could be stolen, except for the Killian’s fucking shoes. So we more than welcomed someone defusing the situation, so as to to relax somewhat.

Sahid’s triumphant return with a vegetarian tagine (picked for obvious reasons for its cheaper ingredients) was thus wildly celebrated. Everyone, except for myself, dug in, as lunch had been several hours ago. My reasoning for not joining in was simple, the owners of this complex had been expecting perhaps several dozen, if not hundreds of euros from us. This amount is several times the median monthly wage in Morocco. Of course they would be pissed. Is it so unreasonable to assume that they might lace the food with something as reprisal?

Perhaps they might not conceivably have date rape drugs available on hand, to rob us blind with impunity. But they could certainly have dirtied or mistreated the food as vengeance. Hence I considered it a reasonable bet to forego dinner, as the least bad scenario seemed to be stomach problems. In the worst case scenario, I’d be the only one not drugged and thus I’d have to find a way to protect the rest somehow.

I’d come to this conclusion several hours before, that I wouldn’t touch anything edible they’d have on offer. In my mind, the consequences of an uncertain outcome, ought to dictate how one ultimately behaves. I do not, for example, play Russian Roulette, however unlikely the outcome, even when offered a million dollars, because the risks are just too great. Hence if I run a sizeable risk of eating noxiously laced food, it seems reasonable for me to avoid it at all costs; as the only real downside seems to be being hungry for half a day, until we finally manage to leave that damn camp.

I thus abstained from the meal without mentioning my paranoid train of thought. Soon enough though someone mentioned it for me, as they came to the same idea: “what if it’s poisoned or something?” joked one of the group. Knowing that it was well within the realm of possibility, as the Mexican saying goes “between jokes it is truth which shows its face,” everyone eyed each other carefully considering the full implications of this. We all tried to nervously laugh it off without much effect. If it was poisoned, it was far too late for any of them.

I then said that I had this exact same thought earlier, which is why I was abstaining. The rest of my companions then realised that true enough, I had not touched a single bite. They egged me on to have the meal, but I was not having it. Sahid, as a foremost representative of the Berber people, seemed to take it very personally, as if I was rejecting the whole Berber nation, but I did no such thing. There existed a very real danger, I was not about to drug myself out of a mistaken sense of peer pressure.

We tried our best to forget the whole affair in the passing minutes, and we turned our conversation elsewhere. Yet, as all had been said and done, Mohammed, our French Moroccan companion, started coughing violently. So much so that he had to leave the tent for a minute or so to get some fresh air; as the smells of an old tent fumigated with farts, human body odour and vegetable tagine was suddenly not good enough for his Majesty.

Originally, we had suspected that he had swallowed a piece of bread the wrong way. So I lightheartedly joked “See? And you called me paranoid! It’s happening already” A minute, maybe two later though, he came back all sweaty and seeming mildly broken. At which point he said that he felt unwell. We asked him to describe his symptoms, but he seemed stable enough, so we couldn’t do much else but wait and see.

And wait and see we did, just as a couple of minutes later another of my friends started saying he felt ill as well and needed to rest. Shortly thereafter, one by one they all started taking ill with much the same symptoms. I assumed this was a joke, they were clearly taking the piss. But when or how did they have time to orchestrate this? I’d been with them the whole time so it seemed unreasonable that they could have organized something of the sort without a concerted effort. I was forced to take it at face value though when Killian took ill as well and seemed incapacitated. Everyone seemed to be out cold, or close to it.

It was actually happening! They had been drugged! For what purpose, I know not. But I was their last hope to make it out fine. A thousand and one ideas coursed through my mind. The two Berbers were clearly going to come into the tent at some point. Should I lay an ambush for them and attack them when their guard is dropped? If so, where and with what? Should I call for help, if so how? My phone didn’t have a sim card, everyone else’s is locked and even if that weren’t the case, I don’t know what number to call. I had to formulate a battle plan, and fast.

Just as I was about to take action and reach the peak of nervousness though, one of the people sits back up points at me and starts laughing. “HAH! Fooled you!”. All the “victims” started laughing,  and I did so myself. This was definitely a much sweeter tone than I had been anticipating. So whilst being the butt of the joke, I laughed heartily as well.

Seems that Mohammed’s choking incident had been real enough, but it quickly springboarded into something else when the others saw the potential prank. In either case, the next day the two “hosts” pretty much kicked us out at first light, and told us the direction we had to walk through the desert to get to town. Our German companion, after searching for almost an hour, and annoying everyone involved with this fiasco, managed to find his shoes underneath a rug just as I was lending him a spare pair I had. Seems that he was just careless and the Berbers hadn’t stolen their shoes as we had suspected whilst he was on his fruitless search.

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Thus, all donning our best pair of shoes, we all made our way to M’hamid once more. Then, we had a tea to relax from the whole affair, say our goodbyes as our paths took us in different directions, and eventually parted ways to have yet other adventures elsewhere in future. I’m unsure whether there is a moral to this story, but if there is one it is that one should never forget that there are two Moroccos – a good one and a bad one – and one should be careful as it’s possible to take a wrong turn somewhere and end in the wrong one. Other than that, and in hindsight seeming mildly moronic to have to point this out, but don’t go into the desert with strange men and expect good things to happen.

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