Every trip has its highlights. Sometimes the highlight is exactly what was expected. Sometimes it’s the unexpected —even the dreaded —that produces the most delight. So it was with our first experience of a personal guide.
Normally, we would avoid having a guide like the plague. We prefer to set our own pace and discover our own adventures. We’re also uncomfortable with the inequity that’s implied by having a guide. A guide is a personal servant. He (because it’s never a she) exists for your pleasure and does your command.
I’m not speaking off the top of my head here. Julian essentially works as a guide during the ski season. His official role is to provide private ski lessons. But in practice he’s called upon to recommend restaurants and ski shops, to show clients the best places to ski, to pick them up when they fall on the hill, and to wait around while they finish the lunch to which he isn’t invited. He often is treated as a personal ski concierge.
Julian is deeply ambivalent about this role. Every year in October the mountain sends him an email asking whether he will be returning, and every year we have the same conversation. On the positive side, he gets a free ski pass and $17 an hour in exchange for 17 days of work during the height of the season. On the negative side, the kind of person who is willing to pay $700 a day for a private ski lesson can be more than a little entitled. Julian is happy to teach people to ski because he loves the sport. He’s not so happy doing all the other dog’s body stuff that goes with the territory.
So, imagine our ambivalence when we realize that a trip to Morocco isn’t feasible without a guide. The tour company we travelled with, Inn Travel, recommends guides for two countries: Nepal and Morocco. The reason for having a guide in Nepal is obvious: tourists could get seriously lost and/or hurt wandering around the mountains of Nepal without someone to show them the way. The reason for having a guide in Morocco is only somewhat less obvious. Locals hassle tourists here, so it’s best to have one running interference.
Our first guide experience, in Marrakech, was brief and unpleasant. So it was with some trepidation that we met Abdul, our driver and guide on a 3-day trip to the Sahara Desert. The drive from Marrakech to Erg Lihoudi takes eight hours, so it’s not feasible to do it in one day. Abdul was to stay overnight with us at the desert camp then at a hotel on Day 2 before returning us to Marrakech on Day 3.
Our dromedaries await at Erg Lihoudi
Initially, the experience was way too Driving-Miss-Daisy for me. We sat in the back seat of Abdul’s luxurious SUV. He called Julian “Sir” and me “Madame” (the French influence in Morocco remains strong). Whenever I thanked him for handing me in and out of the back seat — also uncomfortable for me — he replied, “You’re very welcome, Madame.” He took his meals separately. At the hotel he disappeared up the back stairs and didn’t reappear until we were due to leave, just like the servants in the old English country houses.
I’m not accustomed to having a servant. Even the couple who clean my house call me by my first name and tell me about their crazy families.
Then I innocently asked Abdul if he minded being away from home so much. He confessed that he can only stand to be in Marrakech for three days at a time. He and Julian bonded over their shared dislike of cities and love of mountains. From there the relationship grew rapidly. I think the turning point might have been when we caught him wearing native dress and a pair of goat hair slippers during his private time. Julian loved the slippers.
Abdul showed us pictures of his wife and kids and confessed that his younger son is a bit of handful. He showed us the house in the village where he grew up. He advised us not to drink the orange juice because people tend not to refrigerate it after squeezing. By the last day, we took coffee together and he insisted on taking dozens of pictures of us when he showed us around Ait Ben Haddou, a kasbah or fortified town that is UNESCO-listed. Julian got him to pose for a silly photograph in front of the gates used in filming Game of Thrones. We even were privy to a heated phone call with his wife — in Arabic of course, but the tone made the content clear — when we were hours late getting back to Marrakech.
A rare photo of both of us at Ait Ben Haddou
When Abdul left us at our hotel, he hugged me and told me he’d miss me. As he hugged Julian, he called him “my brother of another mother.”
Abdul taught Julian a lot about being a guide. Julian says he’ll be more patient with people next ski season, especially with their endless questions and lack of understanding of the local culture and context.
Abdul taught me that common ground can be found in the most unlikely places. And that sometimes the aspects of travel that you dread the most turn out to be the most rewarding.
Abdul works for Morocco Explored, and gets rave reviews on TripAdvisor.