On The Road Again, Mustapha.

Traveling alone is a joyful experience, I don’t get lonely, and I am rarely frightened. My recent Nineteen Day Camel Caravan through the Kingdom of Morocco reminded me of one slightly chilling moment in Wadi Rum, Jordan. The driver of the 4×4 desert vehicle had a pendant dangling from his rear-view mirror, the more I stared at it, the more alarmed I became. I realized it was a photo of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator who was not fond of Americans, to say the least. My guide realized I recognized the mini shrine and quietly mentioned: he gave us free oil for many years, the driver worships him. On a visit to Oman, seeing camouflage nets covering tanks near a five-star resort, quick geography bolt – oh, the Strait of Hormuz is just a mountain passage away…trivial flashes reminding me of what a tiny world we live in.

I arrived in Morocco for a Nineteen Day Camel Caravan, to explore major cities, small rural villages, and the Sahara Desert with our expert local team, it was while driving through massive linear Sahara sand dunes that the swaying pendant memory flooded my consciousness. However, this time I was with my trusted driver Mustapha. Driver is really an unsuitable description in many contexts; Mustapha was the manager of my ever-changing schedule, bodyguard, cultural ambassador, language tutor, and fanatical seeker of Champagne in a dry Muslim country, he wore at least twenty hats while shepherding me safely across the country.  

Madame should always have bread in the car! Of course, schlepping one of my camera bags!

You may recall my Tribute to Samer, my dedicated driver in Jordan. This is my homage to Mustapha. When our clients set out in cities or untamed countryside, our hand selected teams are their safety net. My complicated roaming about for nineteen days was extremely well planned, and we never experienced a glitch, due to Mustapha’s dedication and his constant connection to our trusted team based in Marrakech. I mentioned that in London, our dear Neville rarely let me out of his sight, even with GPS, I have no sense of direction. If I wandered a bit, Mustapha was like the FBI, I would peer back from an ATM or a souk path and I was never out of his sightline. Morocco has strict hotel procedures, my arrival was always announced in advance. Doormen, luggage carts, all my needs had been shared and VIP Five-Star greetings prevailed. Whisked to suite, Champers on ice!

Several of our clients have already savored Morocco with the fine detailed itineraries organized by our local team and traveled with the ever resourceful and fun Mustapha! Due to the pandemic, I hadn’t traveled for over two years, and this was a very ambitious Journey – begin big, why not?! Most may know, I am rather obsessive about the arrival and solemnly believe the mantra that a driver or guide can make or break a trip. Imagine traveling nineteen days in a car with an incompatible traveling companion?  Mustapha and I had many significant passages, a 9-hour drive day, several 5-hour drive days and if we couldn’t bear spending hours and hours together, we would be in serious trouble! In this case, I would be judging everything from a client’s point of view, a fussy Virgo traveler, business owner, and someone who hadn’t traveled in over two years. Poor Mustapha had his work cut out for him!

A seventeen-hour slog to Casablanca through Charles De Gaulle, and due to a tennis injury, I had reserved a wheelchair for my airport transfers – it turned out to be essential in Paris, such a massive confusing airport. My Casablanca VIP arrival team insisted I be delivered to the car in the wheelchair; I’m sure when Mustapha saw a wheelchair bound traveler, he assumed he would also add Nurse duties to his list of titles. Massive bags loaded, a suitcase filled with fancy winter clothes for Madrid and Paris as well as Moroccan summer clothes; I mentioned I wanted to ride in the front seat of the car for better photographs. Of course, I am here to make your trip perfect. As I re-read my initial post from the Four Seasons in Casablanca, I mentioned my charming driver Mustapha and I would depart for an epic adventure the next morning; within an hour of my arrival, he had already achieved positive reviews!

We had guides arranged in every city, dining reservations, private visits to charming gardens. Mustapha could double as a guide, he’s well-travelled, speaks five languages, and has spent hours with our clients and their guides. He has an amazing memory – he became my ‘Travel Whisperer’ to our team and to hotel staff. Many of the hotels had wine lists, some even had cocktails, a delicious reward after a nine-hour drive day. One evening at the lovely Relais & Chateaux property, Villa Des Orangers, I was sitting in an intimate salon with roaring fire, oud musician in the garden, my private story tellers arrived, followed by a waiter with the perfect Rye Manhattan on a silver tray! I almost burst into tears, it was day fourteen, and I was a bit weary, it was exactly what I desired, he advised staff of my favorite cocktail. Our clients expect these little miracles, I was wowed by the gesture and his memory!

My Nineteen Day Camel Caravan was the perfect blend of history, culture, touring in major cities and through date studded deserts. If you think of the assets we can attribute to travel, trust and resilience come to mind. Traveling alone, my drivers and guides become my local ambassadors and ultimately trustworthy friends. I remain friends with my glorious guide in Bhutan, our renowned guide in Rwanda. These accidental characters become an intrinsic piece of our travel lives. What a gift to treasure, a Journey for the wonders, the layers of personal experiences and ultimately a friend who added wisdom and depth to my travel.

Day Two and already kindly schlepping my camera gear.

A few specific experiences. My goals were established for the Journey – this is my work, with pleasure of course, but I had specific photo locations I wanted to visit, Mustapha knew the lists – if a guide got me off track, he was the policeman. At some point we established several code phrases. If I said Mustapha: I am craving Scrambled Eggs, he knew guide was off track – doing a great job, but not on my track, he either dismissed the guide or nudged the guide back to my plan. It was a gentle method of keeping me happy and a kind way of dismissing a guide if I was exhausted! We also had a ‘ratings system’ for fabulous sight-seeing a Ten Camel Day was the initial high bar. Eventually, we bumped to a Twenty Camel Day and a Hundred Camel Day.

I love meeting locals, when we discussed this, I told Mustapha do you think a family in Madrid or Paris will invite me in for tea? Never! Moroccans are warm, gentle, and generous people, if you say yes to tea, and you should never say no, be prepared for an elaborate tea ceremony with vessels and platters of homemade breads, nuts, and dates! He mentioned his family lived near Marrakech on a farm, would I want to stop? Emphatic yes! There is an in depth post on my visit but his dear mum and darling auntie warmly welcomed me – without a common language. Auntie had never seen a tourist except on TV and within five minutes she laid claim to me – she was keeping me, even though Mustapha told her I needed coffee served in bed every morning, and I didn’t clean or cook, she was unwavering, The Tourist was hers. We giggled for over an hour with no common language, we communicated our affection for each other. It was a Twenty Camel Day, with deep levels of culture, this is what I love most about my travel. Seeing Morocco through the lens of a well-informed interesting native Berber, Mustapha provided layers of inspiring local culture to my Journey.

Always perfectly polished, dress shoes in the muddy Rohuna Garden.

All along the drives through the countryside, near the dramatic gorges of the Dades Valley and Ziz Valley teeming with towering date palms as far as you can see, we saw numerous goat and lamb herders, I am insanely attracted to baby goats and lambs, shouting for one every time we saw a flock! Of course, we didn’t stop, he would slow for photos, but they aren’t pets. As we made our way to Essaouria, along the side of the road were the iconic Argan trees with goats climbing in the tree branches – a truly fanciful Dali-esque sight. Mustapha quickly stopped and said run! The owner, his young son and daughter were under the tree, the tree literally filled with goats. It was kismet, the little girl recognized the lustful look on my face, walked over and plopped a darling baby goat into my arms! Heaven! Another Twenty Camel Day goal achieved!

Finally, my own little goat!

Travel offers so much more than photographic images, one should become immersed in a culture’s history, language, customs, and delicious cuisine. As you explore cultural distinctions, you may discover that we’re all not so different after all. I was humbled by an invitation to the village home of one of the staff members of Dar Ahlam, he and his wife lived nearby, a grand table of tea and nibbles awaited me. Mustapha’s family more than welcomed me, they embraced me and despite no common language, we communicated.

Mustapha was an excellent navigator, an easy to be with travel friend, searcher for bubbly, I can add fifteen more titles to the list. He is truly an excellent listener, and he sincerely wants clients to enjoy their experiences, he is a dedicated people pleaser. Besides always having yet another packet of tissue for a bathroom, always having a coin for the bathroom, always knowing what I should tip here or there, with nary a complaint when said questions were repeated numerous times a day. Without asking, always schlepping my camera bag, my pashmina, never mentioning that I kind of engulfed the front seats with my essential bags. I relied on him completely and experienced a little self-doubt on my travel capabilities when the days were winding down and I would need to function on my own in Europe. He made it very easy to be a tourist; I was not my usual manage everything, be in total control traveler.

When I met our team at La Mamounia for cocktails, they told me if they could clone him there would be dozens of Mustapha’s in their basket, he is the absolute finest Client Ombudsman, our clients are in the very best hands in Morocco!

I survived Nineteen Days of Camel Caravan and I would do it again in a heartbeat!

Shukran, Tanmert, Mustapha!

“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.” Anthony Bourdain