Lindsey and I really, really enjoyed our trip to the Sahara desert, organised through Exodus via Responsible Travel. Morocco is only three hours away by plane from London, and when you get there, you immediately realise from the sights, smells and sounds that it is a very exotic location. Then, it only takes a few hours driving over the Anti-Atlas before you’re into the desert proper.
Lindsey and I haven’t been on an organised group trip for a long time. Not since going from Nairobi to Lake Turkana in the mid-eighties, on our way back home after a two-year contract in Malawi. I was going to write about the group strategies of that trip, but I realise that I’ve already done so in this post. No-one fell out on that trip, even with the couple from Sussex who pinched the best seats every day bar one. It was only a six-day trek. Perhaps if it had been longer it would have turned out like Robert Twigger said, in his book Lost Oasis: Adventures In and Out of the Egyptian Desert. He wrote:
“There would be plenty of time to get to know the others. I had already taken against several of them, as I always do in such situations, usually for utterly trivial and imaginary reasons which sometimes harden into real enmity only to crack and soften, sometimes too late in the day when you realize that they could have been your friend all along.”
For a long time I was kind of put off going on Exodus/Explore-type trips, after having seen occasional truck loads of tourists from those and similar companies passing down the main road at Zomba on overland Cairo to Cape Town tours, and thinking – how much detail about the places they are visiting are those folk really able to grasp? But after the Morocco trip I’ve changed my mind. They can be great fun.
There were only three others on our Sahara Desert and Marrakesh trip. If I was Paul Theroux, I could overemphasize their character traits and exaggerate the situations, and it might make for better reading, but I won’t. Theroux once did exactly that, with interesting results. In his Great Railway Bazaar book, he described in very uncomplimentary terms the cavortings of a young Australian couple during a train ride through India. Twenty-odd years later, Theroux was at a book fair in Melbourne, and was approached by a woman. She had been the girl described in the book, and she obviously knew who he was, but he didn’t recognise her. She wrote an account of their meeting which was published in a magazine, and he also wrote up the experience for one of his collected stories books. Depending on which account you believe, Theroux either came on to the girl, or was a perfect gentleman with someone who appeared to be a fan of his writing. They did, according to both accounts, end up in his room, where the girl finally revealed who she was.
Our recent trip party included S, a lovely girl with a brilliant smile, from London. She’d been trying to arrange a holiday with her boyfriend, but they’d been unable to co-ordinate their vacation leave, and she’d eventually said, “Sod it. I’ll just go by myself.” which was very plucky of her. There was also J, an American. I would not say that J was a typical, loud American, but he did talk a lot, and rapidly articulated various facts and points of view. I sometimes found myself unable to keep up with his discussions, so quickly did they develop from one thing to another. He was a techie whizz, and kindly showed me how to get the best out of Google Maps. Then there was G, the exact opposite of J, and a man of few words. G knew what he liked and what he didn’t like, and that’s fair enough. Then there was myself, and I know that I’m not always the easiest person to get on with, and Lindsey, who is a thoroughly decent sort. According to Condé Nast Traveller there are ten recognisable types of traveller. I’m sure that each of us fitted one or other of them.
When you go on an Exodus trip as a solo and don’t pay the single supplement, you can end up sharing with another solo. As a result, J and G shared a room, and it amused Lindsey and I to think of J talking ten-to-the-dozen in their room in the evenings, and G saying very little.
In any group there’s usually one person for whom things don’t always go well, and in our case it was G. First of all, the top of his CamelBak rucksack hands-free hydration system broke, then the water pressure in two of the rooms he stayed in was poor to non-existent, he inadvertently got locked in his room in the tented Bedouin camp (we were woken at sunrise by shouts of “Let Me Out”, bang, bang, bang), at the gîte he lost his head-torch, and whilst the rest of us enjoyed a nice meal in a restaurant in Marrakesh, his choice of omelette that evening turned out to be the most miserable, miserly apology for food any of us had seen before. I think that the omelette was the low point of his whole trip.
All groups have different dynamics, which can take a little time to evolve. When Lindsey and I went to Grenada with the Tall Thin One, he seemed quite agitated for the first couple of days, and I couldn’t figure out why. The Tall Thin One, although thin, eats an immense amount of food, and his disquiet seemed to have something to do with meal times. On the third day I suddenly realised what was troubling him – he needed to have his meal times and location of meals planned out in advance for the rest of the day. For the remainder of the trip we did this over breakfast each day – decided where, and at what time, we’d have lunch and dinner. This worked wonders, and he immediately relaxed.
What became quickly obvious in Morocco was how popular Exodus/Explore trips are. J and G, between them, had been on quite a number. “Been on any other Exodus trips?” was an icebreaker question that resulted in lengthy answers, with discussions and information about all sorts of countries. The repeat customer experiences show that many people enjoy such holidays.
On our Morocco trip there were no arguments or rows – if you’re reading this and expecting tales of fistycuffs, then I’m sorry to disappoint you. I did, however, disagree with J about paying for taxis. His attitude was that a taxi ride which would cost upwards of $20 in New York was available in Marrakesh without haggling for $6. My attitude was that locals would actually be quoted and pay $2 dollars for the same ride, and I was not prepared to be ripped off and pay the first quoted price. So J would head off in his $6 taxi ride (we couldn’t all get the same taxi, as they are nearly all limited by law to three passengers), and the rest of us would haggle for a while and eventually pay $3 for the same distance. J reckoned, quite reasonably, that time is money and his time wasn’t worth haggling for ten minutes over a buck or two. I reckoned, as I explained to the others on our last evening together, and as I know from past experience in Malawi and Botswana, that there are plenty westerners working in Africa on local wages. They are not rich. During our time in Malawi, Lindsey and I worked for much, much less than we would have earned in the UK, and money was tight. Relatively rich tourists on short holidays who almost throw their money about can make it quite difficult for other westerners, as local people will expect the same largesse from all foreigners.
What was obvious on our recent trip was that none of us was a natural leader. As a result, there was quite a bit of dithering. For example, when our guide would turn to us an enquire whether we wanted lunch now, or could we wait an hour until we got further up the road where there was an alternative restaurant, two of the group would say, “Now would be fine” at exactly the same time as another two would say, “Later would be fine”. Then, the four of us would turn to G, and ask him what he wanted, and G would answer, “I’m not fussed. Whatever you want.” The two who had previously elected for immediate lunch would then change their minds and say, “I’m happy to wait” at exactly the same time as the other two said, “OK, now’s fine”.
As a result of none of us being a natural leader, when I suggested during the final meal that someone should make a formal speech of thanks to our excellent local guide who’d been with us for a week, and who had patiently answered all of our questions and smiled at the group ditherings, I suddenly realised that, as the oldest person there I’d have to do it. It’s always the oldest person, in such circumstances.
Final group dynamics involved the usual personal insecurities – the need for toilet stops (sometimes becoming quite urgent as one of the party drank two bottles of coke at many meals) – and anxieties about how cold it was going to be at night in the desert and in the High Atlas (it turned out to be very cold).