It’s not that a Florida vacation or a lakeside mountain retreat is bad, but other locations have always interested me more. Lawyers in my neck of the woods flock north to Dohr County, Wisc., or head southward toward Destin Beach or further south to Naples or Miami. That’s just never been my style.
After taking the bar, before starting work, I convinced my new law firm to let me take a few months to head south as well. I ended up in La Paz, Bolivia. It’s not that catching a play on Broadway, or gawking at the freaks lifting weights at Muscle Beach in Venice, Calif., don’t hold an allure for me, it’s just that exposure to dramatically different ways of life seems more compelling.
A lot of things have changed since my early days as a lawyer; my vacation proclivities just don’t happen to be one of them. So, this past Christmas Day, I started a trip that would lead me to Morocco, and eventually to the Blue People of the Sahara.
Visiting the Fez Medina is like entering a time machine and emerging in the middle ages. Streets and buildings constructed in the 10th and 11th centuries still stand. The traffic on the stone streets consists of mostly mule-drawn carts. Tanneries in the medina are a series of pits about five feet square and five feet deep. Workers stand in dye pits, of assorted colors, fusing the natural dyes into the hides with their feet and hands. The curing is done in a vat of pigeon poop. OSHA, minimum wage and workman’s compensation considerations appear absent. The stench is so harsh that visitors are offered mint leaves to use as makeshift masks, breathing through them to filter the smell. I declined the mint mask. For some reason, the smell didn’t bother me; it just seemed like part of being back in 960 A.D.
This was my third sojourn to Morocco. When I first visited, I’d just graduated from college. The Crosby, Stills and Nash tune about the now fabled train to Marrakesh had just hit the charts. I only saw two other western tourists the whole time I was in Marrakesh. In the square during the day, mongooses fought cobras, while artisans carved and painted hash pipes from 12-inch sections of tree branches. At night, the center of the square filled with makeshift restaurants, as locals cooked couscous and kabobs, while customers huddled around the pots and crackling skewers. The lighted smoke of the fires danced over the square, music played and shadowy men in jalabas glided through the night whispering, “hash cookies.” I got pretty sick the first time I visited Marrakesh, but I’m not inclined to trade the experience for a visit to Boston.
The square in Marrakesh has changed some. Today, it’s overrun with tourists, and the snake charmers now work in teams. One of them is always on the lookout for anybody taking a picture of the snakes, so as to demand payment. Locals still set up their nightly mobile restaurants, but they are larger and actually have printed French and English menus. Permanent restaurants are located all around the square now, and some streets have neon lights and western goods. Many locals still wear the robed jalabas over other clothes, but others have adopted western garb.
Traveling to Morocco, as a lawyer, I had more money than when I was 22, so the accommodations were better. This time I had my wife Cheryl, and stepsons, Andrew and Patrick. It was interesting seeing the somewhat different reactions of the boys. Andrew, the 22-year old, who has bounced in and out of school and runs a restaurant himself, was adventurous, loved the Moroccan food, and was quite anxious to enjoy all of the Moroccan customs. Patrick, our second year law student – now engaged – proceeded more carefully, and at one point claimed to be near tears of joy upon seeing a sign for Pizza Hut.
This being my sixth trip to the African continent, I arranged the itinerary myself. Cheryl, however, booked one tour – of sorts. It was a camel trek in the Sahara, with the Blue Men – a sect of Touareg-Berber nomads known for their blue robes, and head and face wraps whose Mediterranean sea urchin dye occasionally leaves their faces blue. She booked a three-day tour with Omar that would take us into the Sahara to sleep at the Touareg camp. We rode a four-wheel drive vehicle into the desert, located our Bedouin camel camp, Omar dropped us off, and we mounted the cloven-hoofed dromedaries. For the few of you that have not ridden camels, they are high off the ground. After a few hours on a camel, one realizes that one’s camel riding muscles have not been used for a while and starts to wonder if walking on hot sand would be less painful. Nevertheless, watching the sun set over the Sahara from the top of a camel is even more exhilarating than winning a motion for a more definite statement.
As we rode our camels into the desert sunset, it got cold. Dark closed in with no campsite in view, and Cheryl started worrying that she’d signed us up with Omar the Terrorist, rather than Omar the Tour Guide. She began envisioning a Bedouin trap. I didn’t share her fears, as the two Blue Men leading us through the Sahara were really Blue Boys, only about 17 years old. I figured between myself, my 24- and 22-year old very athletic stepsons and Cheryl – who’s tougher than any of us – they didn’t stand a chance. Besides, I’d brought my Swiss army knife, and I’ve seen the movie “Lawrence of Arabia” on a number of occasions, so I know how fast camels can run.
The trip took us a few kilometers away from the Algerian border, and as the stars came out in a display not viewable from most places on this earth, the Bedouin camp appeared. I assured Cheryl it was not a mirage. A few more Blue Men boys had led their respective tourists into the camp from different directions, and the half dozen or so young men cooked us a fine meal of Moroccan soup, lamb tagines, cinnamon oranges and mint tea. The Blue Men started a fire, heated their drums by it, and then started to play. Eventually, we were led to our individual tents.
The mattresses, inside the tents, were placed on carpets on top of the sand. They were so expertly done that no sand was in the beds, and the thick Berber blankets were fine protection against the 23-degrees night. The following morning, the young Touareg Berbers woke us to see the sun rise over the Sahara, and Patrick and Andrew went about sand surfing on the dunes. For a mere $10 extra, our camels had been equipped with surfboards.
Upon returning home, I learned about the taking of hostages in the Algerian Sahara – not far away from our camp. Needless to say, some of my fellow lawyers think I take unnecessary risks on my vacations. I understand their perspective. However, I can honestly say that in all of my travels through the less developed world, I’ve never met anyone that caused me more trepidation and fear than the federal district court judges that were on the bench when I first started practicing law.
© 2013 Under Analysis, LLC. Under Analysis is a nationally syndicated column of the Levison Group. Mark Levison is a member of the law firm of Lashly & Baer. Contact Under Analysis by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.