In dizzyingly exotic Morocco, I'll scurry past snake charmers and lurching cobras, hang onto a bouncy camel for dear life and haggle for bargains in mysterious carpet-swathed ancient medinas. And now, in the serene far-flung mountains, I'm stooped inside a limestone cave watching a crouching 75-year-old Berber nomad named Ahmed hospitably brew mint tea for me while his baa-ing sheep graze nearby.
The father of five is cloaked in a traditional beige djellaba robe and tagelmust turban wrapped on his head and under his chin's graying beard.
Although he speaks no English, he welcomes a dozen of us who are on a rugged half-day hike in the spectacular sheer-sided Todra Gorge when we stumble into his rocky makeshift camp.
"American. Barack Obama," my Berber translator-guide soon tells him, pointing to me.
"Ahh," the septuagenarian's crinkly eyes light up. He nods at his three-year-old son - yes, son - who is also named Barack. (Ahmed's wife is younger, plus "nomads are very strong," my guide later explains.)
This memorable encounter - and many more - occurs on my captivating 15-day, 1,900-kilometer road trip crisscrossing the North African country in a tour van with adventure company Exodus Travels.
We journey past crumbling fairy-tale fortresses on the palm-tree-garnished "Route of a Thousand Kasbahs," explore Unesco World Heritage sites and with our guide Mohamed are immersed in the colorful Berber culture at every stop.
So far, I've swallowed an ocean full of "Berber whiskey," the sweet mint tea that is ceremoniously poured into little clear glasses from a height to show respect to guests. For added atmosphere, we sleep in centuries-old mosaic-festooned homes (riads), a quirky casbah-motif hotel and a Berber desert tent camp set deep in titanic sand drifts near Algeria.
"Balak! Balak!" shout donkey cart drivers, meaning "Move aside!" which I do, although I'm distracted by two furry severed camel heads dangling from the camel meat shop in Fez's narrow, hustle-bustle Unesco-lauded medina.
The ninth century-founded old town is a mesmerizing maze of 9,400 skinny lanes, alleys and dead ends jammed with merchandise-packed souks (spices, olives, rugs, brocade sequined gowns for Moroccan brides), and intricate zellij-tiled mosques, cedar-carved Islamic academies and iron-doored residences.
Our local guide, Aziz, warns us to follow him; he says - jokingly, I think - that female tourists who get lost end up in harems. It's living history on sensory steroids - caftan-wearing craftsmen loudly pound copper and brass into teapots, pans and lanterns; weavers spin silk from agave cactus into rainbow-bright bedspreads and scarves, and gag-smelly tanneries produce leather goods from animal hides dipped into vats of dye.
Forty-eight hours after frenetic Fez, we're in the expansive peaceful desert on a crisp February day. I've ridden a camel before, but the one I teeter upon this time is surely the world's tallest dromedary, his every step sinking into bottomless sand on the rolling Erg Chebbi dunes. The landscape is storybook beautiful - just turquoise skies and infinite honey-hued sand that can reach 150 meters high, the same fabled desert that ancient camel caravans traversed carrying salts, gold and spices to Timbuktu.
A bumpy 90 minutes later, we arrive at our simple tent camp. Mohamed leads us up a gigantic dune from atop the powdery peak, we're transfixed as the setting sun radiates fiery orange and pink glows over wavy wind-sculpted dunes that go on forever. The next morning, I'm awakened by bellowing camels outside my tent. On the ride back, my one-hump ungulate feels steadier, but then I'm entranced by the dazzling egg yolk-yellow sunrise.
What I like about Exodus is the company's charitable involvement with visited communities.
One afternoon, after kilometers of clifftop hairpin turns, we arrive at a dirt path for a 90-minute walk - mules take our luggage - to the remote rural village of Tighza 1,900 meters up in the snowcapped High Atlas Mountains.
Here, some older Berber women have tribal chin tattoos of dark, straight lines and gather hefty bushels of alfalfa and barley from fields. Also, this is where Exodus in 2012 funded and built a hammam, a public bath that is an important place for local women to socialize. Tighza's hammam also generates income for villagers since Exodus pays for its own clients, who each add in another 40 dirham (HK$85).
The following day, I'm basically in the buff lying face-up on a heated tile floor. Each of us has an assigned woman villager - all modestly dressed and wearing traditional headscarves - who scrubs our body with an exfoliating mitt and black-olive-oil soap. Wood-heated warm water is ladled from large plastic buckets and repeatedly doused over me. This hammam is a wonderful authentic experience, and an hour later when it's over, I'm rubber-kneed relaxed.
Throughout our adventure, hours on the road are never dull. We stop to amble through the dramatic Roman ruins of one-time capital Volubilis; peer at climbing goats who perch on high branches of argan trees to eat fruit, and wander through a Berber open-air market selling dehydrated chameleon lizards for magical cures. In the verdant Valley of the Roses, we buy floral toiletries at a women-run distillery before I devour another lunch of cumin-spiced vegetable tagine delivered in a nifty simmering cone-shaped pot.
We also explore Ait Ben Haddou, a stunning medieval fortified city (ksar) of clay dwellings once on a crucial trade route. Gladiator, Game of Thrones, Lawrence of Arabia and other Hollywood fare have filmed within its invader-deterring earthen walls.
Then, surf's up. We bunk two nights in Essaouira, a historic port town and wind-surfing hotspot on the Atlantic Ocean. The Unesco-listed medina charms with its whitewashed buildings, royal-blue shutters and European touch. In front of an imposing 18th century turreted citadel, squawking sea gulls swoop down to pick up scraps. "Animals are peace and love," says vendor Abdul, as he feeds sardine leftovers to meowing cats Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley. The human legends visited this onetime hippie haven in the '60s.
Our journey ends in wildly vibrant Marrakech, where I'm fending off henna tattoo artists and navigating through leaping drum-thumping dancers when I almost step on three cobras coiled on the pavement waiting for their star turn in the Unesco square. I love this chaotic massive medina, teeming with locals in ankle-length djellabas and crammed with souks overflowing with Moroccan pottery, artisan lanterns, embellished babouche slippers, round loaves of khobz bread, and even teeth-cleaning "Berber toothpicks" made from dried fennel flowers.
To combat the bad-karma "evil eye," jewelry and door knockers are fashioned into the Hand of Fatima, named after prophet Muhammad's daughter.
The San Diego Union-tribune (TNS)