The auto route between about Casablanca on one end and Marrakesh on the other reminds Donn and I of that long stretch of I-5 in California, where the last of the Cascades have petered out and run into the flat earth, and the world and sky are all tawny gold and too bright and hot. The main difference that I could see was that in California, one rarely sees a shepherd taking a herd of sheep across an overpass, or watches a man in a faded djellaba ride a donkey and lead two cows across another one. But really, what a logical use of overpasses.

We did eventually make it to Ouarzazate. It’s an absolutely charming town, a mix of ancient castles and modern hotels and apartment buildings, all caked in that same red clay. Our hotel, Hotel Fint, had a turquoise swimming pool surrounded by wicker chairs and loungers tucked into cozy nooks created in a garden-like setting.

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The lounge had free wi-fi and was very inviting.

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That first night, we went to wander the streets in search of a good restaurant. The hotel has a buffet but by 9 p.m. all the best dishes were picked over. We picked one that looked charming from the outside and wasn’t too expensive (about $8-10 per person), the Douriya. It was even more charming on the inside. We climbed three steep flights of stairs to sit out in the evening breeze on the rooftop, and watched in some bemusement as our waiters ran up and down all evening. The food was fantastic; eggplant salad, grilled tomatoes, chicken brochettes marinated in saffron and cilantro, a lamb and apricot tagine. There was so much food that we couldn’t finish it all. The owner was really friendly, brought us complementary mint tea, and kept stopping by to chat. It was the highlight of our trip.

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Ouarzazate isn’t that big. The town itself can be seen in an afternoon; you tour the studios, you traipse through the medieval casbah, you browse the artisanal section of tiny shops with aggressive merchants. We planned to relax in the morning and then see the town in the afternoon. Unfortunately, Ilsa, Donn and I succumbed to some mysterious bug. Could it have been swine flu? More likely water that we were unaccustomed to, we decided. Thanks to our years in Mauritania, we figure we can handle desert water, most of which is actually really good (the problem is usually the receptacles, old pipes, etc, that bring the water to your room). But then, why did only 3 of us get sick?

Unfortunately, most of our time in Ouarzazate was spent lying in a darkened hotel room, regretting the tea and toast we’d attempted for breakfast. It was short-lived. By evening we were feeling better. Luckily, our friends weren’t sick so Abel swam and Elliot was able to go with a couple of other teenagers (and oh how the phrase “a couple of other teenagers” still delights his soul) and tour the studios, where he saw sets for all sorts of movies he’s not allowed to watch yet, and got to climb a siege tower in Jerusalem (Kingdom of Heaven).

We wanted to stay longer, but had to get that rental car back. We were really sad as we climbed in our car and headed back over those mountains.

Ismail was waiting to greet us on our return. We were careful to emphasize that we’d drunk tap water, as we didn’t want him to quarantine us. So, when Elliot came down with it later in the week, we just didn’t mention it to Ismail. It’s really not worth it. But it turned out to just be bad luck that had us sick in Ouarzazate.

One thing emerged clearly: we need to go back. All we need is an excuse. Who wants to come visit?

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