erfoud—Erfoud is a dull little Moroccan town on the way to somewhere more interesting. It’s a place where diesel fuel hangs at nose level in front of cluttered tourist shops, where going for coffee constitutes a full-day activity, and where the hotel manager couldn’t understand why I would want to stay an extra night.
The dusty main drag comes to an end at the gare routière, a chaotic transport hub that is the end of the line for Moroccan buses. From there, the landscape quickly turns to desert and the smooth road degrades into a web of confusing, unmarked dirt tracks. These tracks used to be Erfoud’s livelihood. They lead to Erg Chebbi, a rogue range of orange dunes twenty-five kilometres from the Algerian border that looks exactly like the Sahara of Western imagination. Getting there used to be dangerous without a guide. Then, in 2002, a paved road linking the nearby town of Rissani and the dunes was completed, instantly rendering most of Erfoud’s hundred-odd faux guides jobless.
Which, many travellers will tell you, is cause for celebration. Vitriolic stories about faux guides—unsanctioned guides who bring tourists to hotels, shops, and restaurants in exchange for commission—fill Internet bulletin boards from .ad to .zw. This offering, from a traveller named Colin at single-serving.com , is typical: “who the hell would want to go into the desert with some strange guy with that car salesman smirk on their face [sic].”
Though guides who work without government sanction are far from exclusive to Morocco, they have become synonymous with this country. If caught by the tourist brigade, faux guides face heavy fines and imprisonment, but many risk it because of the extensive schooling required to become an official guide. Indeed, there is only one such guide in Erfoud.
A handful of faux guides still make a living in the region, but only because they have no choice. Mohamed Ourgaga, twenty-six, has been guiding since he was sixteen; he earns a living off those few uninformed tourists who stray off the concrete path and into Erfoud. Statuesque and handsome despite his severely crossed eyes, he brims with confidence, working the street like a politician on the campaign trail, saluting every moped, Land Cruiser, and pedestrian.
“There’s nothing to do here but guide,” he told me. “People have to follow tourists in order to support their families.”
Not all faux guides in the region are as fortunate as Ourgaga. A few days earlier, on the bus ride to Figuig, a town about 400 kilometres east of Erfoud, I’d met Mustafa, a guide who was returning home because a promising contraband-smuggling scheme had fallen apart. He insisted I join his family for lunch, so we sat on the floor of his dirt-walled house and shared a tiny tajine (Moroccan stew). His wife and son barely touched the meal, insisting that I eat the single piece of chicken set out on the crate that substituted for a table. Mustafa smoked copious amounts of hash before, during, and after lunch—the likely cause of the holes in the long underwear on the clothesline and the total absence of furniture in their home. When we finished, he led me across the medina to visit his eighty-year-old mother. She sat motionless on a stained mattress in a courtyard as flies buzzed on and around her and his three sisters sponged her with cheap perfume for lack of water and soap.
Once in Erfoud, I was led to Bachir Boudine’s carpet shop by an enthusiastic faux guide named Adriss. Boudine harbours sympathy for the guides but lives comfortably, a world apart. At the entrance to his palatial, colourfully decorated home (his family also owns a fossil-manufacturing operation), his wife, daughter, and two sons greeted me with four kisses each. Boudine asked me which of the three living rooms I would prefer to eat in, then made the decision for me, directing his wife to place bowls stuffed with oranges, bananas, Belgian chocolate, and cashews in a room that featured a thirty-six-inch flat-screen TV tuned to Al Jazeera. After half a chicken each, freshly chopped tomato salad, and split pomegranates for dessert, we retired to the wall-to-wall sofa to sip sweet mint tea.
I asked him about tourists’ reactions to faux guides, pointing out that it can be difficult to deal with them when you’re tired and hungry. “You haven’t eaten in hours? Some guides haven’t eaten for days,” he replied gruffly. “They aren’t terrorists you know; they don’t kill people.”
At the café later that day, Mohamed pointed out that it’s sometimes Western tourists who behave uncivilly. Shaking his head, he told me a story about a carpet that went missing outside a French couple’s hotel room the previous month. The couple denied having taken it, so the owners dispatched a child to spy on the pair as they left. When he saw a suspicious bulge poking out of one of their packs, the owners confronted them, and they relinquished the carpet. They’d thought it would make a nice souvenir.