Photo: Inu/Shutterstock

My Car Broke Down in the Sahara, and It Taught Me About Trust

Morocco Road Trips Narrative Culture
by Nicholas Mancall-Bitel Jan 22, 2019

It’s about 250 kilometers from Merzouga, a popular tourist destination in the Sahara Desert on the Moroccan side of the Algerian border, to Boumalne Dades, a town in the middle of Morocco with a lovely little hotel. The drive takes about four hours.

Somewhere around hour one — 188 kilometers away from the hotel where we had a reservation, 400 kilometers from the nearest major city, and an unknown distance from the nearest English speaker — our car started to break down. On a bleak stretch of Moroccan desert road, my girlfriend and I suddenly felt very alone.

We received the first warning about 30 minutes after I accidentally drove into the middle of a market in Rissani, where the locals stared in disbelief as a stupid American tried to extricate a flashy new Peugeot from the produce stalls and crowds of camels. We naturally wondered if the small orange light on the dashboard indicated we’d accidentally kicked up something into the underside of the car during this escapade in the market. Or maybe it was a check engine light. Or maybe the windshield wiper fluid was low (admittedly unlikely in the desert). Or maybe it was nothing because the light disappeared a few minutes later — only to be replaced by another warning light, this time accompanied by a loud beeping alarm. New lights followed. Events sort of spiralled down from there.

I should have known the car was defective. Every tourist forum on Morocco suggested driving a manual, both because there were so few automatics in the country and because those automatics tended to be lemons, even when relatively new like ours. I should have known to run the car occasionally during our three-day stay in Merzouga, where the temperature easily drops below freezing each night. I should have known to brush up on my pitiful French before heading to a French and Arabic-speaking country or renting a French car, at least enough to read the driver’s manual. But the lesson that has stuck with me from this little incident, the one thing I couldn’t have known going in, is how utter vulnerability would transform the way I think about traveling abroad.

Smartphones, portable chargers, and nearly omnipresent Wi-Fi now make it possible to remain connected in some of the most remote regions on Earth. Translation apps bridge language barriers. Travel guides from websites like Matador, TripAdvisor reviews, and social media allow travelers to extensively plan any trip off the grid. Even when the signal does go out, Google Maps can track a phone’s location offline, making it possible to navigate without ever touching a paper map.

All of these technological innovations make countless travelers more safe, an undeniably positive evolution. But they have also taken away any sense of risk or vulnerability that can foster intercultural connections between visitors and locals.

Renting a car is one of the last vestiges of this vulnerability. There is no bus driver or train conductor to help get you to your destination should something go awry. While driving in the wilderness in many countries, you’re unlikely to encounter another English speaker. So when your car sends you multiple confusing alarms before ultimately shutting off completely, you have no choice but to rely on locals who can’t understand you and have little motivation to help you.

In our case, those locals happened to be the residents of a small Moroccan town that doesn’t appear on Google Maps at all. Before we reached town, the car alarm had screamed at us for kilometers. Every warning symbol on the dash had lit up, gone off, and lit up again. We had pulled over several times with no hope of discerning the cause. So perhaps it was a blessing that when the car finally decided to shut off altogether, it rolled to a stop right outside a small cafe.

It was mid-afternoon. Soccer played on the TV to an empty room. A man eventually emerged from a back room to see what we wanted, why we’d parked directly in front of his shop. It took about a minute to communicate that our car had broken down, but another 10 minutes for the man to try the ignition several times himself. Another local wandered in and decided to give it a go. When they both agreed the car wasn’t moving, the cafe owner called in a local mechanic.

Meanwhile we frantically attempted to contact the rental agency, not a major international chain but a local Moroccan business, with the cafe owner’s phone (an old school Nokia). When we did finally get in touch, the first thing the rental agency told us was not to let anyone touch the car. I looked over to see the mechanic elbow deep in the engine, pulling parts out left and right. By this point half the town had gathered to watch the scene unfold. The mechanic’s assistant had joined him, and a quorum of random strangers had assembled to give their input on the job too. Others wandered in and out to watch the soccer match. Pretty much all agreed, and told us in French and Arabic, that we should not have rented an automatic car. Everyone knows they’re trash.

Several hours and a lot of stress later, we learned through broken French and gesticulation that the car would run if we replaced a few parts and poured water into the radiator every 100 kilometers. The cafe owner helped the mechanic run up a bill for the parts, and he added a few massive water bottles to the bill so we could cool off the engine as we drove. He smiled as he handed over his handwritten check. The total came to about $25. We tipped well.

No one cheered when we drove away. The crowd we had assembled returned to their daily lives, returned to the match on TV, returned to business at the cafe, returned to the auto shop. I doubt they remember the two Americans who rolled their car into town on fumes and drove away a few hours later.

But I won’t forget them. We never exchanged names or backstories or interests, but for a few hours I had to absolutely trust these strangers in a strange land. Without digital aid, without language skills, without any other recourse, I felt a genuine connection to my hosts, whether they cared or not.

The car finally died the next day. It wouldn’t start in the morning despite the valiant efforts of another Moroccan mechanic. We hired a car to drive us to Marrakech where we caught a train and left behind our vehicular misadventure. Given everything, I would absolutely rent a car in Morocco again. Only next time, I’m learning to drive a manual first.

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