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It started innocently enough: a simple road trip with four couples traveling together through southern Morocco.

Since Vertis and I had been to Morocco a couple of times, I was the organizer and leader. I figured we'd be in good shape since our traveling would be on main roads and stops would be mostly in large towns.

Still, before we left, I bombarded the other couples with a laundry list of do's and don'ts, including what the women should wear. Since Morocco is a primarily Muslim country, they should stick with conservative clothing, they were advised; mostly long dresses not cut above the knees.

Vertis and I decided to leave a few days early and fly to Paris before continuing on to Morocco. The couples would meet in Fez, Morocco, where we would rent two cars and travel to other towns.

We had a great time in Paris, and were anxious to meet our friends as we took a taxi to Charles de Gaulle Airport. We were in line to check in when one of our couples joined us. I frowned as I looked at their luggage. It was over my limit, but I just smiled, knowing they would be in the other car and it wouldn't be my problem.

The flight from Paris to Fez went smoothly, and in less than an hour we were checking into our hotel. The front desk receptionist couldn't have been nicer. All four couples had arrived at almost the same time. We were going to stay in Fez, one of the oldest cities in Morocco and its former capital, for several days.

Just before the receptionist gave us our keys, she said, "You are a little early checking in and our housekeeping staff is just finishing cleaning your rooms. Why don't you go out on the patio by the swimming pool and have something to drink while you're waiting? Oh, by the way, there's a French film crew shooting a commercial around the pool, but there's plenty of room for you."

We headed through the lobby toward the pool area. As I walked out on the patio, I spotted the film crew and the models. They were topless. As the rest of our group followed me, I heard a mumble from the ladies: "Dress conservative?"

I tried to tell them these were French women, but after a wave from one of the models, our ladies got busy herding us guys back into the lobby.

While in Fez, we visited the area where animal skins are dyed in some 40 bathtub-sized pits, but only stayed a few minutes. The odor was so strong that it literally took your breath away.

Fez was an interesting start to the trip, but it wasn't the highlight. We eventually arrived in Quarzazate, known as Little Hollywood because so many movies and TV series are filmed there, among them Franco Zeffirelli's 1977 mini-series "Jesus of Nazareth."

One of the more unusual sights were tree-climbing goats grazing on leaves 20 to 30 feet above the ground.

It was the next-to-last town we visited, Zagora, that still rings a bell, and not a good one. In the past, Zagora was the jumping-off town to the Sahara Desert, where camel caravans would leave to cross the desert to Timbuktu in Mali, West Africa.

We had decided to get a feel of the Sahara by staying there, but found out there was nothing to do but gaze out across an endless desert. Finally, the owner of the hotel suggested a camel ride, where we would camp in tents overnight.

The next morning we met our guide and eight camels. Everyone was excited, and after a bit of instructions, we mounted our camels. That's the easy part, since the tall camels have been taught to kneel.

Off we went into the desert for a ride to an oasis, where we would camp. A wooden camel's saddle with a dirty rag over it and the lurching gait of a camel, which was like riding a rocking chair down a flight of stairs, got old quickly since I don't have any extra behind padding. After about six hours, I was more than ready to dismount.

Everyone laughed about the camel ride, and we took scads of pics. Then two Land Rovers roared up, and their occupants began to set up our tents and prepare dinner, which I figured was going to be Tagine: meat, potatoes and vegetables cooked like a southern pot roast. They tell Americans the meat is beef, but I knew it was camel from my Libyan work tour.

As it got dark and the Coleman lanterns were lit, our guide directed us to where his crew had ignited a bonfire, and a belly dancer came wiggling out.

We were surprised. Vertis and I had seen a belly dancer at a Greek restaurant in Houston, and my business partner's brother was a belly dancer expert who told us that the dancers are ranked, and he had seen No. 5 in Cairo.

I don't know the ranking of our dancer, but extra pounds and missing teeth probably hurt her ranking. We watched for a while. Then, tired from camel riding, Vertis and I retired to our tent, while one of our friends, name withheld for obvious reasons, stayed. As we turned in, I could see him dancing with the belly dancer.

I knew the desert gets very cold at night, but I had forgotten, and when I woke up at around 2 a.m., I was freezing. In the dark I rummaged through the little bag we brought until I found something to put on. The next morning, when Vertis and I awakened and I stood up, she shook her head and laughed, "Those are my clothes." I didn't go to breakfast wearing them.

After breakfast our camels were waiting, and a few hours later I checked that one off my list. I don't ever have to ride a camel again.

Email Richard Mason at richard@gibraltarenergy.com.

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