Sand. Everywhere sand.
In places you’d expect (or at least not be surprised by), like my ears and eyebrows.
In places you’d not think of, like my teeth, elbow creases, scalp, and the hinges of my glasses.
I think I will be finding sand for a month, but I don’t care, because I just rode into the Sahara desert on a camel and spent the night in a tent among the dunes.
We left Fes early on the morning of March 31, and started on our 8 hour drive with our guide Ismail to the desert. Along the way, we stopped at a cedar forest – Morocco is known for its cedar wood – that also boasted a troupe of (relatively) tame monkeys and – strangely – puppies. We fed them bananas and peanuts, had a stretch, and then back in the car with Ismail.
We are getting to know Ismail pretty well, after so much time in the car with them. He shares our snacks and is always happy to answer any questions we have about Morocco, and offers up interesting background on the places we are passing through. For example, he told us about the marriage market that occurs each September, when people from all over Morocco – especially the nomads and those who live in more remote areas – come together to make arranged marriages and have marriage ceremonies. The couples that result do not meet until their wedding day, and the unfortunate result is that there are many divroces. For Berber men, this is not such a big deal – they can go about their public lives as usual, and remarry as they wish. Divorced Berber women, however, may not remarry, and are shunned from public life – they cannot even go about doing their own shopping. Ismail may have an arranged marriage himself, he says, but he is hoping he can find a girl on his own. “Next year, insha’allah.”
My viewpoint for most of the day, perched in the middle of the backseat between Isa and Keith. Sublimely uncomfortable. Here we are driving through Merzouga (I think) right as school lets out for the day.
The landscape becomes increasingly more rocky as we drive south and west, resembling New Mexico and Arizona. We cross the Middle Atlas mountains with snowy peaks, but the day is hazy and windy, and we can’t see very far. I worried that the haze and wind would continue into the desert that evening, and I was right. We passed through sleepy desert towns Midelt, Erfoud, and Merzouga, on our way to Erg Chebbi, one of the 2 ergs – or sand-dune covered desert areas – in Morocco.
I thought the driving would never end, but finally we pulled into a hotel at the edge of the desert. We would leave most of our things there, take our overnight bags, and ride camels into the desert to our tents. This was the moment I had especially been waiting for since planning my first Moroccan trip 9 years ago, and I was inordinately excited about the camels. Excuse me. Dromadaires.
Desert Lesson #1: Camels have 2 humps, dromadaires 1. Dromadaires are faster and can carry more weight, and there are no camels in Morocco.
But if you don’t mind, I will continue to call them camels.
I picked out camel #1, the white one, and named him Blanche Neige (Snow White) because I could not remember his Berber name. Camel #3 that Isa is riding is named Bob Marley. I kid you not. I was beside myself with joy, but Sarah was apprehensive. Still, as we started our path over the dines led by our camel guide Ibrahim, everyone had to agree – this was just about the coolest thing we’d done so far.
We rode for an hour to the camp site. Normally, we would have seen a beautiful sunset, but with the dusty haze in the air, all we saw was a yellow ball, and then it was gone. It stayed light for a surprising long time in the desert, I suppose with the bright orange sand reflecting light longer than normal surroundings would.
We parked our camels above the tents, and took off our shoes to better walk across the sand. Our tents had basic beds in them, and were surrounded by and covered in rugs. The electricity had not been switched on yet, so we dropped our things and headed out to climb a dune as the last morsels of light slipped below the horizon.
Desert lesson #2: climbing a dune is exhausting.
We started off with plenty of energy, scrabbling and slipping up the sandy slope. By the time we reached the first crest, I was regretting not bringing our water. We regained our breath, and started up again. I am not ashamed to say a few of us went on hands and knees. When we finally reached the next-to-top crest, which was as far as we could go, we all collapsed in the sand. “Now,” Isa gasped, “I understand (gasp) why we took (gasp) the camels (gasp.)” We burst out laughing and gasping for own breath, and settled to survey our sandy kingdom in the dark.
To be continued….