We watch in awe as the fiery orb in the sky slowly collides into the saffron sands of the Sahara desert. As the sun merges with the earth, its molten sunlight reflects off the sands and is amplified back into the sky to reveal glorious hues of red, yellow, orange, pink, blue, and even violet. We are left breathless … mostly because of the climb but also because of this spectacular moment. Here we stand, teetering on a thin crest of a sand dune, the size of a small mountain, in Morocco! Life IS good! Once the last flame fizzles out, we continue to stare into the evening twilight, as if expecting the sun to reappear, until Youssef finally announces that it’s suppertime.
Looking down from where we stand, our campsite looks so small compared to the vastness of the Sahara. The Arabian style tents next to a lone palm tree in the desolate environment of the desert look like a scene from Aladdin. Behind the campsite, our camels are resting in two perpendicular lines. With my shoes in one hand and my camera in the other, I race down the side of this enormous sand mountain, my legs struggling to keep my body upright. I feel like the Road Runner in the Looney Tunes being chased by the coyote. Beep beep! With every step I take, my feet sink through the warm superficial layer of sand and into the cooler layer that’s hidden below. Once near the bottom, my legs are finally defeated by gravity and, like rubber, they give out and I face-plant into the sand. I quickly shoot back up again and dust myself off, hoping that nobody saw that. I don’t think they did.
Our campsite is built around a common area, made up of overlapping layers of brilliantly colored Persian carpets, used as flooring. In the middle, is a single kerosene lamp next to three short, round wooden tables, covered with a plastic, wine-colored tablecloth. On each table, are the usual Moroccan condiments of fresh olives, olive oil, and almonds. This area is sandwiched between module tenting. To the left, is the kitchen tent, where I can see three of the Berber guides preparing our meal in the dim lighting of a small lamp. The tent beside that one is dark, which I assume is where they sleep and keep additional supplies. To the right of us, is our sleeping area. It’s made up of multiple mod-tents, placed side-by-side, in a rectangular shape. Each tent has two mattresses neatly made up with a pillow, thin cotton bed sheets, and a worn wool blanket.
As we take our seats around the tables, sitting cross-legged on the ground, our guide offers us some mint tea while we wait. This is customary in Morocco, signifying hospitality and friendship. The warm and sweet taste of the tea pleases my palate. As we sip on our tea, we begin going around the table and sharing the names that we had given our camels. I had named mine Carl. Far from being the winning name but he did look like a Carl to me. We also took this time to reflect upon our trip and some of our favorite moments.
It wasn’t long before the guides bring out a large, hand-painted, clay tagine pot for each table. As they remove the triangular cover, an exquisite aroma fills the air! Inside is a steaming stew-like preparation, heaping with beef, carrots, lentils, onions, apricots, tomatoes, turnips, and almonds. We decide that this is the ideal time to pull out the bottles of wine that we got the night before. Since Morocco is a dry country, it was quite difficult to find alcohol. Luckily, we spoke with the manager of a small grocery store who had some bottles hidden in his basement storage. As we eagerly fill our small plates with this warm and hearty offering, we also take this opportunity to toast our new friendships, old friendships, and this amazing adventure that we are fortunate enough to share together. The ingredients of the tagine taste so fresh and are flavored with the spices that Morocco is so well known for; it pairs nicely with our cheap bottles of red wine.
Once our meal is done, two of the Berbers pull out a set of drums and sit down with us. Each drum set consists of five handmade drums of various widths tied together. Without saying a word, they begin warming up with a simple rhythmic beat. In sync, they battle in a musical duel, progressively getting faster and faster until they both suddenly stop. There’s a drawn-out pause until one of them cries out something in Berber and then they continue to play again. The music is tribal-like; the man on the left provides the lead vocals in Berber while the other echoes his lyrics.
After playing a few of their traditional songs, they ask for a volunteer to come up and play. Lacking any form of musical talent but enthusiastic to give it a try, I volunteer to go. How hard could tapping a rhythm out on a drum be, after all? Well, it’s pretty hard. Being a huge Greenday fan, I decide to play “Good Riddance”. My uncoordinated drumming and squeaky voice gives everyone a whole new appreciation for the Berbers’ smooth and beautiful music. “… I hope you have the tiiiiiiiiiime of your liiiiiiiiifffffffffeeeeeeeee” (followed by a drum solo … followed by an electrifying finale …… followed by … a pity applause).
Apparently, this was enough to make the Berbers decide that it’s time to move forward with tonight’s itinerary because they pick up their drums and lead us to a nearby campfire. They sit down and continue to drum and sing. We gather around as Youssef, our guide, joins in with finger cymbals. We continue to laugh and celebrate under the pitch-dark sky of the desert, as the fire dances along with us to the music.
Knowing in advance that we were having a campfire, I packed some Hershey’s chocolate, graham crackers, and marshmallows. The Berbers have never heard of s’ mores before, along with some of the other members in our group, so I give a “how-to” class. Each person is handed their supplies: two crackers, a square of chocolate, a wooden skewer, and a marshmallow. “Step 1…” I begin, “… place your marshmallow on your skewer. Step 2: roast your marshmallow until the inside is warm and gooey. Be careful not to burn it! Step 3: sandwich your chocolate and cooked marshmallow between the two crackers. Step 4: enjoy!!!” As the Berbers take their first bite, their minds are obviously blown by this flavor explosion. They are so excited that they ask for seconds and begin referring to me as “Fatima”, which Youssef explains is the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad and is one of the four perfect women who are mentioned in the Koran.
As the campfire begins to shrink, we sneak away to a nearby dune. All fourteen of us sit together in silence. As my eyes adjust to the dark, I can make out the silhouette of our campsite with the small flickering of our dying campfire next to it. I look into the sky, which is peppered with millions of stars. Absolute perfection. I have never seen a night sky as flawless as this one. The sand is soft, the air is cool, and my mind is calm. I am overwhelmed with the feeling of pure contentment. I take in a deep breath of the crisp night air. As I exhale, I say “Sooooo….. does anyone want to slide down the dunes?” Everyone is game! We run back to the campsite and begin raiding the kitchen, in search of anything that could be used as a toboggan or crazy-carpet. We find a couple of garbage bags and a serving tray. We run back to the top of the sandhill to try to slide down like we do during the snowy winters back in Canada. The serving tray provides too much friction and we don’t slide an inch! Someone suggests using our head wraps to devise a slingshot. This is also a fail. One of the members of our group decides to give the garbage bag a try. He rips a hole in the bag for his head and puts it on like a sweater. “Should I poke arm holes?” he asks. “Naaaaaaaaa!” we all respond. “Okay, here I go!” Fully committed, he takes a running start, leaps into the air, and belly flops. Again, too much friction! You can literally hear the wind being knocked out of him, as his chest sinks into the sand and his feet continue the momentum forward and fly over his head. He flips over and lands hard on his back! OUFF! Epic fail.
After admitting defeat, fatigue quickly sets in but we are not ready to say goodnight just yet. We decide to drag our mattresses from the tents out to the common area so that we can sleep under the stars together. Although some were a little hesitant at first, since we were warned to be careful of scorpions and snakes, everyone decides to join in. Youssef’s very impressed because he’s never had an entire group sleep outside before. I use my headlamp to check my shoes and bag for any scorpions before bringing it to my sleeping area. All clear!
Too excited to sleep, but too tired to stay awake, I crawl under my blankets and stare in disbelief at the sparkling yellow specs scattered throughout this vast, charcoal canvas. Like fine dust, blown into the cool night’s sky, it made me appreciate how little we really are in such a large universe. In the grand scheme of things, my existence serves no real purpose and is merely a series of serendipitous events. Perhaps the only real purpose of life is, in fact, whatever we ascribe it to be. For me, it’s these experiences and these connections that we make with one another that give my life meaning. My eyelids become heavier with every blink as I try to resist succumbing to sleep because I don’t want this moment to end. As I lie here, semi-awake, I enjoy the heavy silence of the desert as I reflect back upon my day…