Nomad Mandy Wanders the Sahara Desert (part II)

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.

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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 looks 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 nearing 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 favourite 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 flavoured with the spices that Morocco is so well known for; it pairs nicely with our cheap bottles of red wine.

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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, afterall? 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 advanced 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 flavour 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 sand hill 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…

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Nomad Mandy Wanders the Sahara Desert (part I)

I stare up into the early morning sky, which is glittered with stars. My eyelids become heavier with every blink as I try to resist succumbing to sleep because I don’t want this moment to end. I look around and see the silhouette of the tents that our group is suppose to sleep in, but instead, we all brought our mattresses outside to sleep under the stars. As I lie here awake, I notice the heavy silence of the desert … well, except for the steady snoring of a lone Berber who is sleeping on the outskirts of our campsite. Perhaps he was exiled due to his overpowering snores.

The tip of my nose tingles as the cool air begins to creep in. I pull my heavy wool blanket higher and tuck it snuggly against my sides. In an effort to combat sleep, I reflect upon this day, which has led me to the best slumber party ever!

* * *

It was like Christmas morning for me! I woke up early, excited that this day is finally here. Today, we will ride off into the sunset on a camel and spend the night camping in the Sahara desert. It gives me butterflies just thinking about it! Although, it will take most of the day to get to Merzouga (Mer-zoo-guh), a small town on the edge of the Sahara, it’s nothing compared to the years that many of us have waited for this exhilarating experience.

Our group of fourteen eagerly piles into the van, to claim our unassigned-assigned seats. My husband, Sieu, and I squeeze through to the back. We are sitting in front of the back bench, which is occupied by three young and energetic women from Poland. To our right, in the row of single seats, is a quiet and reserved man from Boston. In front of us is our cluster of five friends who we had planned this trip with. Lastly, seated at the front of the van, is a fun couple from Ontario, and to the right of them is an adventurous solo traveller from Japan who can only speak broken English. “Hallo, it’s me, Youssef!” our guide announces into his microphone. He says this every morning and it always cracks us up. It has become the catch phrase of our trip.

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Camel Crossing

Thanks to our dynamic group, our seven hour drive flies by quickly! It’s broken up by bathroom breaks, a road-side picnic, and some pretty intense lip-syncing karaoke with Youssef’s microphone. Our van buzzes with giddy excitement with every passing hour. Thinking that we must be getting close, I draw back the curtain and glance out the window. The scenery is flat and desolate – similar to what I imagine Arizona being like. The dry, rocky landscape is peppered with clusters of dead yellow grass. There are sparse areas of green from the grass still struggling to survive in this barren environment. Just then, someone shouts out, “Look!! Desert!!! Straight ahead!!” We all lean in quickly to look out the front window. The winding, paved road, which we have been following for hours, finally has an end. On the horizon, off into the distance, there are large mountains of sand … the Sahara desert!

Our van pulls off of the paved road and onto a battered, worn dirt road. As we drive towards a miniature castle on the edge of the desert,  I stare out the window in disbelief. Surveying the land, it’s impressive how the sand spews out of the desert onto the dry, cracked earth beside it; almost like a sandbox missing its boards. It’s exactly how I imagined it … mounds and mounds of soft, fine sand as far and as wide as the eye can see! It reminds me of the red sands on the dunes that I used to play on as a child when visiting Prince Edward Island.

We step out of the van and make our way to the hotel’s terrace. Once there, Youssef begins helping us wrap our scarves around our heads, similar to the nomads, in preparation for our journey into the desert. Although the nomads (people without a fixed habitation) would wear these shemaghs for protection against the harsh desert conditions, we are sporting them more for the cool photo opportunities! While I am waiting my turn, I am mesmerized by the two rows of dromedary camels waiting for us on the desert landing. Laying parallel to each other, one row has seven and the other has eight. They are each equipped with a saddle, which has a colorful wool blanket draped over it. On the front of the saddle is a metallic, T-bar handle. The lackluster herd rests there quietly chewing their cud.

When it’s my turn, Youssef takes my long, tattered royal blue scarf, which I recently purchased for 100 dirhams, and begins wrapping it tightly around my head. Round and around and around. Once he nears the end, he rolls the final piece, runs it along my forehead, and tucks it in the back. He then pulls the other end down to provide protection for my face and neck.

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Our G-Adventures Morocco Casbahs & Desert Group

Once we are all ready, Youssef leads us down the stairs to begin boarding. Alas, our chariots await! I anxiously rush down the large concrete stairs. Before taking my first official step on the Sahara desert, I pause for a second to relish this moment. As I transfer my weight onto the cashmere sand, I can feel it slide and displace under my foot.

After my first foot hits the ground, my other one shoots out rapidly behind it. My focus quickly changes to the dromedaries. I can’t wait to touch them!! I approach the nearest one while the remainder of the group listens to Youssef giving a briefing about our evening. I extend my hand but quickly pull it back in hesitation. Do camels bite? Are they aggressive creatures? I don’t think I have ever been this close to one before… I decide to ask a nearby Berber, who is busy preparing for our outing. “Is it okay to touch them?”, I ask. “Yes. Very safe”, he half-heartedly replies with his heavily accented English. I reach out and touch the back of its neck; I can feel the dirt baked onto his thick, coarse hair. I lean forward to examine his facial features. His long eyelashes mask his dark eyes. His right nostril is pierced with a ring. Attached to it, is a carabiner with a thin rope. His lips are droopy and lined with coarse white whiskers, like an elderly person without their dentures. His head is large and his neck is muscular. His round, bloated body, covers most of his long, slender legs. I scratch hard behind his ears, creating a cloud of dust, which he seems to enjoy as he leans into it.

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Carl, my camel, smiling pretty for the camera!

There are two Berber guides, who begin helping our group mount the dromedaries. One by one, we board these massive creatures. A man dressed in a silky blue robe, with a light-blue headwrap signals me to the lead dromedary. So routine, this man barely makes eye contact as he takes my bag and hangs it off the saddle. He then instructs me to climb on, hold the handle tightly, and most importantly, lock my elbows. I do as he says. When he gives the signal, my dromedary propels himself forward to gather enough momentum to lift up his hind legs. This sends me forward on a steep decline. Glad I locked my elbows or else I would be eating a pretty big sand-wich hehe. He then jerks back to pull himself up and onto his front legs. And just like that, within seconds, I am towering over the tall Berber who was helping me. He now stands with his head at the height of my knees.

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Nomad Mandy

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As we begin our journey along the winding sand dunes, each dromedary is tied to the one in front of them with the rope that is attached to their nose piercing. The lead dromedary is being led by a man on foot. He is a Berber, meaning that he is indigenous to North Africa. He is probably in his late 20’s and walks with very little enthusiasm. His head is wrapped in a scarf, similar to mine, only it’s light-blue. His robe, which is really quite nice, is dark blue with very subtle moon and star patterns on it. Between his shoulder blades and on the cuffs of his sleeves are golden highlights. The pant legs of his jeans peak out and cover most of his worn, leather sandals.

Beyond him is a magnificent sky, with a couple of decorative clouds. The shade of blue in the sky contrasts with the color of the sand; complementary colors directly on opposite sides of the spectrum. Well done, mother nature! You truly are an artist. In the tranquility of the desert, the only noise that I hear is the rhythmic rubbing of my backpack on the saddle caused by the steady sway of my dromedary. It’s very hypnotic. I stare off into the distance. Nothing. Nothingness as far as the eye can see. It’s as calm and serene as my mind is at this very moment.

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Our Camel Train

When we arrive at our campsite, our guides park our camel train in their usual parking spot. I suspect this by the numerous amounts of small, brown nuggets deposited into the sand. As soon as our feet hit the ground again, Youssef hurries us up to the top of the tallest sand dune to watch the sunset. All fourteen of us chase him along the steady incline of the crest on the dune. With every step I take, my feet sink and slide into the silky, fine sand. As Youssef scurries effortlessly to the top, I try to use his footprints to ease the burn in my quadriceps from the exertion.

Upon reaching the summit, I take a deep breath. The air is dry and unquenchable. I look back and see the remainder of our group still climbing along in a linear path, like ants marching up an anthill. They, too, must be using each other’s footsteps for better leverage. I turn my gaze to the horizon just in time to see the blazing sun sink into the rolling hills of sand. As I enjoy the final glow of twilight, I had no idea that is only a prelude of the shenanigans that await us.

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To Be Continued In…

Nomad Mandy Wanders the Sahara Desert (part II)