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Monday, December 16, 2013

Day 7 -- Sahara Desert Camp Experience



Can there be anything more beautiful, more natural, more unspoiled, more quiet, more mystical, more pensive, more fun than the Sahara Desert? I have come to the ends of the earth and it is in the form of sand, sun, dromedaries, and aridity. I have come, despite all my vast experience around the world, to the ultimate experience of my life in a place that utterly defies life and yet, which I find, envigorates my soul from the grouchy snorts and protestations of the camels whose footsteps silently move across the sand to the blue sky with streaks of script across its face, to the flutter of our tent in the slight breeze. I think I could stay here forever for this place is eternity itself.

I wrote this after our camel ride (really, they are dromedaries since they have only one hump while camels have two), our lunch in a desert tent, and our drive in 4x4 cars that went through the sand like we Michiganders fishtail through snow and ice. Even my handwriting is more graceful in the desert, which explains to me the way Arabic is written, if the desert truly is an influence that is transferred from what you see here, what goes through the brain, and what the hand produces.


Camel Ride
We got out of our cars and immediately saw the camels, seated and waiting for us, all in a row. They were silent and resting, just taking in the warm air and very slight breeze—and oblivious and nonchalant about whether we were there or not. As the camel drivers put blankets on each camel and had each of us get on, some of the camels expressed mild displeasure at the prospect of having to stop their daydreaming and get up to serve us. They don't live a bad life. They don't do hard labor as some of their brothers nor will they become next week's dinner. Nevertheless, our guides warned us about trying to entreat the camels, as I wanted desperately to do. They are very grouchy creatures, and you just don't mess with them!

So this guy walks into a bar and says:  Anyone want to ride a camel?

I was so pumped for this experience that I thrust myself to the head of the line to claim my camel for the next hour.  Getting on it was another thing.  I raised one leg over the saddle of my camel (none of the animals have names except “camel”) but wasn't sure I would fit the wide girth of the beast; but I did. There were no stirrups for my feet.  The guides advised that we hang on for dear life to the steel handle before us, which I heeded, especially when Camel got up. The trick in this move is to lean backward and wait for the camel rise. I was concerned I would be so high up I'd be afraid to ride, but my fears were soon allayed. Once everyone was saddled up, we proceeded toward the pink-colored sand dunes. 

On our left were several hotels. This is emblematic of the tourism effort going on in Morocco, and they spoiled the exotic nature of the adventure. So I looked to the right instead and imagined myself in a caravan soon to see Lawrence of Arabia swoop down from behind a giant dune and stop and say hi to us.

The ride was only 45 minutes and the saddle was not comfortable, but I loved it. I truly loved it. I tried to relax on Camel's back and move with him. Of course I snapped photos with one hand and held on to the steel bar with the other. I tried to be a cool Arabic camelgirl. I touched Camel's neck just a bit. Occasionally he would look back to me, and I accepted that gesture. His eyelashes were long, just like the llamas at the farm where I work, and his eyes were dark and dreamy. At one point my overall response to Camel was: “what was God thinking when he designed you?”  The camel was probably thinking the same thing when he got a look at me!

Below are some of the treasured sights during this brief but full ride.
Our pretty cool-looking caravan
We passed a desert camp snuggled in among the dunes







The camel drivers exercised full control over the animals.  And, if anyone needed to get off the camel for whatever reason, Yemni and a 4x4 were close at hand to assist.









Hark!! Some vegetation ahead

Riding the camels seemed to mystify everyone because we all seemed to stop talking as we struggled a bit to be comfortable and admired the distinctive scenery that is as beautiful as National Geographic depicts it. Only we were inside the pictures and interacting with it. The desert, I find, is a very engaging place, and my mind and meditations would wander in surprising ways in response.

an enchanting scene
one other enchanting scene
The camels didn't make a sound as they walked. When one of the guides was nearby, I could only hear his flipflops as he shuffled through the sand. I found such silence almost deafening.  However, after spending time in the noisy and frenetic medina in Fes, and after our long cross-country bus ride, such quiet was inviting and soothing. And, then I discovered the beautiful sight amidst all the intriguing swaths and swirls of the dunes. As we walked north, the sun cast a wondrous shadow on our caravan, and I became     fascinated with the silhouetted view in the sand.


 

 









The descent from Camel was a bit more perilous because I forgot to lean back. The guide looked concerned at my clumsiness, but I hung on with both hands and Camel made it down OK and I was down OK. The ride was only 45 minutes but I had the thrill of my life.  There's something very sacred about riding a camel in the Sahara.  I think it's about the quietness of its feet over the expanse of the sand.

I said good-bye to Camel with a silent mind-meld and snapped a photo.  As I am prone to anthropomorphize the animals I'm with, I felt sure Camel responded to me with a charming smile, as this photo shows. At least I'm sure he was thinking:  "Thank God, this broad is off my back.  Now I can go back to MY business."

The destination of our ride led us to a little lunch "oasis" in a desert restaurant.  Balancing on top of a one-hump camel can work up an appetite.  We had a delicious tagine of couscous and vegetables.  Best camp food I ever ate! 




 The coordination of all our travels on this trip has been (and would be) excellent--always.  Our 4x4s awaited us after lunch.  Ali drove the car I was in.  He spoke Arabic and French.  Fortunately, Rae, who is French-Canadian, could speak to him and translate for us.  Suddenly, I was speaking to him, too, in French.  The desert was starting to work on me.  I was remembering words and phrases as though I had studied them yesterday.

On our way to our camp in the 4x4 we had one of the bumpiest, and most thrilling rides I've ever had since I rode the dune buggy of Lake Michigan near Saugatuck.  Actually, I thought the driver was goofing off for us, but he was serious.  Even a 4x4 struggles in the sand.  I suddenly acquired a new respect for these vehicles.


We arrived at the camp and were greeted by Hussain. The saying here goes that "the camp is Hussain and Hussain is the camp."  We would find out what that meant.

Hussain is a "Blue Man," a descendant from one of the Berber tribes that lived a traditionally nomadic pastoralist lifestyle and are typically found in the Saharan interior of North Africa.

As we piled out of our cars, the drivers pulled our small luggage bags out and put them on the blue plastic rug placed on the "main street" of the camp so that we could take them to our tents. This gesture was as organized and dignified as any fancy hotel, only we were in the middle of the desert far away from anyone else—except some nomads who lived a 20-30 minute walk away across the dunes.

  sink in foreground, our white dining tent in background

The camp is on private land rented by OAT and managed by Hussain from September to April. The tents are up during that whole time as the dunes are quite stable here in this clearing. The white canvas tents are covered with an additional black covering, and they are about 7x7 yards in size. I joked with Yemni by asking if this was a religious camp.  He looked puzzled.  I said that the tents looked like the Kaaba in Mecca.  He laughed.


The inside of my tent is decorated with red, orange, yellow and brown wall hangings and the floor is in red rugs with a blue plastic mat under the bed (typically used by nomads as walkways). The bed has a red with gold flowered spread on it—and the sheets are pink! There is a table with a water cup, a purple plastic wastebasket, and a table for luggage. I instantly loved it. Our tents have numbers and mine is #9. 

On the next day while the others went on a fossil hunt, I would sit in my tent to work on my blog.  The sun was too hot and too bright.  The experience of writing in a tent in Africa led me to a wonderful fantasy of being an anthropologist compiling my notes for the day.  The image came from a picture of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson working at their typewriters in a tent.
 





 












OAT requested that each tent have an indoor toilet, which we all much appreciated especially for those night time calls of Nature. After we use the toilet, we just pour water (pail on the right) down it quickly to “flush” it.  It took me a while to get used to the backward lean of the toilet, especially during the night in the dark.  After all, this is a camp.  We can't expect all the comforts of home!




Anti-Atlas Mountains with Algeria behind them
crest of a dune
We had a few hours before dinner so most of us took advantage of the free time to walk around, get acclimated to our new digs, and to take a farm jacket and a red Canadian flannel jacket and was warm enough in the cool of the afternoon. It would get a lot colder at night but I don't think it reached the predicted 30s temperatures we were all prepared for. 
shower stalls

Here are some sights:








 

desert sink (frontal view)

Julie and Lester on their "front porch"



One of many "stoney" roadways that crisscross the desert in between the sandy dunes.  This one happens to be our "main street" just south of our camp.

The dunes in this area are among the highest in Morocco.






  Sunset in the Sahara
Hussain proposes a Sahara toast

 At 630 p.m. we all gathered for the sunset. I have seen many a sunset on Lake Michigan and have enjoyed them for their beauty and majesty. However, this one, my first in the Sahara, began with an OAT toast of French champagne--in plastic cups.  After all, we are roughing it. 



and we capitulate


Then we waited. 

The dune where we watched the sunset is just west of our campsite. I sat down in the sand to be closer to the ground and looked all around me.  As the sun made its descent, the sand surrounding it turned a bright pink.  





I was so moved by the beauty of all this expanse, that I stood up and bowed to the sun to honor it and to give praise and gratitude to God for my being here in Morocco, especially here in the mighty Sahara. 


By 7:10 the sun was down. The whole experience was dramatic, magical, and deeply spiritual.  I can see how the three great religions grew up in the desert.  You cannot be here and not be inspired.
 

Dinner Time

Before dinner we had a cooking demonstration by our camp cook.  He is a young man who has been cooking for almost 10 years.  He skillfully showed us how to make a chicken and vegetable tagine, which we had for dinner tonight.  He was like a chef on those cooking shows where he demonstrated how to make it and then next comes the cooked meal.  Delicious.

   








Our group watches the cooking demonstration.  Notice the heater on the right.  The other heater is behind me.  These heaters came in mighty handy and provided us with a toasty tent during dinner and breakfast when temperatures were in the low 40s. 




 

And here is the fully cooked result that we are about to eat.  It made Mary, Kari, and Jan very happy indeed.












The Sahara Desert is not just a landform. It is a region that stretches across the northern part of Africa. My father was stationed in Algeria during World War II, but it had no meaning for me until I came here this day and had a taste of what he lived in. As a matter of fact, the AntiAtlas Mountains (20 million years old compared to the High Atlas that are 15 million years old) are visible east of our camp and over them is Algeria. They are important to the geography of Morocco because they protect the eastern Sahara from spreading into the country—and thus reduce the amount of arable farmland that is possible to maintain today. Also, they keep the smuggling trade down as well. Moroccans and Algerians conduct an illegal trade of gas, drugs, medicines, etc.) Tomorrow, we would get up at 6:30 to watch the sunrise over these same mountains.

After the sunset we met outside the dining tent for appetizers, some wine that people had purchased in Rabat. Hussain passed around peanuts, almonds and crackers. Then we went inside the warm dining tent for a cooking lesson on how a tagine is prepared with chicken. Then we had some. Hussain had two heaters going and it made the evening very comfortable. At 8:30 we went to bed. 

It was cold outside, but not freezing. The stars were out and so was Venus and another planet, maybe Jupiter. Someone thought they say a satellite. The moon was almost full, so it blocked some of the stars we might have seen. Clouds in the north, a patchwork like swiss cheese, blocked the other stars. 

As I exited the dining tent and looked up the scene of the camp in the night surrounded by the high dunes of the Sahara, I was once again moved and touched by the spirit of the place. The night would produce dreams I cannot remember, but I felt peace and contentment I have not experienced in a long time. 

About 8:30 we all went to bed in the pitch-black night with our hot water bottles in hand (to help keep us warm under the covers).  Although we have a light in our tent, we are without electricity and Internet power. This is our version of “roughing it” out in the desert.

Sunrise Meditation


I found that the desert pulled something out of me, and the sunrise would make its message clearer.  A biblical quote came forth: “Be still and know that I am God” now made sense. Actually, the stillness was deafening. I even felt a little dizzy. Maybe my ears were still plugged up from the change in altitude we experienced yesterday as we climbed the mountains. But I felt I was on a different plane from usual. I couldn't hear or smell anything, and all I could see and feel was sand. It was like a void and then I realized that to fill this void, humanity has created the arts. People sing and play music, they dance, they paint, they draw, the sculpture to break the silence. And isn't this what God did? The universe was a void and God filled it with Creation. 

A couple of the women from our group joined me on the dune.  As the sun rose, a rooster in the nomad camp crowed and a donkey brayed. They, too, gave homage to the new day. It is a time to celebrate!! 

In the distance we could see a small figure crossing the dunes and coming toward us. We had all been quiet until it approached. It was a small girl in traditional clothing. As she neared us, she knelt down without a word. Then, she gingerly pulled something out of her bag. It was a colorful, homemade camel—for sale. She continued her silence and then waited. Soon a younger girl joined her in the same manner.

The desert brings out many things. Most of them are unexpected. Most of them are glorious. Some of them are unbelievable.


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