A Beyond Here Feature travel story.
The day we arrived at Sahara a storm was brewing. The streets and homes of the town on the way to the desert were the colour of sand, and the sky was hazy as if there was smoke in the air. The daylight had disappeared and the clouds held the sun captive. I did not have the slightest idea of where we were. We had driven for hours and were brought to a near-wasteland. After passing the town we arrived at the desert. I had not noticed the divide until I saw a cluster of camels sitting peacefully while wind whipped at their faces. I looked out the window and saw nothing but desert beyond the camels. There were several white vans arriving at the same spot. People got out of their vehicles and began wrapping their faces with scarves, or the Moroccan passport, which would protect against the sand seeping into the crevices of their eyes, ears, mouth and nose. Our driver told us to leave everything behind and hop on a camel quickly before the storm swallowed us. The horizon was veiled by clouds and flying sand. It looked like the beginning of a hurricane. The air was muggy and hot, and the wind slapped us in different directions with ferocity. We were frantic trying to figure out what we would need for one night in the middle of the desert, and if we could transfer certain items into a small backpack. We didn’t have time to think or pause, and take in the moment. The men in their robes and tunics to whom we had trusted to lead the way were strangers to us. We were unprepared. I panicked slightly and the adrenaline mixed with fear and uncertainty gave me a high which I took comfort in. I realized that we were about to embark on an adventure and it didn’t matter what happened because this was nothing like I had ever experienced. I decided to just grab all of my things since I did not have much and walk up towards one of the guides. I asked him to help me with my scarf and he very kindly wrapped it around covering my entire head except for my eyes. I put my sunglasses on to keep the sand and wind out of my eyes. He led me towards one of the camels and directed me to take a seat.
The camels were covered in the heavy dust of sand. They were balding at the top, the hair sparse and stiff. It felt like straw. They sat crouched on their legs, knees bent creating a cushion with the bony ends of their limbs. Their feet were wide with two half hooves padded by extra skin to land softly on the sand. The eyes were large and brown, and the eyelids drooped down over the eyes resembling an old tired man with nothing left but time until death. An oval shaped hard cushion with a donut hole in the middle sat on their backs, and over that a blanket. I sat down on one of the camels, my feet dangling off to either side of their wide bloated belly. Their noses were pierced with a hoop so a rope can be used to lead them. When they chewed their long narrow jaw moved sideways in a wide circular motion. The top teeth scraped against the bottom to break down the vegetation into small digestible pieces. They would chew while crouching and waiting, then would stop when they had to walk, probably storing the food in their mouths for later, similar to a cow.
We travelled in from the east, and the wind charged at us from the south pushing us against the shadowy mountains hidden behind the sandy air. The wind was creating a sand storm. You could see it rising slowly in the horizon towards the clouds above. It looked as though an omnipotent spirit was descending and required the collection of materials on Earth to complete the arrival. Only a slight partition between the sand particles in the air and the clouds provided any hint of the sun existing. Large raindrops landed on our bodies like meteors assaulting the desert. When I looked around it seemed as though I was in the middle of nowhere. The sky looked slightly foggy and grey. I could only see through the slit in the scarf wrapped around my head, and hear the muffled sounds of the howling wind, the slow steps of the camels, and my even breathing underneath the scarf. The hump on the camel was uncomfortable and my butt and groin area bruised from the impact of the hooves against the sand-packed ground. In the dim light of the sky and within the vast unfamiliar elements of the Earth I felt lonely and insignificant. When I looked around at the beauty of the desert an overwhelming sadness visited my heart.
Once we had arrived at the camp the storm had ceased. The camp was small and had a few sturdy tents arranged in a circle. Surrounding it was nothing but desert and a long stretch of asphalt road we had passed miles ago which was no longer visible. I felt isolated but the presence of a road indicated our shallow penetration into the Sahara. ‘Welcome to Sahara,’ the guides said to us. They repeated this to other travellers as they crossed through the huddle of tents, and with every utterance it felt like we had arrived at the end of the world. The last destination of life where nothing existed ahead of us, and everything was forgotten behind us.
One of the larger tents was the dining hall and for preparing food. The four of us were in tent number two, made up of four cots and a paisley patterned cloth forming a layer underneath the thicker cloth on the outside of the tent. The cots were small and hard, and had one pillow, and many blankets. The blankets must have been for the cold desert nights during winter. The floor was covered in a beautifully patterned red rug. The room was stuffy and very hot. When I stepped outside of it the calm breeze brushed against my sweaty and sticky skin sending a shiver down my spine. We had some time to take in our new lodging and freshen up in the lavatory, which were two tents separated by gender. In the women’s tent there were three toilet stalls, one sink, two shower stalls and a table in the corner with a bucket. The running water was minimal and sporadic. I was surprised by the presence of such a facility. I had assumed that maybe only two squatting toilets would be available for the entire group of travellers, and no running water.
When dinner was announced we made our way into the large dining tent. We removed our shoes when entering. First we were served lentil soup with long-grain rice, then a chicken tajine, veggies, olives, and raisins. The cooked raisins reminded me of my mom’s biryani at home. Throughout the dinner there was one secret inescapable ingredient, the Sahara sand. Every bite held a small gritty taste in between my teeth, the sand scratching on the surface of my molars. At the end of the meal we were served mint tea with an intensely sweet flavour which instantly dried your mouth at every sip. They called it Berber Whisky, but it contained no alcohol. It was served by pouring the tea at a high distance from the small glass. At first I thought this was just for pageantry but learned later that this was necessary to check the quality of the tea. If there was a nice thick head of bubbles then the tea was satisfactory. At the bottom of the tea you could see the withering mint leaves drowning. Three of the guides sat with us possessed with high spirits. Two out of the three nomads were wearing blue turbans and robes. The third one had an orange turban and a blue robe. They drank the tea like alcoholic whisky, their eyes drooping low, legs set wide apart with their arms hanging in-between in a relaxed fashion. They began talking to each of us, asking us our names and where we were from. We drank the hot sweet tea. It was delicious and we all asked for seconds. Then they collected all of our glasses and brought out African drums, announcing that the evening would finish off with a party. They played some beats for us into the night.
The nomads were young, possibly between seventeen and twenty-three. One younger boy wearing simply a shirt and pants, who looked to be twelve years old, joined the group clapping along and encouraging the audience to keep the beat. He had a serious frown on his face and sang along with his comrades. It seemed as though the guides only knew a few songs, and each of them had a repetitive rhythm. They looked tired and sweaty, and as they played I realized that the events of this evening were nothing new but something they repeated over and over again with many tourists. You could tell by the poorly hidden boredom in their eyes watching behind the thumping of the drums. In a stylized and practiced fashion, one of the guides stood up to get people dancing, holding out their hands to random people in the room. The younger boy clapped his hands harder and sang louder to get the party going. Some of us danced at the behest of the guides, and some of us were too self-conscious to stand up. At one point most of the audience members were on the floor dancing with slight hip movements, twirling, holding hands in a circle, and smiling shyly. Slowly people from the crowd settled back down into their seats. The moment was awkward. Most of the audience members were westerners and were cautious about expressing themselves through dance. If alcohol was available surely many would have lost their inhibitions. The guides tried hard to get people back up but the party was short-lived. The guides continued playing their drum beats and stared at each other with side-long glances, and a small smile. There were pauses throughout the night as they figured out what to play next. Sometimes the younger boy would start a song independently from the group, singing aloud, clapping harder, and bouncing his shoulders up and down. He had a stern look on his face, with puzzled eyebrows frustrated that the crowd was not feeling the music. One by one people began leaving the tent. When most of the crowd had left, one of the guides asked if anyone wanted to try the drums. Our friend Meg, whom we were travelling with, wanted to give it a shot since she had learned to play the African drum when she was a young girl in Burkina Faso. As soon as she raised her hand and walked up to the performers the youngest boy made a sound of surprise and a face of confusion that a white girl had volunteered to play. She played a few beats, her hands moved north and south of the drums in unison with the beats played by the guides. People continued to leave. The performers continued for another few minutes but then stopped as the night died down. Meg came back to sit with us and the guides packed up their drums. We sat around for a while longer to watch how the evening in the dining tent waned.
We stepped outside to watch the stars twinkling in the darkness. Each one glowed like perfect little dots of light creating impressions in our minds. The darkness outside was profound. You could not see your hands in front of you unless you stepped near the lamps by the tents. The camels were sleeping and some people sat outside of their tents talking. There was a guard dog who wandered around keeping an eye on us, the tip of his left ear clipped like an animal had taken a bite out of it. On the far side of the lavatory was a donkey tied to a tent which made grotesque throat noises as if it was being tortured. Meg’s partner Sunny found an unusual looking giant spider in one of the toilet stalls of the men’s lavatory and cried out to us to see it. I decided to wander towards the smaller dunes to escape from the group and encase myself in solitude with the desert night. One of the guides walked around surveying the camp and asked me if I was okay, and if I was lost trying to find the lavatory. I replied no, I just wanted to see the stars and he moved on. The clouds lingered after the storm. Some stars freed themselves from the oppressive cages of the clouds and blinked at each other from a distance. Over the dark sand carpeting the land, the night sky appeared as the parental figure watching over its children and breathing soft tunes until sleep spilled into our brains like the bursting of a blood vessel.
I walked back to our tent, grabbed my toothbrush and brushed my teeth outside with a bottle of water, rinsing my mouth and spitting the water back out onto the soft sand. The wet spot on the sand created a gloomy shade of sharp black against the now familiar black of my surroundings. There was no longer any running water in the lavatory. One of the guides set up his bedding outside on the sand in the middle of the circle of tents to keep a watch of us. He and the rest of the guides must have been the Tuaregs, the orphans of the Sahara – people displaced by colonial powers and poverty. Their desert land was split between neighbouring countries and became uninhabitable due to droughts, and pollution in certain areas from the French mining industry. Yet, here they were working as guides for tourists.
That night while we slept we heard the creaking of the tent’s wooden walls as the wind pelted our door for entry. Above, you could hear the drops of rain trying to dig holes through the fabric. I felt a touch of fear that the tent might blow away and we would be forced to brace through the second coming of the storm without protection from the desert’s fury, but our tents stood sturdy. I imagined the guide outside sleeping soundly, breathing evenly, impervious to the storm, his robe and blankets waving in the wind yet hugging their arms around his body holding him close.
The next morning I woke with bruises and aches all over my backside and inner thighs from the camel ride. I was well rested though and found the cots to be surprisingly comfortable. Only the humid heat submerged me in annoyance and restlessness. It was early, 5am, the sun was just waking up. Although my body felt tired my mind was awake enough to jump out of bed, leave the tent, and see the sunrise. It was still a bit cloudy, but just over the long stretches of cloud you could see the sun growing larger and the light spreading horizontally, glazing the desert with its sweet golden syrup. For breakfast we had a simple meal served outside, laid out on a table. On the table was bread with butter, marmalade, the sweet mint tea from the previous night and some coffee. Every three or four bites we tasted the coarseness of the sand in our mouths.
We only had a brief moment to eat because afterwards we were expected to pack all of our things and get back on the camel. This time it was much more painful because we were already bruised, but the sky was clearer than yesterday and I could see the lines of the High Atlas mountains. The mountain was large and brown with geometric lines crossing from one side to the other, chaotic yet organized. There was one peak higher than the rest jutting with crystal clear precision. The mountains frowned at us with stark wrinkles. A white light from the morning dawn cast a glow on the brown face of the mountain. It was dull and ghostly.
We rode the camels back passing the asphalt road, climbed off, and waited for the vans to arrive and take us back to Marrakech. The drive back was long and hot. We stopped to take a break in a small town with a famous movie production company. I decided to look through the shops in the town. There were an array of colorful and unique trinkets, tools, paintings, and cloths. Never before had I seen so many beautiful crafts in one place. The entire country was an inspiring muse for an artist’s eye. I picked up some earrings and a small tajine as gifts for my sister and parents.
On the continuing drive I looked out the window at the mountains and wrote, then pondered, then wrote some more, but it was too hot to stay focused. The wind was blasting at my face as we drove along with the windows down, and my eyelids would flicker until they closed, and just like this I drifted in and out of sleep throughout the hours of our journey back into the city.
As we got closer to Marrakech the heat was thick and demanding. My bottom and back were soaked through and sweat was dripping from every pore. The car slowed down now that we had become one of the many vehicles in the tortuous street traffic. The driver dropped off each traveller at their hotel or riad from which they were picked up. We were dropped off about a forty-minute walk from Jemaa el-Fna. The van drove off and suddenly I felt alone and lost again. In some ways the desert made sense to me and the bustling city did not. It was simple in Sahara and although life was hard there it would be straightforward and captivating in its beauty and minimalism. The city felt like a pre-marked graveyard for the bustling souls. Somehow the complexity of it had no foundation and it was only a matter of time until those who tried to find meaning in it would flounder from the arbitrary structures bred from the necessity of food and livelihood.
We walked along the road with our packs, hiding from the incessant power of the sun underneath our caps and sunglasses. Soon it would be time to return to Berlin. I remembered the woman sitting at the bus station in Agadir where we waited for the local bus to take us to Taghazout a few days ago. She was poised with her feet slightly dangling off the bench, intertwined together and swinging slightly back and forth. She was wearing a headscarf and a red flower printed long tunic with wide pants. She looked like a portrait — a woman sitting still against the backdrop of the vast Atlantic ocean waiting serenely for the bus. It was early evening and the many citizens of Agadir rushed home to begin their feasts for Ramadan. Minutes passed like the dead passing onto another time and space. She waited diligently and there I was watching her from across the road to see which bus she would stand up for. The streets were hot, the sun slowly descended, and at the end of the long road green mountains stood with one eye watching along with me, and the other eye hiding from the glare of the sun. An Arabic phrase was written on the mountains, large and clear. God, King and Nation.
We kept walking and the cars zipped by. My head became fuzzy and heavy from the heat. We did not have water and the sun was baking our minds. The journey continued from the desert deep into the city, a place more insufferable than the vast emptiness of a land made of sand. We were the children of an existence created from cement and glass.
Copyright © Dipa Barua 2019
More on Morocco
Dripping with history, the north African region was a gateway for flourishing cultural ideas, commodities, and migration. We travelled west towards the coast to Taghazout, the desolate but lively Sahara Desert, and the epicentre of Morocco — Marrakesh. Find out more about our epic travels to the highly sought-after destination of Morocco.