Maroc le Kasbah, pt. 4

The vehicle that would take us to the edge of the Sahara desert was described on the company’s website as a “4×4.” The unmarked, sliding-door white van waiting on a street corner wasn’t quite as exotic as I had pictured, but when I found out that we were in for a 10 hour ride, I decided that this was indeed an appropriate mode of transportation. The Sahara Expeditions company launches several desert adventures daily, varying in destination and duration, which allows for comfortable, if not immediately intimate groups. The next two day’s travel companions awaiting us when Miles and I climbed into the van were three American guys and a Canadian girl studying abroad in Paris together, and a girl from Korea. The drive was slow, traversing the snow-capped Atlas Mountains by a winding, precarious pass – the danger of which was exacerbated by the fact that the intermittent road workers did not announce themselves with the traditional orange traffic cone, but rather by small piles of stones the exact same color as the asphalt – before descending southeast into the burnt red prelude to the desert. Our taciturn driver, Mohammad, stopped in occasional towns, some more beautiful than others, but all with the inherent attraction of being a remote, authentic town in a country which would have otherwise been synonymous in my memory with Marrakech. Sometimes Mohammad stopped inexplicably along unremarkable stretches of highway for a “two minute photo break,” which might be the most touristy moments I’ve ever experienced, just snapping off pictures of nothing at all because the guy driving the van decided he needed to stretch his legs.

We eventually pulled into Zagora, a small city on the edge of the Sahara that marked the end of our motorized leg of the trip. This is where we would begin the real journey, the part that we had all been anticipating all day. The path from Zagora to the sand dunes would be done by camel. Mohammad left us in the hands of a couple Berber nomads who readily assigned us to our prostrated animals and got the Yankee caravan shuffling into the African sunset.

For those of you who have never mounted a camel, it should be pointed out that this activity has practically nothing to do with horseback riding. For starters, the furnishings for the rider are scarce, as a small folded blanket provides the only cushion between you and the camel’s tough back. Additionally, there are no stirrups with which to support your feet, and only a wobbly metal handle bar with which to steady yourself. In other words, you spend the majority of the ride fighting a losing battle trying to find any possible alternate position in which your legs aren’t constantly flailing directly outwards. (One of the other Americans eventually managed to get himself cross-legged on top of the camel, which is no small feat considering how easy it would be to fall off during such an awkward and improbable series of leg movements.)

By sunset we were in the Sahara, dusty fields giving way to sand dunes. Several red tents were awaiting us. These were the Berber nomads’ temporary homes. Living in the desert all their lives, these southern Moroccans have an astonishing facility for languages. Both our hosts had never been to a city larger than Zagora, which is much smaller than Arcos, and spoke fluent Arabic, French, and Berber, while possessing a decent English and one with passable Spanish. Many Moroccans I encountered had been able to master language just by exposure to tourists, sometimes even picking up more obscure languages and dialects that they have no business speaking, such as Welsh or Basque. Mohammad and Saaid lead us to the tent where we would be sleeping, and brought us a pot of their traditional Berber tea while they were preparing dinner, not surprisingly and certainly not disappointingly a big bowl of tagine with a side of bread. By the time we had finished eating, darkness had taken over the desert, and the only visible objects were millions of light years above the black moonless sky. Mohammad and Saaid spread out a blanket on a sand dune and invited us to listen to them play nomad folk songs. Intimate and cryptic melodies accentuated timeless stories about the Sahara way of life before settling back into the silky sands that created them. It was a moment of elemental beauty, when the most simple promulgation resonates profoundly, like the determined moan of a single camel which wakes you up in a way you’ve never experienced before. A couple of us stayed out until the wee hours of the morning talking to Mohammad and Saaid, comparing the lives of twenty-something American college students and grads to the lives of twenty-something desert wanderers who don’t even use money. Despite a colossal divide separating our approaches to life, the mutual curiosity and kindness expressed throughout this refreshing trip represented a respect that is fundamental for the successful interaction between such disparate cultures.


~ by lincolnbrody on April 1, 2008.

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