22 June 2005

al-Sahara momtez.

And finally, the most exciting part of the trip- our trek through the Sahara Desert. The entire experience was fabulous (save the bus ride home!)- best $100 most of us have spent in a long time. We drove down Friday afternoon to a ridiculously nice (air conditioned) hotel near Erfoud for the night before continuing to the desert on Saturday. We ate an amazing buffet dinner- the hotel caters to tourists, so of course it would be an all you can eat buffet! Also tried some Moroccan red wine- not bad, but as Matt would say, "nothing to write home about." The hotel had a beautiful swimming pool, which was a relaxing break from the har jidan weather (very hot!). There were also some Moroccan drummers who ended up dancing with us until the wee hours of the morning, and (sort of) teaching us to drum and belly dance while we communicated in broken Arabic and English. They seemed to appreciate being treated as more than entertainment, and talking to us about our experiences in Morocco.

The next morning, after breakfast, we all purchased our turbans to keep the desert sun and sand off (see picture). The store owner tried to overcharge a few people, but once he realized we were all together, he ended up teaching everyone how to wrap their own turban. We got back on the bus and drove a few more hours south to another hotel, where we had lunch and siesta'ed until the late afternoon when it wouldn't be unbearably hot in the desert.

Then, at long last, we mounted our camels for our trek into the Sahara! The camels were big and dirty and smelly, but it all just added to the experience. They make a noise like Chewbacca when you first climb on them, or when they get upset about something or other- rather amusing. Each little group of camels was led by a Berber- ours happened to be a young boy, probably no more than 10 or 12. They all walked barefoot through the sand! Riding camels bears almost no resemblance to riding horses, however- no saddles, just piles of wool and blankets, and camels have a distinctly bumpy gait (hence, I took very few pictures from my camel!). We can't walk today, but it was definitely worth the pain! Both of my camels were good boys, they went nice and slow on the downhill bits, and sat down and stood up with as much grace as a camel can muster.

Not everyone had such luck- Juan, a guy in the caravan ahead of us, had some minor camel issues. His camel was old and tired, and he fell down at one point, but the camel ahead of him didn't stop, so when he went down, the nose ring connecting him to the others was ripped out (and Juan fell off). The camel was screaming, as only camels can, and bleeding- the Berber leading the group tried to make the camel sit down so Juan could get on again, but fortunately Juan elected to walk and give his camel a break. He said the walk was just as fun- he was free to run up (and roll down!) big sand dunes.

The Sahara is incredibly beautiful- the sand really is that reddish-orange color you see in photos. Just a vast, desolate expanse of sand. The pictures really can't do it justice, with the immense rolling dunes as far as the eye can see in any direction. No signs of life aside from our camel tracks and the occasional insect or salamander. The oasis was a bit livelier, with palm trees and other miscellaneous plants, and even scorpions (although I personally didn't see any).

After two hours of riding (which is about the limit for first timers!), we arrived at our oasis campsite. The oasis was in the shadow of a particularly large sand dune, and a few brave souls climbed to the top and skied down. The campsite was quite a contrast with Friday night's five star hotel- we slept in low Berber tents on mattresses, and there was no running water or electricity to speak of. Fortunately, the oasis provided several large, secluded plant clusters! We watched a stunning sunset over the dunes, ate dinner and enjoyed more Moroccan drumming and dancing before turning in for the night.

With no lights except a few flame torches, the desert was amazing at night- we could see thousands of stars, and an almost full moon. Since the Sahara is almost devoid of life, the night was absolutely silent- no birds, no rustling in the bushes. It was spooky at first, but it just adds to the allure of the Sahara. We all prepared for a chilly night, but apparently that legend about cold desert nights is just a myth- the temperature did drop a bit, but considering where it started, the night was actually still relatively warm. The Sahara is absolutely intoxicating- laying under the stars, with nothing around for hundreds and thousands of miles, you realize just how small you are in relation to the rest of the world. Our tracks into the desert were gone by morning, as if we'd been there our entire lives. It's hard to believe we're slowing destroying our planet in the face of such massive, beautiful desolation.

We woke up at sunrise the next morning to ride back to the hotel before the sun came out in full force, but although we left at 7am, it was still blazing hot. The pain from the camel ride the day before had started to kick in, so the ride back was less exciting than the way out, but we were still on our "riding camels in the Sahara desert" high. Plus, we were able to take showers back at the hotel, so that helped dull the pain of leaving the desert! All in all, definitely one of those "once in a lifetime" kind of experiences - I highly recommend it to anyone next time they're near the Sahara. The 9 hour bus ride home put a bit of a damper on the elation, since the two girls in front of Matt and I were unskilled in charter bus etiquette, and decided to put their seats all the way back and crush us, and our air conditioning vent was well past its prime, but we still rode camels in the Sahara, and all is well.

Although the Sahara camping will probably be a highlight of this summer, I still have four weeks left. Next weekend we're planning to go up into Tetuoan in the mountains, and then to the Mediterranean beaches. Sometime this week will be a hammam experience, and maybe even some rug shopping. I'll try to update the blog during the week with some amusing anecdotes, and send another email next weekend. Until then-



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