May 27, 2010

Merzouga, Morocco

We are herded. Like the sheep on the side of the road – the young girl prodding them forward gently and then more aggressively when they strayed. Hers were headed to pasture, we were headed to Moroccan culture (or a timely and affordable facsimile).

I tend to shy away from organized tours. They have their place and this wasn’t my first…but they aren’t my favorite way to travel. Something about throngs of people, cameras in hand (just like me), clambering for that perfect shot (just like me), before being herded back to the crowded bus to await the next 10 minute or 2 hour pit stop on a whirlwind glimpse at…insert location here (just like me).

Ten years ago i did one through southern and eastern Africa. Every day our truck played tag with a half dozen other trucks. We’d yoyo between who got there first; who was lucky enough to be able to take their requisite photos without having to crop tour vans and sunburned heads out of the picture. Truth be told, i saw a lot of amazing things that way: the okavanga delta, the namib desert, the zambezi river. But my favorite thing was a place whose name i can’t for the life of me recall.

What i do remember though, was being the only truck there, i think it was Namibia. Climbing up rocks that formed high ochre colored formations to find a place to watch the sun set, feel the heat slowly being released from the stone, count the brilliant stars as they appeared like glitter overhead.

And in Egypt, despite the awesomeness of the sprawling ruins of Karnack and the magnitude of the pyramids of Giza, my favorite thing was sleeping in the valley of the whales – full moon throwing my shadow across Saharan sands. Me and a friend – no other tourists anywhere.

This trip, after following the throngs of tourists that trail between Fes, Meknes, and Marrakech, I joined a tour where a good portion of those same tourists drive through the Dades valley and camel trek into the desert. We assembled in a van at 7:30am, a hodgepodge group from America, Canada, Brazil, New Zealand, Japan, and France (plus we picked up two random people from Columbia and one from Germany).

The first day, of our three-day excursion, was quiet. We chatted with those we knew. The few people travelling alone talked quietly together. We drove for hours. The guide didn’t speak English, despite being told otherwise when I booked the tour. And even after enlisting one of the French guys to translate to the best of his abilities, the guide still declined to provide much commentary on where we were, what we were seeing, or what we should expect from the day. Even so, every few hours we’d pull over to a scenic spot where we inferred we should be taking pictures…a beautiful mountainscape here (the atlas mountains), a sprawling oasis there…

We didn’t discover tour lie number two (the first being the French speaking guide) until we stopped for the night, a cute little spot where we were supposed to have single rooms. By single, they really meant double. And so we squeezed in two to a room and speculated what else would prove untrue.

Driving toward the desert, our humor took a sardonic turn, having bonded over broken promises and lowered expectations. We finally arrived at the edge of the Merzuga desert (on the fringe of the Sahara, 18 miles from the Algeria border). Here we mounted one humped camels and began a winding trek across impressive sand dunes. An hour or so later our procession stopped. The camels were dropped to their knees and we dismounted.

There, in the midst of desert with no proof of civilization anywhere around me, I was humbled and marveled at the magnitude…at the beauty. The desert guides, pointed in a general direction over an enormous sand dune, and then descended with the camels leaving us to find our own way to camp. Hours later, after I fell asleep over the warmth of the sand and beneath that of the sun, I struggled to the top of the tallest neighboring dune (with the help of my kiwi buddy Mike) to watch the sun dive beyond the distant horizon.

The night was filled with “Berber whiskey” (mint tea!) and tangine poulet. There was dancing and singing beneath the full moon. But what I only stole a sliver of but coveted more than anything was time beneath the massive full moon casting shadows all around me.

Briefly, I sat with my legs pulled under me, looking up at sky so bright that most of the stars remained invisible. I listened to the wind whip through clusters of desert grass – long and wispy like camel eyelashes – rustling like crumpled paper. I listened to sand lightly hitting sand as my footprints were erased. I listened to the soft noise of a desert night.

Lying in the enormous tent that night, I listened to the wind pick up and hurl sand against the blanketed walls as if demanding to be admitted. It was a strangely soothing sound, not unlike rain on a tin roof late at night.

In the morning we began the trek back through the desert well before dawn, our camels bleating their disapproval as we mounted them, and continuing their disapproval even as we rode them. But the morning wore on, and eventually the sun stepped lightly from behind the golden dunes. Full circle in the desert, sunset to sunrise.

Back at the fringe of the desert we dismounted, more friends than adversaries fighting for the same photo, and began our 10-hour drive back to Marrakech. The valley, a sepia photograph with a ribbon of green highlights running through it, whisked by the window as I slept and dreamed “what next?”.

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