LIZ HARROD

Certainly a Wonder – 5 April

In Morocco, Photo, Travel 2011 on April 5, 2011 at 6:46 pm

I am completely at a loss: a loss for adjectives, for photos, for any kind of description that can capture the wonder of today, the wonder of the Sahara, the wonder of the Erg Chebbi.

Waiting this morning for my guide to collect me, I’ll admit I was a bit nervous. My choice to visit the Sahara was an easy one – a dream of my own, supported by suggestions from a few friends who have been to this part of the world before.

My choice to go with a guide was not so simple.

I had searched around for a tour that seemed to suit me. Though I’m typically reluctant to go on organized excursions, I’m not dumb enough to go wandering about the Sahara unassisted. So I searched for something that seemed personal and unique and came across, Camel Trekking, a smaller tour company. It looked like something that would suit my taste for off the beaten path experiences. So I sent an email and got a quick response about availability – all good.

Oh, and it would be a private tour. Just me. Alone with my guide. In the Sahara.

So yes, I wondered if this would be a good idea, and sitting at the hostel in Merzouga this morning, waiting for my guide, I was nervous.

Eventually I heard the car pull up and gathered my things, sort of a deep breath moment while paying my bill to Chez Youssef and heading out the door – leaving the comfort of Merzouga, veering off the sealed road, and driving into the desert in an old beat up Renault.

Looking across the reg, the plains of black sand and slate, I could barely make out the Erg Chebbi through the dust storm. The wind rolled sheets of flying sand across the reg and threw it against our windows, and as if reading my mind, Mohammed tossed a blue turban my way – something to borrow for the next three days as protection against the wind, sun and sand. I held it in my lap trying to remember if I knew how to tie one anymore. It’d been quite some time since I had any use for one, but surely I could remember the lessons from Bonkano, my roommate in Niger.

After arriving at the Auberge and enjoying the company of group of Berber men while waiting for the storm to stop, Youssef arrived, dressed in the signature Berber blue with a green Turban wrapped around his face.

My guide, in all his desert glory – I took another deep breath.

Mohammed pulled me aside, tied my turban for me, reminding me of the proper twists and tucks, and lead me outside where Youssef was waiting, with my camel. I stuffed my things in the saddle bags and climbed on top. Youssef clicked his tongue and nudged the camel’s knee. It stood up, and we were on our way. I took another deep breath, and Mohammed waved goodbye.

“See you back here on Thursday, ensha’llaah,” he said.

I wondered why ensha’llaah was necessary here, hoping that it was his presence not mine that could potentially be not of God’s willing, and I wondered if Youssef spoke English or French.

And I’ll admit, though it was only a little wonder, I wondered what I had gotten myself into, as I relinquished all control and allowed myself to be led into the dunes.

We rode in silence, and despite the wind whipping sand across my face, I started to relax, and I started to really look around. . .

And I simply wondered.

There’s a reason why it’s called a wonder of the world. Looking around at the seemingly endless dunes, my mind couldn’t help but wonder, filled with hundreds of different questions about the strange world that was slowly encircling me.

We kept on, and I repeatedly asked Youssef to stop so I could take some pictures: a sad sad attempt at trying to capture this meditative space in a jpeg.

The Erg Chebbi surrounded us, cutting me off from all visible signs of any other people, and my camel walked. Youssef walked, much like my camel. I rode, and I kept on wondering.

Somewhere around my fifth or sixth request to stop for pictures, Youssef started to relax a bit. He poked a bit of fun at me for taking so many pictures of the same sand dunes, telling me I took more photos than the Japanese, and I started to wonder how old my seemingly ageless guide was – hard to tell in a turban, but making fun of each other is typically something between friends. So we were headed in the right direction, language barrier or no, and my ideas of what my company would be like over the next couple days brightened.

When we arrived at the Berber camp, the woman greeted us. Youssef explained that her husband was away and that she had three children, while I attempted to convey my gratitude to her for hosting me. Youssef and I settled into our tent and she brought over a low table set with a silver teapot and a couple of glasses. I could smell the mint tea coming from the pot – my favorite.

Youssef just smiled and laughed at me. He reached his hand out, gesturing for my camera.

“You pour,” he said. “I take picture.”

I laughed, willing to do what he said, but knowing I would spill. To pour mint tea like a Toureg, not only do you have to manage getting the tea into a small cup, much smaller than a british tea cup, but as you pour, you have to raise the pot higher and higher, getting nearly 18 inches of distance between the spout and the rim of the glass.

With careful aim, I made my attempt and was feeling pretty satisfied with my own glass. Then, Youssef poured his, expertly pulling the pot high above his head and not spilling a drop on the table far below.

He smiled when I laughed and applauded his obvious ability to one up me. Clearly, I was out of my element, and he was in his, and I wondered at the ability of this world to nearly incapacitate me.

Sussing out his English, I asked a few more questions about the people we were staying with and what their life was like. He explained about the goats, the donkey, the chickens and the rooster that they take care of. He also showed me the couple cats that are essentially their house pets. Like him, the children will probably not go to school. Their family will teach them what they need to know.

Just a side note: Youssef speaks three languages fluently and is functional as a guide in eight languages. In an environment where traveling for school each day is not particularly practical, not having a formal education does not mean you are not educated.

As the heat of the afternoon wore off, Youssef suggested we go for a walk to get a good spot for the sunset. I wrapped my turban again, and grabbed a bottle of water, scurrying out the door to catch up with him.

The biggest difference between me and Youssef? He grew up in the Sahara, and I didn’t.

He found it hilarious and took great pleasure in the the huffing and puffing that was necessary to get me to the top of any of the dunes.

Walking in the sand is a strange sensation to start with. Sometimes it is pillow soft and your foot sinks through immediately, going down nearly up to the knee before stopping. In other places it is baked hard, and by walking carefully you can stay on top of the surface.

I tried to imitate Youssef’s steady steps with absolutely no success. Regardless, my scrambling finally got me to the top, sitting on the crest of a dune I must have photographed fifteen for twenty times on the way here.

The tops of the dunes are worn by the wind, an obvious exhibit “A” of erosion. Some of the crests are rounded into domes that you imagine springing to life like the Cave of Wonders. Others are worn to edges, softened only by those brave enough to walk along them. They make me nervous as I stumble behind Youssef, trying to remind myself that sliding off the edge is impossible. This harsh environment is built to collapse under you as necessary to keep you from sliding too far.

We watch sunset, sitting on top of the world, and I wonder how anyone could ever get used to this.

Dashing back to our camp before it gets too dark, the moon rises and stars start to peek out. I offer to help with dinner, but it is simply not an option. The Berber customs of hospitality prefer that I relax and wait for the food to come to me. So Youssef and I listen to music and drink tea.

He takes off his turban and his outer robe revealing a jersey, baby dreadlocks and red zip-up hoodie – looking much more like the football love 25 year old that he is.

He’s been supplying me with a running soundtrack – James Brown, Bob Marley, and Akon. With the help of my iPad I introduce a little Dave Matthews.

We eat our tangine, drink tea, and hang out with a friend who lives nearby. Then we head over to anther tent, and Youssef entertains me a bit with his talent on the drums. Despite my lessons in Niger, I am still terrible – able to copy his rhythms but not able to branch out into my own. So after a while, I leave it to him while I dance and just listen.

We drum ourselves silly, laugh over a few corny jokes, and as even more stars come out, our energy and laughter finally starts to fade.

We walk back to our tent of Toureg blankets, and climb in,each on our mattresses with blankets to keep out the cold. Tomorrow we will explore some more and then go to the oasis, he tells me.

And then he says good night.


Wind across the dunes.


Youssef in his desert garb.


On top of the world.

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