There are still people who live in caves, in the forests, in the deserts – living as their ancestors did – herding sheep or goats and selling dairy, meat, or livestock at market or in cities and towns when in need of replenishing supplies. They still live simply, away from the electrical grid and the technologies and comforts that come with it; not dependent on oil to power mechanical engines; not from a community built within walls, but claiming to be from “out there.” We took a two day journey to the eastern border of Morocco and Algeria to a desert town named Tagounite. Small clay and cement cubes rest along the road that the desert has been wearing away, sanded by the winds – they have signs that read fossils, souvenirs, argan oil, and authentic Bedouin food. We pulled off of the main road that had turned into compacted sand, our bumpy ride growing more rugged, our van slowing to barely a roll trying to maneuver around the rocks and dips. There were several compounds all offering what we were there for the night to experience – a night in the Sahara desert.
We were asked to line up facing a row of camels; they were all sitting on the sand, their lower jaws making a circular motion as they chewed on hay. One by one we climbed on with the help of our young Berber guides – as we sat high above the ground the camels would jump onto their hind legs, then their front legs, nearly bucking you off, back and forth until they fully rise. We were guided into the desert, the little town to our back.
They call them the shifting sands. The dunes are at the mercy of the winds; the ripples in the sand are like those created by waves along a coast – the sand is tumbled fine in the winds of change. Geography is only reliable for so long here; you have to rely on the sun and the stars to guide your way in the desert.
We wound around dunes, the camels feet digging into the sand and then rising effortlessly with every step. Later we would climb dunes, each step a battle against the sand beneath that gives way below your feet and allows you to sink. Camels are magical, majestic, powerful, graceful, but only in a way that the desert would understand. They survive; they thrive; and without them, this experience would not have been possible.
Our tents were at the base of a large dune. Smaller dunes would allow the winds to torture us with sand through the night – the taller dune provided shelter, and what our guides called an “after dinner digestive exercise.”
When you climb a dune it never seems as tall as it really is. The steep climb grows steeper, the incline only possible to climb due to the forgiving sand allowing each foot to anchor upon its face for every step. At the top the peak of the dune was being blasted away to float freely through the air, finding its way to another dune, recreating the landscape. The Berber people are no different than the sand – they move with the earth, not against it. Simply stepping over the peak eliminates all sand blasting; you stand on the side where the wind is coming from and not in the path of the sand it carries with it. Above us in the clear nights sky was the band of the Milky Way which flowed like a river in the sky; we spotted the Big Dipper, Scorpio, Cassiopeia, and the North Star. As we walked along the edge of the dune I realized there was no way to capture this moment – there was no landmark or monument to snap a picture of and share – there was nothing about this moment except simply being a part of it that could ever capture even the slightest hint of where I was that night. The rest of the world disappeared. It was a profoundly powerful experience that allowed us to feel completely connected to the universe and the impermanence of the sand under our feet.
From afar, we spotted a candle from our camp. One of the Berber guides asked, “You know how we go down the dune?… Like this!” He turned and started leaping down the steep edge of the soft, sandy mountain, his flashlight bouncing in large arches, the distance between us growing more quickly than should be possible. The sand was too soft to hurt yourself even tumbling down. I shrugged to my travel companions, turned, and started leaping down the dune as well.
About half way down I stopped where our guide has. Seconds later my friends stopped beside us. Listen, he said. The earth beneath us was vibrating – a miniature earthquake – we could hear it rumble all around us. It sounded like a semi-truck plowing through. When the sand move, it is all moving. Leaping, we thought of the sand that cushioned our controlled fall, aware of the little amount of sand we were moving beneath every step – we now realized that each step affected the entire dune – we felt the vibration of little grains each equal to the entire mass.
At the bottom of the dune we drank mint tea, what the Berbers call Moroccan whiskey. They drink it sweet…very sweet; but it is among the best teas in the world, enjoyed even more so in the desert night. Candles with plastic water bottle cutouts, protected the flame, and illuminated the features of our faces; we each sing songs from our country, Morocco, Korea, Canada, France, Japan, America, and Russia, while playing drums, smiling at each other and the bright nights sky. We drank more tea, poured above from great heights, and went to bed on rugs set on the sand in the tents made of thick woven fabric.
The next morning we rose to the sound of light clapping outside our tent. Someone was walking around, clapping his hands together casually, not hard enough to be a signal. But it was. The clapping continued for a few minutes, our wake-up call; we all emerged in the dark from our tents and in silence walked toward the camels that were rising with the sun. We mounted the gurgling beasts, wrapped our heads and faces with scarves to protect us from the strong sun and sand, and once again and as the sun rose it brought heat to the cold desert, the light turning the dark sands to gold – the traces of our journey to the camp had been swept away by the night – I had no idea which way was back.
The desert suffers what much of the world suffers from, suffocated by plastic that not even the harsh desert sun can remedy fast enough to wash away our human stains.