The Desert Saga

Trip Start Apr 14, 2006
Trip End May 14, 2006

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Flag of Morocco  ,
Monday, May 1, 2006

Timbuktu: 52 days by camel.

So reads the sign at the entrance to Zagora; my bottom says 51 days and 22 hours to go.

Picture it: me, in a 4 wheel drive, heading out into the Sahara for a night camping with the nomads. ME - all urban, all the way. In a tent. In the desert. With sand, and flies, and outdoor "plumbing" and a dozen Berber tribesmen along with 18 similarly deluded campers.

What is wrong with this picture?

Why, it's missing the camel, of course. But that comes later.

Muhamid, the driver of our 4 wheel, is the Evil Knievel of Berbers. He is designated to bring up the rear of our 4 wheel caravan, and without anyone behind him to check us, he is determined to give his tourists the best ride in the desert. The first 3 cars drive sedately in tandem. Muhamid takes on Extreme Wheelies, Sahara Style. Up dunes and down dunes, swinging wildly for no obvious reason, he gleefully shouts "Couscous!" as he whips us around the desert. (Couscous the grain is shaken through a sieve to separate impurities before cooking.) Once in a while he'd catch sight of the other 3 cars, and immediately tear off in another direction before they spotted us. His 5 passengers would squeal and whoop as if we were on a theme park ride, which only fueled his enthusiasm. "Couscous!" he yelled as he turns up the native music and takes both hands off the wheel to clap in rhythm.

When finally we reach the camp, the nomad tents await us. They're actually dark brown and black, woven of goat hide and camel hair. Inside the compound, the entire ground is covered with thick, handwoven Moroccan rugs. Inside the tents, 4 people will sleep on real mattresses - 1 mattress on each side of the tent. Great if you're a couple. More togetherness than the rest of us knew we were in for.

300 yards away, a white tent houses 2 toilets that are supposed to flush, 2 basins for washing, and a shower of sorts. It is all powered by a noisy generator, which is turned off when everyone goes to bed.

But bedtime is a long way off: first is the sunset camel ride. Now, I have actually been on a camel before, and for some reason, I am utterly fearless there. I find myself on the lead camel, although I am nearly the last one to mount. You've seen the photos: one camel's tail is tied with a lead, which the next camel holds in his mouth, on down the line. Our little group has 4 guides, and set off from camp at a leisurely pace.

As we walk/ride/bump over the dunes, the recetnly scorching sun begins to slip below the horizon. Our shadows on the sand rival any promotion brochure, and a gentle calmness touches everyone in our group. Corny, trite, cluched, or just real" we truly feel the appeal of the desert.

Back at camp, Tuareg musicians are playing to welcome us. We watch, clap, then join in their dance. Dinner is fresh salad of orange, tomatoes, pepper and onions, followed by lamb tagine and cinammon oranges for dessert. Over tea, we meet for an hour with the head of this tribe, and the son of the head of all 13 tribes. We are free to ask anything about nomad life, why they love it, whey they live it.

After a demonstration of baking bread in the sand, more live music, some bread tasting, more questions about life on the desert, then bed.

So sure, I slept poorly. I've always been a bad camper, and proud of it. But at 2 AM, on the way to the non-flushing toilette, I saw stars and constellations and the milkiest milky way that I'll ever experience, in a silence so profound I heard a bug scamper across the sand.

I get it now, how the desert seduces a person. It's not my passion, and I still want working plumbing at the end of the day. But for Muhamid and Ibrahim and their cousins and brothers and wives, the desert is freedon and hospitality and honoring their god by respecting nature and performing good deeds.

And on by the way, they LOVE Americans, who are the only ones helping them build the dam they need to channel the water which keeps them alive.

Still a little no-saddle sore,
Sheila of the Sahara
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