Around the world in eight issues: Sahara Desert

Continued from last week

The next day, we set out for the Sahara Desert. The bus ride was again interminable, even though I woke up every three hours to pop another Dramamine. We pulled in near dark, and were picked up in jeeps. The men driving raced across the dark desert, hitting as many bumps as they could to make us laugh in the back. One of the students from a different city had thrown his duffel bag onto my lap from the front, and I felt the bottles of booze inside clinking around as we jolted around like we were in a carnival ride.

The camp arrived out of the darkness like some glimmering object from a fairy tale. The whole camp was an expanse of tents in varying heights. Lights were strung between the sleeping tents, and the pathways were covered with woven rugs. The tents were made out of heavy black cloth, mounted up on beams. Within each tent was a row of 10-15 mattresses, carefully made up with rough sheets and thick woolen blankets. I vaguely considered the possibility of scorpions as I peeled back the covers, but we were all so exhausted we fell asleep almost immediately.

In the morning, we all rose at 5 a.m. to see the sun rise. I fell behind my friends, and was immediately confronted by a Berber man, who promised to take me to the best dune. I followed him, thinking he must be a worker in the camp. We sat on the sand, which is a brilliant orange, and talked about nothing as the sun came up. The whole thing was rather bizarre, but it came into clearer focus when we walked back.

“I work in the town, but I also sell figurines.” He began to pull out newspaper-wrapped bundles from his bag. I was caught, and as he laid out the figures gently on the sand, I contemplated whether I had the dirhams to spare. Too Midwestern to say no, I bought a fossil and two small camels—so that they wouldn’t be alone.

Later on, we rode real camels across the desert, laughing at how stiffly they lowered themselves to the ground or how terrifying it was to sit on one that was rising up from the sand. A majority of us had wrapped scarves around our heads like the Berber men, trying to throw ourselves into a cultural experience, but mostly looking pretty dumb. The guides showed us multiple times how to wrap the fabric around our heads, but the scarves inevitably slid off or bunched in strange places.

“What’s this camel’s name?” I asked. The men laughed.

“Barack Obama. And that one is Bob Marley.” They snickered to themselves. We thought the joke was really funny until we heard three other group leaders say the same thing.

We climbed up a sand dune that seemed as high as a mountain, and by the time I reached the top, my calves were burning and the entirety of the Sahara desert stretched out in front of me. With a whoop, we all sent ourselves spiraling down the dune in puffs of sand as we ran, rolled and slid all the way to the bottom.

Later on, at dinner, a Berber worker sat at our table. He told us he spoke seven languages he had just picked up from the numerous tour groups that go through there every year. I thought about him as we filed back into the jeeps a day later, wondering if the men and women who work there get tired of seeing tourists. I was tired of us.

The night before we left, I went out into the desert to find some piece of truth I could take back along with the orange sand I had collected in a Coke bottle. I looked up at the stars and breathed clean air, sinking my hands into the sand. The peaceful night was rent by my fellow students’ drunken cries. I sighed, and made my way back to the tent.