Silence of the Sahara

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Maybe I lack depth. I don’t usually head off on vacation looking for enlightenment or spiritual rebirth. Call me shallow, but my idea of vacation is the opportunity to escape reality for a little while, see new places, meet new people and in general just slow things down a bit.

But something about experiencing 2,000 miles of emptiness deep in the heart of the Moroccan Sahara Desert affected me, something about the vast solitude and silence that sparked a spiritual revitalization.

Stepping into that boundless landscape, where little changes but the position of the sun and sand, was potent. 

Peaceful, hugely colorful, culturally and historically compelling, Morocco has long been one of the world’s most exotic destinations. Some of the most glorious scenery of North Africa is found in Morocco, a land of mud-brick casbah towns, medieval medinas (towns) and mythic charms.

The Moroccan Sahara, a land-sea of dunes with an inhospitable reputation, might not be a vacation choice for everyone, but for me the lure was powerful. Powerful enough to sign on for two weeks of adventure with Mountain Travel Sobek, experts in off-the-beaten-path, small-group expeditions.

There were no roads, no landmarks, and certainly no signs. I was baffled by how our driver, Ahmed, navigated our Land Rover through the desert sand with ease and certainty. Aijed, driving another vehicle with supplies, followed in another identical Land Rover in the distance, trying to avoid our dusty trail. Without visible landmarks, they’d go to a certain point and then make a turn with confidence.

My companions were three other intrepid Americans: June, an adventurous, well-traveled surgeon from Idaho; Charlie, a recently retired cop from Las Vegas; and Yvonne, a fit, thirtysomething corporate executive from Seattle. Our group also included our guides, Kristy and Mohamed, and our camp cook, Housein. Soon we would rendezvous with our camel driver, also named Housein, and the four camelus dromedarius that would take us across the desert.

Tell people you’re headed to the desert for a weeklong camel trek and more than likely you’re warned that camels are petulant, smelly, and antisocial. Others may describe spitting and biting and the pained expressions of riders bobbing, lurching and swaying in swirls of sand. You’re told that an hour, let alone a week, atop a 1,400-pound humped animal is more than any rational person can stand.

They’re wrong. What they don’t tell you, or more likely, don’t know, is that camels are adorable, loving animals with charmingly long eyelashes and unique personalities. Perhaps under the loving care of their caretaker Housein—a camel whisperer if I ever saw one—their kind and gentle nature flourished.

It was a pleasure to watch our camels follow their master’s lead. When Housein slowed his pace, they followed. When he stopped, they stopped. When he sat down, they sat down. With little more than a hand signal or a one-word command spoken softly, he easily got his camels’ cooperation.

The rhythm of life in the desert quickly seduced us. Our days settled into a comfortable routine where we woke at first light, rode the camels or walked the dunes during the day and enjoyed long, leisurely nights at camp beneath a breathtaking display of stars.

The real wonder of the Sahara is its silence. An extraordinary silence made me want to whisper, like you do when you know you’re in the presence of something sacred. I can’t recall ever being accused of being the silent type. But, despite my usually congenial nature, the desert brought out a quiet, solitary side of my personality.

It was halfway through the third day when a subtle but profound change occurred within me. Mohamed, our tall, dark, and handsome Moroccan guide, recognized it before I did. The two of us had been walking side by side in silence for hours, as had become our custom while the others rode the camels. I felt an indescribable change in my demeanor. Mohamed, looking regal and intensely foreign dressed in a flowing indigo-blue robe and a traditional headdress wrapped loosely over his nose and chin for protection from the sand-laden wind, had noticed it, too.

He caught my eye and described it in a single word: Shabaan.

Mohamed spoke English well, also French, German, Arabic, and Berber. A linguist I am not, but I sort of knew what it meant. I asked him to repeat it.

Shabaan. Then he translated; it was the Moroccan Arabic word for a state of total satisfaction.

He was right. I felt more at ease, more content, more sated than I had in years. The desert had worked its magic, and I was definitely under its spell.

Spellbound is one thing, but seeing things is another. There are stories of crazed souls wandering lost in the desert thinking they see water in a mirage. But I was neither dehydrated nor crazed when I saw it: not water, but a plastic water bottle. It was empty, upside down and nailed to a wooden post high atop a sand dune near our camp. We were seemingly in the middle of no-man’s land when I spotted it.

Something about the way the sun gleamed off the plastic bottle caught my eye. I was about to move on when a flash again captured my attention. In the distance, a colorfully clad nomad family crossed the desert headed for the post. Were they using it as a landmark? Was it there to guide their way? Curious, I pulled binoculars out of my day pack to get a better look.

The woman and child stopped and sat down to rest within the cool shadow of the high dune. The man climbed on toward the post. Wait. Had I lost my mind? Could that be a cell phone he produced from the empty, heat-scorched water bottle?

I lowered the binoculars, rubbed my eyes, and looked again. Indeed, it was a cell phone. He checked something, perhaps its battery charge (or even worse, his voice mail), and then returned it to its desert phone booth and rejoined his family.

At camp that evening before dinner, we gathered for our daily jolt of Morocco’s true passion, the a la menthe, highly sugared mint tea. Seated on tiny canvas stools surrounding a round, low table; it had become our evening ritual to gather outside enjoying conversation under the warmth of the sun’s last rays.

Under the influence of a sugar-induced high, I regaled the others with my tale of cell phones and nomads. They questioned my sanity. Could I blame them? After all, the previous evening dubious expressions had been exchanged when I shared my shabaan epiphany.

Truth be told, we were all beginning to look a bit crazed, coated as we were with a veneer of fine, orange-colored sand. By now, the sand had worked its way into our eyes, ears, toes, hair and under fingernails. However, it was the wild hair, stiff from wind, heat and sand, that really gave us all the look of total insanity.

A week in the desert has a way of putting things in perspective.

I’d long ago given up on worrying about personal appearances (we all looked equally encrusted). Instead, a close look in the mirror later that night revealed a few subtle but important changes. Gone were the dark circles beneath my eyes. My usually pasty Scandinavian skin had a new healthy glow. I’d stopped wearing a watch. I had dropped a few pounds. The Sahara had seeped into my soul in a most positive way. I didn’t want to leave.

On our final day in the desert, I awoke with the dawn and was astounded by the beauty of the vast array of dunes outside my tent. Winds had furrowed some like a freshly raked garden and whipped others into giant pyramids. Spotting me, Mohammed gestured for me to join him for a cup of tea. Totally at ease, we sat in silence awed by the grandeur before us.

That moment of wordless camaraderie, deep in the Sahara, crystallized the entirety of my Moroccan experience. Now, when I sit embroiled in work at my computer, or when a hasty glance in a mirror reveals dark circles reappearing beneath my eyes, I close my eyes and put myself back into that peaceful land of crenellated sand and indigo sky, and I remember Morocco’s lessons.

Photo courtesy of EllenBarone


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