I’m on a bus leaving the Sahara. I can’t believe I just wrote that. It’s 9:13 am and I’m on the bus heading to Todra Gorge in the High Atlas Mountains and the oasis located in Tinerhir. To my right is the mighty Sahara emanating a subtle gold – the beauty that contrasts its utter hostility. To my left are black rock/mineral flat lands dotted with Amazigh (Berber) and other nomadic dwellings. I see these things but I don’t think my human eyes will ever fully capture all I’ve seen or my finite words tell of them. But here goes nothing…
We arrived in Merzouga two nights ago just in time for a sunset camel ride up the ergs (dunes) at the foot of the Sahara desert. We were greeted by a cadre of young Amazigh men dressed in radiant blue and flowing turbans. At sunset, the fine sand glowed a hearty apricot as we mounted the gentle beasts. Everyone giggled like a three-year-old at a petting zoo trading off cameras so as not to miss this one-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I rode Barry White, a scruffy camel with some years in him and a heart of gold. Trailing behind me was Eddie aboard Jimi Hendrix. Jimi was obviously the younger of the two always trying to pass me and Barry and who, on our return, began to growl (or snarl) ignoring Eddie’s plea to, (in a Samuel L. Jackson/Pulp Fiction voice) “Be coo’, camel, be cool’.”
Ascending the dunes was incredible as we had a 360-degree view of everything. We reached the base of one of the bigger dunes, parked our camels, and climbed up to the apex. The sun was setting low near the horizon, small at first, then fat, then shrouded by clouds, then perfectly round and small again. Both land and sky shifted hues as it danced with the sun. We stood atop the dune shouting, laughing, and for a brief moment, owning the desert. We came home triumphant and awestruck by what we had just done and seen. We feasted beneath the stars (seriously, a smorgasbord of different, amazing foods), had a few beers, and after dinner, sat and listened to a Berber drum circle under the planetarium-like sky.
The next morning we had a small caravan of 4WD vehicles waiting for us out front. We off-road’d towards a shallow lake where a flock of flamingoes had gathered. Then the real fun started. We soon hit the fringes of the desert again where dunes, big and small, formed and gunned it. We hit the sand dunes going up and over, up and over, drifting at points, up and over, and driving almost sideways (swearing that at some point, we’d flip). We soon drove towards our next destination stopping briefly to admire a couple of young kids holding fennec foxes and more than happy to take a photo with us for a dirham or two.
After a kilometer or so we arrived at a Gnaoua music cooperative. From what I’ve read, the Gnaoua are the descendents of freed slaves that were brought over from West Africa. They have mostly settled in the desert regions of the country holding their culture, traditions, and most artistically, music close to heart. Steeped in West African roots and religious mysticism, they play a beautifully hypnotic form of music that is at once sub-Saharan, Berber, and Arabic. Heavy on the drums and soulful chanting, the music was simply mesmerizing. We entered the hot and funky (both olfactory and in style) room and immediately became transfixed by the rhythms. At some point during a more rousing song, one of the Gnaouan musicians got everyone to stand up and form a circle around the small room. Hand in hand, we all danced this communal dance and then individually took turns boogying down inside the circle. The feeling was incredible. Individuals as varied as they could ever possibly be united in dance and music and smiles, and voicelessly sharing and transcending – connecting. We plopped down back onto the couches while a more melodic, string-instrument-driven song gracefully began. I sat there, green tea in hand, mesmeric and wanting to stay there forever.
Currently listening to: The Chemical Brothers - Coachella 2005