In the summer of 2011, I was invited to join a delegation of U.S. educators on a study tour of Morocco. Sponsored and organized by the Washington-based National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, our 10-day cultural immersion would crisscross this rich and diverse country, exploring the labyrinthine alleys of major cities including Marrakesh, Casablanca and Fez, traveling over spectacular mountain passes, and marveling at the sites of ancient civilizations.
While we would meet a variety of people along the way, there was one detour on our itinerary which sounded particularly intriguing, promising a new adventure, unlike any other.
The National Council advertised our trip to Erg Chebbi, near the community of Merzouga, as an encounter of man and nature at its best. Here, on the edge of the great Sahara Desert in southeastern Morocco, we would venture into a world so beyond our everyday experience as to be almost unimaginable.
After visiting the town of Ifrane, we proceeded in a southerly direction across the scenic Middle and High Atlas Mountains, through towns and villages, forests and valleys. Our trusted drivers, Ahmed and Houssam, navigated skillfully over hundreds of kilometers of uneven, and often difficult, terrain.
Running behind schedule, we approached our destination well beyond nightfall. Leaving the asphalt road north of Merzouga, Ahmed and Houssam shifted our vehicles 4-wheel drive feature through the sand toward the Kasbah Tomboctou, a simple hostelry nestled on the western edge of the great Sahara.
Tired and weary, we alighted from our vans to prepare for the adventure ahead. I should mention that, typically, I do not travel lightly. Being prepared, with every manner of clothing, toiletries and conveniences (just in case) is my preferred modus operandi. Therefore, imagine my surprise and horror to discover that I would be obliged to journey into the Sahara Desert for an overnight adventure without luggage.
With an air of certain resignation, I raced to join the group assembling behind the hotel complex in the dark of night. Armed with no more than a large handbag and a plastic bottle of drinking water, I mounted my designated charge Jimi Hendrix, by name the leader of the dromedary team.
Led by two Berber guides, turbaned and barefooted, our caravan set out into the desert wilderness at 9 in the evening. Relying on their intimate knowledge of the uneven terrain, our youthful leaders navigated with confidence and good humor. To pass the time over this two-hour experience, we exchanged light banter and sung songs in both Arabic and English. Mostly, we stared at the sky.
The experience was stunning! With neither competition from distortions caused by artificial lighting nor a full moon, the heavens above were dazzling. Coalescing into a veritable light show, stars, planets, galaxies, comets all exuded a certain metaphysical energy and a joyful playfulness as we made our way up and down unseen dunes, rocking rhythmically on our trusted ships of the desert, trusting implicitly in our young guides to lead us safely to our destination.
There is something almost hypnotic about the desert. The all-enveloping silence, the stillness, even the certain vulnerability that one feels within such a vast expanse, is, somehow, deeply moving.
After two hours, we arrived at our dimly-lit campsite in Erg (sand dunes) Chebbi. Too tired (and stiff) to worry about our current positioning, a mere 12 miles from the closed border with Algeria, Moroccos perennial nemesis, we were, as the saying goes, a captive audience.
To the extent that we could see, the campsite was basic. Goatskin tents formed a circle, with carpets, lamps and rudimentary furnishings filling the central gathering space. Under flickering candlelight, our Berber hosts welcomed us with a surprisingly elaborate meal of fresh bread, stewed meats and vegetables.
Other guests had preceded us and were, by this time sleeping. No songs around the campfire tonight. Retiring to our tents, we self-segregated by gender and, still dressed in our travel clothes, made our way to bed. In this relatively primitive setting, imagine my surprise to discover carefully ironed, crisp white bed linens awaiting my arrival. It would be a blissful sleep.
Awakened before dawn by the bleating of camels, we raised the flaps on our tents to embrace a new day. As fellow campers arose and ventured out, there was an almost reverent hush in the air; individually, and in silence, we set about to assess our surroundings. In the mornings faint light, we could discern, for the first time, the outline of massive dunes, mountains of sand, all around us.
Barefoot and disheveled, we raced to retrieve our cameras and, as if on cue, began climbing the dunes of soft, cool sand in anticipation of a magnificent sunrise. As a brilliant orange glow first appeared and then intensified on the eastern horizon, we were mesmerized by the indescribable, almost sacred, beauty of the scene.
Thus energized, we rejoined our Berber hosts below. Bedecked in dazzling blue robes of indigo, they had gathered in the center of the campsite to regale their guests with cheerful songs accompanied by the rhythmic beating of drums.
In the background, tea was being poured into small glasses. Must hurry, our hosts urged, as the camels were being saddled up for the return trip. Out of concern for these noble beasts, we needed to depart before the intense heat of the day.
Queuing to use the facilities, primitive by any standard (particularly without running water), we gathered our few belongings, gulped the proffered tea and, after a final round of photographs and farewells, were led away to rejoin with our camels.
We set off for our base camp, the one from which we had departed the previous night. Daytime travel in the desert was a wholly different experience. In the glaring light, we were surrounded by undulating dunes of burnt orange, some exceeding heights of 1,000 feet.
Along the way the odd bit of scrub brush or wisp of thistle appeared, to remind us that this seemingly barren landscape harbors untold species of flora and fauna. As the sun rose ever higher in the sky, so also did the temperature. Even so, our youthful guides ran up and down the dunes, as if effortlessly, surveying our surroundings and exhibiting enviable stamina. Two hours later, we returned to Kasbah Tomboctou. Following our desert accommodations, it looked considerably more luxurious than it did a mere 12 hours earlier. After breakfast, a shower, and a change of clothes, we piled back into our vans, somewhat reluctantly filled with images and memories which will be indelibly etched in our minds.
Linda Pappas Funsch, Middle East specialist, teaches courses at Frederick Community Colleges Institute for Learning in Retirement. She is currently writing a book about the history and culture of Oman. She writes from Frederick. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Copyright 2012, Linda Pappas Funsch)