Freedom in the Sahara

I felt the sand between my toes and turned to take in the endless hills that met the edge of the setting sky. I couldn’t hear the loud cheers behind me or see the camels wandering toward camp; all I could sense was peace. It overwhelmed me, a feeling I hadn’t expected but badly needed. Living in the city of Tangier has broadened my horizons and accustomed me to a life in constant motion, but I missed the quietness and peacefulness of the woods. Laying there that night, watching the blue of the sky transform into a deep yellow and then an inky black, I was at peace. The stars stretched across the sky, and I couldn’t even count them the way I can in Tangier. There are 46 stars I can see from my dorm balcony on a clear night, more than I anticipated but still not enough to make me feel as vanishingly small as I had wished. But in the desert, while my friends were drinking and dancing and laughing around the fire, I memorized the sky.

I had almost opted out of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

I had almost opted out of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, intimidated by the hours upon hours in the van. But my friend Cassidy and I made the most of the ride by listening to music and randomly breaking out in song. The ride on Friday involved a lot of stops which made the journey drag on even longer. We stopped at the Ksar of Ait-ben-Haddou, one of the oldest kasbahs in the world, and explored the beautiful old city. From there we headed to the hotel wedged in a valley between two steep mountains. The stars were endless, and the cold air made me feel right at home. The roads we took were windy, and our drivers were relentless when speeding around the corners. I had never been car sick before, but that road did me in. Luckily my friend had an extra motion sickness pill for me.

The author poses as a sand angel
The author poses as a sand angel

Saturday we woke up early, had a quick breakfast in the hotel, and got back into the vans. Our spirits were high because we knew the end destination would be the Sahara. We stopped to buy scarves to keep the sun and sand out of our face, and after four or five hours of driving, sand dunes appeared on the horizon. We immediately perked up and couldn’t wait for the van to stop so we could finally explore what we had been waiting to see for so long. Soon enough, we arrived at another hotel and hustled to change so we could get to the camels.

We trekked into the desert by camelback, and after about ten minutes my body was already sore. The views were staggering, the smell of camel poop pungent—and I couldn’t have been happier. I named my camel Maxwell, and the two of us ventured across the smooth sand as a team.  About halfway to our campsite, we stopped and took a break to “play in the sand,” as Douaa, our campus coordinator, put it. I unmounted Maxwell and plunged into the soft, fine sand. I made sand angels, playing with sand in my hands, throwing it in the air, and rolling down the dune. Sitting in silence with the sand between my toes and the sun setting in the distance, I could not believe how lucky I was.

We arrived at camp after another thirty minutes on the camels, and I was relieved to walk on my own. Our camp was luxurious by desert standards. It had solar-powered lights, flush toilets, comfortable beds, and, of course, a mesmerizing view. Dinner was followed by a campfire, s’mores, and dancing. The coldness of the desert hit fast.

Cassidy, Taylor and I decided we wanted to stargaze and grabbed a couple of blankets and set out. We didn’t have to travel far before we could see stars surrounding us The Milky Way was visible, and we jokingly pointed out constellations, even if we only really knew the Big Dipper. The shooting stars made for many wishes, though one of mine was coming true in that moment. We cuddled up in bed to try and stay warm but not much helped. The 4:45 am wake up was coming soon.

Students under the Sahara stars
Students under the Sahara stars

Leaving the comfort of my blankets, the frigid morning was quite hard, but the roar of the 4-wheelers helped to get my adrenaline pumping. Since it was still too dark to start riding, we huddled around the fire and shared stories from the night before. My favorite was Hannah’s, who fell asleep by the fire and, in the middle of the night, sleepwalked back to her tent. The only problem was that she had wandered into a tent with people she had never seen before who only spoke Spanish. Hannah quickly scurried away and found her real tent.

Finally, the sun began to rise, and Cassidy and I boarded our 4-wheeler. Though the air was cold and my body was tired,  the sensation of driving through the Sahara is impossible to capture in words; only pictures can describe the beauty.

Our time on the 4-wheelers flew by, and soon enough we were back at the hotel for another quick breakfast and a bathroom break. It was 7:30 am when we left the hotel, and we had to be at the train station before 7 pm that night, a challenge the bus drivers accepted head on. The ten-hour drive went by much faster this time around, probably because we only took a twenty-minute break for lunch that included an unanticipated confrontation with the police.

We drove even faster and took the turns of the mountain so hard that I almost flew out of my seat. By some miracle, we made it to the Marrakech train station in time for us to have some McDonalds and use the bathroom, both a much-anticipated luxury. I laid down in my bunk, took a melatonin, and fell asleep around 8 pm.

We returned to Tangier early Monday morning around 6 am, a harsh wake up when my standard routine has me rolling out of bed around 9:30 am at the earliest. Still, after going through all the pictures on my phone and rewinding the weekend over and over again in my head, the trip didn’t seem real. Even with forty-two hours of traveling, four motion sickness pills, and sand in places I never thought sand could be, it was one of the best trips of my life.  We traveled from Tangier, the northwest tip of Morocco, all the way to the Sahara Desert, just 25km away from the Algerian border. I got to travel the entire country in just three short days and can still not fully comprehend all that I have done here. With only a month and a half left in this beautiful country, I am ready to fully enjoy and embrace this time because I know I am going to miss it.

Julia Currier is a Health, Wellness and Occupational Studies major at the University of New England.

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