Desert Sojourns

Desert SojournsAs the plane dipped its wing the scattered lights of Marrakech slid into view. Banking hard, the jet pulled itself around and set up for its approach in the warm night. It felt like the sun set a long time ago but a faint yellow glow still clung to the horizon, past the black hills and over towards the ocean far away. My journey took me in the opposite direction. The following morning I would depart east towards Algeria and the desert.

A gaggle of Americans, eight or ten of them, flapped around in the passport check line. They were excited and noisy on the empty flight, too. They asked me if I was from California. I said I was, and that I’ve been in Copenhagen for six months. The passport man eyeballed them hard. I got a stamp and got out of there. A city bus waited outside, past the rabid hordes of taxi guys barking loud. I jumped on, paid the bearded bus driver, and waited. After twenty minutes and a few more people we got underway. The black sky above was pierced with a thousand white lights, far away and unimaginable. All around the bus mopeds, bicycles, donkey carts, and trucks bounced everywhere; chaos rules the Moroccan street. We hit the centre of town and the bus driver slowed, calling me forward. “You are staying there. Remember that.” I had showed him a map and a name earlier. The bus stopped a few minutes later and after flashing a smile to the driver I jumped head on into a new world.

Yellow light filtered down from worn streetlamps that lined the street. In the street traffic bounced and weaved through itself, constantly on the edge of chaos. The sidewalk is safe until a rogue scooter decides it’s faster to jump the curb than dodge cars. Carts with old dirty donkeys pull by. They look like the saddest creatures ever. Off to the left, past a dark section of trees and paths, was an explosion of lights and people. I took a step towards it but kept heading to the riad the bus driver had pointed at. The explosion could be explored later and without a backpack.

The side street appeared after a few minutes and soon enough I was laying on a bed staring out an ornate window into the dark. I still had to find Abdullah, my first contact here. I found him downstairs with the newspaper, he said he was waiting for me. We set off into the mayhem to get some tea and some food. Around us men with dark faces sprawled piles of t-shirts and jackets on dirty rugs. “Cheap, my friend! Come come!” they would say through their smiles. One had to admire their persistence. We wove our way through late into the night; the street performers, medicine men, cooks, and tourists slid around us in a whirlwind.

The bus left at 8:30 the next morning and would not arrive in M’hamid until after nightfall, more than 10 hours away. I said goodbye to Abdullah and found a seat. My bag went in the back and I tipped the bus man so he would keep an eye on it. The inside of the bus was dark: black seats, black carpet, black curtains. It looks cleaner that way and this bus looked dirty. An old man sat down next to me. If wrinkles were years he’d be a thousand. Through the whole journey I sat next to some interesting faces, both young and old. It was the people’s bus; I was the only foreigner. With a roar of diesel we groaned out of Marrakech.

The energy of the city quickly faded into the flat, rural countryside. Date palms flashed green past the window as white robed men walked slowly by the side of the road. Every so often a dirt crossroad would appear and disappear. After a few hours we reached the base of the shadowed and snow-capped Atlas Mountains. The bus grunted, downshifted, and began the slow Icarus climb up towards the white sun. The narrow road wound up and up, black asphalt switching back on itself countless times, an enormous snake amongst the dry mountain bushes. The bus driver’s assistant passed out little plastic baggies in case anyone got sick. A few did.

We stopped at a small mountain village lining the road closely as all mountain villages do. A blue, frothing stream rushed away nearby as the bus unloaded to stretch stiff legs and buy a little food from the few restaurants and shops lining the dirt sidewalk. With a few coins I bought some water from a toothless old man and slowly wandered up and down the street. The village was two minutes long, round trip. After a few laps the bus burst to life and the driver smashed on the horn. Everyone moved quickly and the bus bumped forward again, heading down the long snake road.

The Atlas Mountains peaked with the sun then faded away as we rumbled eastward still. The sun was dropping lower towards the distant horizon and the rocky hills began to light up gold and orange. We passed massive canyons cut deep into the red earth and green, happy oases bursting with palms, mud canals, washerwomen and their playing children. Eventually the sun disappeared past the infinite, rugged horizon and the purple twilight grew to replace it. I smiled a weary road smile for twilight is my favourite time of day. It is the pause between the in-breath and out-breath of night and day; a time of stillness, silhouettes, newly crackling fires, and the smell of cooking food.

M’hamid is at the end of the road. We stopped in its dirt parking lot well past dark with only a few of us left on the bus. Most got off in the oasis towns of Zagora or Ouarzazate. Of the remaining I was the only one who didn’t know where to go. I had been told that there would be a man waiting for me when the bus arrived. As the bus driver pulled the keys and everything went dark I left the bus and practically landed in the arms of my guide, Muhammed. He was a small man standing in the bright moonlight and his white smile flashed bright as he saw me. I grabbed my bag and we set off down the dusty moonlit street towards his home, where I was to stay before departing the next morning for the desert. We eventually pushed through the small, heavy door into his mud brick, windowless home where inside lived some of the warmest, friendliest people I’ve ever met. I ate dinner with Muhammed and a few of his family before falling asleep on the textured, colourful home made rugs and pillows that lined the main room and curled up its dirty walls. We had an early start the next day.

The sun rose without me. When I finally stretched awake between eight and nine preparations for the journey were already well underway. The camels sat with their crazy legs tucked under them and woven baskets slung over their brown backs loaded down with enough food and water for Muhammed, his young son Hassan, and myself. Muhammed is someone who seems to have boundless energy. He runs ultra-marathons in his spare time, multi-day events through hellish conditions for body and mind. He speaks French, Arabic, and Berber and I definitely don’t. So instead we have intense charade and sketch conversations together, gesturing like madmen with goofy grins plastered all over our faces. We were ready for five days through the Moroccan desert. In front of the house neighbours passed and gazed curiously, smiling. It was a family trip, plus one. Soon enough we were ready to depart and with eyes on the horizon we quickly cleared the rough, garbage strewn edge of M’hamid. We walked, camels in line behind us, for three hours out away from the village. Army green shrubs dotted the vast open land. Underfoot the sand was crusted and yellow and blowing low. During the first hours my eyes were wide as we walked through the low dry bush land under the great blue dome of the sky.

Journal Entry:  Camp fire + dinner: dates, peanuts, tea, vegetables steamed/stewed: squash, carrots, onions, potatoes, tomatoes. plus spices. then apples and tangerines for dessert.  I just realized that I am the farthest from civilization that I have ever been. Ever. It’s fantastic! Watched the sun set and an hour later the moon rose big and yellow. The stars shined bright for that in-between hour but now are almost all lost in the moonlight. This is one of the best trips I’ve been on. Muhammed and his son are good people. I played football in the hot sun with Hassan today. We used an old vegetable oil bottle and just went for it. He’s seven or eight and classic. He walked almost the whole time today – six or seven hours in the heat. He was shy but after the football match we’re friends.  Camels munching in the background. Silence except the scratch of my lead onto this paper. I want to write everything. I can only write nothing. End of Journal Entry

The day passed with subtle changes. The desert tableau shifted in the wind as our feet carried us onwards. The sun would rise cold and silent as the wind howled over the growing dunes. Breakfast is prepared over the open fire that snaps to life in the morning chill. Tea is heated and poured from tin kettle to glass and back to kettle over and over. With long, towering pours the sugar dissolves. The tea steeps. Simple and strong. The coming of the sun is tracked by the successive lighting of the dunes to the west. The warm line would creep closer until it would suddenly move past our sandy camp and the sun the sun shone clear and bright from the east. Hassan would sleep or stay covered until breakfast was ready. The camels picked at the low, scattered brush surrounding the camp, free except for the rope binding their front legs and restricting their stride to short, clumsy staggers. The morning routine also involved wrapping the black headscarf so it would cover the head, neck, and face. Initially Muhammed would wrap and tie mine but soon enough I could take the long stretch of dark cotton in both dirty hands and wrap it around my dirty hair and over my dirty neck. When Muhammed saw this he laughed, proud, and teased Hassan because mine was done better than his.

Lunch breaks are long for a reason. We stop when the sun is high in the sky burning January hot rays down. Muhammed smiles as he sees the bright beads of sweat. Summer is hotter – much hotter. I gaze upwards at the sun again, thankful. Here, way out, it dictates life. It and the constant wind. Shade is found next to the dry, mounded Tamarisk trees nested in the valleys between yellow, blowing dunes. Eventually even the lonely trees stop, exhausted by the sun above. Fire. Tea. Lunch unfolds from the dusty sacks and boxes carried by our camels. They wander again, huge hairy lips searching for food in this nowhere land. One, the darker of the two, loves the orange peels left over. I feed her the scraps from my flattened palm and she looks at me with big brown camel eyes reflecting the deep desert beyond. She’s always around camp and has to be driven off my the little Hassan, wielding a knotted green rope and shouting mad into the emptiness.

Journal Entry:  The sun vanishes in a haze of lit clouds, disappearing for another day. I sit on the west facing slope of a darkening dune a short ways from tonight’s camp under the mounded Tamarisk tree. Muhammed is preparing the fire to make bread. We ate the last of what we brought this afternoon under the towering sun. We climbed a huge dune, a mountain of sand, barefoot and scrambling. At the top Muhammed sat with Hassan in the wind and hot blowing sand and told him about the mountains, the desert, how far away M’Hamid lies (34 km, straight), and why the draa (river swale) is where it is. I sat back and wrapped the black fabric over my face to filter the sand. It was blowing fast and hard up up up and over the dune’s narrow ridgeline. Deposits of sand built up on the opposite side, slowly moving the dunes grain by grain.  End of Journal Entry

We sat at the top of the highest dune around, a full three hundred meters of sand. The desert exists as a shifting and painted landscape. It isn’t just sand, which piles in clumps and you know where it is. Rocks crop out. Dry lakebeds crack. Tired green trees push towards the sky with dusty branches and exposed roots twisting through the dry ground. It is those trees that provide the bulk of our firewood. Muhammed and I collect it in the fading silhouette light as the ever-present sun drifted below the black horizon. Arms full we march ten minutes back through the dunes. The branches are bone-dry and caked with dust. They light instantly, cracking and popping and spitting warmth and a red glow under the dusty tree where we sit in silence.

Each night the moon rose after a few hours of starred darkness. Its rise was full and bright, the coming of a second sun washing the stars away. The moon hung there round and gray until the cold morning where it would drift down slow, disappearing under the sandy horizon while the sun began its climb once again. Nights are dominated by journals and stories and laughter. The tea flows and the fire burns to red coals under the endless night sky.

The pace in the desert is slower. Things are noticed, observed, and recognized. The sand shifts in colour, pattern, grain, and softness. The trees exist in long rows of tangled roots, low and small. The old trees stand alone on their mounds, proud and strong. Dung beetles scramble black against the sand, paths and destinations unknown. We wander, I am lost, but Muhammed knows. He will stop, look at the ground, look at the sky, and change our direction enough to get us where we are going. All the while Hassan smiles and laughs, constantly wanting to play. The little nomad is full of energy. He monkeys in the brittle trees. The limbs he snaps we plant as a new desert forest on sandy ridgelines. We play games in the sand, especially a form of tic-tac-toe with the date-sized rock hard camel dung. I let him win sometimes. He lets me win sometimes. He captures the dung beetles, throwing them a thousand beetle kilometres across the hot mid-day dunes.

Our route, a large wobbly circle led out from M’hamid and eventually turned after le grand dune back towards where we came from. Backs to the sun we walked on. Off to the left, stretching on into the distance, a low line of dark trees signalled a now-dry riverbed. Here we headed, cutting up and over the shrinking dunes until a way led through the band of trees, wider than expected, and down into the wide dry river crossed with tracks. In the distance, northwards, two camels walked slowly behind a nomad dressed in dark robes. Muhammed knew the man, as he had known everyone in his village and as he knew everyone we would meet on our walk back. We walked on and met the man, exchanging greetings in Arabic. All smiles, white teeth flashing under bright eyes. Our roads led in different directions and we parted ways. After a few minutes I looked back; the man and his camels were lost to the shifting sands. The riverbed, the draa, contains a deep well deep and cool. A bucket made of dirty plastic hangs from a worn rope, anchored to a green steel frame standing rigid above the well. The camels drink long; they haven’t had water in days. Hassan laughs and spills water as he refills the black buckets for them. He’s sitting on the raised edge of the well, barefoot and dirty. A child of the desert. The son of a nomad.

The changing landscapes continued as the day wore on and the sun began its drop towards the cool night. From the draa we progressed onwards past stacked stone ruins of long abandoned outposts. Their thick walls grew from the red desert, a fold of the land built against the wind and sun. All that remained, like so many things here, was the scoured bones of occupation. We looked through the rough doorways and imagined.

Clouds covered the sun and we walked on. Hassan rode up on the darker camel. I walked in my usual spot to the left and slightly behind the rear camel. Here I found the rhythm my steps merge with those of the camels and the deep howl of the wind. I had walked there for three days previous, sometimes moving forward to guide the camels, sometimes dropping farther back. That night at the fire we ate well. Muhammed made bread in the hot coals to dip in the vegetable curry. Cool cucumbers sat in a neat pile. The tree of us eventually lay back and looked to the heavens. The stars burned holes in the blackness. Earlier, after the fire burst to life, I walked out into the void beyond the warm light. It was the farthest from anywhere I’d ever been. A yell, loud and primal, gets lost in the night; evaporated into isolation. Hassan, far away at the shifting fire, yelled his yell up at the great vast sky above our heads. We laughed, points in the emptiness. In the absence of anything we find everything. The fire fades and its coals are raked in three long bars and covered with sand. They stay warm most of the night, insulated by the sand, blankets, and bodies piled above. The camels are silent in the night. Their big eyes rest like ours, readying for the next bright day to follow as they always do.

Dawn is as spectacular as dusk, a full moon sets as an orange sun rises. Cycles begin anew. The fire, always and constant, crackles with dry desert wood. Hassan is buried under blankets and doesn’t emerge until breakfast is ready. Muhammed shivers in the cold, smiling as always, and we warm our hands on the fire until the tea is ready. Today will be the final day. Later we will walk slowly through the outskirts of M’Hamid as the sun sets red behind the mountains in the far distance. The day after the bus will take me up and over them, chasing the sun back to Marrakech. My head swirls with thoughts of the other world, out there, that I will soon return to. The days walk takes us through land increasingly cut with tire tracks and bits of random garbage bleached by the harsh elements. In the distance slow caravans move along ancient routes. I open my eyes wider, trying to absorb it all in one last day. My clothes, unchanged since leaving Rome so long ago, before Marrakesh, before the bus rides, are dirty but comfortably so. Sand and dust have invaded every fold and crease, as it has in Muhammed’s and Hassan’s clothes as well. They didn’t change so I didn’t either. The sand infiltrates everything. My camera’s lens grinds as it slowly opens to capture another one. My shoes trap it; we go barefoot every chance we get, Hassan and I.

The TV flickers and hums to life. In the mud brick home of Muhammed and his family I sit on those thick rugs and talk with an older cousin named Hassan. We speak Spanish, him better than I but it is a common ground nonetheless. We talk about what we can but I mostly just feel like sitting in silence. In the background the TV shows an American movie about a girl terrorized by her psychotic, truck-driving ex-boyfriend who chases her around the countryside in his big black Chevy. It’s completely absurd and a little surreal. I can’t help but laugh out loud; I don’t think those around me quite get how ridiculous the spectacle is for me. A study in contrasts to be sure. Dinner comes with smiles. Little Hassan eats next to me and draws in my sketchbooks. The desert, for him, is a second home. I say little and focus on my food and reflecting on the week that has passed under the sun. We made it back to M’Hamid in the late afternoon glow. At a well I drew water for the camels. Their big wise eyes shined at me lazily. They’ve seen it all before. They know. Every so often as we approached the fringe of the town Muhammed would stop and talk with friends; it seemed he knew everyone. We passed through the dirt streets and found his house. His wife was across the way washing with a neighbour. She smiled and waved but didn’t leave her work. Kids played football in the dust. More cousins greeted us and helped with the tired camels as we headed inside for some tea.

The morning comes early after a deep sleep on the thick rugs. Muhammed was going with me to Zagora, and I was going onwards alone from there. A horn sounded outside the door and it was time. We hurried out the small door and into the waiting bus, much smaller than the one I took previously. Tired men and women sat in the seats. Muhammed insisted I sit up front, next to the driver, while he lay in the back and fell asleep. We bumped over the dirt roads through town for almost a half hour picking up people for the early journey west. As we were about to clear the edge of town we slowed and picked up a police officer. He joined me in the front, sandwiching me between him, the gearshift, and the driver. Gruff smiles flashed in the darkness and the driver slammed a cassette of prayer chants into the tape deck. A haunted, mournful voice consumed the bus. After awhile the sun rose as the road wound on. I struggled to find a comfortable position but the view was good. The driver bombed full-on down the narrow road. Oncoming traffic would dodge to the side at the last minute. Every so often we would stop to pick up a few people until the bus was packed full. The cassette flipped for the fourth time. A and B sides were a total of thirty minutes, maybe forty. The same voice rang out once again as the bus driver missed a shift and gears ground under our feet.

From Zagora I said goodbye to Muhammed and got on the next bus, a big one like the first time. He talked to the bus driver and got me a good seat, not too far forward not too far back. He smiled proudly and waved as the bus pulled onto the main road. West again, back to Marrakech. Some long, uncounted hours later the bus pulled into the city under the black night. I grabbed my bag and headed off to find where I came from. The back streets wound crazily, narrow and bending under yellow lamps. It seemed everyone was going everywhere at once. The contrast with the previous week could not have been greater. Eventually I found the main square and the riad I stayed at. Tonight they were full, even for me. I asked if I could leave my bag while I explored the city for a few hours. Of course. Smiles.

After a dinner of fresh squeezed orange juice, the best I’d ever had, I set off through the streets in search of nothing. To wander, that is the only way to find anything. Street rats, old men, fashionable women, groups of teenagers, and tourists flooded the centre of the city. Everything was being sold: watches, shoes, rugs, lamps, food, mystic crystals, everything. I bought nothing but enjoyed the spectacle as I looped a big circle before grabbing my bag and heading to the airport. The flight was in the morning, Marrakech to London to Copenhagen, so I’d sleep at the airport. The same bus driver that had dropped me off now picked me up. Marrakech blazed through the window as we sped towards the future. The few people on the bus threw me looks: I was dirty, tired, beat, worn out, and completely happy. The airport is under construction and as a result isn’t the greatest place to sleep so I headed out past the lights of the empty parking lot and found an old dark orange grove to lay my sleeping bag in and shut my eyes for a few hours. Soon the sun came, and I was on the plane pulling up hard away from Morocco and the desert. We cut North through the sun. I had sketchbooks out, taking up three seats in the back row. The stewardess smiled and sat next to me for awhile, wanting stories. She said they didn’t have many people like me on their flights, with all my notes and drawings and dirt, and I said that’s probably a good thing.

Looking down through the tiny round window the desert country stretched into the distance. Mountains cast long shadows from the sun, still early in its rise. I turned and focused back on my sketchbooks as the plane flew smooth and true.

Journal Entry:  Winding through the dunes there was a sense of isolation that I have not felt for a long time. It was a different kind than many because of its duality: while isolating it is at the same time connecting – people, thoughts, sounds, the sky and the earth. It wraps, overwhelms, comforts, and consumes. One becomes aware of the changes in the sand, the slow steady course of the sun, the howl of the wind in places distant but visible. The sojourn here in the desert is never-ending. The sojourn here is life itself.  End of Journal Entry