Marhaba b-Merzouga![

[or: Don’t Fight a Dung Beetle for Its Dinner]
[or: TIM- This is Merzouga]
[or: I don’t speak French!]
[or: These Days…]

I’m back from the Sahara! It was a long, exhausting weekend, but also one of the craziest and most exciting experiences of my life. I know I will never be able to do all the things that I saw and did justice with words, but I will try to give an excruciatingly detailed account of what happened as best I can. So here goes.
Thursday night Addison, Michael, Ben, and I set off for the bus station around 9:40PM. Upon arriving, I realized how nervous I was- getting on a bus to drive eight hours south of Meknes, to be picked up by someone we didn’t know, and do who knows what. Taban, the boys, being adventurous and manly and whatnot, weren’t nervous at all. My fears were eased somewhat when Moha showed up to wish us bon voyage and give us a few last minute pointers on the desert- he’s originally from a tribe in the Sahara. At 10:15, we said goodbye to Moha and got on the huge CMT bus. It wasn’t anything fancy, but it was better than what we were expecting. Ben and I sat together, and Michael and Addison sat together. And so the trip began!
Ben and I talked for a few hours about random things in our lives, and after the bus stopped for dinner around 1am [and we got 20Dh orange juice- kadeem!], I persuaded him to cuddle and had one of the most comfortable dozes ever. The drive itself was gorgeous. We went through forests and valleys and up and down mountains and across gorges….not to mention the stars. Driving through remote parts of Morocco, you could see everything- stars exploding across the sky like I had never seen them before.
Finally, four stops and eight hours later, we pulled up to the bus station in Rissani. By the time Michael, Addison and I managed to get our stuff off the bus, Ben had already found Moha’s brother, Aissa [they look exactly alike], and we all climbed into his Land Rover for the 45-minute ride to Merzouga. I cannot tell you the feeling I got inside of me watching the giant sand dunes of the Sahara desert rise up in the distance as we got closer and closer to the village. I was in awe. Huge orange pyramids of sand rising up from behind tiny mud and straw houses- incredible.
Aissa brought us to an auberge [a scaled-down hotel, almost like a hostel but a little nicer] run by his friends Isabelle and Richad, Auberge Sable D’Or. It was a small five room house made out of straw and mud and thatch, with a huge courtyard, a goat pen, and an outdoor room with two wooden beds and a bamboo roof with mosquito netting. Isabelle gave us a room to put our things in and served us a light breakfast of eggs and khubz arabiyy, plus orange juice and café au lait. We had to fill out police forms saying how long we would be in Merzouga, etc, which I thought was hilarious, because the entire time we were there, I never saw a cop or anything semiofficial [we saw a “military base” in the middle of the desert that consisted of one rundown building with a Moroccan flag on the top…wouldn’t you hate to be stationed at Erg Chiba in Merzouga, holding down the fort and watching out for the Algerians?]. In fact, people smoke pot out in the open everywhere. No one tries to hide it at all! We took it easy for a little while, then Aissa loaded us back into the Land Rover, and we were off. We drove out into the sand dunes first, and they were bigger and more beautiful up close than I could have ever imagined. Then the funniest thing happened- a group of about ten boys, all no older than 10, surrounded us, sat down in the sand, and started pulling things out- jewelry, toy camels, plates- trying to sell them to us! It was so surreal, sitting in the sand in the middle of the desert, shopping! After that, Aissa took us a stone’s throw away to the oasis, where a canal of water runs through the desert and each family is allotted a square of land to grow food in. Then we took a short ride through the small market, and drove out to the dunes where they bury people in the sand to cure illnesses like diabetes. Aissa told us he hates the trend because people come in and “leave their sickness in the sand and their trash on the ground”.
Aissa took us back to the auberge when it started getting too hot outside, and we took a five-hour siesta, which was not so much a siesta as a big, uncomfortable, sweaty sometimes-sleep in the main room on the cushions that lined the walls. In the desert, you feel like you should be out doing things because you’re not there long, but it’s too hot to move, much less sightsee. It was even too hot to sleep. I felt like a rotisserie chicken; sleeping on my back until it got too sweaty, then flipping over…for five hours.
Finally, sometime after 5pm, Aissa suggested we go back out in the four-wheel-drive. He took us out to the border of Mauritania, which I wish we could have crossed. Aissa was driving like a madman over the dunes and we were having a great time bouncing around when suddenly the car came to an abrupt stop. Aissa gunned the engine and shifted gears for a few minutes before we all got out to check out the situation. The tires were nearly completely under the sand! It was really funny for me watching the boys push the Land Rover while Aissa dug the sand out from under the tires.
We went to the market for an hour where the boys and I cooled down with some much-needed Coca Cola, and we missed the sunset, which we were all really upset about. We got back to the auberge just in time [I’m definitely being sarcastic here] to wait two hours for dinner to be ready- after 11pm! It was couscous Friday, and we all ate under the stars- if you could call it eating. In fact, if you combined all the food we ate over the course of the weekend, it would probably add up to be less than two cups of food! After dinner was a really cool experience: Richad and some of his Berber friends got out their gnaoua instruments [gnaoua is a native type of music here; we’ve heard really weird stories about girls getting possessed by it and dancing hysterically for hours, so I was a little nervous at first] and played for us under the stars. It was to primal and tribal and raw and real and a million other things at once. I finally felt like I was in Africa, but there was something distinctively Arabic about it too. It was all very intoxicating and overwhelming. The other thing that took away from it was that everyone was passing around a joint as they were playing, and of course I was bothered by that, and a little nervous to be around it [yea yea, I’m a naïve little goody-goody- I don’t care!], but I guess to sing and play and be so carnal like they were, it was conceivable that they would be high. Soon we were all starting to fall asleep, so mattresses were put on the roof for us, and we all headed up to pass out…but the sight of the stars unobstructed by anything was so breathtaking that you couldn’t tear your eyes from them to go to sleep. Shooting stars were streaking across the sky every few seconds, and the Milky Way stretched across the heavens like a giant silver ribbon. I’ve never seen anything like it; the sky was so clear and bright and flawless; I know I will never forget the sight of it. Finally, we all cuddled up and slept until 8am the next morning.
I woke up sick, which was horrible. I felt dehydrated and hot and faint and like both ends of my body would explode at any moment. Unfortunately, this feeling would last all weekend and for two days once I got back to Meknes. A shower didn’t help much; neither did the few bites of “breakfast” [eggs and bread- I’m telling you, they don’t eat in the desert!] that I had. Also, my nose started bleeding, and hasn’t stopped yet! I’m starting to get a little worried; five days of continuous nosebleed? Hardly healthy!
Also, a brief sidenote that is probably an overshare [grandparents and other relatives, feel free to skip this part!]: your nose produces the gnarliest boogers ever in the desert. Like, really. Giant, rockhard, bloody, painful boogers. All of us spent the entire weekend excavating them. We call them doogers: desert boogers. They need their own name because they’re one of a kind- my nose will never be the same! Ok, I’m done; I apologize for being disgusting!
Moving on.
Autumn had arrived from Meknes early that morning, so around 11 we headed out to show her the dunes.
Aissa took us on a tour all the way around the dunes, which lasted for three hours. I don’t actually remember much of this, because the bouncing of the 4WD put me to sleep- I was so sick and my eyes were on fire [contacts wearers beware- the desert will dry contacts up in an hour flat! Your eyes will burn and be itchy the entire time!]. We made a stop at a Berber family’s house- a very small, very primitive mud house, where we were served tea. It was a million degrees outside, but somehow the interior rooms were cool! However, it still boggles my mind that people drink hot mint tea in the middle of the Sahara! After the second or third cup I was served over the weekend, I decided I couldn’t do it anymore, no matter how much I love it!
Aissa explained to us as we were driving around that a Touareg is anyone who travels around the desert, so technically the five of us were Touaregs. I’m sure this is just something tour guides tell dumb white people to give them a little desert thrill, and it worked. We were all pretty excited.
We arrived at a gnaoua village next. All of the people there practice gnaoua music, and little boys are sent from other villages to learn it there. We sat in a cool, shady room, and about a dozen men came in in traditional dress and played about six songs for us, which was amazing. The music really is enthralling- I can kind of understand why women are “possessed” by it. I suppose there is something tribal and ancient in us all that is so moved by that thunderous beat that our bodies just take on a life all their own despite us. After they finished, they invited us to learn how to play their instruments. I tried my hand at the bongos, but sadly, I wasn’t blessed with the gift of rhythm. Michael and I tried to master the Berber castinets, but they’re large and bulky and take a lot of finger coordination to use, so it was a disaster. Autumn was really good at the different types of drums, and so was Ben. Then, one of the men decided he wanted us to dance, and pulled us all up to form a circle where we all took turns in the middle, imitating how we was dancing, but eventually giving up and doing our own thing. The whole experience was really fun and enlightening, and I really felt like a part of it the entire time, as opposed to just feeling like an observer in my own experience [you’d be surprised how often I feel like that here, especially on tours and things of that nature]. I also saw the cutest little African girl ever- I wanted to pull a Madonna and take her back home with me.
We got back to the auberge with less than an hour to spare before our Berber camping adventure. We all packed up a few small bags, and went outside, where there was a camel train waiting for us. Finally! I told my mom before I came that I wouldn’t come home until I had ridden a camel, and for a while I was afraid it wouldn’t happen. A few other tourists joined us – four Italians and a French man and his daughter who had been staying in the auberge with us: Jean Claude and his daughter who we affectionately [or not] called Kelly Osbourne. Jean Claude was nice enough; he was just very French. By this, I mean he wore jean shorts and shirts that were too tight for him in various shades of black, and had dyed his hair black when it obviously should have been gray, and spoke to me in French constantly even though he knew I didn’t speak the language except for a few phrases I’ve picked up from Ben. Kelly Osbourne, on the other hand, rubbed me the wrong way from the beginning. Our first day at the auberge, she spent over seven hours straight on the computer. This infuriated me because, come on, you’re in the freaking Sahara desert! She also made a snide comment about my French accent, which was so stereotypically French of her, and bothered me, because I don’t pretend to speak French, and I definitely don’t pretend to be good at the few words I do speak. Did I mention this girl is only fifteen and a half? I figure if you’re young enough to still be counting half-years, you’re too young to be snarky to an adult [Dios mio, I just called myself an adult- scary!] like that. Our impressions of these two divided the group somewhat over the weekend. Ben, of course, loved them, because he speaks French and could communicate with them. Michael, Autumn and I banded together in our dislike for them and became Team Danielle. Addison was somewhere in the middle as a type of Switzerland. The debate rages on even now. But more on those two in a minute.
We got onto our camels; mine was of typical-camel color and composition; I affectionately called him Phillip. Later, our Berber guides would tell us his name was Blondie, and he became Phillip Blondie Jamel [the Arabic word for camel], or PBJ for short. Getting onto a camel is an experience in itself. They get up very slowly, straightening one joint at a time, so you’re jolted violently forward as their front legs begin to unfold, and stay there, coming dangerously close to falling face-first into the sand, until they stretch out their back legs. The ride is bumpy and uncomfortable, but hey, you’re riding a camel, you can’t really complain. So we started our two hour trek through the desert to our campsite, which was largely uneventful, or at least as uneventful as riding a camel through the Sahara desert at dusk can possibly be. At one point, Jean Claude whips out his cell phone to make a call- in the middle of the Sahara desert. Michael took one look at him, looked at me, and simply said, “Team Danielle”. It was the icing on the cake. Oh, you silly Frenchman!
I did, however, sing the Alabama fight song. I’m pretty sure I’m the first person ever en la historia del mundo to sing Yea Alabama on the back of a camel in the middle of the Sahara. It was a pretty cool feelings.
We stopped for a few minutes to watch the sun sink down behind the dunes, and Michael, Ben, and I seized the opportunity to make sand angels. Then we loaded ourselves back onto the camels to finish the journey to the tents. It was pretty dark by time we got to the two small bivouacs situating between two big dunes, so the five of us laid down in the sand and watched the stars come out. We did this for a few hours, and attempted to make small talk with the Italians [in their limited English] while Ben chatted up Jean Claude. Finally, around 11:30, it was time for dinner, which, as usual, was small and unfulfilling…stupid desert food. Everyone got their mattresses to go to sleep afterwards, and we found a little spot behind one of the tents in the hopes that it would block some of the sand from blowing on us [no such luck; it’s the desert, for pete’s sake!]. After laying down for a few minutes, Autumn, Ben, and I decide to make it a truly unforgettable experience and go streaking. As soon as we decide that yes, it’s time to do it, and no, we don’t care if people aren’t asleep, it’s too dark for them to see anything anyway, Ben pops up and begins running around the sand like a crazy man, doing flips and somersaults and just generally acting crazy. In the dark, all we could see was the white outline of shorts- I thought he was still wearing his boxers, and was furious that he was cheating!
“Ben, you have to be naked to go streaking!” I yell.
“I am naked!” was the reply. “Touch my butt!”
I didn’t believe him; I could clearly see white boxers. At this point, he launches himself onto me and all I feel is…nakedness. It was at this exact moment that I realized the white boxers I was seeing was his tanline from Asilah, and he was, in fact, naked…and on me. So Autumn and I jump up, strip down, and take off through the dunes, laughing and yelling and being silly. It really was one of the most freeing, liberating feelings ever- the warm Sahara air rushing against my body, and the sand both warm and cold at once beneath my feet. After we were out of breath [running in the sand is hard work!], we ran over to where we had dumped our clothes to find…that Ben had stolen them! I ran back to the mattresses and dove beneath one.
“Oh my God, she’s naked.” Michael says in the darkness.
“Ben, give me back my clothes!” I yell.
Finally, after some cajoling, he throws our clothes at us..but my underwear are missing. So I make him go out into the dunes and find them.
We fell asleep shortly thereafter, and Ben failed to wake me up to watch the sunrise, although he claims otherwise. I remain unconvinced.
My wakeup was eventful, though. Around 6:45, I felt something tickling my face. I thought it was Ben, because he had woken me up the morning before by tickling my face. When it didn’t stop after a few seconds, I blearily opened my eyes to find…a camel. Right above me. Really?! Who can say they’ve been woken up by a curious camel in the Sahara desert?! Ohebu al-Maghreb!
We cleaned up a little bit [brushing your teeth without water –at this point we had run out- is not a pleasant experience by any stretch of the imagination] and got back on the camels for the two hour ride back to Merzouga. I was feeling sick, but trying to be tough and stick it out. The Sahara was a humbling experience for me. I was trying to push my body to the limit and take it to a place it had never been physically, but it just wouldn’t go to where I was trying to push it. It was like I had hit a wall, and no matter how hard I tried to spur myself on, my body wouldn’t cooperate. No Danielle, it kept saying, I’ve reached my limit. I was a little surprised and very humbled, not to mention a little embarrassed to be the only one who got sick. At one point, I had to ask Ben to ask the Berbers to stop my camel so I could get off and lay in the sand, because I thought I was going to vomit. On the way down, my body felt so weak that my grip on the saddle loosened and I almost went flying off the camel. I didn’t even care; I was too sick.
The auberge was a welcome sight. I got off my camel and went inside without even telling our guides goodbye. I sprawled out on the cushions in the main room and tried to will my nausea away. Breakfast didn’t help much, and a shower was frustrating at best. After three days of not washing my hair and washing my body with antibacterial hand soap, I felt sick, dirty, and hairy. Finally, Aissa drove us to Rissani to begin the last leg of our trip. He gave us a tour of the medina there, which was like any other medina: busy, bustling, chaotic, with acrid smells and too much noise and all kinds of activity that I usually find interesting but on Sunday found overwhelming and exhausting. I think we were all worn out from the travel, lack of sleep, little food, and hot weather. Despite the fact that the five of us there get along the best out of the entire ISA group, we were all snapping at each other and being very irritable. I know I must have been hard to deal with, what with the being sick and all, even though I tried to be as little of an inconvenience as possible with the state that I was in. After the souq, we saw a really interesting animal market, which, regrettably, I didn’t appreciate fully while we were there because I was preoccupied with making sure I didn’t puke. There was a big, open room filled with goats that were being literally thrown and stuffed into carts, bleating and yelling something awful. Another room had dozens of cows in it, tied up and mooing. Finally, a big open field adjacent to a huge pen contained hundreds and hundreds of donkeys- mating, standing, pooping, making noise, being loaded down with bags…it was a PETA person’s nightmare, but really interesting to see.
Eventually I couldn’t handle the activity anymore, and Addison, Michael and I went to a café to lay down while Autumn and Ben went shopping. Autumn bought me a really pretty green caftan shirt since I couldn’t go, and it was much appreciated. We were all starving, to Aissa took us to his house where we were served Moroccan pizza. Everyone was really impressed with it, but it was definitely not to my liking. There was some spice akin to cinnamon in it that I felt really weird about…but oh well. After lunch, we went to the basement of Aissa’s shop across the street where it was shady and cool and took the world’s most amazing nap on the floor…on mats like kindergarteners. It was funny, but so necessary, because we were all dying!
We woke up at 6pm, and our bus was leaving at 8, but Ben insisted we do the Circuit touristique, an hour and a half ride around Rissani to see the 300-odd casbahs and countryside. We went, and it was interesting and the scenery was beautiful, but I was starting to get nervous around 7:45 when Aissa was still talking and we weren’t at the bus station yet. Finally I told Ben we absolutely had to go. Aissa got us to the station, we paid him, and very nearly missed the bus.
The ride was long and miserable and uncomfortable; mostly, I think, because we were all very ready to be home and go to sleep and get back to urinating, sweating, and pooping normally [or as much as you can in Morocco in general]. Finally, at 4am we arrived back in Meknes sweet Meknes and made the walk home from the bus station, exhausted but exhilarated at the weekend we had just had. We were sweaty, tired, my hair was tangled beyond belief, I was sick, my uterus hurt, and everyone was slightly grouchy, but we still laughed and joked the whole way home.
It has taken me three days to write all of this down because I would get so frustrated at how words simply could not do the experience justice. In that time, Autumn unfortunately had to leave Morocco early due to a death in the family, and today we took our final exams in Arabic and Religion. Tonight, Michael and I spent some quality time [four hours!] together in the medina doing some last minute shopping. It is hard for me to comprehend that in a few days, all of this will be a memory. Sitting at a café in the medina tonight, Michael and I talked about how strange it was looking around at the chaos around the Bab Mansour and knowing in a few days it would all be gone, a world away. These last few days here are terrifying- I am constantly worrying that I will forget the way things feel, smell, taste, look…my senses are drowning in so many feelings that I’m afraid it will all just wash over me and leave me forever. It’s horrifying, the idea of forgetting this new life I’ve forged for myself in Morocco. I know my life back home will not be the same, and I know I can never come back to this life here, exactly as it is now. Nothing will be the same after this, but I’m also afraid things will be too much the same- like none of it ever happened. It’s a strange, surreal feeling, and a strange, surreal fear.
That’s it for me tonight, I’m exhausted. More tomorrow after my last day ever at Jahmiya Moulay Ismail. Goodnight.

PS- Michael and Jennifer voted me Most Attractive on this trip. Score one for under-made-up, conservatively dressed Danielle!!!

“This guy is the most annoying motherf----r I’ve ever met!”-Michael Castellano

“I should not have licked that.”-Addison Vawters

“Don’t fight a dung beetle for its dinner.”-Mr. Becker, by way of Ben

“Hello, I am Abdul, nice to meet me.”-shop owner

Salaam wa hubb,

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