Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Up to the Mountains, Down to the Desert
Fulbrights in Morocco are administered by the Moroccan-American Commission for Educational and Cultural Exchange (MACECE). Wednesday through Thursday, the heads of the commission, Saadia M and James M (no relation) came to Fes to take us out for an excursion to Azrou, a quaint town in the mountains. The purpose of the trip was to get to know Saadia (who is, by the way, completely and utterly fabulous- I want to be as classy as her when I grow up) and Jim (who is the new head of Moroccan Fulbright, just started last month). The trip included a 3-hour hike in the cedar forests, where we did see a monkey (!), fabulous meals at the hotel, and stimulating conversation about life in Morocco.
One highlight for me was waking up at 6:30 am to do yoga on the terrace that overlooks the valley, with mountains all around. The sun came up rosy and golden while white cranes sang open the morning. I have not been in a place so serene in a long time. It is so true that mountains have a personality all their own, and that they influence those who choose to explore them.
We passed through a small town called Immouzer, which may just be a place I might consider settling someday, if only it weren’t landlocked. It is lost in the mountains somewhere between Fes and Azrou and I was amazed to see the leaves on the trees turning colors- like a legit Autumn! Along the main road, stucco houses with terra cotta roofs are interspersed with public gardens (!) and cafes. I didn’t see a single foreigner, but I haven’t done a very careful investigation.
We were back in Fes for one day before I left again for an excursion out into the Sahara. A group of us from my language school chartered a bus for the 8-hour southward trek. The first night, we stayed in a swanky Hotel Xaluca outside of Errachida. This place was amazing: a buffet spread of tajines and fruits and salads and desserts, a swimming pool and indoor Jacuzzi and tourists abounding. The hotel was a walled compound in the middle of the desert and was quite a trip in itself.
3 friends and I took a long walk into the village outside of the hotel compound. As we were walking, children were gathering to stare and the women of the village came out to greet us. In true Moroccan style, we were invited to a home for tea and cookies and dates. We used our broken Darija to communicate that we couldn’t stay long, but the nicest salon in the house was unlocked and fresh, warm bread was brought. We exchanged simple questions and took some photos and played with the kids. When we got up to leave, one woman asked us to come back to use the car wash that seemed to be the village’s only attraction (ie, source of income). They will be filed with my list of “hospitality I must pay forward someday”.
On our walk back to the hotel, our conversation turned to the topic of exploration such as this. As foreigners, do we have the right to enter into the lives of Moroccans, explore and ask questions, and leave again without paying back anything? The thought that I may be treating them a little like zoo animals always leaves a bad taste in my mouth . But on the other hand, who am I to think that they are looking for some compensation for their hospitality, as if I am some superior being who can help the humble? And moreover, how does any exploration and intercultural education get accomplished if we never enter diverse communities, even if we have nothing to offer? It is a tough question because, as my friend Kristen said, I just don’t want to play tourist with someone’s life.
That day- in the spirit of tourism- we continued on for 2 hours deep into the Sahara in order to ride a caravan of camels to a Berber encampment, where we stayed in tents for the night. The camel ride was similar to riding horses, only more unpredictable. I got a muscle workout just trying to keep myself from being flung off a camel as it clomped through sand dunes. We started our camel trek as the sun was setting, so we were able to watch the sunset over the desert. There is nothing like this experience.
Paul Bowles wrote an amazing essay called Baptism of Solitude about the wonder of the Sahara desert. He describes:
“Immediately when you arrive in the Sahara, for the first or tenth time, you notice the stillness. An incredible, absolute silence prevails outside the towns; and within, even in busy places like the markets, there is a hushed quality in the air... Then there is the sky, compared to which all other skies seem faint-hearted efforts… At sunset, the precise, curved shadow of the earth rises into it swiftly from the horizon, cutting it into light section and dark section. When all daylight is gone, and the space is thick with stars, it is still of an intense and burning blue, darkest directly overhead and paling toward the earth, so that the night never really grows dark.
When you leave the fort or town behind…you will let something very peculiar happen to you, which the French call le bapteme de la solitude. It is a unique sensation, and it has nothing to do with loneliness, for loneliness presupposes memory. Here, in this wholly mineral landscape lighted by stars like flares, even memory disappears; nothing is left but your own breathing and the sound of your heart beating. A strange, and by no means pleasant, process of reintegration begins inside of you…For no one who has stayed in the Sahara for a while is quite the same as when he came.”
I spent little time in the desert, but I know that it is captivating. As the oceans of sand turned from brown to white to gold to flaming red, I was overwhelmed by the immensity of creation and the littleness of me. The route was pretty much silent, because there seems to be little conversation that is appropriate for the splendor of the desert. And besides, what phrases are spoken seem to get whisked away by the wind or buried in the ever-shifting sand.
Our guides knew the exact route to take, even in the pitch dark. (Were they led by stars? Intuition? Habit?) All of a sudden, we arrived at the Berber camp hiding behind a massive sand dune. Our guides served us simple but satisfying Moroccan foods, but it was probably better that we couldn’t really see what we were eating in the feeble candlelight. I think I heard one man say they had cooked the slowest camel.
After dinner, drums materialized from thin air and, of course, I couldn’t resist a dance. I was even able to bust out some Senegalese mbalax and bellydancing I had just learned. Rod, Caitlyn, Sam and I broke free from the group and climbed up the huge dune in the starlight. It took us about 45 minutes to the peak, and climbing in sand is exhausting….but it was so worth it. I felt like, if I had just reached my arm up, I could have swirled the Milky Way with my fingers. We lay up there and listened to the Profound Silence of the Desert punctuated by the dance party below. We were joined by some more friends, who brought with them some good conversation and laughter. I have to say, the hilarity of Moroccan jokes are not found in the punchline, but in stilted translations.
We descended the dune in a fraction of the time it took to climb, by sliding on our butts and rolling and, Andrew’s preferred method, flinging and bouncing down. We grabbed each other’s ankles and pulled as fast as we could. I haven’t laughed that hard in a long time. But I’m not gonna lie: I still have sand in aaaaallllll my nooks and crannies.
The temperature drops hugely at night in the desert, so it was difficult to sleep, but we were awoken by clapping just before sunrise. We scrambled to an eastward dune and again I met God in the glory of a sunrise. After the obligatory mint tea, we returned to the “base camp” hotel 2 hours via camel to shower and pack up. We were in for a 9-hour bus ride back to Fes. It is times like these that I’m so glad to have friends who don’t take themselves too seriously. Good laughs.
So that is the epic story of my brief sojourn into the Sahara. I hope to go back and spend some more time inside those dunes…but for now, I have to give my backside a rest and go pick sand out of my belly button.