The longest journey I can recall within T&T was an approximately three-hour trip to see the turtles in Matura. The thought of a 14-hour train/bus expedition to the Sahara Desert from Rabat, Morocco, almost prevented me from embarking on what has been, undoubtedly, the most incredible experience of my life.
The north-easterly Harmattan winds blow from the Sahara to the western side of the world and are the only contact we islanders have with the massive desert. The Sahara is the third largest desert in the world and is almost as large as China or the United States. However, knowing these basic facts did not prepare me for the awe, amazement and humility that I felt in the midst of this great expanse.
A group of 16 tired, famished and disoriented students arrived at dawn in Merzouga, a small village in south-eastern Morocco, after the long journey. Two men belonging to the Amazigh (colloquially, Berber) indigenous tribe led us to our hotel, attempting to communicate with us in Saharien, the local language. After resting for a couple hours, we were saddled onto our camels (mine was named Michael Jackson) and began a two-hour trek to our Saharan oasis.
Riding on a camel itself was mind-blowing. I barely moved throughout the two-hour ride, afraid of hurting or disturbing my camel, only to learn later that they barely feel the weight of people on their backs. The side-to-side swaying as they walked had many of us in a panic, to the amusement of our tour leaders who would shout “dancing camels!” any time the camels swayed in unison.
Morocco : the sands of the Great Desert
Our arrival at the oasis campsite was perfectly timed, as almost immediately after we dismounted, the sun began to set. I wish I could describe the experience of seeing the sun so close that it was impossible for us to even talk to one another as we were muted in common incredulity. It was a burning orange ball, impossible to look at without sunglasses, which illuminated the desert, reflecting off the enormous sand dunes, making me feel minute in this vast universe.
After sunset, we did my favourite activity as a child in the Botanical Gardens at home, except on a much larger scale—roll ourselves down the 100-foot sand dunes. For hours after, it was as if being in the Sahara had taken away all our notions of maturity and adulthood as we chased one another, ran and slid down the dunes, basking in the vastness of the expanse of sand.
The cultural aspects of the Sahara were just as fascinating as our childlike games, and the Amazigh indigenous people were the most hospitable, friendly hosts—not to mention they had sweet han’ almost comparable to my own mother’s! After our dinner of Berber tagine—meat and vegetables cooked in a stew outdoors—they brought out their drums and their imaginative, fabricated instruments (two glasses banging against a tray) and sang and danced around a flame, inviting us to join in as best as we could. Many of them knew only a couple phrases of thickly—accented English, such as “Oh my God!”
Our interaction with these nomadic peoples was one of the most fascinating aspects of our trip. The Amazigh are the indigenous (pre-Arab) Moroccans, who have been marginalised, and many now live in rural areas, such as the Sahara towns. One of our guides, Hassan, told me both his parents were nomads, and he has spent his entire life in the desert lands of the Sahara, without western comforts such as air conditioning, regular electricity, fly swatters—camels attract more flies than I’ve ever seen.
What was truly unbelievable was that these Amazigh men knew their way through the desert so easily without markers to offer them direction.
I have had at least nine years in structured foreign language programmes learning Spanish, French and more recently, Arabic; these men, who have never set foot in a school in their lives, all spoke Berber, Arabic, Spanish, French, German and some English because of their interactions with tourists. Their language skills are phenomenal, and our interaction led me to wonder about a change in the way language is taught in schools. But that is a different story entirely.
We walked to a high dune, and lay there for hours, looking at the full moon, almost close enough to touch, wishing on the numerous shooting stars and trying to identify each star and planet as they moved and twinkled through the sky.
Every single morning, I had complained bitterly about waking up at 8 am for classes—but I sprinted out of my tent when we were woken up by drumming at 6 am to watch the sunrise.
Gathering our things, we climbed onto a sand dune and sat watching the sunrise. It was a transcending experience. The only thing I can compare it to was seeing the sun set the day before. What was really fascinating was seeing the flaming sun rising on one side of us, while the luminous moon was still full in the sky on the other side, the perfect symbol of darkness versus light.
The most miserable moment of my trip to the Sahara was getting back on my camel to begin the outbound journey, leaving the magnificent desert behind.
I almost didn’t go because I dislike lengthy trips. I would’ve rather saved my money (approximately US$100 for travel, accommodation, excursion to the desert), because I had work to get done. I would have missed the most remarkable, humbling experience of my life. To see the miracles of God on earth was worth all the money, energy and homework in the world, and I consider myself truly and wonderfully blessed to have walked in the sands of the Great Desert.
• Fayola K J Fraser is a third-year student at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut in international studies with a focus on Middle-Eastern affairs. She is spending this semester in Morocco on a study-abroad programme.