Monday, November 16, 2009

Like Sand Through the Hourglass, These Our the Days...

We spend a night strolling through Ouarzazete, the Hollywood of Africa. The largest movie studio in the country is here, and the city has played the backdrop for notable American films such as Laurence of Arabia, Gladiator and Star Wars. Even the pristine new buildings and palm tree lined streets have a very LA vibe.

This is really just a stopover destination for us though as we're in search of a way to the desert...although we weren't sure which one yet.

We dodge the many tour guides on the street who approach us from all sides. One even followed us back to our hotel to negotiate a cheaper price.

Now, it seems a little counter intuitive to avoid the tour guides with possibly reputable businesses -- or at least somewhat legitimate looking storefronts -- when you are in fact looking for someone to guide a tour for you, but we've lost all trust and patience for anything resembling a sales pitch.

Instead, we meet a guy on the street who notices that we speak English and asks a favor of us to transcribe a letter for his Japanese pen pal.

He invites us into the store where he works for a cup of tea. Got to love that Berber hospitality. Turns out his family lives in the Draa Valley and some near the mountains outside the desert south of here. We ask if he'll show us around, so we can get an authentic Berber experience.

And that's how we met Youssef Sami, our tour guide for our journey to the Sahara desert (of course we negotiate more than a fair price for his services).

About six hours and a few petit and grand taxi rides later (through small villages, mountains, valleys, lunch of stewed beef with hard boiled eggs and prunes in Zagora, and a palmiere with over 45 species of dates), we arrive at our destination: a circle of Berber style tents made of sheep and camel wool, amid kilometer upon kilometer of rolling, cream-colored folds of silky, rippling sand dunes in all directions.

I've only really been camping once, and I'm not even sure if it counts. It was in the 5th grade with my dear friend Lauren's family.

It strikes me as a bit hilarious that my second try camping is in the Sahara desert (I'm not counting the nightmare hostel experience in Greece with Pris).

It's a pretty luxurious set up as far as Berber camping goes...maybe this one doesn't count either.

The food has been awesome:

1. Beef tagine with potatoes, zucchini, carrots, onions.

2. Loads of fresh fruit with cinnamon: pomegranates, tangerines, apples, bananas.

3. Camel milk: a special request from us. We read a WSJ article a while ago that described the stuff as "liquid gold" for its impressive medicinal qualities. It tastes like slightly sour buttermilk. Very thick with some lumps. Kind of salty and tangy. Pleasant though.

4. Sardine salad with diced tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, olives. So Mediterranean.

5. Spiced tomato omelet tagine.

6. Bread for breakfast with apricot, strawberry, fig jams and Laughing Cow cheese. It seems to be big here.

7. Camel stew: another special request. Served over bed of fluffy couscous, a huge specialty in the area. Camel tastes like beef, but much more tender.

Between all the eating, we find time for a three-hour camel ride to larger dunes.

Frolicking barefoot through fine, soft hills of sand induces such a childlike wonder, I can't help but giggle the whole day. I just can't grasp the reality that I'm playing in the Sahara desert.

The stars sparkle so vividly out here that it's almost violent -- like an intense dance to one of the spontaneous drum circles that we've been having. Mars looks like a techno dance party rave.

Our guide as well as the couple of local guys he enlisted to help us, and Abdel, who is from Casablanca and decided to join us after meeting in a taxi, are all extremely joyful and friendly. There's a lot of laughing and communicating with gestures and a broken mix of English, Arabic, Spanish, French and Italian. A constant game of charades...sometimes Pictionary in the sand.

Even surrounded by such a dry expanse of desert sands, there can be so much life!

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

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