Surviving a sandstorm

October 3, 2013

in Africa, Fall 2013, Kendra Burpee, Morocco

After two showers, I am still finding orange Saharan sand in my ears and hair. It spilled out of my Arabic notebook when I opened it in class this morning. The good news is, it’s finally out of my teeth.

During our camel ride deep into the mountains of sand, I didn’t have much of a view. Actually I couldn’t see at all. We were trekking through the middle of a sandstorm and I was therefore forced to extend my turban over my eyes, nose and mouth. Through the blue cloth I could just hardly make out basic shapes of things around me (other camels). Somehow sand kept creeping in the small spaces I had missed, and I ended up having to double over the cloth. I was blinded, but better by the cloth than by the sand. Every once in a while I’d pull down the cloth around one eye and peek out at the clumps of sand flying through the air, twirling up and over the mounds. I always immediately regretted it because my eye would quickly fill up like an empty cup. Despite my covering, my throat and nose felt scratchy from the dry, dusty air. Sand storms are no joke. And neither is riding a camel. I wonder when my body will recover from the pain of rubbing against its uncomfortable body for two and a half hours. I tried to switch up my positioning, but with no proper gear – just a blanket thrown over it’s back – riding a camel is a painful thing.  I had to hold on tight so as to not fall over and be lost forever in the current of the sand. Despite the hot arid sun, I had my arms and legs completely covered. Any exposed skin felt like someone was rubbing sandpaper on it and throwing tiny pebbles into a fan directed at me. After what felt like days, finally I peeked out behind the blue cloth to see over the next sand dune a patch of palm trees. It was a random patch of color in the middle of orange nothingness. An oasis! It is beyond me how the Berber men leading our camels are able to find the oasis in general because it is nestled literally in the middle of an ocean of sand.  But I especially don’t understand how they found it in a blinding sand storm. The oasis consisted of a few palm trees with about ten small tents set up under them. After having a heart felt good bye with my camel, and finally being able to access the water in my backpack and relax my legs, I sat under the shade of a palm tree. Drumming began so immediately that it startled me. I was a little delirious from being blindfolded for over two hours in the hottest sun imaginable. The Berber men who had led our camels began banging all different sized and shaped drums and chanting in Berber. It was really beautiful. I found myself putting my turban back on though because the sand did not stop just because we had. I was the first one to run over to try the drums when they offered. But of course I was then reminded of why I quit all the musical instruments I started. I don’t think maybe people enjoyed listening to my music but I sure had a good time. By this time the sun had slipped below the sand and darkness quickly engulfed the village. And with the darkness came the wonderful cool desert temperatures.

After discovering we were staying next to one of the tallest sand dunes in that area of the desert, some of us had the genius idea to climb it in the middle of the night so we could look at the massive, bright sky. We started out with a running start that lasted maybe twenty seconds.  Probably not even that long. If you’ve never climbed a sand dune, let me tell you how it works. Each step is like being on a stair master exercise machine. With each step up, you slide down to just about where you started. It takes a significant amount of time and effort to make any progress. The incline of the sand dune goes practically straight up, so we were basically climbing straight up into the stars. After a few more minutes (with many breaks) we resorted to walking on all fours. This was a bit easier, but still my hands were sinking so deep into the sand and with every step I struggled to unbury them. This led to actual crawling and that continued for almost an hour.  As you may have guessed, we did not make it all the way to the top of the sand dune. The sand won. We blamed the hissing snake someone spotted and the intimidating darkness, but really the climb was just near to impossible in that dry air. We flipped over onto our backs fitting into the sand like molds. This was one of the more perfect moments of my life. I had thought the stars were beautiful from my roof in Fez, but now those seemed like the cheap seats compared to my new view of the skies. There were no city lights or anything at all in any direction. The shadows of the sandy dunes contrasted against the brightness of the lit up sky. The sand storm was over and the stars were twinkling pulses of light against the blackness of the Moroccan sky. Again and again sequin silver stripes flashed across the sky, racing their way across the flickering dots. The moon was non-existent at that point, but the Milky Way was practically within my reach.

We slept on the Saharan sand under the stars that night. How could we torture ourselves with hiding under tents when such beauty hung just over us? I woke up at 4:30 with my jaw still in the air from falling asleep mesmerized by what was above me. We weren’t as naïve when we climbed the dune again in the dark hours of the morning. We only went about a quarter of the way up. It was enough to see the colossal orange sun push its way out of the sand and ignite the sky in bright flames of light.

I promise you that you have not seen the night sky until you are lying high on a sand dune in the middle of the Sahara desert. I’m glad to say I can now cross ‘riding a camel through a sand storm’ and ‘playing with a desert fox’ off my list of things to do.  Yet, I think I want to do it again…

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