University of Wisconsin–Madison

Trip to the Sahara

As I was laying on a mountain in the Sahara made of billions and billions of grains of sand in the middle of the night looking up at the Milky Way, shining more clearly than I had ever seen it, Cassiopeia, my constellation-anchor to home, and billions and billions of other stars.  I thought of the moment when Carl Sagan proposed to us on his TV show that there were more stars in the sky than grains of sand on Earth.  Since I had just come out of a sand storm, could see sand dunes for miles all around me, and was practically buried in the sand mountain, the idea, at the time, seemed more crazy, yet more true than it ever had before, for I could also see more stars than I had ever seen in my life. It was all so real.  I couldn’t imagine counting the stars I could see or the grains of sand I was laying on, but I knew one thing for sure: there were billions and billions of both.

And that was my moment of deep thinking from my trip to the Sahara. I’ll back up for a minute: I got to go to the Sahara desert, one of the things I wanted to do most from my trip! When we arrived in the desert, however, there was a sand storm.   It was very, very similar to driving through a Wisconsin snowstorm: visibility was very limited, there were drifts to dodge and waves of sand blowing across the road.  When we got out of the van, we had to cover our mouths and noses with the long scarves we had bought and run into the reception of the hotel, where everything was covered by a thin layer of sand.  I learned very quickly that I would not be able to wear my contacts outside in the sandstorm: I might as well store them in sand instead of contact solution at night!  The storm was so bad that the guides told us that it might be too dangerous to go out into the desert.  After a half hour of waiting, they came back and told us we were going.  They claimed that the storm had died down, but I really couldn’t tell any difference.  The Berber guides tied our scarves around our heads and made sure that we could pull the ends over our faces if necessary—and honestly, it was very necessary!

They put us on our camels without any warning of instruction of what was to come.  When the camel stood, we were practically dumped off the saddle forward, and then practically dumped off backwards.  Mine was very nice and named Enrique Inglesias, and in my particular caravan, there was also a Justin Bieber and Shakira.

Then, we took off into the desert, sliding back and forth and back and forth in the saddle.  It was probably the most uncomfortable ride of my life.  I had to wonder how all the Arab and North African explorers could handle riding on a camel day after day.  The camels seemed to handle the sandstorm very well, but I traveled most of the way with my face completely covered.  I could see a little from underneath my scarf, but when I could stand to uncover one eye to take a peek at the scenery, it was one of the most unreal moments of my life.  Everything was red sand—no trees, no grass, no cement, and no green.  All my surroundings and all the landscape was just sand.  It was like in the movie, Tintin!  My surroundings resembled only what I had seen in movies and my imagination.  Sand blew from off the tops of the dunes into our faces as we approached the mountain of sand which we would be living behind for the night.  Normally, when people think of sand dunes they imagine those little hills of sand you find on seashores.  These sand dunes, however, were mountains.

We approached a little village in front of the mountain.  It was surrounded by barbed wire and the homes were just tents made from thick, Berber rugs.  Just enough to keep the sand and the sun out.  These people were truly living the bare minimum.  They had lived forever in this world of endless sand, this endless Sahara, not ever having seen rolling green fields of corn, or an endless, white blanket of snow, or a cute little row of two-story houses with cars parked out front and children’s toys and chalk drawings on the sidewalk.  These people didn’t know any of the mundane things we know and take for granted in our world.  Yet, this surreal adventure was their daily reality.  It all seemed so unreal.

We passed the village, all of us were disappointed that we weren’t at our resting place for the night, and when the guide told us that we had one more hour and that we were going to Algerie, we didn’t know how much of a joke that was.  Luckily, it was only about fifteen more minutes on the camel until we came to another Berber village, and this was the one.  We got off the camels in the same awkward way we got on and were shown to our tents.  We weren’t just sleeping in the sand like some people imagined, but we were in a tent with mattresses (which were covered in sand, of course!)  Our hosts fed us a Berber dinner (sadly, not vegetarian, so I nibbled on nuts in my room) and led us to a lively, nighttime drum concert.

The next morning was clear, to our delight.  I woke up at 5:30 and climbed halfway up the mountain of sand to watch the most beautiful sunrise I’d ever seen in my life.  Algeria was out there somewhere.  Probably close; maybe even within sight.  It was hard imagine the thousands of miles of the Sahara that were in front of me: Algeria, Mauritania, Libya, Egypt, Somalia, Sudan, and many more exotic places I wish I could visit!  All these countries are at least partially covered with this unimaginable landscape.  How do the people live like this?  How do they live their lives in this open, endless Sahara? What do they eat?  One night wasn’t nearly long enough to answer all my questions about these interesting peoples’ lives.  But I knew one thing:  they got to see sunrises this beautiful every morning.  Life must not be too terrible!

After the sunrise, we climbed back onto the camels for another 2-hour ride back to civilization—back to our bucket showers, winding streets of the medina, and shaky wifi.  It felt good.  We were already sore from the night before, so the ride seemed longer than before.  On the other hand, since the sandstorm had cleared up during the night, we were able to truly enjoy the beauty of the desert.  I can easily imagine how people can go crazy and hallucinate after days without water in the Sahara—the mountains of sand could so easily turn into ocean waves, and with the hot sun beating down on me, I was grateful I only had to endure it for two hours.  I was happy.  I had just ended one of the most amazing experiences of my life.  It was also one of the most rewarding experiences that I’d ever had.  I knew that I was here in the African Sahara because my hard work had paid off. J Those billions and billions of hours of studying Arabic have paid off . . .

IMG_2017 IMG_2018 IMG_2053 IMG_2054 IMG_1877 IMG_1893 IMG_1901 IMG_1954 IMG_1985 IMG_1986 IMG_1990 IMG_1996