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Dancing in the Sahara

Sep 4

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9/4/2010 1:59 PM  RssIcon

 Dancing in the Sahara by Leah Rosenkranz

       Friday after class we loaded up on the bus and left for Merzouga. It was a long bus ride, but the scenes that we passed were beautiful. We drove on narrow, winding roads with cliffs off to one side and passed all sorts of vehicles. When passing, one must honk and then just go for it. We ate lunch at a really nice hotel and it rained a little while we were eating. While we were driving to Merzouga, we passed through mountains, rolling hills, cliffs, more rolling hills, plateaus, and an oasis and water basin with palm trees. It was incredible to see so many different wonders of nature. We stopped at Moha’s family’s (Moha is one of our ISA guides) shop to buy scarves to protect us from sand and sun and then got back on the road. After the sun set, we got hit by a small sand storm. As we drove, the sand would completely cover the road and all lines and signs of the road would disappear. The bus driver constantly had to stop to wait for it to clear enough for him to see where he was driving. The sand storm reminded me of driving in snow storms when the snow blows across the road and blocks everything out.
      When we arrived in Merzouga, it seemed so small and secluded, but the hotel we stayed at was owned by Moha’s family and was so nice. After getting settled, we had dinner and danced. A bunch of us hung out on the terrace on top of the building after dinner and enjoyed the fresh air and view of the stars. From the terrace, we could see the sand dunes of the desert; they were so close but seemed so majestic. When Mary, Hannah, and I went to go to bed our room was like an oven. The air conditioning was not working correctly and the room was on the top floor of our building. So we ended up finding people who were still awake and crashing on their floor. This ended up being the floor of Kenny and Weston’s room, which was much smaller than our own, but still cooler.
      In the morning, we loaded up into two vans and were taken to a lake. The ride was quick and dusty, with lots of load music and clapping. The lake was called Dayer Srji and attracts pink flamingos. We couldn’t really get right up to the edge of the water because although the ground looked very dried out and cracked, it was supper muddy and slick just below the surface, so with every step closer that you took your feet got muddier and the ground more squishy. There were dried out fish all over and the water didn’t have the freshest smell, but it was very interesting to see standing water in such a dry hot area.
      From the lake we drove to a local tribe’s village within Merzouga for a performance of Gnaoua music. The music is a mixture sub-Saharan African, Berber, and Arabic religious songs and rhythms and is found mainly in Morocco. The instrumentation was very interesting and created a unique sound. They used large heavy iron castanets, qraqab, a three -string lute, hajhuj, and large drums called tbel; with the singing, this created a very unique and interesting sound. Before playing for us they gave us tea as a welcome and then the singing and dancing commenced. At first they just preformed and we watched. They did a dance in which they were in lines and jumped. The women dancing were completely covered and the men were in white. There was one little boy that was so cute. He had huge eyes and was dressed in all white like the men and wearing bright yellow shoes. He had his own pair of qraqab and he was doing his best to follow along. He stood at the end of the line and attempted to play the music and move his shoulders and feet to the beat. When a song that required clapping began, he joined in; he had the beat down for that one. He participated with such a serious expression and you could tell that his eyes and ears were soaking up everything. There were some young boys sitting by Weston and me and they kept asking to use our cameras to take photos. They really liked Weston’s camera and ran all over taking pictures.
      After a little while, the beat picked up a little more and I knew it was time to dance. The second I stood up, everyone else jumped up and we started dancing. It was awesome. Just jumping around and having a good time. There was a conga line and some circle dancing. I even learned some new dance moves from one of the boys performing. He showed me the “walk like an old man with a cane,” the “wash and dry your hands,” and the “clean your shirt.” While people were dancing and taking photos, Kurtis and I learned how to play the qraqab. One of the musicians taught us how to hold them and the beat that is typically played, which sounds like a horse galloping. I had a little problem with getting my left and right hand to work together, but I eventually got the beat. It was incredible to experience the power of music and dance in bringing people together. Even though there was a language barrier, we were able to all communicate and bond through the music and dancing. I was definitely not ready to leave when it was time to go, but we still had so much more ahead of us.
      We took the vans to a different part of town and had a very short walking tour and then headed back to the hotel for lunch. Along the way, we saw people sand bathing. They lay in the sand and people give them water and food. It is supposed to be good for rheumatoid. For lunch we got couscous and everyone around me made sure to eat with their hands and really enjoy it. After that most people napped, while some of us played cards and lounged around. The wait was so long, but finally Moha came down and told us to get the stuff we wanted for the desert and head outside. It was time for the camel rides! We all gathered up lots of water and wrapped up in our scarves. I found out that I could do the wraps really well. Once everyone was ready we walked out the hotel gates and around the corner to find a heard of camels waiting for us.
      They started loading people up on the camels right away. First, they put a guy on one and then called for a girl. I stepped right up. As soon as I volunteered, I regretted it a little. My camel was not happy he was grunting and yelling, at least the camels’ equivalent, at the guide. He did not want to be bothered. But I didn’t let his angry noises and gnarly teeth stop me, I got on him and was ready to go. When he stood up it was so strange; your body changes the direction it is facing multiple times. You are facing the ground, then the sky, and then straight ahead. It is a very jerky ride. Once everyone was all loaded up we took off.
      My string of camels was at the very end of the line and it consisted of Amy, Kurtis, me, and then Aaron. We all names our camels: Amy was riding Jimbo, Kurtis was riding Garry, I was riding Bob (Bob Marly according to our guide), and Aaron was on Freddy Blue Eyes, a camel with crazy grey-blue eyes. Freddy Blue Eyes was always super close to me, almost resting his head on my leg. I gave him a few scratches on the head and he seemed to love that. Garry was gassy and I was ‘lucky’ enough to be riding behind him.
      We were at the back of the group and the view of everyone was great. I loved all the colorful scarves and clothing that everyone was wearing. There was just long line of camels and bright colors moving through the dunes. The sun was shining and there were some clouds in the sky, with a breeze blowing. It was the perfect weather to ride through the hills of sand. It was hot, but I would have expected nothing else of the Sahara. We tried to experiment a little to try and find the most comfortable way to ride camels, since they aren’t equipped with the plushest seats. It was hard to tell which ways were better.  There was a French group behind us and the Moroccan guys with them were making cat calls at all of us girls and running around near the camels. But nothing could ruin the ride for me.
The campground was at the bottom of a huge sand dune, the largest around, and there were trees and some greenery around where the tents were. The tents were big and canvas and there were rugs in front of them. Some men brought over tables and some low stools. While we waited for dinner to cook, we relaxed and played some cards and other things. For dinner we had some delicious soup and tagine.
Back at the campsite, everyone started drinking and celebrating. I had a glass of Tunisian wine, which had a picture of the desert on the bottle. <> After a little while some men brought over drums and some qraqab. They started playing with Moha and his cousins and the dancing began. At this point it was dark and the stars were starting to come out. It was so much fun to just jump around and dance in the sand and under the stars. What was even better was, with the style of music, almost everyone was dancing in a manner similar to the way I usually dance. We danced for at least one or two hours and then people started to get exhausted. I went outside the camping area with a few people and star gazed. We just laid in the sand and looked up at the huge expanse of sky above us. It was so incredible. The stars were so bright and numerous. I even saw at least three shooting stars. Laying there I felt so relaxed and in awe. I couldn’t help but think about how everyone shares the same sky and wonder who else was looking up at the stars at that time. After stargazing, we went back to camp where everyone was already sleeping. Almost everyone in the group, including myself chose to sleep outside the tents and under the stars.
      After only just a few hours of sleep, we got up very early in order to watch the sunrise. I chose to climb to the top of the large dune by our camp in order to watch the sunrise from there. The hike to the top was not easy; with each step you took you slid back down just a little in the sand and it never really looked like you were making any progress. After I had made it half way, I had to start counting my steps in order to keep myself going: 30 steps, 50 steps, 60 steps, 70, 90, 90... It was so tiring and I had to take quite a few breaks. But I made it to the top, where I ran out of water when I wanted some the most. Only one other person made it to the top with me from our group. Kurtis had been about to give up when I had said he was too close to give up at that point; he actually listened and made it to the top a little while after me. From the top, we sat and watched the sunrise. There was a breeze that continuously blew sand on us, but also helped to keep us cool. Although it was a little cloudy and the sunrise was not fully visible, it was still so beautiful. The rays poking through the clouds and shinning down on the sun were beautiful. It was interesting to see the contrast in the color of the sand at that point in the day verses when we had arrived in the desert. After the sand has been in the sun for a long period of time it turns a bright orange color, but after it has been out of the sun, it turns to a brown color. While we watched the sunrise, the sand was still its brown color. It was nice to be able to be away from the group but still have someone to share the sunrise with. Before heading back down, we laid down on the sand and that really got us sandy, but it was so relaxing and calm. Then we jumped and ran our way down the side of the dune, playing with the sand as we went.
      When we got back to the campsite, it was time to load up and ride the camels back out. The ride out was a little more painful than the ride in and I had Bob again so it was the same hump and saddle. The rest of the people from my string of camels were separated from their original camels and Kurtis was especially distraught to be separated from his beloved Garry. On the way out, I continued to experiment with different ways of riding on the camel and decided that riding with my knees bent and feet by the handlebars was very comfortable and for going downhill, it was better to lift up of the seat and ride with my thighs holding on. It definitely felt good to move around on the seat. At one point Bob ran down a hill and that was not elegant or graceful on either of our parts; it also did not feel good. Camels should stick to walking when they have passengers. The ride out was just as beautiful as the ride in. The sun was bursting through the clouds and the sand was slowly becoming more orange. We rode the camels right back into town by our hotel.
      I know truly understand the beauty and romance of the desert. It is so quiet and with so much solitude and seclusion. You are surrounded by sand in every direction and a sky full of bright twinkling stars. The space is so wide spanning and it makes you feel so small. The people that surround you are there and have nowhere to go. It is a place that feels so surreal, but is so real.
      Back at the hotel some people showered and got rid of all the sand they had collected. Some of us just decided to skip the showers and go home the way we were. I can definitely say though that I had sand everywhere. I am still finding sand on my body, like in my ears. We got to eat some breakfast and then headed out.
      We stopped in Rissani, a small town that was constructed on the ruins of Sijilmassa and was once the capitol of Tafilant. In Rissani, we had a tour of the souk and got to go to an alchemists shop. There we had some very interesting tea with a bunch of different herbs and stuff in it. Then we had stuff rubbed on our skin, sprayed in our eyes, and a bunch of different very strong smelling scents wafted up our noses. The stuff all definitely did the trick and the different wads of herbs and things used to make the balls of stuff for breathing in the nose, cleared everyone’s sinuses. After the alchemist we walked past so many different stands of fruit and vegetables and got to see the sheep, goat, and donkey markets. The donkey market was particularly interesting because it was set up for rentals as well as purchases. After that we went to a café to cool down for a bit and relax. The French group from the dunes was there and after talking to them for a bit, I found out that they were Belgium and a scout group that was working with kids in a small village. They were actually really nice to talk to. After that we headed back to the store owned by Moha’s family and got to try some Berber Pizza. It basically consisted of seasoned meat and some onions inside a doughy bread. It was very delicious. They made sure to give all the girls plenty of time to shop and look at the jewelry, but also showed us some artifacts and provided us with cultural and historical information on the area.
      On the bus ride back, it felt like we were in Ireland. The scenery was green and had so many changes and we even got some rain. The sunset was an amazing red and yellow and we got a chance to stop and watch the sunset when we were in the Atlas Mountains on the way back. It was so beautiful and there was a very pleasant cool breeze blowing. It was a very fitting way to end the excursion.

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