Continued from Part I - Oct. 16-18, 2009
Although the children did not allow us to take their photo, I was still rather intrigued. After conversing with Hamza and asking many questions, we learned that even though it was Saturday the children were returning home from school. Many of the children from the rural villages travel as long as 2 hours to get to school each day and another 2 hours back home. Because they spend so much time in transit to and from the classroom, school hours are generally 10:00 AM to 2:00 PM Monday thru Saturday. While we were fortunate to be driving through these rural villages on a very warm weekend, the weather conditions do vary throughout the Atlas mountains. These villages experience extremely dry and hot temperatures but also rain and snow with low temperatures. The children make the 2 hour trek to and from school even in the most undesirable conditions. Some of the children only have flip flops but still walk to school in the cold and snowy conditions just to enhance their education for 4 short hours each day. Occasionally we would see a bicycle pass by with 3 children squeezed on to the seat and handle bars. Despite what we may view as an inconvenient method of getting to school, these children seemed oblivious and laughed jovially as they walked home.
After piling back into the van, we traveled further into the Middle Atlas mountains where we approached a large reservoir. Years ago the land flooded killing thousands of Moroccans and destroying their kasbahs. The reservoir was built as flood control so many of the natives could rebuild their ravaged homes.
Just past the reservoir, we stopped to view a gorgeous waterway running through the mid Atlas mountains. The river, which I think was called Wadi Shkel, was distinctly lined with palm trees for miles and miles.
There were 2 young boys selling jewelry and camels made of palm leaves. Michal and I met a 20 year old guy named Siad while viewing the river. Siad spoke some English and was eager to learn more about us so he asked lots of questions. One specific question directed at me that definitely made me smile was, "Are you 22 years old?" I know....I know....I don't actually look 22 but a girl can still grin at the thought.
We arrived in Merzouga, near the Algerian border, around 4:00 PM and quickly got ready for the camel ride to our campsite in the Sahara desert. We were each given a colored head scarf to be tied in the traditional way. While each female received headscarves in vivid colors such as orange, yellow, green, pink, and lime, the traditional and only color available for males is blue.
With our turbans in place (thanks to our guide Hamza), we each mounted a dromadaire and began the 1 hour 20 minute ride in to the sunset. Mohammed was the camel herder and lead us deep in to the vibrant burnt orange dunes of the Sahara. We were probably sitting about 10 feet above the ground as our spitting, burping camels slowly carried us onward. This was my first experience riding a camel so my adrenaline was pumping and my excitement level very high. It was so amazing to be trotting into the desert with only the sounds of the camels clopping in the sand. About half way in to our trek, the sun had set and we were left riding in complete darkness. Even the blackest surroundings were illuminated by the shining stars above, which made it impossible not to fixate on them as they twinkled so brightly in the peaceful night. I quickly realized that I don't spend enough time on a regular basis admiring the stars that glisten every day and light up our nights. It was truly magical!!!
We soon reached our campsite and one by one we dismounted from our camels with the help of Mohammed. First the camel is shushed and calmed by the herder. Next, the camel kneels on his front 2 legs jolting the rider forward. I had been advised to stabilize myself and maintain a firm grip on my saddle during this process so I was prepared. Then the camel squats on his back legs so that he is completely in a sitting position on the ground. I hopped off and started walking towards our campsite. In the sand, it felt as if I was walking on small, hard rounded rocks. I soon realized that these were not rocks but an over abundance of camel poop left behind from previous treks.
Our campsite was rather quaint with several Berber tents set up forming a square with an open area of sand in the middle for the low table and stools that we used for dinner. Mohammed prepared our dinner of chicken and vegetable tagine, soup, bread, fruit, and Moroccan tea, we dined by a small lamp and starlight. After dining on tasty food, conversing about random English slang with Hamza (specifically "Sugar Daddy" thanks to me), and gut laughing until our bellies hurt, Mohammed and a little Berber boy around 10 years old serenaded us with drumming. This was a very authentic experience and the music was really cool. Around 10:30 PM we headed to bed in our camel-haired tent lined with Moroccan Berber rugs and blankets. The 6 of us stayed in the same tent and slept side-by-side.
Our wake up call came early and we were up and moving at 5:45 AM before sunrise. I climbed half way up a soaring sand dune to reflect on the experience and watch the sunrise. The sand of the Sahara is the softest most delicate sand that I've ever touched. Of course I had an empty bottle with me to collect a bit of sand to save as memory of the adventure. By 7:00 AM, we were once again trotting across the Sahara on our way back to reality and the van that would shelter us for the next 10 hours. The morning trek during sunrise was the most striking part of the desert ride. We were immersed in a sea of sand for miles and miles as the sun slowly crept upward to ignite a rich vibrant path for our journey back. It was striking to look slightly to the right and see the shadows of 6 camel riders ambling along in the sand.
Back to normal land, we quickly ate breakfast, changed clothes, and were on our way back to Rabat. After driving 6 hours, we stopped in a part of the Middle Atlas mountains to feed the Barbary Apes that run wild through the forests. It was amazing that they would come up and grab the food out of my hand. Let me clarify that food was actually oranges. We tried feeding them bread but they wanted no part of this because they had all eaten. Oranges are considered dessert and dessert is all they wanted. The weekend was unforgettable and an experience that will stay with me forever. The people that surrounded me helped make this an extraordinary adventure. This was my 1st travel weekend in Morocco and I could not have imagined a better way to jumpstart this incredible journey!