More than anything, I remember the wind. The camel moved beneath me, miraculously balanced on the shifting Saharan sand – and I remained blind to it all. Deep in the Sahara Desert, I felt nothing but the wind.
We all have moments we’ll never get back—moments that we don’t realize mean something at the time. You just know that somehow, in some way, you’ve changed. I feel that those moments make up the majority of our lives. They’re small and seemingly inconsequential: drawing seahorses and fairies in chalk with your grandma, skinny-dipping in July with your friends, watching Disney movies with your brother at Christmas. You don’t realize these memories will mean something someday, that they make up the constellation of your soul; we all have our own personal North Star to guide us when we’re lost.
And there are other moments, the ones that are so influential, so blindingly consequential, that we reflect on them as they’re happening. The moment matters in the moment because it is so rare, so unparalleled. Riding a camel as the sun set on the dunes of the Sahara Desert offered such a moment.
It numbed my skin, yet made me overly aware of myself at the same time.
Two days prior, a group of traveling misfits clambered into a Moroccan van under the succulent orange trees of the Marrakech Medina. I knelt on the street and attempted to insert my contacts as my friends stood protectively around me, warding of roguish motorcyclists and men pissing on the street. Our flustered tour guide shouted, “American! Van! Eyes pretty! We go.” I blinked in my contacts, leapt into the van, and we were off.
We passed through villages…
And over mountains.
And even explored Aït Benhaddou, where Game of Thrones, Gladiator, and many more movies were filmed!
After exploring the high earthen walls of Ait-Ben-Haddou, after passing through desolate villages and over the bare rock of austere mountaintops, the atmosphere had begun to shift; we were feeling the effects of sitting in a van all day, eating pringles and chocolate every two hours. And we had neared the moment we all anticipated. The one we knew would matter. Together, as a barely acquainted group, we prepared for our trek into the Sahara Desert.
And as the camels tread across the cool, winter sand, the only thought reverberating in my mind (besides the politically incorrect and geographically irrelevant Disney song Arabian Nights) was, “I’m finally exploring.” I had achieved something monumental, and even as I was experiencing the moment, marveling at the endless rolling hills of sand – the surrounding golden emptiness – I couldn’t help but reflect on the enormity of the moment at the same time. I knew it meant something. It made me feel whole again.
At some point, I realized that it didn’t matter whether or not I closed my eyes; the world blurred around me, so that all was black. I could feel the camel jostling beneath me, could feel the ache in my thighs and back, and the wind—that’s when I discovered the desert wind. With eyes wide open and seeing nothing at all, I became overly attuned to the shifting winds, and the sound of sand swirling around the camels’ hooves.
Then the iPhone lights appeared. It was only a matter of time I suppose. To be fair, I don’t think anybody was actually checking for updates; people just needed a little light. We rode under a starless, moonless sky, and the darkness agitated my fellow travelers. Not me. The sensation of floating, unseeing, with nothing but the rhythmic steps of the camel and wind as company, comforted me somehow.
Despite the small technological intrusion, the camels brought us home. How? We were filthy. There’s something paradoxically refreshing about leaving hygiene behind. Without makeup, a shower, perfume, proper toilet paper, or soap, I was grimy. Truly disgusting. After wearing the same pair of leggings and shirt for 48 hours, I felt certain my stench alone could ward off unsolicited advances from Moroccan men. And yet, despite my revolting state, I felt cleansed. Whole. Because when you’re in the middle of nowhere, nothing matters but how you treat yourself and others. We were all gross and we knew it, and because of that, there was this sense of freedom in just being.
That night, a girl from Brazil played with fire near the camp.
Our tour guides played drums and sang long into the night.
And at one point, I thought of how we must look from afar. Entirely away from everything and everyone, just this group of barely acquainted people who became instantly, forever bonded by one unique desert night near the border of Algeria.
Dinner was a communal affair at its finest, everyone equipped with a spoon and an appetite. Instead of individual plates, we ate our couscous and aubergine tajine out of massive serving dishes.
Rather than learning each other’s names, we identified by our nationalities. To give credit where credit is due, I believe our tour guide started this trend. Either way, it stuck. At dinner, I sat next to my friend, Canadian Number 1 and The Brazilian, who sat next to The Swede, who was engaged in a conversation with The Italian.
When the tour guide couldn’t find someone, he would grumble in broken English, for example, “Where is Korea? Where is Korea?!” Not The Korean. No, Korea.
Well, “Korea” was busy enjoying a blossoming love story. I asked Korean Number 1 if he was dating Korean Number 2 at dinner, to which he responded with an enormous grin, “Shh! Trying to! Don’t tell!”
For a night, we all became apart of each other’s stories—each other’s memories—in a way we couldn’t have possibly predicted. It took a trek to the Sahara Desert to remember what home can be when you’re far away from where you grew up. It’s your barest, sometimes filthiest, self.
We traveled to the desert together, we slept in the desert together, and for a moment, I stood alone, atop a dune overlooking the camp, sometime before dawn, listening to the wind.
And when you dig your toes in the sand at night, and you keep digging beyond the layers shifted by the wind, you will find the warmth of the sun.