Monday, March 1, 2010

The Saharan experience

Today Arabic class was difficult, probably due to the fact that we spoke a lot of English over the course of the trip. It came back of course, and the 5 of us together wrote a short (as in 2 or 3 sentences each) story about the excursion on big sheets of paper. Then Fatiha labeled and dated it, had us all sign it, and posted it on the wall. It was very cute of her, and it will be a good visual reminder of our steadily increasing Arabic prowess.

Before I get back to the desert, I have a few additions to the list of universal-ish things.

-People putting grains of rice in salt to combat humidity

-When a person yawns, it means they are always tired (or bored)

-Trash always smells bad, and people waving their hands under their nose always signifies a strong (and usually bad) smell. “Ca pue!”

Okay, resume travel log. Around 5pm the moment we had all been waiting for finally arrived. It was time for the camel ride. With almost as much stress as picking teams in elementary school gym, or getting paired up for partner presentations in class, we were assigned to our noble steeds. My camel and I were meant for each other from the start. We all picked names, and I felt compelled, in honor of my dear Papa, to bestow the name Gunther on my ride. For those who don’t know the story, Gunther was the name my father gave to the camel he kept during his time in the peace corps in Chad.

The scariest, but also most fun, part about riding a camel is the ascent to standing position and the descent to sitting position. Camels have one more leg joint than pretty much every other animal, as in their legs bend in three places (if you count the hip as one and knee as the other). So the when these legs unfold under you, you had better be holding on tight. Actually Aura’s camel, Hortina, stood up before Aura was fully straddling her back. But she held on with no incident, and a good laugh was had.

There were three strands of camels linked together with ropes, three mini caravans that day, each with a turban-clad guide walking in front. The cargo was not salt, gold, water, or other goods though; instead, it was us, the BU8 + Fadoua, and we were turban clad too. We rode, or rather were led, around for half an hour or so, enjoying the back and forth sway of these marvelous animals. If you sort of swing your body with the motion of the camel it becomes a smoother, and more fun, ride. It’s all in the hips, as they say.

Then we stopped for a while and enjoyed a Saharan sunset on the top of a dune. While the camels enjoyed a rest, we sat for a while, or frolicked about, using our turbans as protection from the whipping winds and biting sand. There is a reason people wear turbans in the desert, for they protect your head from the heat and also offer a way to cover your face from the wind and sand.
Really an accessory that is both fashionable and functional (something that you don’t always see these days).

It was a very pleasant way to spend an hour or two, and a time I will never forget. I did get the chance to ride a camel once before in Niger, but this felt like a more complete experience. And the evening had just begun! Dinner was waiting for us when we returned to camp. It was delicious harera, the national tomato-based soup with lentils and chickpeas. Then lamb and prune tajine, with dates on the side, followed by the fruit dessert course. Mmm. Except it was hard to concentrate on the food because after we were served soup the musicians trouped in and started their performance.

This group consisted of 8 men and 2 women. The women were dressed in beautiful yet slightly gaudy sparkly robes with similar head ornaments, whereas the men wore white robes, a white head wrap, and a knife looped around one shoulder. Two large skin drums were played by two of the men during part of each song. Each song was in Arabic; they began with a wailing, mournful, and repetitive cry from two of the men at a time. Each pair would sign a few lines (perhaps they were repeating the same few words, I am not sure), then another pair would take over. One of the women would jump in from time to time and let loose with the high pitched “ululu” cry that can be heard at any Moroccan event that involves music. Then after a minute or two of this the drums would come to life, and the song began. The men’s singing sounded similar throughout, but now they would clap out different beats to go along with the drum. Then after a bit of clapping they would grasp hands and do a bit of synchronized stomping and shuffling of their feet. The clapping and shuffling would alternate usually until the end of the each song. It was amazing music, but the singing was very compelling and sad.

So they sang a couple of songs during dinner, and then we were allowed to finish eating in peace. After dinner we assembled around a fire in the middle of the camp. There was a tasty treat too, bread baked in the embers. It cooked in maybe 15 minutes, and it came out very crusty and tasty (the dirt was brushed off, but the crust was a bit gritty). The music commenced again, and the fun began. We all got up to dance, forming big circles around the musicians or in front of them with the rest of the people in camp (the guides, cooks, our drivers, and the French family). It was great to let loose and stomp my feet and hold hands with everybody and try to emulate the sounds they were singing and channel the passion of their words. Good times in the desert.

After the fire some people drifted off to bed. Some of us stayed up talking with some of the guys from the camp, sharing songs and getting to know each other a bit in Arabic and English. Then we went off for some dune-top stargazing and talking about this and that. It was beautiful there, and so many stars visible! The best way to say goodnight and goodbye to the desert.

After breakfast we got back in the jeeps and headed back to town. It was a bittersweet departure; as much as we left behind, there was so much more in store for us in the next few days.

That’s all for now, more later. Love you all.

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