How can one word still evoke so much?
Even now, as time moves on at such quickening pace…
Worlds begin to collide, continents drift.
Again I am standing with feet between two lands. Yet for once I am not shaken, but stilled by this dissonance, this ambivalence… Life continues to move forward into beautiful and wicked dichotomy. I’ve learnt to love my life’s dilemma, learn each day to accept it more. Even a dying flower holds a certain beauty… and, yet, I feel myself blooming again, shooting up and climbing around the doors I once traversed, now closed to me… and I find a window.
Many moons have passed, buds have bloomed, leaves have fallen, and somehow, it still lingers… doesn’t seem to age in my mind, nor fade, or harden like memories often do. That one word. Sahara. It brings back so much.
I guess it’s time to tell you this part of my story…
The Kingdom of Morocco. North-West Africa.
How I’ve longed for this place, and seen its signs through many stages of my journey.
But things like this always come to you just when they mean to, never before or after… I’ve learnt that.
An evocative land of kings, billowing blue robes and endless golden sands. A place where veiled women with painted eyes whisper on the streets as you pass, palaces cradle secret courtyard gardens of date and palm, where cities of red and marine lay sleepily beneath snow-capped mountains, and a voice calls you softly as you sit and dream from atop an ancient house of sand and earth, somewhere at the edge of the great desert sea…
It was like every road and path, every person I met and voice I heard called me to her gilded plateau. But before I could get there, first I had to journey through her imperial cities, her mountain valleys, and stare into the eyes of her spirited people.
Travelling from Rabat, the capital, I took a local bus and met an Englishman who, having recently finished at Oxford, was completing a placement year in the city; he helped me find my way to the city centre and then to the train station.
It was a relief to meet someone who spoke so highly of the local people and way of life. Later, as I sat in the train station waiting for my ride to Casablanca, a lady approached me, started speaking to me in French, asking me where I was from and then wished me a good stay in Morocco. Her broad smile stayed in my mind as she walked away.
People were already coming to me, aiding me, and blessing my onward journey through this new land.
Casablanca. The White City.
We weaved in and out of the traffic, people, cars and trams. That chica loca was like a snake, slithering swift and unhesitant through the streets. Fearless as always. People aren’t really used to seeing a girl on a bike in this world. She’d been living in the city for a while and was the perfect guide to the real way of life here. I felt like a secret agent as we darted around, sharp and surreptitious.
We ate snails on the street – a good taste, and cheap. Afterwards we drank the soupy broth. At the Medina I saw ancient walls, many temptations in the markets, people and more people. I was intrigued by the many people, and they were intrigued by me. We sat and ate grilled sardines with bread and raw onions on a little market stool with Moroccan men who enjoyed sharing with us. We took coffee in a little bar, on chairs facing out to the street, in a way of life hardly changed for centuries. Next we were eating again in a little bar – bowls of hot soup. The energy in this place just seems to revolve around food, drink and quiet pleasures. How I’ve longed for these senses. How I’ve longed to travel across Morocco.
Then I was taken by some Moroccans to a house in the heart of town – high up – we climbed many stairs and they took me to this large room with many windows, pillars and coloured tiles, rugs and cushions in every available space. They fed me dates and made strong mint tea. We chatted in a mixture of our languages and they laughed a little at my French. I hadn’t spoken it in a while and it needed oiling.
I mentioned that I was tired and they insisted that I sleep. They cleared the room, shut all the windows bar one, prepared a bed and simply locked me inside the room. Many hours passed whilst I slept. I became completely unaware of time.
Inevitably the sounds of the bustling streets below lured me to the open window, where I watched, longing now to escape the luxury and stillness of this palace room. An imprisoned prince again, I became.
It is impossible not to be changed by such places and circumstances. One has to metamorphose to the nature around. Yet it is not obligation that changes a man, it is the will… Before I eventually left, I thanked them for their hospitality. The daughter called me a prince of old when she saw my photographs. I told her that maybe I was, for in that moment it certainly did seem that way. They invited me to stay at their villa in Marrakesh.
Insha’Allah, I said. Insha’Allah… if God wills it.
I wanted desperately to make it as soon as possible to that place ‘Sahara’ and ask the blue men of their faith…
The first glimpse of it came whilst walking around on one of my last afternoons in Casablanca – at the Grande Mosquée Hassan II – Morocco’s largest mosque.
The place was magnificent and I was in sheer awe.
A man, noticing my blue scarf that I’d just put over my shoulders, ushered me over and we began talking. He had recently made a journey from the Sahara, and came to the great mosque to pray. We talked and talked and he gave me tips on how to travel all the way to the Algerian border and the most beautiful and deep parts of the desert. He tied my blue scarf to my head, covered his mouth with the one on his own head as we posed for a picture. Apparently, the Berbers of the desert believe the soul can be stolen through the mouth. The sacred of the blue protects it.
It seemed I was getting closer…
* * *
As a city, Marrakesh was unequivocally sour on the tongue.
How deeply sweet was the lure of Sahara; how rich was my time in the White City, Casablanca; so many good friends and energies found there. Marrakesh, however, was the converse; out of a journey in spirit, it stuck out, sore, and was thus the pariah for me. I was disappointed. I didn’t take one photo during my two days in Marrakesh, not a single one! Only a few were taken of me. Yet I cherish them…
I was very fortunate to be adopted as ‘son’ to a beautiful family there, who spoiled me rotten with feasting, fascinating stories from Islam and history, who shared with me their villa, their soul and the meaning of being Moroccan. I was highly honoured and remain indebted to them, eternally. They gave me many things, told me it was my house and I should feel like it was. They were adorable to me, within the few days we spent together said they loved me like a son, and I will never forget those words, or the sentiment behind them.
An invitation to return to their household remains open and I am so grateful… I think about it often in these days and wonder if I will make it back soon. I do hope so.
Friendship is a form of charity that, on the road, remains both priceless and absolutely necessary.
I asked one of my ‘mothers/aunties’ at the villa one night about God and what she believed, she told me ~ “Everything is connected by energy, by God – He is the trees, the sky, flowers, the roots – He speaks to you within – the God of all peoples, the Jews, Christians, Muslims, Indians – it is all the same God – culture gives it a different name.”
We talked a lot about faith – she told me she had left her body many times, spiritually. I told her I experienced this very thing many times when I was younger, involuntarily, and how it scared me. She said it was a sign that I had a ‘good soul’… I said I wasn’t so sure…
Sometimes, tourism makes me sick to my stomach. The lack of consciousness, awareness and understanding for what we, as a race, put our planet through, just breaks my heart.
Marrakesh was a zoo for tourists – flashy, modern restaurants where you pay five times the price for local food – swanky, western-style hotels and shopping outlet stores – not my scene at all. Luckily I found a local place down an alleyway where I shared lunch with local workers for less than a dollar. And no bad stomach for me either, I survived India, even with my health. The Medina was great, don’t get me wrong, but I didn’t buy anything anyway as I only had a small backpack and I’m not really that interested in purchasing a load of over-priced rugs and lampshades – I’d go to one of the less commercial Moroccan cities for that. ((Actually, forgot, I did buy one thing – some Oud perfume in a small clear bottle. I really treasured that little perfume and used in sparingly for most of 2017… I will always remember that tumultuous year when I smell that distinct smell.))
However, gentrification, whilst a shame, I could forgive. But what I saw in the main piazza, Jeema el-Fnaa, was a sort of personal hell for me. I became very upset.
This, ladies and gentleman, is exactly the opposite of a cool photo…
(Images courtesy of Google)
Now, whilst I don’t wish to discriminate against anybody (these were just the first images I found on Google, and I didn’t take any of my own as I didn’t want to be seen ‘supporting’ this vile industry) I just don’t understand how having an animal in chains forced upon your shoulder makes people feel cool, special, or picture worthy. It just doesn’t, you look sad, the animal looks sad, and you’re just supporting these men to continue making money off helpless animals in a tradition that is totally unnatural and quite frankly weird. The monkeys were clearly manhandled, tired and agitated. I watched the way the men were treating them for a while… just wishing I had the power to do something. People are scared of wild animals, yet they are happy to pose with them as long as they are chained, sedated, abused into a permanently submissive, passive state – slaves to our will. Same process with elephants and wild horses – break them, break their poor poor souls, and then ride them around and brag about your experience of ‘freedom’… animal cruelty, not my kind of freedom.
Have you ever seen monkeys in the wild? Mischievously leaping from tree to tree, free and full of life? Some (like baboons) can be pretty bloody scary, as I recently found out. Yet others, those quite used to humans, will get close, and some may even jump upon you if you’ve got food on offer. I’ve experienced this a few times with wild animals in their natural environment and I can tell you the joy of an unchained, undrugged, free, equal animal choosing to come close to you, choosing to trust you, walk with you or even jump onto your shoulder – it’s one of the most magical and powerful feelings in the world…
Ghana, Nov. 2017.
These monkeys in Ghana have been worshipped and protected since the most ancient times, long before Europeans and organised religions came to pillage the lands and divide the people. To this day the villagers still have a close bond with the monkeys and see them as living deities… they say you can see the ancestors in their eyes… if you get close enough.
… Then there were the snakes.
I know from having worked with some of the world’s top herpetologists that a cobra only rears if in threat, that a cobra that is constantly rearing and flaring its neck clearly has a long history of mishandling and abuse. I know first hand that snakes hate bright light and noise, and would 9 times out of 10 choose to escape rather than fight, sit in a defensive position for prolonged periods of time, or use any of its precious venom.
In Marrakesh I saw one of the snake (mis)handlers literally forcing a snake to bite him on the tongue just so he could prove it wasn’t poisonous to a young girl. The snakes were all lying round on the floor, drowsy and disorientated, quite different from a snake’s behaviour in the wild.
If you’re really so brave and want to get close to some snakes then come to India and work with an expert who knows what they are doing and can advise you on the correct way to handle wild snakes… which would only be necessary if you had to carefully remove a snake from your house for example… otherwise they are best left alone, for your sake and theirs.
Back when I was travelling through India a couple of years ago I stayed with Gerry Martin for a few weeks and he taught me much about snakes and their behaviour. He taught me, just in case I ever needed it, the correct way to ‘catch’ a wild snake if I ever got into a situation where one needed to be carefully relocated.
I felt quite confident that I’d taken it all in, but you can imagine my surprise and slight horror when before I know it I’m standing before a wild cobra that had wandered in from the surrounding jungle and Gerry asked me to catch it.
I can tell you my respect for snakes went through the roof. They are quick, agile, and extremely beautiful creatures. All the power of the universe seemed to manifest in those short, fleeting moments, in the body of that incredible being. It took all my wit and strength to finally catch it. It was one of the scariest and most exhilarating experiences of my life and something I will never forget.
That was one of two cobras that I caught in fact. This one by far the strongest and most aggressive of the two that crossed my path. That look on my face is respect, focus and plenty of fear…
No drugs, no over-packed boxes or disorientating, noisy surroundings. This snake was quick, lively, barely stopped wiggling around and hissing for even a second, full of powerful venom that could kill a human in minutes. The cobra is responsible for most human deaths by snake bite in India. He tried to strike me many times, hissing and lunging with lightening speed. It was electrifying and impressive. My arms were shaking just to hold it out straight – it was so strong.
The snakes were safely put back into the forest afterwards, hopefully to never encounter a human again. But I dread to think what these poor creatures in Marrakesh had to go through…
This is man abusing his power as controller of nature. We are supposed to enhance the natural world, not cage and taunt it.
Yes, it’s great to wander the earth, become an adventure traveller, take nice photos and have beautiful stories to share with people of the world’s most beautiful places and animals. But what is even greater is eco-travel, slow-travel; wandering the earth with eyes and mind open – open to the perils of mankind, and what we can do as individuals and collectives to change our twisted world… in ways easier than you can imagine.
I never give up hope that one day human beings can change, and will change.
I wait for that day.
So after all the madness of Marrakesh I was keen to escape and cleanse my soul. I’d been offered to stay another night but was quite ready to leave. Before I left a huge rainstorm hit the city. It was perfect relief from the heat. I ran barefoot into the courtyard gardens and lifted my face to the heavens. Waters hit my roots and it was time to grow again toward the journey… the family said the rain had come for me, following me from the mountains.
It was sad to leave the lovely peaceful family I’d met behind, but now, Sahara was calling me in… and I was ready.
I decided to make the journey to South-Eastern Morocco in one go. I travelled throughout my trip on Morocco’s state transport (no tour buses or private vehicles, as usual) and so took a local bus which didn’t cost me very much, twisted round the mountains for hours; was quite sickly at one point. I did get to see a herd of mountain goats winding around the tips of a gorge in single-file and some interesting landscapes flashing by. Got to practice a bit more of my French with the locals, helped a struggling Berber woman feed her new-born baby, met an interesting travelling girl when we stopped in Ouarzazate ~ Jasmina ~ hope we cross paths again some day and share more stories of the road over cups of tea and cigarettes on an equally panoramic terrace.
I eventually arrived in Tagounite – a small, Berber town on the edge of the desert close to the Algerian border. After meeting with Nourdenne and his brothers, my hosts for my time in the Sahara, we began talking and I told him not to treat me, for even a minute, like a tourist or outsider. I told him I wanted to live exactly as his people did – to eat with them, sit with them, travel with them and share a way of life with them relatively unchanged in centuries. It was my request and he was obliging.
This is when my journey really began…
My first taste of the power of Sahara – winds blowing through the small town from across Algeria and beyond, warm, almighty, transporting my mind, enveloping my fears and preconceptions about life in a rural Muslim township. How could you not smile? How could you not give in to such a Majesty? Already I was being swept away by this unbelievable force that people travel across the world to experience firsthand –
Staying in the town was a delight. There was such a sense of peace about the place – everywhere smiles, open doors, a spare cushion round the table, offerings of tagine, bread, tea and dates. I was treated as honourary Berber not just some walking ATM brain-dead-tourist. I found some real treasure in this place.
I remember vividly the madness of the souk – camel heads, leather goods, spices and herbs, materials and shawls, perfumes and fragrances. I bought myself 4 meters of turban material for my onward journeys… gosh, if I could have foreseen then how handy that piece of cloth would be during the rest of my 2017 travels… got me out of some tricky situations… and into some. I also bought some black kohl eye powder for my mother, a gift from Sahara for whenever I would next see her.
I was very lucky to stay in an ancient Kasbah that my host family had been living in for generations. One of the days they taught me how to mix the sand and water in the traditional process and, by hand, apply the mixture to the old walls. The history passing through my hands; the water and earth – it was a spiritual process. (Naturally, I had to smudge a load across my face during the process too... 🙂 )
I found the roof of the Kasbah the perfect place to meditate and centre myself, spend some time alone, listening to the winds whirl and the desert sing.
Before I finally left the town the grandparents and heads of the family gave me a huge box of dates as a parting gift – the preferred desert snack since the most ancient of times. It was sad to leave them behind and even though for my entire time in their house we didn’t speak a mutual language, smiles, hand gestures and my basic Arabic sufficed to make our union. I left, once again, feeling like I was leaving behind my own family… I guess I was. The people you meet when travelling solo often become your family. I’ve learnt this over and over.
I asked Nourdenne one time, who refers to me as his brother even now, of his faith. He told me ~ “I believe in God, that Muhammad walked on earth… I don’t pray at the mosque much, mostly to myself, alone, to Him.” I asked him what God was and he replied, “God is there but no-one can know what it is.”
Next morning, leaving Tagounite, we began our journey into the dunes and the terrain I’d been longing to see.
After traversing over rocky roads for many miles, we eventually arrived at what my Berber companions described as the ‘First Sahara’, where we stopped for the night to rest at a small camp belonging to one of our party. Mattresses and blankets were dragged outside from the tents. We all sat around outside as night fell, watching stars prick the darkening sky, eating, feasting and singing old Berber songs. Of course, I’d never heard the songs before but managed to ad-lib through none-the-less.
Once you see the Sahara night sky with your own eyes you never quite forget…
Next morning, being the first to wake, I took myself alone to the dunes near the camp and had my ‘moment’ with Sahara ~ feeling wind caress my face as the sun rose steadily higher in the sky.
Once the others had awoken, after tea, we began to clear up the camp, collecting the things we would need for our onward journey and securing the tents which would not be used for some time after our leaving. Then we made the journey across the ‘first’ dunes on camel back, as the sun rose near to its zenith. I was happy to be dressed in full Berber clothing before our journey. The air beating down on our heads was very hot – I was given a 7 meter long turban for the trek, acting as the perfect protection from sand and sun, and helping me blend in perfectly with the scene… just how I like it.
I’ve never been one for sun-visors and bum-bags anyway…
After some time in this ‘first Sahara’ it was time to move much deeper into the desert. I knew from my own research that the dunes at Erg Chigaga were the highest and largest expense of desert to be found in Morocco. But to reach them by camel back would take a week from any town nearby, so we chose instead to make the greater part of this journey via an old land-rover belonging to one of my Berber companions, Ikhlef, who I called the smiling man – the 21st century way of traversing this harsh landscape.
The journey took us many many hours, all the hours of sunlight. We stopped first at a well to fetch water where I helped the camel farmers drive their heard, then at a small encampment belonging to a family of nomadic Berbers for tea, we stopped at a large oasis for lunch and rest from the midday sun, before eventually arriving at the great Erg Chigaga dunes.
Our time spent with the family, nestled among their tents (no electricity, running water or arable land to grow proper food), sheltering from the Sahara sands, was magical. These people had such a peace, such a simple life, so humble and yet generous of heart and soul. I shook the grandmother’s hand, Zahra, and sat with her a while, helping her keep the fire going as we make tea. I was mesmerised. Their children, Hami and baby Khadoug, were beautiful subjects for my lens…
Their dress, customs and way of life was almost identical to the way of life I experienced a month later in Israel’s Negev desert with the last Bedouin tribes there.
Those kinds of scenes your soul doesn’t forget in a hurry.
By late one afternoon, we finally arrived at the grandest of all landscapes ~ Erg Chigaga. Couldn’t believe my eyes ~ endless mountains of sand as far as the eye can see. Difficult to describe with words, the feeling of warm winds and sand caressing your body, the sun, whole and bright in the clearest sky, splitting the landscape into a chiaroscuro of gold and black. I ran for hours up and down the dunes until there was no life left in my body, until I simply crashed and lay, watching the landscape slowly rotating around with the lowering of the great sun-disk, my heart beating loudly in my ears, my body tired but my Will everlasting and convicted.
Surely it was all a dream? Surely I never really made it all that way? Surely my health must have held me back or stopped me somewhere on the long, tiresome journey?
I saw the Fata Morgana on the horizon, the rare and much-desired fennec fox scattering across the land. I sat nestled in cool caster-sugar-like sands at night and sung traditional songs with the Berbers who had become my new brotherhood, seeing stars above me, a dome of sky, shining so bright, illuminated to a degree of intimidation almost. I had indeed made it. I changed with the land, became a part of it, lost myself entirely to this greater Will, this greater Nature. This whole place was made of something like myself, something that could indeed be held, but only for a time before slipping through your fingers. It could be shaped by man and nature, with water and heat, but eventually would fall away, return to its natural state – something endless, free, formless and ever-changing. Like a soul. I learnt quickly, in this place, you just become nothing, nothing permanent, nothing still or stuck or eternal.
Nothing but a grain… in the Sands of Time.
I could go on, and on and on, describing details and nuances of my time in this otherworldly place, of how we danced and sang at night, of the conversations we had, and how I got totally lost in the Sahara, and yet felt the most ‘me’ or ‘whole’ I have ever felt. I guess this is just a place you really need to see, or feel, for yourself. I hope you make it one day, in body or soul.
Once again, God has revealed to me, through this life on earth, another people and country – once again I am blessed with the light of Revelation – proving once more that the veil of media and ‘safety’ is a lie indeed – these people have far from terror in their open hearts.
As I came to leave and continue my long journey westward towards the Middle-East, the Berbers asked me to stay longer. I couldn’t. There was more to do yet. But they told me, “You have a home here now in Sahara, in the Kasbah. You have brothers here now. You are welcome anytime.” I told them I would return… inshallah. When God wills it, I will return… to that mythical place…
To organise your own bespoke journey through the Sahara, to live alongside the Moroccan Berbers and experience their traditional way of life, to lose yourself in the beauty of the desert, contact Noureddine at Sahara Moon Excursions now.
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Happy New Year to all my readers, old and new. Thank you for reading the Diary of an Aesthete and sticking with me. I sincerely appreciate every share, comment and email. Means a lot. You all bless me over and over and it really supports what I do, encourages me and inspires me to keep on. 2017 has had tough moments but some sharp revelations for me and I am on the road to full health recovery and management of my lifestyle, fighting for longevity and making this crazy life work around my health and career. Here’s to whatever this year will bring… until next we meet. Anon. Jxx