• Ayushi Aruna

A Night in the Sahara Desert

It was my last few days in Morocco—not quite what the original plan was. As it turns out, when you have a weak passport, you are at the complete mercy of the Consulate, which can wreak havoc on your travel plans. First of all, as an Indian, I need a visa for almost all countries of the world. But I try to not let that stop my desire to see as much of the world as possible. I had booked my departure ticket for 30 days after my arrival in Morocco, assuming that wasn’t too much to ask for (the Consulate can issue a tourist visa for Morocco for up to 90 days). Apparently, the Consulate agreed with this assessment—it wasn’t too much to ask for, just a little bit more than they were comfortable with. They happily issued me a tourist visa for 29 days.

Of course, that meant new flights had to be booked and a lot of money was lost in the process. Actually, because of all this immigration trouble, I ended up befriending a very kind female police officer who was learning English at the school I was volunteering at in Fez, but that’s a story for another day. I have already strayed quite a bit, so let me return to where I began. It was my last few days in Morocco, and I was in Marrakech now. And to be honest, I was out of both money and things to do. I would find myself loitering around the Medina and the buzzing Marrakech souks everyday, with a growing list of things I would love to buy but couldn’t because of (1) money and; (2) baggage limit (thanks to the new ‘cheap’ ticket I purchased).

Visiting the Sahara Desert was still unchecked on my Morocco ‘gotta wander’ list. After researching the hell out of how I can get to Sahara Desert on my own and come out alive, I realised it wasn’t a risk worth taking. I was a lone female traveller, phone networks weren’t great around the Sahara, the public bus only went uptil a certain village near it, and come on it’s a desert after all! Plus, I didn’t speak French or Arabic, though I was surviving very well with sign language including at pharmacies, where I held my throat and made the choking noise to get medicine for a severe throat infection. Still, I thought, my parents would love to see me alive and would whack me very hard if they found out that I had taken such a huge risk (though going to Morocco unaccompanied for nearly a month was also a ‘huge risk’ as per their lexicon). So contrary to my travelling principles, I sighed and gave into booking a ‘Sahara Desert Tour’ with a tour company.

Like all organised tours, we stopped at many worthy stops that were not the Sahara Desert, and were taken to several markets where secret partners of the tour company promised us they had the best prices for the highest quality goods. On the evening of the second day, we finally reached the outskirts of the Sahara Desert itself, and I felt my excitement grow as we neared the golden sands. We were soon off our minibus, and on the back of a line of camels who trotted along in their territory and took us far into the dessert. The sun was just setting then— and I could see many hues strewn about in the sky. It was a Grand artist’s palette to say the least—red, crimson, orange, vermillion, and all those shades that I can perceive but cannot name. There was a gentle breeze and it seemed like we were the only ones around in the world, with gigantic sand dunes stretching on all sides. I was very happy to be here.

The evening swiftly turned into night, and the crimsons gave way to pitch darkness, dotted by a million stars in the sky. I tried to think hard if I had ever seen these many stars in a night sky, and though the night at a Vietnamese village in Sapa came close, I concluded that I hadn’t. What a privilege, I thought, it was to be able to see a glimpse of the Universe from our tiny, and ultimately, inconsequential, planet. We were now sitting beside a bonfire that the tent keepers had built in the middle of our space, with Moroccan instruments and songs in several different languages for company. We had to wake up really early to make our way back to the edge of Sahara and onwards to Marrakech, so I decided to head to bed.

It was getting colder by the minute, and I realised with panic that I was shivering. I had only one sweater, which I was already wearing, and there was no one around to ask for extra blankets. How could I not prepare for freezing temperatures when I was heading to the dessert? These are the moments that really make me miss my mom. Anyway, I decided to stop worrying and treat it as an episode of a TV show about man’s survival in harsh natural conditions. I wore my cotton pajamas on top of my jeans, put on all three pairs of socks, wrapped my woollen scarf around my chest on top of my sweater and used a cotton scarf to wrap around my head and ears. I was very glad none of the other travellers knew me personally and would thus not be interested in taking and sharing photos of me looking like this. I was very tired, so though I was still shivering, I was also barely awake a few minutes into turning into a Babushka doll.

I woke up suddenly in the middle of the night, gasping for air. The temperatures had dropped so much that I wasn’t being able to breathe properly. There was a Japanese girl in the same tent, who had also woken up because of my desperate gasping. She came over with her blanket and put it on top of mine. “I had asked for an extra one, but I think you need it more”, she said. I smiled at this kindness from a stranger, and tried to fall back asleep. Thankfully, someone came around our tent told us to wake up because we had to head back. It was 4 am—much earlier than we were supposed to head back, but I decided I didn’t care as long as it meant I will be in a warm room sooner than scheduled.

The camels were waiting, still chewing on something, their humped backs outlined against the still shimmering night sky. It was so cold and I was so tired that I felt barely in my senses. But it wasn’t safe to fall asleep or completely zone out while sitting on a camel’s back, so I decided to sing to myself. I don’t know where that came from, but my semi-conscious self thought that this is where several years of unwanted exposure to peppy Bollywood music could save me. So here I was, croaking away songs from Karan Johar movies, in the middle of the Sahara desert, under a beautiful night sky, just to keep myself conscious. And then it happened—I wasn’t sure if I actually saw it, because that’s how quick it was. I thought I saw shooting star. It was literally blink-and-you’ll-miss-it. But then someone from behind me shouted “Hey did you see that?” and it turned out that it was real! I kept my gaze up from that moment. As the camels walked on, I saw several more of them, and each time it was so swift that I was left second-guessing myself. It was magnificent—to be able to witness Cosmic play as a semi- conscious human. It was only 5th January, and I thought to myself, that it had been an incredible start to the year.

We were almost on the edge of the Sahara now. The palette of reds and oranges was taking over from the night sky once again, and I was finally feeling some warmth from the rising Sun. What a night, I thought; what a privilege.


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