Merzouga – I spent the weekend trekking through the Sahara Desert with four good friends and a pack of camels.
On Friday night I found myself in the Casablanca train station, more stressed than I remember feeling in a long time. After a series of difficult emails with a desert tour company that left me feeling less than confident about our trip, the owner of our Airbnb canceled our reservation only a few hours before we were scheduled to check in.
It seemed like the whole trip was falling apart. We would have to spend a night in the Marrakech train station and hope that we didn’t get kicked out. We were burdened with luggage for the whole weekend along with our passports, cameras, phones, and laptops. The potential for something to go wrong was huge, and all of the hotels would be filled up because of the international climate convention taking place in Marrakech. I was furious with myself for not having an alternative, and part of me wanted to get off at the next stop and catch the next train home.
At some point during the train ride I had an epiphany. I was taking a night train from Casablanca to Marrakech so that I could travel to Merzouga and ride camels through the Sahara Desert. Just saying that itinerary out loud was enough to put a smile on my face.
We arrived in Marrakech around 10pm and went from hotel to hotel looking for vacancy. After a few tries we found an empty room, haggled the price down, and slept comfortably before embarking on the 12 hour ride from Marrakech to Merzouga and the Sahara Desert.
We spent that night stargazing near the Algerian border and counting our blessings.
The Sahara is beautiful in an incomparable sense. The dunes roll into the distance and the sand is a constantly shifting golden yellow as the sun makes its slow arc over the horizon.
But in some ways that isn’t totally true.
The Sahara is an enormous expanse of land, and not all of it is covered in golden dunes. A series of sky scraping sand dunes separates Algeria from Merzouga, but there are also vast expanses of dark grey tundra. Part of our tour led us across a scorched earth scene that doesn’t really evoke any poetic imagery. It is not what you would picture when you imagine the Sahara Desert, but it is no less so than the pictures I took.
The land also lies in other ways.
I have now spent two and a half months in Morocco, and for a large part of that time I have been studying migration. Some of the discussions we have focus on migration from Morocco to Europe. The ways that policy is crafted and implemented, the hurdles that migrants face integrating into an often hostile society.
We also spent a lot of time studying and speaking with Sub-Saharan migrants. People who moved from war torn countries South of the Desert who make the perilous trek through this pristine landscape that I got to enjoy from the safety of my camel tour.
For so many people this place is the sight of immense sadness.
In October we spoke to a migrant who had paid his life savings to catch a ride across the 3.5 million square mile expanse. He told us about a woman who was on the journey with him. Half-way through the trip, the driver stopped the car and asked the woman to have sex with him. The woman, aghast, refused. The driver said that if she wouldn’t do it he would leave them all to die. Thousands of miles out, no point of orientation, certain death facing all of the passengers, this migrant then had to plead with the woman to satisfy the driver to save all of their lives.
He told the story with the grim toughness of someone who had lived through more hardship than any SIT study abroad student can even imagine. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I was gleefully romping through the site of so much hurt.
After two nights in the desert we made our way back to Merzouga on camelback. We left before dawn, and watched the biggest moon in 70 years set over the towering dunes. The Sahara will still exist in my memory as one of the most beautiful places in the world, but it also exists as something else.