An item crossed off on Priya’s bucket list: a journey to the Sahara; “I suspect that sometimes just doing something that is compelling becomes as important as the thing you were actually drawn to do.”
Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.”
– Pablo Picasso
When I first heard about the notion of a ‘bucket list’ (something or a series of some-things that one wants to do or experience before one’s death), I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around the concept of trusting something that important to an uncertain future.
I realize that we all create the personal myths by which we live, love, organize our experiences and make meaning. We humans are after all the kings and queens of meaning-making creatures. One of my pet myths involves the notion that this life is the only life we get to live. I never attempt to argue the point with those who talk of past lives or next lives, since arguing a point of personal myth seems pointless. In spite of this, I’m fond of saying, if ever I had another life, mine would have been as a nomadic Berber. Given that, it is no wonder that I have always been drawn to the desert. Not merely the semi-desert of the high Rockies where I did live for thirty plus years, but the big desert. I realized this consistent draw was as close to ‘a bucket list’ ache as I would ever come. A need to experience that landscape one time in my life, if only for one day: the Sahara.
After much planning and what felt like interminable phone consults, off I went to Morocco with a dear old friend who like me had weathered many years in India, and could/would take Morocco in her stride, even though we were both well past our prime adventure days. Both of us had a strong leaning towards comfort in all forms, but by the same token, both of us were suckers for beauty in all forms too.
The pinnacle of the trip led to us bumping along the hard scrabble on the edge of the Sahara in a four-wheel SUV driven by Hassan, a handsome man with kind eyes who said little, spoke broken English when he did speak to point something out as he drove us miles along the edge of the desert, to our waiting camels, who were decked out in their yellow and red respective saddle blankets.
One of them was aptly named Jimi Hendrix, just one of the almost daily surprises of colliding worlds that was Morocco for me. Jimi Hendrix! I had imagined some exotic Arabic name that I would roll around in my mouth trying to grab the edges of its music. His pal, my mount, was named Ganga, slightly more melodic if also not an Arabic name.
Our guide was a young Berber man called Ibrahim and at twenty three he was the eldest of his four siblings and had been guiding since he was thirteen. As was true for many Moroccans in the tourist industry, he spoke a smattering of several languages, including French, English, German, as well as his native Berber and Arabic.
We were all appropriately decked out for the excursion ahead: Ibrahim in a traditional Tuareg kaftan, me in my traditional blue and black wrapped headscarf that I had been waiting my whole life to wear.
The good-natured but fierce haggling that had gone into that simple purchase in the Medina of the Blue City (Chefchaoen) was a memorable event and luckily, cloth came with a lesson in how exactly one took 16 yards of fabric and twirled it around one’s head and shoulders so that it looked as if it might actually belong there.
Whenever a chance had presented itself in my earlier life for ‘dress up’ or a costume party, mine would invariably be kaftan and headdress. While unrecognizable in this guise, as sometimes only my eyes were visible, the theme was so consistently adopted by me, so as to be a clear signature. Now, as had been true in so many of my previous travels as a much younger woman, I got to ‘cover up’, but this time, the sheer volume of fabric was both utterly novel yet completely familiar.
After all the formal introductions, both to the camels and our young guide who would take us into the camp where we would be spending the night, we mounted our camels, come to a lurching full upright position with some well-deserved trepidation and the help of a sturdy hold bar. All of us sincerely playing our parts, paying homage in our own ways to a life that had already long slipped from the ‘lived’ to the memorialized.
After getting the measure of the camels whose gait is anything but smooth, we set out. Two four-leggeds and three two-leggeds, one walker and two rather amazed dismayed grinning hangers on.
A few minutes into the journey and before the terrain started its more intense undulations across the dunes, Ibrahim offered us the chance at a photo op. I for one needed positive proof to show my granddaughters something about the scope of age and adventure, especially since this moment fell well outside of the realm of cooking, art making, reading books, kayaking and the more regular life we tended to live while together.
Ibrahim was very adept at handling the cameras on our iphones without any pointers, and while it should not have been surprising given his job, I was nonetheless surprised. Just as I am relaxing into the halting pitch and forward thrusting movement, into the solitude and quiet of the dune-scape of rich red/orange sands, we slow to a halt as Ibrahim asks us whether we would mind him taking a prayer break. We are more than agreeable to both witness and welcome this ritual into our midst. He drops the rope that tethers him to the camels and thereby to us as he turns towards Mecca and drops to his knees. Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar, he chants in a soft, barely audible voice. It is five o’clock in the evening, so vast and silent, for a moment I could believe that we have slipped backwards through a slit in time.
We move forward again in our trek, when a sudden shrill sound cuts into the still late afternoon air so forcefully that I jump. It takes a mere second to realize it is a cell phone, Ibrahim’s. He speaks briefly as I scramble to put the dissonant pieces back into one congruent frame. The spell has broken as I realize that while the moment is utterly real, the context is manufactured by my deep wish to feel back in time, before cell phones and electricity, to something that no longer exists but for a very few Bedouin whose lives are harsh, hidden and almost extinct.
So often, we revere or appreciate something by its absence. As W.B. Yeats said, “Man is in love and loves what vanishes. What more is there to say?” Soon enough we may visit with deep reverence all the species of creatures and critters in museums, in zoos, that have become extinct in their natural homes. We will make the pilgrimages to see the beauty and otherness of what no longer exists. Much as I was doing now in my own way, with both respect and deep wonder.
Somewhere on that extended walk to our nighttime camp, the strap holding the sandal on Ibrahim’s right foot broke. I looked down at my very comfortable shoes, one of many that I own, especially bought for this journey. A pair of shoes that may cost as much as he earns in a month. He may only have one pair, even though his job is to trudge miles over dunes ferrying people across. He bends down without breaking stride to tuck the now flapping strap into the heel of the sandal, so casually and deftly, with no complaint. He does however have a cell phone, and even more amazing, there is reception, beyond the boundaries where nothing can be seen of the larger world, there is cell reception.
That was a moment, just one moment out of many when my mind stopped because I couldn’t hold such differences in my own narrow perceptual field; the woman in full white burka walking close with her teenage granddaughter in a form-fitting kaftan in the tiny village on the high Atlas mountain pass. The donkey carrying heavy propane canisters, into the old Medina in Fes, where no cars have access, having just weaved its way across a busy road with BMWs and Mercedes zooming past. Passing the biggest solar installation in the world, mere miles away from the most comprehensive ancient underground water ways (known as qanats) which date back to the 14th century.
Equally mind-boggling was our eventual and much appreciated arrival at our home for the night in the desert. A cluster of six black tents with a central fire pit and a larger tent for communal eating. Running hot and cold water, an indoor shower and toilet graced each tent. Where did the water come from and how did it get there? Apparently only eleven meters down this camp taps into one of the Sahara aquifers. Water supplied by the intermittent subterranean runoffs which arise in the mountain ranges and empty into the desert floor. Just under the surface of the largest desert, water. Nothing is as it seems here. Or as Zen master Ummon said, “Things are not as they appear. Nor are they otherwise.”
With the increased tourism and needed water for crops, the aquifers are said to have decreased by as much as 50% over the last few decades. There, as in most places on the globe, water is gold, mined and depleted faster than the rains replenish. I feel the weight of my participation in all aspects of this journey. The plane ride alone to get there has used whatever carbon credits I may have accumulated over the course of my mindful adult life as a ‘recycler’, one-car family, minimal plane rider, conscious (relatively) consumer. I do not shower that night.
The early morning ride out is even more spectacular. I ride solo with our guide on a new mount. An older gentleman camel much experienced, who clearly took the world and its dunes in his steady stride, making it feel smoother, or maybe I am less white-knuckled being now more at ease with the process. Milky morning light, silent young Ibrahim, no technological intrusions, at least till we get closer to our end point, where we are unexpectedly assailed by an international women’s dune car rally. The dunes around us are beset by roaring cars, by teams of drivers and their navigators, speaking in tongues from many countries, shouting, directing, gesticulating.
My one ride through the pristine desert on the one morning of the whole year that there is a f…king car race. Really? I see Ibrahim’s boyish delight with all the fanfare as he gesticulates to certain drivers how best to approach the dune with their four wheelers while simultaneously directing us safely through the mass of cars, some stuck, some roaring along, some plotting the best courses. I too am busy negotiating my own attitude. I reckon we were all attempting to pick our best paths forward, even as I had so yearned to slip back for a moment or two, to what once was.
The irony broke through the levels of my own irritation to the place that really got it the point, and the joke. The world had changed. Not just my world, but ‘the world’. This confrontation between old and new was everywhere, always was and will be. This here, was my world, my changing world; these shoes, this camel, my cell phone with a sparse photographic trail of a journey of remembrance, this collision between what was, and the present reality of the modern world that is ever encroaching, much like the desert itself, expanding in our time of droughts and climate change.
On the airplane home I felt a slight dread as to how I would respond when friends asked about the trip since I had no compelling insights or epiphanies, no grand stories to tell, just jumbles of images, of sights or smells, of color and footfalls over land and structures that have breathed and lived a very long time.
I had gone to the mountaintop, my mountaintop, Morocco, but I had had no revelations, no teachings, no holy writ to bring back, no life-altering realizations. Yet I was full, so full that for two weeks after my return I dreamt of Morocco. Just snippets of color, of place. An attempt no doubt to integrate the ‘much’ of experience and sensation into the ‘little’ of my capacity to fully absorb. I went and returned. So happy to have gone, so happy to be back. I suspect that sometimes just doing something that is compelling becomes as important as the thing you were actually drawn to do.
My bucket is now empty which leaves me with the truly daunting task of simply leaning into whatever each day, each person, each flower, animal, each sunrise and sunset brings for the days that I still have left to experience them, learn from them, give back to them and love them. Now that is a pretty mighty bucket to drink from, a compelling call to prayer.
Previously published on Priya’s blog