That's the amount of time I spent sloshing around the back seat of a beater van as we sped through the winding roads of the Atlas Mountains toward the Sahara Desert. I was nervous about the van making it through the marrakech streets, so you can imagine my shock when they informed us that this manged box on 4 wheels was taking us through the mountains.
Turns were made at 60 miles per hour, and rest stops for those weak stomached were few and far between. The long bus ride was a mere formality in my grand adventure, but I didn't mind it so much. Ten of my closest friends and I laughed as we deliriously attempted conversation- our 6am wakeup call at the hostel seemed like a distant memory.
despite the transportation, I found simple joys in the strange situation. I grew rather fond of left turns, as the back speakers would briefly sputter to life before fading out again. I also became instant friends with the guy (or crash dummy depending on how you look at it) sitting next to me, Gurks, as our unexpected back seat collisions became too frequent not to laugh.
We made a few stops along the way, some for restroom breaks, others for sightseeing. I was able to fuel my body with coffee early on in the morning, and if that’s not a good omen for a perfect day, i don’t know what is. My favorite was Tsar of At-Ben-Haddou (try saying that 10 times fast). The small village was built on a now barren riverbank, and housed 150 families back in its prime. Over time, the residents moved to the other side of the river, abandoning their ancient infrastructure for the more standard moroccan type. Now the city has become an adult architectural playground of sorts.
For all of you game of thrones, cleopatra, or gladiator fans, this city is the backdrop for all sorts of famous scenes. Its extensive hollywood days left the nearly abandoned city with a few modern additions, which were ironically funny. I laughed as we walked through the remains of an “ancient” archway which marked the entrance. The 21st century cheaply made stone fooled no one beyond the screen, especially against the authentic clay building facade that dated back hundreds of centuries ago.
We made a few more stops along the way, our sense of time warped by the persistent lack of scenery change. I made it my mission to try as many random desert snacks as possible. Granted, these snacks were packaged and usually imported from countries besides morocco, but the stupid thrill of buying something extremely random just to taste was pretty darn fun.
Little by little, the mountains turned into barren plains until finally, at about 6:30 pm, our van barreled into desert territory. Even when the 12 hour van ride ended, our trip wasn’t over. We then hoisted our bags up and braced our bodies for the bumpy ride on our next mode of transportation: camel.
In typical Sydney luck, the camel I was ushered to was not only the designated leader of the bunch, but it was also a good five feet taller than the rest. To my friend's viewing delight, my camel took me on a few unplanned solo excursions, one being through the branches of a palm forest. Whoever decided that riding camels was 'cool' either a) has not spent an hour on one, or b) is wrong because holy cow (or holy camel), it hurts.
An hour later, our sunset exodus ended at the outskirts of a chic little camp. I suppose I should clarify: the camp itself was in no way chic, but the oncoming experience i felt brewing was chic in every way. A cluster of sand-worn white tents encircled what resembled a layer cake of moroccan rugs-a small army could have relaxed comfortably, sans sand.
The camel guide walked around to each camel one by one, ordering them “down” through some freaky hypnotic hand motion. Of course, I went first. And let me just tell you, when those camels are told “down”, they go down whether you’re coming or not. How i managed to keep from dismounting the camel in the most extravagant tumble, the world may never know. I found the only perk of being the first one down was the full viewership of my friends not-so-gracefully flopping down on their camels.
Getting the camels down was only half the battle because from there, you’re responsible for getting off. We heaved our sore bodies off of the massive creatures and limped the last few steps into camp in what felt like knee-deep sand. By the looks of us, you would have thought we had been stranded in the desert for weeks and embattled in a few clashes with savage desert clans. Oh, well. 12 hours in a bus and one on a camel is the same thing, right?
Men holding platters of steaming mint tea waited kindly for us upon our arrival, and we spent no time putting our belongings away. Five of my best girlfriends and I claimed a girls' tent to ourselves.
On a very unrelated side note, one of my closest friends on the trip is a girl named alex. When we met, she said she was from California, to which I always respond, “No way! My best friend lives there! What part?” She answered Palos Verdes, to which I exclaimed my jealousy and added how hard I had tried to go to a university in California. She mentioned she went to school in the south- in the state of Alabama to be exact- and I casually replied that’s where I lived. Her mom popped in the conversation at this point- “No way! Alex goes to the University of Alabama! You must be familiar with it!”.
ha! No joke!
So come to find out, Alex and I are both juniors at the University of Alabama. She’s a Phi Mu and i’m an Alpha Chi. Our sorority houses are one house apart. We’re both in the same college- she’s journalism, I’m creative advertising. I even know the exact house she lives in on 13th street. There’s literally no telling the number of times we’ve passed each other at school, and here we meet in Rabat, Morocco. small world, dude.
Ok, small story aside. Dinner was served in the food tent. I sat indian style on a floor cushion, which must have drastically increased my stomach space because I consumed an embarrassing amount of food. Moroccan cuisine is possibly my new favorite, even above Mexican. They served us this soup that tasted just like my mom’s chicken and dumplings- minus the chicken and with rice. I had a nice pang of homesickness, and the cell-serviceless desert scape didn’t make things better.
By nightfall, we gathered atop the collection of rugs. I toted out my sleeping bag and arranged it next to my friends, and we laid there under the sky as it came to life. My eyes fought with my curiosity in the war of wakefulness and sleep.
Sandwiched between desert dunes and nature's starry Picasso, it occurred to me that I was adventuring in a way I thought only existed between the pages of books. The desert is such a powerfully majestic place. Such a minimalist place. A place that possess so much control. One that expands unforgivingly for miles on end. Here, it’s you and the bare necessities- anything else is a waste of precious energy. It’s a mentally frightening thing, yet stirringly magical all the same.
While the others filed into their tents, I prolonged my relocation again, and again.. and again. And so I stayed there, utterly paralyzed beneath the splatter of stars, unable to carry myself to the cushioned bed in my tent. I don’t remember when I fell asleep, but I do remember thinking I must have already started dreaming earlier in the day.