The luxuries of a nomad


It was not without great effort that I found myself in the middle of the Sahara desert recently, skirting the Moroccan-Algerian border. The dunes waved under the sunlight and the clear sky was a pastel shade of blue.

One of two camel companions on the trek, who we lent the moniker Jazz, stooped down to pick up the orange peels I tossed on the ground moments before. Roger, camel number two, sauntered over to join in.

The journey had begun two days before with a hectic 12 hours in Marrakesh. Arriving late in the evening, we roamed the dizzying back streets as we located our riad and wandered through the chaos of the Jemaa el Fna, the town square. The Jemaa, famous for beheadings of the past, was now laden with drum circles, snake charmers, henna artists and orange juice vendors, all vying for the attention of potential customers.

Isa poses as Said fixes his shoes. 
The following 12 hours we journeyed over the Atlas Mountains by bus, with frequent stops in ramshackle villages in route to M’Hamid – an arid desert town in the deep south. A half bottle of Dramamine rested in our stomachs.

As I stared at the dunes, Jeremy walked over and patted Jazz on the nose. He replied in protest, which made Jeremy laugh.

A few meters away, our two desert guides, Isa and Said, set up the kitchen tent. They were both nomads of the Berber tribe in their early 20s. They knew the desert well.

“It is our home,” Isa explained.

With camels for transport, living off of the land, with more than a few carried amenities, was seamless.

Every morning they served up coffee and tea, hard-boiled eggs, fruits, bread and jam.

Mint tea was made throughout the day and lunch was more fresh food than any two persons could ever eat.

Isa, a name that is an Arabic form of Jesus, told us that in the desert you always make more food than you need because you never know what other nomads you may encounter. The life in the desert is a life shared.

Isa spoke English relatively well, although he had never studied it, he said. He learned simply through conversation. He had met many tourists over the years and it was sense of pride to show them the desert as he saw it.

Our small caravan walked 20 kilometers a day, with both the weather and landscape changing rapidly.

Said, whose birth name means “happy” but often went by the nickname Sawadee, was more reserved and shy. He prayed several times everyday, sang songs of Allah and greeted us in the morning hours with “allahu akbar,” which means God is great.

the dunes. 
He knew a few words in English and although he wore a turban most of the time, when the cloth fell below is mouth, it revealed an infectious smile.
Jeremy and Roger. 
As he poured us tea one day, ceremoniously holding the pot a foot in the air above the cup to create bubbles (used to aerate and filter out both leaves and sand), in perfect English he said, “Tea without bubbles is like a nomad without a turban.”

Jeremy and I fell into desert life easily with our new companions. They shared their lives with us and we wished to do the same.

Isa tossed his shoes after the first day, saying they were too small and gave him blisters. He was the same size as me, so I gave him my tennis shoes and put on my Chacos.

He took the gift, nodded and said thank you, and continued to walk barefoot for the remaining two days.

On our final night together, Isa and Said sang Moroccan folks songs while beating on empty water containers; I serenaded them with a Bill Monroe tune. The full moon created a romantic backdrop for our intimate gathering.

the wind picked up on the third day. 
Dinner was walloping once again and we explained the colloquialism “fat and happy,” which Isa reiterated on our final day, adding more English to his lexicon gained from interactions with tourists.

As we parted, Isa said he hoped he had made us comfortable, happy and adequately shared life in the desert with us. We assured him he had.

“Good,” he smiled, adding “I wish to make you fat.”

He waved and walked back into the nomadic life he lives every day. Perhaps one day when Isa is walking, it’ll be in my shoes –I just hope he’s as comfortable as I was walking in his.