The Sahara

Reading about the Sahara desert growing up, I always felt like there was a disconnect. It seemed unfathomable, that such a place could exist on Earth. I felt as though I were reading about Mars or some other far off place, perhaps it was all just a fairytale, certainly not fact. The desert just didn’t fit into my (limited) perception of the world.

I read about it in many of my books, enthralled with the details of this foreign landscape. However, it never made my bucket list. Not because I didn’t want to go, but because it just seemed so unrealistic. New Zealand was a pipe dream; this was just flat out impossible.

That is until I found myself at age twenty, knee deep in a sand dune grinning at the sheer impracticality of the situation.

It was incredible.

I suppose, however, that I should start at the beginning. We left Rabat at 6:30 a.m. Friday morning and began our 12-hour trek to the desert, stopping off several times to take in the scenery.

I never really put a lot of thought into how the desert starts—I guess I just pictured a clean divide, a clear border in which the sand began and the green stopped. This would, like many of my preconceptions, prove false.

As we drove, the rolling countryside of green hills and fertile farmland slowly began to bleed into stretches of dirt and sand. Trees still dotted the landscape, but rather than grass, dirt sat at their roots. As we progressed, the trees became more and more scarce until they abruptly gave way to massive mountaintops.

The most notable feature of the desert, in my albeit brief experience, is its paradoxical nature. It is simultaneously flat and mountainous—large stretches of impossibly level earth give way to massive mountaintops that dominate the landscape for miles. The dunes also put a wrench in the flatness of the desert, with the flat earth leading up right to the edge of a massive expanse of sand stacked improbably high, with seemingly no end in sight. It’s astonishing.

The first thing about the desert that you notice, however, isn’t the landscape: it’s the heat. Now, I know that seems obvious, but the heat is different then anything I had experienced before. This was an all-encompassing heat, the kind that presses down on you, enveloping, suffocating. Even the shade seemed ill equipped to fend off the intensity of the African sun.

On Saturday morning, we kicked off our actual “desert experience” after a night of fun and games, by taking jeeps off-road to the edge of the dunes. I really enjoyed this, the hot air buffeting my face as we whipped through the dirt and rock.

When we reached the edge, a feeling of uneasiness crept down my spine—the silence of the desert is unnerving. It’s not the stuff of movies in which a buzzard squawks overhead and a tumbleweed is blown across the landscape. It is completely and utterly silent. There are no birds. No rustling leaves. No wind. Complete silence.

It’s not a peaceful silence, like the type on a mountaintop where the wind quietly shakes the trees. It’s an uncomfortable one, one you can’t escape. The kind that gives merit to the ever-popular idiom “deafening silence”.

Following the trip to the dunes, we drove to another town where we listened to traditional Gmaoua music, dancing and laughing in a partially underground dirt building to escape the sun. It was fun to laugh and dance and listen to the strumming of a gambri (a long stringed instrument) and the beat of the drums.

We had a break after that, in which we swam and enjoyed the hotel we arrived at earlier in the day. The heat reached a peak of 107, the pool offering the only escape from the sweltering sun. That is, until the storm kicked up.

It started with a slight rain, one that we laughed at and discussed the rarity of. Those droplets, however, turned into a downpour, but still we enjoyed the improbability of it. Then the sand came. Tiny grains bit into skin and blinded us, seemingly inescapable. We ran to take shelter, but still watched eagerly from our windows, enthralled and terrifies by this new phenomenon.

The thrill quickly wore off as the dust settled and the dunes remained blanketed in swirling grey chaos, delaying our plans for a sunset ride into the desert via camel. We waited for half an hour before finally getting the go ahead and beginning our trek out.

I had been looking forward to this moment since applying to this program back in November and I don’t think the grin that appeared on my face has ever been larger. The camel ride was fantastic and actually going out and into the dunes was just astonishing. The sheer vastness of the desert stole the air right from my lungs. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

We climbed a large dune after about a 45-minute ride, leaving our camels at the base. The sand swallowed my legs as I raced up the side, pulling me down with each step. Again, the concept that such a large quantity of such small, insignificant particles could not only exist, but create such wonders was incomprehensible. Watching the sun slowly sink beneath these enormous structures seemed only to seal this idea.

That’s not necessarily saying that it was easy-going. Bear in mind that a sandstorm had just ripped through the desert, leaving the wind with quite a bit of gusto and what felt a bit like spite as it continued its attempts to topple me from the dune. Sand was everywhere, it coated my eyebrows, my eyelashes—every inch of my body had a firm layer overtop of it.

Still, the experience was phenomenal and two days later I’m still struggling to believe that it actually happened. The aforementioned grin still creeps onto my face as I think of how it felt to stand on top of that dune, and I think it just might stay that way for a while.

Advertisements

Lessons of the Garden

While sitting in the garden outside my school the other day, I noticed a butterfly sitting on one of the plants. I kicked myself mentally for forgetting my camera upstairs in the classroom, as we had just taken a brief tea break, but proceeded to get a closer look. It was then that I noticed the huge yellow wasp that sat only two leaves behind the butterfly.

I tell this story because as I continued to observe the butterfly, a gorgeous white and brown winged specimen, I thought it was rather fitting for my current experience. When I announced 8-months ago that I wanted to go to Morocco, my entire family about hit the roof. “It’s a third world country,” they’d say. They’d cite the gender inequality or the country’s struggling economy as reasons to stay home. The cultural and religious differences were highlighted each time I brought it up, the constant negativity bogging down my excited outlook.

The thing is, Morocco is a beautiful country. The people here are kind and helpful. The country thus far has been an amazing time, with each day offering a new promise of something entirely unprecedented in my short twenty years. That’s not to say, however, that it’s without it’s problems—catcalling on the street happens, several students in our program have gotten sick due to the different levels of food sanitation, etc. In the end though, the good outweighs the bad ten-fold.

For example, thieves are a reality here, especially in the crowded Medina where all of us are staying. My host mom has encouraged (and by that I mean chastised me if I didn’t) me to put my phone in my backpack and keep my pockets empty when walking to school. A girl in my class was walking yesterday and had her phone in her skirt and a man yanked it out and began walking away with it—a shopkeeper on the street, however, noticed and stopped him. Berating him and returning the phone to my classmate. This ugly side of the country exists, it’s present and demands attention, however the good is there and allows a level of protection and deserves recognition. The threat of the wasp shouldn’t take away from enjoying the butterfly.

I’ve been here for under a week but thus far it’s been incredibly fun as well as informative. We spend each day in class going over observations and questions, focusing on different aspects of the world we are just now getting to see. Then, during our free time, our group ventures out on our own to explore Rabat and see as much as possible. A month may sound like a long time, but in the grand scheme of things it’s not.

Thus far we’ve spent a lot of time getting to know the medina, in which we live with our host families. It offers a plethora of sights and sounds, always awash with activity and excitement. The markets provide interesting wares including (but not limited to) fresh fruit, beautiful rugs, goat heads, pigs’ feet, and hand made paintings and vases. The alleyways that lead to our respective houses wind and twist in mind baffling ways, each turn seemingly making less sense than the last. Yesterday I wasn’t paying attention and took a turn out of instinct, leading myself back to the front door, the first evidence that I’m actually managing to learn my way around.

The medina lets out into a marina where the river flows between Rabat and Sale. It’s a busy place with people milling down the edge of the river and boats ferrying passengers between the two cities. We stayed down there for a bit after class while we waited for another half of our group to meet back up with us. It was relaxing to watch the water and take in the people, sometimes it’s nice to just take a moment and sit while we’re here. Too often I think we get caught up in moving around and seeing all there is to see, but actually sitting and taking in the surroundings is a terribly underrated experience.

I could sit here and list all of the incredible things I’ve seen the last few days, but frankly I think it might bore those reading to bullet point down the list. Exploring the city has been fun though, and I will say that the juice here is incredible (and cheap). Thus far I’ve had an assortment of fruit called panache, lemon ginger, and avocado almond. All were awesome. Tomorrow we embark on our first in-country trip to Meknes, Fes, and the Roman ruins Velubilis. I’m excited to get underway and see what else this wonderful country has to offer.

Bringing it back to the point, the last few days have taught me that you shouldn’t allow fear to hold you back in your endeavors. If I had solely focused on the presence of the wasp, I wouldn’t have been able to observe the butterfly. That being said, if I had blundered around like an idiot and disregarded my surroundings, I definitely would have gotten stung. The balance isn’t necessarily a simple one, but it’s vital. I’ve cherished my time thus far and I am glad I chose Morocco to spend my time, however, I remain aware of the fact that I’m not in an environment I’m used to and there are new hazards to be wary of. Regardless, I still have over two weeks of excitement left, and I can’t wait.

 

And we’re off… Again.

I grew up in a little white house with black shutters and a red door. Situated in the middle of the street, the most notable thing about said house, at least in my opinion, was the gangly oak tree that sat smack dab in the middle. The tree was young and tall, awkwardly tilting slightly to the left. As a child, the tree was my boundary, the line my mom drew in the sand. I constantly wanted to be outside and the rule was to never go past that oak tree.

I love testing boundaries, and that precedent was set when I was a child. I would sit level with that tree and poke my toes further and further forward into the grass. I would lay longwise and dig my feet into the soil around the tree, stretching myself as far as I could go—trying to see how far I could get while still technically staying within those limits.

I tell this story to show that I’ve always loved pushing things to the limit. Whether it be my personal boundaries, physical limitations, or my mother’s patience. Now, at twenty I’ll be testing all three as I sit at the Port of Columbus Airport preparing to depart on my month long journey through Morocco.

A year ago I had never really left the country, embarking on my first trip abroad to New Zealand. For those who followed this (now criminally neglected) blog, you know that it was the time of my life. I have the same expectations for this trip and hopefully they’re met to the same extent.

For those asking “why Morocco?” the answer is simple and at the same time not—at the surface, I’m an Arabic minor and can knock out a few requirements by doing this. More truthfully, the answer is slightly more complex. I have two years of my undergraduate degree left and quite frankly I don’t want to waste it. I am fortunate enough to go to a university with practically unlimited opportunities and to squander that would be more than wasteful, it’d be idiotic. Morocco isn’t a place that you can just hop on a plane and go gallivant through for a few days. I mean, you can, but you wouldn’t get very far. This experience is one that I wouldn’t have outside of the university and I want to take advantage of it.

In terms of the actual trip, this one is quite a bit different than the last go-round. I have a lot more in-country travel—heading to a multitude of cities while being based in Rabat, the capital city. We travel to other notable ones such as Casablanca (the movie geek in me is screaming ‘Play it again Sam, for old times’ sake’) and Chaouen—the blue city, where all the buildings are painted blue in Jewish tradition to remind them of God’s presence. I’ll stay with a homestay again, but this time with another Ohio State student travelling with us. I’m excited for this particular aspect as I think that getting to converse (maybe in Arabic, depending on how atrocious my accent is) with people from such a unique culture offers a really phenomenal opportunity. The most exciting part of the trip, in my opinion, comes toward the end, where we will take camels out into the dunes and camp in the Sahara desert.

I would type more, but I’m so excited I think my head might explode.

Morocco is known for their mint tea—allegedly the best in the world. Tea there is a tradition, a time to take and reflect on the day, enjoy one another’s company. The ceremony surrounding the national drink is a sacred one and each day we have it built into our schedule. I’m eager to partake in such a seemingly serene tradition, and for those that know me, it seems as though it will be right up my alley.

This trip will be much different than any experience I’ve had in my twenty years and I’m more than excited to finally head out—the anticipation really might kill me. Hopefully I’ll be able to keep this blog updated. In the meantime, Cheers and مع السلامة.

My “passion” for tea

One of my earliest childhood memories is the sound of a whistling teapot and the smell of black Lipton tea wafting through my kitchen. I remember watching my mom put the kettle on to boil each morning, filling the bottom of a pale green mug with honey, and grabbing a tea bag from one of three little blue canisters that sat at the back of our countertop. She would sit there every morning, listening to me prattle on about my latest art project in school or some playground nonsense that was at the forefront of my mind at that age, sipping her tea and adding an “mmhmm” or a “that’s nice” when appropriate. At the time, these little tea talks just seemed apart of a morning ritual, something trivial, unimportant. I don’t think I ever took the time to appreciate my mom waking up early each morning just so she could see me for a brief portion of time before I caught the bus.

These early memories with my mom are some of the fondest ones I have now, looking back. At that time in my life, my mom worked long hours, making these breakfast conversations one of the few moments I got to spend with her one on one during the week. I would wake up each morning (after several bellowings of “Samantha Elizabeth if you miss the bus so help me god”; I was not, and am not to this day, a morning person) and look forward to these little breakfast chats, my mom with her tea and I with my chocolate milk.

I think that that’s where my love of tea stems from. I associate tea with those sleepy smiles and drowsy morning chats, their inconsequential nature giving them half of their charm. As I got older, I began recreating these tea talks without really realizing it. I would invite my friends over and just sit in the kitchen with cups of tea in our hands, talking about every topic under the sun. I’m smiling as I write this, homesick in my dorm, thinking about drinking tea with two of my best friends, huddled together in my basement, laughing about something that was probably completely asinine. When I sip my tea (I have an obnoxious amount each day, seriously it’s probably unhealthy at this point), I remember those moments of laughter, that distinctive brand of laughter that puts a warm feeling in your belly and causes tears to form in the corner of your eyes, threatening to fall at any second. I remember every smile, every silly moment, and it makes me feel a sense of home.

As such, when I moved 150 miles away from home, I (in Sam Harris fashion) went a little overboard in bringing that piece of home to school with me. My dorm room is lined with tea of varying kinds, from black to roiboos to oolong, you name it, and I probably have it. When my friends are sick or sad or just need a little pick-me-up, I can frequently be found turning on the electric kettle that sits in the corner of my room, the one that makes me long for that familiar whistling sound of home (seriously it makes this obnoxious roaring sound until the tea is ready that kind of makes me question its safety). From there I fill two mugs to the brim with piping hot water, tea bags delicately tied around the handles, if its appropriate I’ll mix in a little bit of honey, and then we sit and talk, sipping our tea as we do it.

I’d like to think my love for tea and this (rather poorly explained) rationalization of it isn’t too crazy. In the Middle East, getting together for a cup of tea is all about hospitality, gathering around a table with friends, enjoying one another’s company. The Arabic word for tea is شاي (pronounced “shaii”), and in many Middle Eastern countries, strangers and friends alike are served tea as a method of socialization. The tea is poured and people will “drink the day away” sipping tea and talking about life, getting to know one another. I like the idea of this, and I also like the fact that this cultural norm provides some validation for my love of tea and the significance I attach to it. I suppose that’s all I really have to say on the subject, however the fact that I was able to write over 800 words just about my love of tea is a little bit concerning. As I write this, I am currently sipping Tazo “berry trifle” out of my Toms mug, eagerly awaiting a FaceTime scheduled with one of my best friends so we can carry on our little tradition. For me, drinking tea is more than just enjoying a hot beverage on a cold night, it’s about friendship and love and all that gushy nonsense. I love tea, and I love the people I share it with, so I suppose I’ll end this post by saying if you’re one of those lucky human beings, thanks for the laughs and all the memories, I look forward to many more.