Seeing the Light: Sunrise in the Sahara Desert
After a night in the desert, a new nomad gains an illuminating perspective.
By Kirsten Smith
I opened my eyes just before sunrise and lay blinking at a pale sky beginning to drape the Sahara Desert in a faint veil of wispy pastels. Cocooned within heavy, rough-hewn blankets piled atop a thick, striped mat resting on sand, I craned my neck to glance around the Berber camp where I’d spent the night.
Encircling me was an assemblage of large, faded Moroccan kilim rugs layered haphazardly over a skeleton of metal poles to form sand-shielding rooms. Though a slightly rough construction, it allows the nomadic Berber people to quickly pull up stakes and rebuild their homes in new lands when the need arose.
“Good morning, it’s time to wake up,” came the soft voice of our shy Berber guide, Mohammed. He leaned out the door flap of the kitchen tent where he was preparing breakfast. His white turban was perfectly wrapped and his long blue kaftan looked spotless, a stark contradiction to my mussed-up appearance. I especially liked Mohammed, with his sweet demeanor, kind brown eyes and gentle expression.
I noticed the sleeping mats of my travel companions, Colin and Maria, were empty; blankets pushed back into stiff heaps of fabric encrusted with wind-blown granules, looking vaguely like mounds of sugared pastries. My own blankets (as well as my face and hair) were similarly glazed with sand.
“Have you seen–” I began.
“There,” Mohammed smiled, motioning toward the dunes beyond the entrance to the circular camp. I rummaged through my backback to retrieve my camera, which by now was emitting a gritty grinding sound whenever I rotated the lens, and stumbled clumsily toward the doorway through deep, cool sand not yet baked by the day.
Shuffling up a low rise outside, I scanned the landscape for my friends. When we’d arrived at the camp the previous evening, it had been twilight and the surrounding dunes had already dissolved into deep purple obscurity. Now, however, the smooth behemoths were delicately illuminated and I could see them clearly, echoing forever in all directions.
My gaze landed on Maria, sitting cross-legged on the crest of a distant hill. Colin’s lanky form stood atop the tallest of the nearby dunes, camera held to his face, snapping photos of the brightening horizon. I settled myself with my camera on the wind-rippled spine of the closest ridge to wait for the sunlight.
As I sat quietly, a light breeze grazing my skin, scenes from the past evening replayed in my mind, recollected fragments of an exquisite dream.
Tasting the aromatic, savory spices of Mohammed’s traditional Moroccan tagine dish, washed down with steaming glasses of sweet mint tea. Giggling at each other’s absurd attempts at playing our guide’s bongo drums, with their taut dried sheep’s stomach stretched over the hand-carved wooden rims. Snuggling into the folds of my blankets as Mohammed flicked off the lone bare bulb at the center of the camp. It was if the lights of the universe were suddenly switched on. The heavens blazed like an upside down black sea of lustrous pinpricks. I’d gawked in wonderment for as long as my eyelids would comply, feeling heart-achingly alive, yet utterly tranquil.
Then my mind traveled to murkier thoughts.
When my friends from San Francisco had joined me two weeks earlier for the Morocco leg of my year-long world journey, which I’d embarked upon only a month prior, I’d been thrilled and grateful for their company. But, unintentionally, they had brought with them the baggage of city life, and with it unpleasant reminders of the anxiety-ridden version of myself I had been trying hard to banish.
Colin’s tales of dating woes resurrected feelings of failure from still being single in my mid-thirties. What am I doing? Aren’t I supposed to be trying to find “the one”? Maria carried with her the ghosts of beauty standards past. “I’m so ugly,” or, “God, I’m fat,” she’d say, glaring disdainfully at a mirror, though the reflection always depicted a thin and very striking woman. Her words awakened old self-inflicted wounds. I’ve gained a little weight lately…
The me I’d become in a mere month of traveling the world had begun to actually appreciate what she saw in the mirror. I was no longer feverishly shellacking on makeup or berating myself for eating carbs. For the first time, I was glimpsing the contented, self-reliant woman I’d always hoped to be. Silently, I declared my freedom to the desert.
From my perch atop the dune, I watched as gilded rays swelled and then spilled over the horizon. They spread warmly, graceful fingers of light and shadow reaching out across the impossible expanse of peaks and valleys of the Sahara—a place where nomads can wake up one day, tear down old walls, and rebuild again as they choose.
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