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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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Return to the Kasbah

My sojourn in a land of veils, desert nights, and hypnotic drumming rhythms ended when the US Sixth Fleet was ordered to steam toward Moroccan shores to evacuate military personnel and sensitive equipment from its naval communications station. Only two years earlier I had been whisked to that secret military base on the north tip of Africa. Our stay in that land scented with cumin and eucalyptus involved us in cold war cat and mouse games with Russia, miracle pregnancies, a cholera epidemic, and finally the military coup that hurried our return to the states.

Morocco was a land I entered cautiously from my first glimpse of its jade river snaking inward from the coast. If I experienced a slight shiver each time I looked down the road that disappeared into dense vegetation directly across from the entry to our base—the road that led to the reputed Soviet base—I had no real worries.  My red passport was my entry to everywhere I chose to go and my protection.

I quickly acclimated to the temperature fluctuations: from mornings requiring sweaters against the desert cold until a sizzling sun brought dizzying heat that felt poured out of an oven. Around four, the temperatures evaporated, heat disappearing as quickly as it arrived.

On Tuesday mornings at Sidi Yahia’s souk, I squatted beside dusty blankets piled with dates, kumquats, or cactus pears to bargain for my week’s produce. I learned the practicalities of the metric system—that a family of three doesn’t eat a kilo of radishes in seven days. It took hours to sanitize fruits and vegetables and sift the weevils out of all the flour and pasta products we wanted to eat. I juggled French and Arabic and learned the language of the belly dance.

Saturdays I wandered the Medina’s maze and negotiated the dirham quota for each embroidered djellaba, string of amber, or gold bracelet that would become my Arabic treasures. I learned the mysteries of knots tied into intricate mosaic carpets and sank my toes deep into their woolen surfaces. The brass and iron sellers jostled for my attention.

 “Madame, for you a good price, very good price.”

“Madame, Monsieur, entrer; je prépare du thé.”

I juggled the scalding glass and sipped their sweet mint tea. With the third refill they recognized me as more than a short-term tourist. For me, a semi-permanent resident, they made special bargains.  Still negotiating for babouches and caftans—future Christmas gifts—and rugs, took most of an afternoon as Khalid inched the price down only a few dirhams at a time each time I shrugged, “Bissef, it is too expensive.”

Fortunately for me, the village pasha chose another American wife to honor —not me—at his banquet by offering her the sheep eyeball. Knowing that refusing would have been a rude breech of etiquette she hesitated, then tossed the morsel into her mouth.

In spite of the tight security of our location, the months passed quietly. A cholera outbreak stopped thirty miles away.  When disgruntled militia attempted a coup against the King and my husband and I found ourselves facing rifles with fixed bayonets, I had already delivered my baby—uneventfully, without the special obstetrician I would have enjoyed Stateside. I left the country by plane, the Sixth Fleet not being necessary after the coup was stopped. An armed escort drove me and the baby to the airport. As our route took us through Rabat and past the palace, my driver engaged me in conversation. I missed the captured rebels lined against the palace wall, facing a firing squad.

Today that baby is a young woman who is insisting that I accompany her on a trip this fall to her birthplace. That trip will take courage. I will return to Morocco, to show my daughter the exotic land that she has known only through photographs and stories, the land she assumes I remember as clearly as a roadmap. We will travel from the white walls of Casablanca north to Rabat–perhaps past the same wall of the King’s palace where the captured rebels’ lives ended. I hope I can find my way through passages to an inner court where Moorish lanterns cast arabesque patterns across silk cushions, inviting us to a feast of tagine, chickens roasted with olives and lemon and peppery herbs. I want my daughter to watch dancers who might recall to her memories of her early steps that became belly dancing like her mother could never master. I’ll take her to Sidi Yahia’s Tuesday souk and hope my rusty Arabic is sufficient for buying figs or dates. No diplomat’s protection this trip; I’ll be on my own, a ten-day tourist.

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Unknown Girl in an Unknown Place somewhere in Morocco

My travels have taken me far and wide.  I’ve been all over the world, from well-known and highly respectable places such as Rome, Italy to the not so clean and downright unsettling such as the grimy flavelas of Brazil.  I have learned much about others and myself in my experiences and I use my new found knowledge everyday to better my understandings of those around me.

            One of my favorite lessons was one I learned while visiting Marrakech, Morocco.  There I was standing in the middle of one of the worlds largest and most bustling markets all alone, looking like a stranger and feeling out of place.  I had originally planned to make a few purchases from the local people since I had heard that the products were each original and one of a kind.  What I had not expected was the local storeowners to take advantage of my innocence in knowledge of the area by forcing me to pay prices that were unquestionably too high.

In Marrakech when you wish to buy a product you have to “barter” for it.  This basically just means you have to settle on a price with the shop owner and then pay the discussed price upfront.

            Poor little me, in my inexperience with bargaining with strangers that were more than twice my age and very intimidating knew nothing of what these certain products should cost.  I basically agreed to any price without question.  I soon found out I was paying way too much as my wallet was feeling much lighter than I had originally intended.  I quickly made an internal pact with myself to not be such a pushover when buying my next item as my eye caught a beautiful handmade leather purse in the corner of the approaching shop.

            I could feel the anxiety in my chest as I took a deep breath and mustered all the courage I could find inside.  I offered what I thought to be a fair price to the grisly man standing in front of the display.  He immediately shot back with a price more than 3 times what I had offered!  All while holding my gaze with deeply piercing eyes.

            My hands were shaking slightly and I knew he could tell that I wasn’t very good at this bartering thing.  I really wanted that purse and I was not about to back down.  The voice in my head was screaming at me to respond before I gave away my fear.  That when the bravery kicked it.  It was if it had been hiding under the surface of my chest just waiting for the right time to show itself.  I took another deep breath and restated my original price with confidence paying no attention to the shaking in my hands as I stared straight back into his suddenly less intimidating eyes.

            This seemed to catch him off guard as he quickly wiped his brow and took a second to think of a proper price to shoot back.  I couldn’t believe that I had been so firm in my response!  That purse would be mine and I had no doubt in my mind that I would be paying the price I wanted this time.

            He looked over me carefully and hurriedly stated a price still much to high.  The courage was overtaking me at this point.  Once again I stated my same price and started to back away as though I was going to find a better shop to spend my money.  That seemed to get him.  He quickly reached in my direction and stopped me from leaving as he hesitantly agreed to the price I had previously decided on.

            I did it! I could believe it!  I was now officially a “barterer.” Little ole’ me, a small girl from a small Texas town was making bargaining decisions with a man who could easily overtake me.  I was so proud of myself and for the rest of the day I refused to back down on my prices and got almost everything else for half the price as my first purchases.

            I proved to myself that I was courageous and could do anything I set my mind to.  I still use this important lesson when dealing with people who are willingly taking advantage of me and remind myself internally “I am strong and I will not let myself be pushed down by people who think they can control my actions.

            Now I have a drawer full of handmade original trinkets from Morocco and my favorite purchase, the purse, is hanging on a hook in my room to remind me of the moment I felt the bravery and courage that was inside of me all along.  I will never forget that feeling for as long as I live.

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I arrived in Tangier, Morocco in the middle of a torrential downpour. The bus station was chaotic with Police carrying assault rifles lounging against the walls and out front. I wasn’t sure exactly where in Tangier I had landed and deeply regretted having forgotten to load a map of the city when I was in the throes of a viable Internet connection. I considered turning on the data roaming on my phone but dismissed the idea quickly as I thought how quickly it would be rack up a huge bill with a 20.00 per megabyte price tag.

‘Okay,’ I thought, ‘I can do this. I’ve been worse places. I’ve been in Morocco for over a week already. I speak a little French. I know how to take taxis. I can do this.’

Tangier had a feeling of danger though that the rest of Morocco didn’t. Maybe it was its position by the sea and the presence of travelers from all over, coming and going, headed to Europe over the tiny strait, or maybe it was the sailors swaggering through town or drinking pints at the sidewalk cafes. It was probably all those things. I watched two Moslem girls walk slowly from the bus station deeply involved in conversation and holding their cellphones. Children raced through the open archway out into the rain and back, laughing and yelling. A lone woman in western dress strode purposefully out into the taxi lair. I followed her.

Almost instantly, a man appeared next to me asking if I needed a taxi. I nodded and he led me through a labyrinth of cars to one that he must have had some sort of pre arrangement with. I handed him a coin and got in, managing to tell the driver where I was going.

I had booked the Hotel Rembrandt because of its proximity to the ferry port and the claim that it had an onsite restaurant. I knew I would be tired and I was only staying one night and taking the ferry the next day back to Spain. The hotel was within walking distance of the ferry port; it could be reached by walking about 20 minutes along the seedy seafront. And it did have a restaurant; only it had been closed for many years. That is why, around 15:00, when the rain had let up a bit, I found myself making my way toward the cafes. No one paid all that much attention to me and I started to feel a little less like I had just been deposited in some bizarre danger zone where time stood still and more like I was seeing the vulnerable underbelly of some great beast. The potential for petty crime and danger was everywhere: none of the streets were well lit and men seemed to pop up suddenly from doorways and corners. I smiled at them all and kept moving. I finally settled on a café with Internet and outdoor seating for a sandwich and a Coco-Cola. I was the only woman in the place. The men, most of who seemed to be from the many ships docked at the port, for the most part ignored me, though one did offer e a cigarette.

After eating, I decided to walk along the sea outside of the medina walls. There was evidence that everything had once been grand and shiny and new but, now the ground was faded, the walls were crumbling a bit, and there was a huge streetlamp laying on its side, uprooted from the concrete. There was another storm coming in and the waves were crashing against the boardwalk. Young lovers were also out strolling and most of them stopped to sit on the wall and look out to Spain. I paused behind a couple who were tightly holding hands and talking about the day they would take the ferry to Spain and wouldn’t come back. It was right there, it was so close. Maybe they could swim. They talked about the new and amazing life they would have if they could only manage to cross the sea. If only.

I took a deep breath and kept walking. The next day, in the pouring rain but minus any other incident, I crossed the seas to Spain.

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            It was early in the Parisian morning, and I was waiting for a cab to take me to the airport.  After solo backpacking through small European towns, I was headed to a land of camels, deserts, snake charmers, leather and Berber rugs.

            Au revoir francais, fromage, et baguettes.

            And Salam to Fez, Morocco, my new home!

            As I climbed into the cab, I double-checked my notes.  I had my passport, my boarding pass, and my notes about how to get from the airport to my riad, or my Moroccan hotel.  The flight went smoothly, and as we got off the plane, the man next to me offered to help me get a cab.  I told him no thanks.  There was someone waiting for me from my riad. As I walked from the plane to the airport, we separated. Morocco was warm and beautiful, and I was relaxed, happy, and confident.

            I walked through the people waiting to greet the arrivals, looking for someone holding a whiteboard with my name on it.  Slowly, the others filtered out of the airport, and before I knew it, I was the one unclaimed arrival.  My stomach flipped with panic, but I didn’t cry.  Crying was for the Geneva airport, when I arrived alone, tired, and hungry three weeks ago.

            I recalled lessons that I had learned arriving in other new cities.  I stopped at the information desk, where the ladies giggled at my broken Arabic.  I asked a security guard where to find a phone.  I found myself talking in French to Yousif, at the riad.  “I don’t know who you are,” he kept telling me.  I asked if I had the wrong number, and if this was Riad Medina, but this was indeed my riad.  I had never felt so lost.

            Or so brave. I told myself that I couldn’t stay at the airport for the next four months.  I couldn’t even sleep there that night.

            I marched out of the airport.

            Those who saw me might say that I dragged my backpack and stumbled blindly into the street until I noticed the sign pointing me in the direction of taxis.  I remembered reading in tour books that in Fez, there were red cars labeled “Petit Taxi.”  Unfortunately, there were none of these saviors in sight.  As I was trying to come up with a new plan, a group of men surrounded me, claiming to be taxi drivers.  They found someone who could speak English, and I gave him my handwritten directions and phone number to Riad Medina.  He called Yousif and motioned for me to follow.  And then, I did the scariest thing that I had ever done.  When I was expecting to climb into one of the little red cars, he led me to a white car.  And we got in.

            I don’t know why I got into this unmarked car.  The man was obviously trying to gain my trust, and like a kidnapper offering a child a puppy, he told me stories of his American friends.  I listened nervously as we approached the city and those red taxis whizzed past us.  I hadn’t lost all trust in this man yet, but an escape plan began to form in my mind: maybe I would roll out at a red light and find a nice woman to help me.

            He pulled over eventually at what seemed to be a door to the walled city. A man came over and apologized for not being at the airport when I showed him my hotel confirmation. I paid for the cab, and Yousif and I went off into the old city.

            Looking back, I might have just been sold into slavery.

            He led me through the winding streets, and we stopped at a small, dirty door. I was expecting the worst and prepared to fight.

            But a smiling, Moroccan woman greeted us.  The other hotel guests were sipping tea near the pool, as promised on Trip Advisor.  As I chatted with Yousif, his wife, and a French couple, I thanked my good luck that I had run into good people, that the white cars are actually “Grand Taxis,” and that I was still alive.

            Today, back home in America, I am proud of the bravery that I mustered up on that wonderful day.  I dream about going back to Fez and getting lost in the old city, and relying on the goodwill and friendliness of the people to find my way home. That day in Fez proved two things to me: first, there are more good people in the world than bad.  And second, I am a brave person for taking a risk and trusting the world in which I live. I dream about returning to Fez, where I learned just how brave I am.

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Embracing the Madness in Morocco

by Andrea Duty


Sometime between being caked with black soap and having my boobs scrubbed with what I can only assume was steel wool, I got the giggles. I should have clued in to the oddities to come within the hammam when I was handed a white paper thong upon entrance, but I didn’t. Now, there I was, sliding around on a hot marble slab while some woman hosed me down and repeatedly ordered me to flip over, as if she were basting a rotisserie chicken. I was eventually – mercifully – swaddled in cocoon of towels, ushered to a pile of floor cushions, and fed an endless supply of warm, mint tea. In the end, I felt much the same way as I did during the rest of my stay in Marrakech, which is to say: confused, mildly abused, yet exhilarated nonetheless.

For the uninitiated such as myself, Marrakech can swallow you whole. If London is an anthill of organized layers and regimented routines, Marrakech is the feeding frenzy atop a pile of picnic leftovers. It’s raw, chaotic, colorful, and, at times, jarring.

But sometimes chaos is what we need, isn’t it? To be tossed into mayhem; thrown back to that place where we see everything anew again, as through a child’s eyes. It’s only when we are placed into the unfamiliar that our senses are sent into overdrive, forcing us to live in the present moment.

And to walk through the streets of Marrakech is to have the present moment unceremoniously shoved in your face. Fumes float from the tanner, a metal worker hammers, neon dye drips from wool strung above. Donkeys drag, motorcycles rev, verbena hangs brittle in the sun. A thick snake sways languid to a tune. Cool orange juice to squelch the heat. Hello/Hola/Bonjour, Madam! Special price just for you! Come inside, just to look! Snails for one durham! Scarfs! Soap! Spices! Three men pull a lamb from a pit, steamed and salted. The street is sweet with cumin. A stop for tea. The call to prayer. Five times a day all is dropped. Five times a day, the movement, the melody, the madness is put on pause. Five times a day, there is space to draw a deep breath and take it all in.

The whirling chaos of the Red City often left me frazzled (and once drove me to tears), but it also gave me the cultural slap in the face I so love to experience and am finding increasingly difficult to find. Most of my travels have been to sanitized, Western countries and it seems I’ve forgotten what it’s like to feel so utterly out of place, what it’s like to have expectations shattered in the best way possible.

I thought I was traveling to Morocco for warm weather and a tagine or two, but what I got was a glimpse into another world and a reminder of how grateful I am for destinations that challenge my comfort, my routine and my ideas of what travel is meant to be. Marrakech taught me to embrace discomfort and vulnerability and, yes, even white paper thongs, because it’s in these states that we learn to challenge ourselves and in doing so, broaden our ideas of the world and the lives lived within it.

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Sitting in a small circle around the fire that evening, darkness fell all around us. Beyond the glow of the fire, the endless sand dunes that extended outward in every direction fell asleep in the alluring shadows of the night. Above us, the scintillating stars in the infinite sky twinkled with divine secrets to which we were not privy. Someone pointed out Mars in the starlight, while another, the Milky Way. We see what our eyes allow us to see; in the middle of the Sahara, your imagination takes rein and you find your wildest dreams taking flight.

Four snowy-white cats with features resembling that of leopards encircled us. I wondered if they were residents of the desert or nomads at heart, with an insatiable bout of wanderlust, not unlike myself. In the distance, the camels were sound asleep. I smiled at the thought of my intrepid camel with the jagged half-ear, who had hours before ventured into the heart of the Sahara with me at sunset. There are countless ways in which the losses in our lives manifest themselves.

Yet, there are also joys. For instance, the joy of hearing your sentiments being shared aloud by a Dominican traveler named Miguel, who had, at the sight of the sun setting over the undulating mountains of golden sand, exclaimed profusely in Spanish: “Gracias, muchas gracias, God, for creating this beauty, and for allowing me to be part of this beauty!”

Most of all, it is for me the joy of meeting like-minded wanderers on the road, with whom your paths cross ever so briefly, and yet, have the power to leave an indelible mark in the geography of your heart. In the desert, I met one such inspiring woman who caused me to tear while listening to her story by the fire. Her name was Alejandra Cardenas.

A single, immigrant mother who had painstakingly brought up her daughter to have had her heart broken when her child left home at the age of 20, Alejandra decided that she had to, for the first time, live not for others but for herself. She has had a trying life, but her lifelong dream was to travel the world. To embark on this journey, she sold all her material possessions, abandoned all forms of convention, and kept her zeal and courage shining in the paths she has chosen to walk, touching the lives of those she has met, mine included.

Despite having suffered humiliations, one of which included having to literally stand up by and for herself while ignoring the leering faces of unkind teenagers when she slipped and fell in a youth hostel in Italy, Alejandra remains stoic in the pursuit of her dream. She shared her uplifting stories from the road thus far, and the exotic destinations she planned to go after leaving Morocco: Kenya, Egypt, and subsequently, wherever else her heart led her.

Her face lit not only by the light of the fire, she effused: “Mija, I urge you to go travel. Travel as far and as widely as you can. Do it when you are young. When you reach my age, you’ll realize how the muscles start to ache and the bones, they hurt from walking too much. Travel is the best education anyone could ever have. You learn so much about people, about different cultures, about yourself. This is something no one and no university can ever teach you.” Smiling to herself, she said in a whisper: “And I want to do that now, to travel the world. Just imagine all the stories I can tell my grandchildren one day.”

That night, with neither electricity nor a proper toilet, I lay awake on the sand-crusted floorboard of my tent as the faces of all the individuals I have met in Morocco, who have each moved me so deeply in their own ways, floated in my mind. As the stifling heat gave way to the frigid cold, I drifted off to an intermittent sleep, wondering what new adventures and people awaited me when I awoke.

About the Author: Agnes Chew is a writer, traveler, and musician at heart, with an insatiable curiosity for life. Enamored with the notion of getting lost in places beautiful and hitherto unknown, she has no intention of removing the rose-tinted glasses everyone tells her have been left on for far too long.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

Sugar-packed mint tea coursed through my blood, and the light, quick pounding of Berber drums resounded throughout the tent. Travelers brushed aside the weariness setting upon them from a long day of camel riding through the Moroccan Saharan, and filled the colorful tent from edge to edge with their multi-language babbling.

A hand callused by desert sands grabbed my arm, and suddenly, the colors and voices of the Berber tent were spinning violently around me. “Dansez!” the shrouded face of a young man commanded as I clumsily began moving my bare feet. I quickly attempted to mirror his deft moves, lifting my knees and swaying my legs back and forth. My lack of rhythm was not conducive to the quick hops and jumps of the traditional Berber dance. I was beginning to resemble a scrambling chicken trying to avoid the chopping knife that would inevitably lead to me being served as a lovely tagine.

My eyes darted to my two friends sitting on the edge of the tent, laughing and taking pictures of my nimble maneuvers. I thought of dropping the man’s hands and running quickly to their sides. But, as I was spun in a circle, the glimmer of admiration in the smiles of dozens of tourists struck me.

With an extra enthusiastic kick and a sideways prance, I fully embraced my chicken-like status. I shook off my inhibitions, smiled and laughed. The tent full of strangers nodded at me encouragingly, recognizing my dauntlessness and cheered at my clumsy and spastic renovation of the traditional waltz. As I spun and hopped and kicked, my blood was suddenly coursing with more than just sugar-packed mint tea. It was coursing with liberation and courage. I was dancing hand-in-hand with freedom.

As the drums pounding faded and the boisterous laughs and squabbles turned to peaceful whispers, I found myself sitting with my friends under the brilliant stars of that Moroccan Sahara Desert, over a dinner of chicken tagine. We sat with the young dancing man, who unveiled to us the hardships of life in the North-African country. He spoke of his poor family who lived back in Marrakesh, of his life as a tour guide, and most poignantly, of his travels. In beautiful, accented French, he had spoken to us, in a low, serious voice, “I have traveled everywhere in the world.” Avid and curious travelers ourselves, we leaned in closer and pressed him to tell us how he had accomplished such a marvelous feat. “When I want to travel,” he said, “I close my eyes and point to a place on a globe. Wherever my finger lands, that is where I am. I go there in my mind.”

The young man taught me that night that capturing independence and freedom is as simple as pushing aside your inhibitions and allowing yourself to dance like a crazy chicken. But it is also more than that. Freedom is accessible no matter where you are, no matter what your limitations. Freedom is simply the ability to boldly swan dive into the depths of your own imagination, and use it to carry yourself to another land, where all restrictions, financial, physical, or mental, fade into nothing more than trivial specks of Saharan desert sand.

About the Author: Pamela Barry is a recent graduate who studied Romance languages and International Development. She loves to travel, write, read and run and just returned from a year of teaching and traveling in France.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

52330008Perched upon sky blue stools that match the wooden square tables and painted archways of this small upstairs café. Hunched over sketchbooks, our backs resting on the propped open balcony doors that overlook the grandiose palace Mohammed Sixth. Men sing funeral hymns below, carrying a small wooden coffin the size of a child. Walking the streets of the medina with their grave load.

One never sees women at these cafes. Last evening this place was so full and warm with bodies, that we almost left, for at first glance, there seemed no place to sit in the three chambered café. Men in the center chamber, crowded around one of the square tables ushered us over, moving aside to show there is space enough for the both of us.

Brushing knees as we pass, sitting down we entered into a serious realm of the game Dominoes. They played in teams of two, four to a game. At various points of the game tension would mount and pieces would be cast down with a loud snap on the table, the pace quickening. One of the players seated facing us had deep-set sullen eyes, with his back to the bar and doorway of the café. All of them were nearly shouting at one another, half in Spanish, half in Arabic. This man spoke with a grave sternness and deep intensity until after several rapid turns and fervent slap down, he spread his long nosed, sullen-eyed face into a wide grin, laughing a deep guttural chuckle of victory.

Behind him, two men small in stature, like gnomes, work at the bar with their beanies towering high on their onion bulb heads. Here a copper urn sits above a cave of coal embers, glowing the color of an African sunset. Tea and coffee bubbles and froths in copper pots resting on the embers. National guards stand uniformed below our balcony, guarding the empty palace infinitely. Apparently, the king comes here for his annual vacation. Today a game of futbol plays on one of two television sets in café. Chelsea vs. Liverpool, Liverpool scores one point in the first minute of the game. On the other television screen a classic Spanish/Arabic drama is broadcasted. Looking around the place, around half the men wear western clothing and the other half, traditional djellabas.

The café is roughly six or seven strides from the entrance of Hotel Africa. Nordine, King of Hotel Africa, speaks French, German, English, Spanish, and Arabic. His frequent vocal outbursts are jovial, resonating profoundly within his throat “Bravo!! Salam alikom!!, Saha.” He sits upon his African throne, a green plastic chair, on the second floor balcony that overlooks the intricate tiled lobby of the hotel. There is a three hundred year old fountain in this lobby, the water sourced from the majestic Rif Mountains. Towering giants in the distance, they provide the skyline of Tetouan.

Two daily meals are served here around 2pm and midnight. Always cooked in a tagine, slow cooked tuna, squash, chicken, sweet potato, couscous, sardines, potatoes, vegetables, everything beautifully spiced and frequently served with hot peppers and lime. Flat bread serves as cutlery. 10-12 people sit around a four-person card table covered with clear plastic that also serves as a lobby desk where paperwork is filed and passports handed over. Everyone sat comfortably round this small squat plastic table, the green chairs moved down from the balcony for the meal. We all eat from the same tagine, respectful in portions and execution of fitting a mouthful onto a small piece of flat bread, torn for the occasion of each bite. The men in the cafes seem to be permanent fixtures and they get to know us well.

As unmoving as the blue back dropped photo realistic representations of daises in vases framed and hung on the café wall. And what of the dead child? Why is it only men carrying the body, walking the streets singing? A man wearing a grey djellaba helps another smaller man, wearing a beanie, stuff a small television into a peach plastic bag while the beanie man holds the remote in his left hand. The operation is complete and he sets it down on a stool in the cafe, it is unclear why. I admire the way death is met by the living here. Harmonic cries in the ancient knowledge of song, everyone falling into natural harmonies. Drawn to the sound, I stumble upon a small room above a hotel nearby. Banging on tabletops in furious rhythmic beating, a room full of young teenage men boys, raucously singing and banging beats of death in an air of mourning but not of great sadness, passionate creation of remembrance.

About the Author: Californian musician artist vagabond, this piece was written in Tetouan after spending 10 days hitching from Berlin to Morocco. Living in each moment, simply and freely.

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morocco We pay the ferryman with a coin into his mouth and he whizzes us across the Strait of Gibraltar, across waters of indigo and cerulean collapsing into jade, a white foam skirt trailing behind us. At the crest of every wave I release a breath—exhaling my Western anxieties, the weights I carry at home in Prague, where I was studying at the time, those obligations and fears of the unknown. None of that matters in Morocco. And this feeling inside of me spreads throughout my body like a drunken warmth, a pocket full of ashes–the anticipation, it tingles. I thrust my face in the wind. My eyes water and I exalt the sun.

My body sinks into the ferry as it descends into what seems like another world. “Down, down,” I whisper to myself, “into the lovely, dark, and deep.”

Fresh off the boat into Tangier we meet yet another sea—one of solicitors, echoing salam! bonjour! hola!, waving us into cabs, into the market place, offering to guide us to our destination (for a fee, of course). We walk past them and find our way onto the sticky seats of the Souk Bus, the only two girls without their heads covered. The bus swerves off on a curvy road and I stare out at the orange rocks, trying not to notice the turning heads with eyes that burn through me.

The bus takes us into the city of Chefchaouen, its buildings washed white and blue by the hands of Jewish refugees in the ‘30s. From a terrace we hear the Mosques calling throughout the city, singing to each other through megaphones posted on towers, the Arabic melody rising above us in the peach glow of the setting sun. Within the enclave of the Rif Mountains, the town becomes an amphitheater. I hear children playing down cobblestone hills, Moroccan women talking together as they pin up laundry, the skins of goats slapping the ground. A city of sounds. Standing at just the right place, I can hear anything.

Fes is even louder. Its medina loses us like a labyrinth, donkeys carting skins down narrow passageways, the fleshy smell of leather tanneries kept in by the rainclouds. The French man who hosted us said we were lucky to come when we did. The festival occurred a few days before our arrival, an animal slaughtered in every household. “Streets covered in blood,” he told us. The rain had washed it away.

In Marrakech, the rain wants to wash us away as well. Rain pours over the market alleys and we seek refuge in couscous tagine pots and mint tea. The square of the Jemaa el-Fna floods as shop owners scurry to collect their inventory into plastic bags, but the horn of a snake charmer never stops singing. “Insha’Alla,” I say. God’s will. Overhead, dark clouds threaten us for days until, finally, we descend further south, crossing the desert threshold into the city of Zagoura.

After zigging and zagging on the edge of the Atlas Mountains at an absurd speed we arrive in the Sahara, leaving behind the dark clouds for a transparent night sky. I had never seen the stars so clearly–the expanse of sky opened itself to us as we mount our camels and join the Berber nomads. In their turbans they play drums and castanets and sing by the camp fire, beckoning us to drum and dance with them. When we dance and sing there under the night sky surrounded by nothing but a sea of sand for miles, I am lost in the mystical present–not in my fears, not the weight of a future I have yet to establish. I crave the unknown. I crave the beauty of our camp oasis, of being truncated from all that is familiar. The rest of our party retreats to their tents, but we don’t follow. Two Berber boys walk us through the desert, outside the edges of the campsite, past the sleeping camels, sinking into sand dunes as we try to climb them. When we’re far enough, we fall onto our backs. Perched at the crest of a dune, we bury ourselves in a sand blanket, cuddled in the warmth of the day kept insulated, the night sky glimmering overhead, our breath creeping to silence in mimesis of the stark desert air.

One of the young Berbers who had helped in our burial gestures to the sky. “You, at home in America, you have T.V.’s to watch, television…artificial, right? But this,” he says, spreading his arms at the white moon, the black screen so clustered with constellations, with shooting stars, millions of light-years trapped in one singular moment of time, “this is the television of nomads.”

About the Author: Lauren West is a recent honors graduate in English from UCLA and has traveled extensively, visiting a total of twenty countries throughout her life. She is currently working for the non-profit political project Citizen Mofo, fighting the good fight, and plans to teach abroad in Asia next Fall.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter our next Travel Writing competition and tell your story.