The air is hot, nearing 50c. Sweat drips down my face. My throat is dry, like ash. There is not a molecule of water in the air. It is dry, bone dry. I cough, and my throat feels like gravel. I am traveling through the Sahara in south-eastern Morocco. The Algerian border is barely 30km away. This land is harsh. Buildings, few and far between, are bleached of color. Even the sky is a featureless pale grey. Yet, somehow, this place is beautiful.
I sit atop a camel, traversing a dune, heading deeper into the featureless sea of sand. My body sways and I lose myself in the rhythmic motion of the beast below me. I watch in fascination at its hooves compress and spread on the sand with each step. I lean down to scratch behind its ear. We have bonded. I trust him with my life. A breeze begins to blow, whipping sand in small eddies. I tie the headscarf over my face, light cotton fabric billowing behind me, waves in an unseen ocean.
At night, before the sun sets, I climb a dune, up, up, and up. I dig my hands and feet into the warm sand. It radiates both heat and color. What was a dusty yellow just hours ago, is now rich swaths of red and gold that remind me of the textile markets of Fez. I climb higher, breath now labored. I draw deeper pushing further skyward towards the sunset. What is it about sunsets that captivates us so? Is it the colors, the brief moment of pause in a busy day, or perhaps it tugs at primal instincts, like those which propelled Icarus and his ill-fated flight filled with a desire to escape both our confines and dare to go beyond what we know is safe. My sister walks ahead, her footsteps spilling golden sand down the steep sides. Eventually, we reach a crest. Dunes, unlike mountains, never truly peak. They are more like waves constantly in motion, yet too slow for us to see. Sit still long enough though and you notice the movement. It is slow, barely perceptible, but it is there, inch by inch, grain by grain.
The following morning, I leave camp early to explore. My sleep was fitful. I slept outside on a thin mat, the air still uncomfortably hot. I yarn and walk deeper into the dunes. The desert has changed again. The sand is now pink and the light flat, smoothing the landscape until it appears to be a sheet of cloth draped across undulating hills. A solitary palm tree captures my attention, drawing me towards it. I take photo after photo admiring the fleeting beauty that this place holds. In a few hours, it will be baking, the heat unbearable and sand like an oven. I circle the palm a few more times before returning to the camp. This morning we leave this place. I’m ready to go. It’s a harsh, unforgiving place, but one I longed to visit.
Hours later, and what feels like a world away, we cross the High Atlas mountains. I have been in the Sahara region for five days. The drop in temperature is noticeable, I expected that, but I was not prepared for the overwhelming sensation of colors, their return like a flood-gate opened, spilling water down a narrow valley. Palm trees practically burst with green, painted decorations on clay-packed houses weep with reds and blues and whites, pink flowers explode in bunches as they clutch to the sides of ravines. Everything is vibrant and beautiful again. Life has returned to the shattered landscape. Even the tajine that we ate for lunch practically sang to me. The chicken, cooked in a delicious lemon sauce served with pistachio followed by flavored pastry was brilliant hues of yellows and oranges. I swear I could taste the colors. It is remarkable how much this landscape can change in such a short time. Yes, it is still hot, and the sky is still the grey of unpolished aluminum, but I feel a sense of relief wash over me. It is as if I’ve stepped out of a black and white film and back into technicolor. My eyes soak it up like the parched land soaks precious water. I drink it in so deeply that I fear I may burst.