Salam from a faraway place where the caravan camels roam! Last October I spent the entire month exploring one of my favorite countries, Morocco. One of the most transformative experiences from this adventure was the magical week and a half I spent living in a bivouac tent in the Moroccan Sahara Desert with the Khamlia Association.
The Gnaoua family that runs the nonprofit organization has lived on the land that is 7 KM from Merzouga since 1950. The family, originally from Sudan, arrived here after they were emancipated from decades of slavery at a Maghreb sugarcane plantation. With their new found freedom they initially supported themselves through agriculture and built homes along the river. Due to global warming rainfall has steadily decreased since 1995 and is now basically non-existent. When they could no longer support their community through farming they began to develop a tourism program and launched the Khamlia Association to raise funds to support their community, teach local women tactical skills, and offer educational programs to local youth. They finance the non-profit by sharing their unique Gnaoua culture, traditions, music, and cuisine with visiting travelers. The proceeds from travelers visiting the Khamlia Association benefit the charity that offers educations to local women and children. What better way to make your dreams of visiting the Sahara Desert come true than by helping others reach their dreams through education. And you get to glamp in a gorgeous, vibrant, campsite!
The enchanting desert village is partially made up of the original adobe and hay houses that their forefathers built along the river to support their agriculture business. The homes are uninhabited today and have been partially buried in the golden sands. The traditional adobe architecture is still used today to create the structure of the family homes. Natural bricks are made of mud and hay which keeps homes cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Some feature the Berber Yaz symbol, known as the free man. I was so moved by this motif that I got the design tattooed on my arm!
Each day I was serenaded by musical performances by Les Pigeons du Sable. The band is made up of over 20 family members who are keeping alive the ritual music of their ancestors by sharing the lyrics of perseverance, religion, and freedom. Their forefathers were slaves who were forced to trek through the desert chained together by their hands and feet. They masked their suffering by singing the ancestral hymns. Each summer in Khamlia the community celebrates Sadaka, a three-day long festival, where the traditional music is played nonstop to heal the sick. It is also believed to invoke baraka, a sacred blessing reached through music and dance. During my visit the steady beat of the drums became a trance; day and night I was enchanted by the rhythm. To truly immerse myself in the music, my host and friend Abdoul tried to teach me how to play the iqarqachin, a metal instrument similar to castanets.
I was treated to homemade Moroccan meals daily and was welcomed into the kitchen to watch the women of the family prepare the dishes. Each dish is tenderly prepared with locally sourced vegetables, or those that have been harvested from the Khamlia garden, and cooked with love. I was invited to learn how to bake bread in an outdoor clay oven by one of the female beneficiaries of the Khamlia Association. Couscous is traditionally eaten throughout Morocco every Friday to celebrate the Islamic holy day of rest. Berber whiskey, or sweetened mint tea, flows freely throughout the day and is consumed by all for energy and hydrating in the dry desert.
I was very fascinated by the textiles and traditional garments worn by the Ouejaa family. I was able to witness the tedious process of making a Moroccan rug by hand as one of the beneficiaries of the association did a demonstration for me and showed me how to tie a sweet heart pattern into the design. One of the many skills that local women can cultivate at the association is the popular craft of rug making. I purchased a hand-embroidered dress from one of the women that boast colorful traditional symbols and irresistible neon pom poms.
One night I joined a caravan to spend the night in the mystical Moroccan Sahara Desert dunes in nearby Merzouga. Erg Chebbi has the largest sand dune in this enchanting natural wonder. Before we set out the boys taught me how to tie a Moroccan shesh, or Touareg turban, to keep the sand out of my eyes and my head cool during the journey. The fabric they use for their colorful turbans is 14 feet long!
I’ve been through the desert on a camel with no name. Kidding, she was lovely, gave me lots of kisses, and her name was Jamaica. We trekked into the Sahara on the families camels for nearly two hours towards the Algerian border. Constant sand storms and wind cause the dune formations to change daily but the young men knew the desert the way you know your local neighborhood. I told them I was astonished by their navigation of the seemingly identical terrain and they just laughed and told me that of course, they knew the way, they were desert men. The Sahara Desert is not a place you’d have much success surviving if you were to get lost alone.
We reached our campsite that featured traditional wool tents, a makeshift kitchen, and a lovely bonfire. The boys of the family got to work preparing dinner once we arrived as the women greeted us after our long journey with dates and fresh squeezed orange juice. Dinner was traditional Moroccan cuisine of a vegetable tagine and rice. After, we traded stories over the bonfire and played music. At midnight we climbed up the dunes beneath a blanket of zillions of stars as the moon lite our path. We each walked in our own direction along the dune to find a spot to sit in solitude to star gaze. I took a moment to be grateful for this wild adventure I’ve been on traveling the world and was rewarded by spotting two dazzling shooting stars zooming across the evening horizon. I wished on both shooting stars and got lost gazing up into the galaxies.
The next morning the camp came to life at dawn as everyone awoke to view the spectacular sunrise. I climbed up the dune to our east to watch the sun rise over the Algerian border. As the sun rose into the sky the desert palate changed from hazy greys to bursts of pale pink and orange hues. The ultra-fine sand slipped through the cracks of my fingers like liquid as I basked in the morning golden glow.
Back at the camp, I was treated to fresh pancakes and orange juice. Our hosts started playing the Berber drums again and we began our day’s journey with an eclectic dance party in the sand. I opted to walk back for part of the journey back to Merzouga as I felt bad for my sweet camel, Jamaica. I must not have lasted more than 30 minutes on foot, climbing up and down the dunes is entirely exhausting. They assured me that Jamaica and the rest of the pack were treated well and that their bodies were equipped to carry the weight of one human. These camels are the families livelihood and they treat them like you may treat your cat or dog.
Another night at dusk we went back to Merzouga to climb the tallest sand dune in Erg Chebbi. Scaling 150 meters of sand was by far one of the most physically challenging experiences of my life! Asthma makes it difficult for me to reach high altitudes as the pressure on my lungs decreases my breathing capability. I won’t lie, I nearly gave up a few times. I knew it was worth it the moment I finally reached the top and was greeted with a breathtaking view. The sun had begun to set and color was exploding across the dunes in shades I didn’t know nature could produce. The golden glow illuminated the surrounding sand dunes for miles and miles in every direction.