When choosing a study-abroad program, one of my main criteria was “will this program let me ride a camel?” Morocco was one of the few that would. Don’t get me wrong, there are many great things about my program — reporting and writing abroad, working with a freelance journalist who files for The New York Times, staying with a host family — but honestly, the camel ride really sealed the deal. I love camels. I love their big, goofy faces. I love the fact that they spit and throw up when they are excited or upset. They’re just hilarious. I never got to ride a horse as a child — I didn’t want to, afraid of heights — but I have been determined to ride a camel as an adult. Since arriving in Morocco, I have been counting down to Camel Day 2015.
Some three weeks into the trip, Camel Day finally arrived. We took a bus to Merzouga, a small desert village in the Southeast of the country, then hopped into Land Rovers with four other people in my program to get deeper into the desert. The driver of our Land Rover seemed to take delight in the squeals we emitted when he went over a bump, and so he proceeded to make our ride as much like an off-road car chase as he possibly could. It was awesome, especially because my seat belt didn’t work. I hung in midair more than once.
However, as we neared the auberge — basically a desert outpost that consisted of a nice hotel and the tents we would spend the night in — nervousness began to set in. For one thing, camels are pretty far off the ground, and heights aren’t really my thing. For another, camels don’t have seat belts either. I tried not to think about what an embarrassing obituary falling off a camel and being trampled to death would make as I hopped out of the Land Rover and was led over to a sitting, light beige camel tied to the back of a slightly darker one. The nomad guide, barefoot and dressed in the traditional nomadic outfit of a white turban and robes, took my heavy backpack and looped it around the saddle’s metal handlebar.
Nervously, I got on the camel’s back, very aware of the fact that the only real safety measure was a slightly rusted metal handlebar sticking up from the saddle. My program coordinator called over some advice from the back of his camel, “When he stands up, make sure you keep your arms straight! Otherwise you’ll hit yourself in the face.” Good to note, but also mildly terrifying. The camel in front of mine, the leader, stood up, which I now know signals to the following camel to also stand. I was jolted upward without much warning. “Keep straight!” I mentally screamed to my arms. They obeyed, and I did not lose any teeth.
We slowly made our way deeper into the desert. Camels naturally walk in a line, so I was directly behind the camel in front of me that, it is worth noting, peed almost the entire 20-minute journey. I felt bad for my camel. It periodically tried to walk next to the peeing camel, probably to avoid the pee. I decided to name him Kanye, as I felt the legendary rapper would also have tried to assert his natural leadership ability when being forced to follow behind some guy who can’t stop peeing.
We reached our destination just in time to watch the sunset. Later that night, I decided to take a walk into the desert by myself. Seeing the Sahara desert at night is likely the closest I will ever get to seeing another planet. It’s almost spooky. The sand dunes, rolling like a still and peaceful sea, lose any trace of their orange color. Instead, one side reflects the white-blue glow of the starlight, the other dark as a void. I walked far enough that I couldn’t see any trace of the hotel or hear any noise from the guests. I lay on my back on the dark side of a dune and looked up at the stars. They were so incredibly bright that they didn’t look real, and they seemed close enough to smother you. I don’t meditate and I wouldn’t call myself spiritual, but lying there in the sand I let myself just zone out. I alternated between thinking of nothing and reflecting on my life and the trip. I thought about culture shock, how lucky I was to be born where I was when I was. Mostly, I thought about how I will probably never have an experience like this, like my more than three months in Morocco, ever again, and how thankful I am that I get to do this now.