In honor of the winter solstice, this week I am posting a story that took place on the winter solstice exactly three years ago today. This story is also an excerpt from my book: The Way to Timbuktu. If you would like to purchase the entire book you can do so by clicking on this link: Buy my books. Both of my books are now available as e-books as well as paperbacks.
Merzouga, Morocco; Dec. 22, 2008.
So, here I am, lost and alone, somewhere in the Sahara desert, surrounded by sand dunes as far as the eye can see. The sun is high in the sky and the light on the eyes is intense. I have no sunglasses, only half a water bottle and no food. I have sufficient clothing to protect my skin from burning and keep me relatively warm at night. But I have no tent or sleeping bag or provisions of any kind. I don’t have a GPS or a compass or even a map. All I have is a vague idea of my location. I am somewhere in between the desert village of Merzouga in Morocco and the Algerian border. The oasis camp where I spent the previous night has to be within five miles or so of my present location, but five miles in what direction, I don’t know. In short, I am in semi-deep shit…a bit of a spot…a rather precarious situation… I am also stoned completely out of my mind on hashish. As I trudge my way up the largest of the surrounding sand dunes, I just have to ask myself, “How and why do I always get myself into these situations?”
No doubt, it was my own fault; me and my bright ideas. Thought I could find some inspiration and ended up with a nightmare. If you have read my travelogues before you are probably aware that I recently finished writing a novel. And now that one is finished, it is time to start another one. The problem is, before I can start; I need to find a good story or plot or idea to write about. Now, if I was a wise man, I would simply sit back and wait for inspiration to come to me. But no, I am a foolish man, so I go chasing after it. I embarked upon a little quest. And that is how and why I ended up lost and alone in the Sahara desert.
Simple enough idea right; cleanse the body, find some really good hashish; discover the perfect location at the right moment and whammo…inspiration will come. I started the cleansing process way back on the 8th of November. I finished my stonework for the season; watched the exciting presidential elections game and then went cold turkey on everything: no more booze, no more drugs, no more smoke, no more nothing. I drank a lot of water and herbal tea and ate lots of veggies. I have to say, the first week was a bit miserable as the various toxins seeped from my body, but after that, it was easy. It actually felt good to be clean and healthy.
By the time I arrived in Morocco in early December I was clean and pure as the new fallen snow, or perhaps, more to the point, as clean as the sands of the Sahara. Anyway, since hashish seemed fairly plentiful upon arrival, my main task was to find a time and a place for my inspirational moment. Tangiers was definitely not the place and neither was Fez. I originally thought I’d go high in the Atlas mountains like Moses or Mohamed (ha, ha) but after a few days in Morocco and a sudden realization of the freezing cold weather here in the wintertime, I decided the Atlas mountains were a bad idea. As I wandered around Fez though, many people came up to me and tried to sell me tours in the desert near Merzouga. I didn’t buy any of their tours but I did take their pestering to be some kind of a sign….. Go to the desert Pat. You’re on a quest for god’s sake. Why the hell not?
I linger in Fez for a few days to check out all the sights but then I take the overnight bus to Rissani; the last real town before the desert village of Merzouga. I am the only westerner on the bus and during the journey another passenger comes up to me, hands me a cell phone and says, “My friend wants talk to you.”
So I take the cell phone and put it to my ear and some guy on the other end of the line says; “My very good welcome to you new good friend: Welcome to Merzouga desert. My name Ishmael. What is your name good sir?”
“It is ah, ah Patrick.”
“A very big welcome to you Mr. Patrick; it will be very nice to meet you in person. Thank you and goodbye.” He hangs up the phone and I hand the cell phone back to the stranger on the bus. That was kind of weird. What the hell is going on?
Sure enough; when the bus arrives in Rissani, there is some one there to meet Mr. Patrick.
“Let me guess,” I say. ”Your name is Ishmael.”
“No, no, my name Hamdid. I am transport. Ishmael sent me to pick you up and take you to his auberge,”(local word for guesthouse).
“But I did not agree to go to his auberge. I just talked to him briefly on the phone. There are many auberges to choose from and I don’t have much money”.
“Your name Patrick. I transport. I take you to very nice place. You no want go no have to. But it is very nice place and very cheap. You can sleep in Berber tent for 25 dirham and eat in restaurant for 40 to 70 dirham.”
I have an urge to argue with the guy because that is what you are supposed to do. Theoretically; it’s kind of stupid to pick a place to stay in the desert without researching it. But what the hell? Sometimes you just gotta go with the flow.
It’s less than an hour by four wheel -drive on a dirt road through the desert before arrival but when we get there, I am more than a little impressed. This place is incredible: The Erg Chebbi sand dunes near Merzouga are truly one of the great wonders of the world. Miles and miles of rolling hills of sand; some dunes are three or four hundred feet high. The whole place is like a scene from a desert fantasy film. I have definitely found the place for my inspirational moment.
The auberge isn’t much to get excited about. They have rooms for 70 dirham or Berber tents for 25. I choose the tent option. They also have a somewhat overpriced restaurant, but not too bad. The location, however, could not be better. It’s beside an oasis lake surrounded by sand dunes. I spend the afternoon exploring the area. I don’t smoke any hashish this day because I am still waiting for the right moment. True, I did take a couple hits when I bought the stuff from Mohamed but that was a necessary part of the transaction. Exercising an all important exception; in my mind, I am still as clean as a snowflake. No matter, it is not necessary to be stoned to enjoy the sand dunes. They are trippy enough with a straight head. I take a lot of photographs. The changing shadows on the dunes as the sun falls toward the horizon make the entire topography seem a living breathing creature. It is also fairly easy to not get lost. I always stay within sight of the oasis. I make it back to the auberge just as it is getting dark. I have a meal in the restaurant and go to bed early. I have big plans for the following morning.
It is the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year, the beginning of the cycle of light…could there be a better day for inspiration? I awake before dawn. I have no watch to tell the exact time but I can tell by the sliver of moon close to the horizon that it has to be almost morning. I put on my warmest clothes and head out into the dunes. Kind of crazy huh? Wandering alone through the sand dunes in the dark. I probably should be scared. But I am having too much fun checking out the surreal scenery to even think about being scared. Honestly, I have the sensation I am walking on the moon.
I must have left my tent earlier than I thought though because I walk for a very long time and still there is no morning light in the sky. Infinite stars and bright sliver of moon but no sign of the sun. I come to a place where the two largest dunes rise up in front of me. Running between the mountainous dunes is a valley. To enter the valley is to leave sight of the oasis. No matter, I can always use the two giant sand dunes as reference points. And besides; how can I not go into that valley? It seems a gateway to another world.
Of course the pathway through the valley is not straight or flat. It twists and curves up hill and down hill as it meanders through the smaller dunes. Just as I reach the other side of the giant dunes and the way opens up, I notice some light in the sky. Morning is upon me. Straight ahead I see a wide open choppy sea of small sand dunes surrounded by a ring of sand mountains. And there, sitting in the center of the choppy sea is a medium sized dune sticking up like a beacon in the center of a storm. I make my way across the sea of smaller dunes until I reach it. I climb to the top of the center dune and sit down. I have found my spot.
I barely have time to pack my pipe full of hashish when the first sliver of sun appears on the eastern horizon. I suck the pipe down in three giant inhales and then pack it again. The sky turns pink and orange and purple and gold…..a visual extravaganza. I puff the pipe dry again with three more inhales and pack it full again. When the round ball of sun sits on the horizon, I finish the third pipe. The sky blazes like a bonfire from heaven. Luminescent technicolors wash over the desert. Particles in the sand sparkle like a field of diamonds. The dunes undulate like lungs breathing. The whole world is magic and I feel fantastic… Well, anyway, you get the picture. It’s a pretty amazing moment, truly incredible. But no, I am not inspired. I don’t talk to God or Allah or get enlightened or collect a nifty new set of rules to follow. I don’t even come up with a plot or story for a new book. I just get stoned out of my gourd and watch a beautiful sunrise. Oh well, you can’t blame a guy for trying…
So anyway, I hang out on my spot for an hour or so and then decide to head back. I can see the valley I entered the area from off to the left but decide that way is too easy. If the oasis is on the other side of that mountainous sand dune, can’t I circle around the backside and do a loop to return rather than going back the same way? In a brilliant moment of stoned nonsense thinking, I head in the opposite direction from the way I came in. Actually, what I really do is charge off into the dunes like a maniac. The rolling orange hills with shifting shadows are just too much fun. I run up one dune and slide down another. I do somersaults and cartwheels and otherwise frolic about. I sort of think know where I am going but don’t pay attention. Then, after a while, I stop, look around and can not recognize the landscape. There are several mountainous dunes but I am not sure which is the one near the oasis. In short, I am totally confused and befuddled.
So, here I am, lost and alone, somewhere in the Sahara desert, surrounded by sand dunes… Yeah, I know; I exaggerate. I got carried away with my metaphor. The image is dramatic but the reality is boring. The Ergg Chebbi sand dunes are indeed a great wonder of the world. But like all great wonders of the world, they are also a colossal tourist trap. Getting really lost here is about as likely as getting really lost in Disneyland. Yeah sure, the dunes are in the Sahara and the dunes are several miles wide and fifteen or twenty miles long. But surrounding these dunes is a shitload of guesthouses, auberges and hotels. If I walk in any direction for very long, I will certainly find help. Shit… If I just stay in this same place long enough I will probably be run over by a four wheeler or trampled by a herd of camels ridden by clumsy tourists all decked out in Lawrence of Arabia outfits.
And besides, I’m not really as stupid as I sometimes pretend. Honestly, do you really think I need a GPS or a compass to find my way in the desert? The sun rises in the east and sets in the west and the Sahara is slightly north of the equator. Put two and two together, observe the shadows on the sand dunes and east, west, north and south are readily apparent. I know my auberge is in the northern part of the dunes so I head generally north always climbing the higher dunes and looking ahead for an oasis… There are times in this life that you can’t see the oasis. Nevertheless, you just have to believe the oasis is still there…
After an hour or so, I do see the oasis and I make it back to the auberge by lunchtime. How good is it to be alive on this beautiful planet?