Sunday, January 3, 2010

Happy Holidays from the Sahara


Staring into a sea of sand dunes, distinguishable only by the light of a half-full moon on a crisp night, I ponder my smallness. After all, isn’t this why we come out to such places? Certainly it isn’t for the extra sand in everything-- from my back pockets to my breakfast. I look over in the direction that my friend, Claire, had headed. In the moonlight I can barely distinguish her form from the sand, much less her distance from me. My ears away from the tents, the dunes are dense and quiet. Behind me the camels have made their beds on the sand, some with their heads up, silently watching us.

Later, we tackle the dune that overlooks our campsite. It is an hour of labor on my hands and feet, fighting to make it to where the dune draws a line with the stars. The lack of reference for distance makes this goal all the more illusive. My legs are heavy with the strain and the sand I’ve collected in my shoes. Suddenly, the dune drops down in my eyes and I’m gazing beyond the peak. Lights of civilization sparkle from a distance, the dune had hid them from us below as a backdrop on a stage might hide the commotion of the crew and actors. Of course, I didn’t have much illusion that I would be completely alone out in the Sahara.

I wait for Kyle, my other travel companion, to reach the top, having lost all sight of Claire in the darkness below. The dry air and arid landscape is quite a contrast from where I had been just a few days earlier, snuggled into the rainy mountains to the north. We had celebrated Christmas there, at Randy’s house (no berry picking this time, but we still got to have some of the plunder on Christmas morning—blackberries and crepes!) with Jon and Emily. As much as I love my host family, getting to spend Christmas with those who know what it is and can distinguish it from New Years was an amazing treat. This year, the stockings were our best socks; the shoes were drying by the fire; the shining sun was a Christmas miracle; the dinner was made completely from scratch (with the addition of wonderful canned cranberry sauce); the gifts were knitted with care; the chocolates were hand delivered from Switzerland; and the skype conversations with family back home were a blessing.


Kyle reaches the top of the dune, shortly followed by a solitary man, part of our camp-group. We sit and catch our breath, calculating how much easier it could have been if we had climbed the less steep side now visible to us. The weather couldn’t be more wonderful, and a welcome contrast to the rain the week before. The wet weather made some of my travel plans difficult. I was amazed at my forgiving and good-natured travel companions as the showers culminated in a drenching downpour and a wet-to-the-bone walk up the mountainside to Randy’s house.

Claire’s voice reaches us from somewhere down below. She won’t make it up any time soon and it is nearing midnight. I convince Kyle out of just sleeping at the top and we slide back down. I can imagine that taking big or running steps down the slope would be even more enjoyable in the daylight. In the darkness it is a strange sensation of stepping into darkness into something that won’t hold your weight. It is thrilling if not frightening.

We make it back down, laughing too loud for our sudden proximity to the camp, snuggle into our sleeping bags and shut our eyes for short night’s sleep. Before sunrise we get up again, witness the beauty of the sky and the dunes. Then it is back onto our saddles, a bit more tenderly than the day before, and back out of the desert.

The next day I am back home and getting ready to say goodbye to my friends. Of course their stay flew by too quickly, just as this year went by too fast. Last New Year’s Eve I spent with two new friends in a house in a small village. The New Year came in with the computer battery dieing right at midnight, the electricity having gone out an hour before. Our music held out to count down the last minutes of 2008. 2009 came in with darkness, and I left it that way as well. New Year’s Eve I was too exhausted from travel and went to bed before midnight, alone in my house.

This last year was a very full one. I know that my experience here has changed me in some ways (just ask my last visitors). It is the only year I have spent entirely out of the US. While away, I’ve made many new friends from different countries and cultures; I’ve learned a new language; I’ve learned how to make and do many new things from scratch; and I’ve gotten to exchange knowledge with those I work with.

I can’t say that 2009 was the best year I’ve experienced so far. There were plenty of challenges, and every step I take upward most certainly sinks halfway down. However, I see my progress in looking back. The dark mass of the dune is underneath and I have a new vantage point. Welcome 2010.

3 comments:

Wander Full said...

Happy New Year Lisa! I love hearing all the ways you take new leaps into darkness...

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Claire Berman said...

I know this is an old post but I just re-read it now. I too feel like my 14 months away were full of "one step forward, two step back" moments, and now being back in the U.S. is almost challenging in its lack of those types of challenges. I don't know if that makes sense. I guess now I'm used to things, in general, being hard, or inaccessible. Suddenly, everything is accessible to me, and that is....hard? I don't know. I can't wait to talk to you on Skype soon to dissect this one.

Miss you.