Once, during three days, I was the owner of a dromedary in the Sahara desert.
Yes, I know… it sounds so unbelievable that it’s difficult to believe it. But wait until I tell you the whole story and you will see that it could actually happen to anybody.
In 2011, I traveled to Morocco and to Spain for five weeks. It was a beautiful trip, like all the ones I have had. I visited several beloved friends in Barcelona and Madrid. I was in the very lovely Alhambra, in Granada and explored several cities and small villages for two weeks in Morocco.
It was my dream since years ago to spend a few days in the Sahara desert and of course I wanted to travel on the back of a dromedary. A lot of people mistakenly call camels (they have two humps and inhabit Asia) dromedaries (one hump, from Africa). I know how to make the difference between the two but sometimes it seems easier to say “camel”, a mistake people from Morocco quickly intervene to rectify. So from now on, please do not feel offended when I say “camel”… you now know I mean “dromedary”.
After a lot of investigating, asking guides and much more, I left the historical city of Fez and arrived in the middle of the night at a small village called Rissani, located on the edge of the Merzuga desert and where a guide was waiting for me.
This person was contacted by the other guide I met in Fez, Ali, who, after showing me his city for a whole afternoon, was a bit worried about me and helped me out by providing me contact names. I have to say that there are practically no women traveling alone in Morocco; in fact, I only met one woman from Montreal in my two weeks there. We stayed in touch and we met several months after in Montreal when I got back.
The problem is that there seems to be a contradiction in Moroccans’ ways.
In general, they hide their wives because they think other men will molest them, follow them and put weird ideas in their heads. Of course, the same men who protect their wives are the same men who molest, stalk and plant weird ideas in other women’s heads.
This absurdity causes two particular situations to take place: women are rarely seen outside and the rare ones, like myself, who are actually out in the streets see themselves incessantly being followed around, talked to and even proposed to. I found all this most amusing and I never felt like I was in danger.
Let me be clear by saying that I haven’t accepted any of the marriage proposals, not even the one from my desert guide Youseff, which was the most serious one and came with the promise of living among camels. I thought about it, however marrying him, converting to Islam and living with his mother to help her cook was not very thrilling.
On my first night in the desert, I slept in a room I couldn’t see well since there was no power. But in the morning, I was very surprised to notice that I was staying at very nice hotel called “The Star of The Dunes”, which was painted in a color that blended with the sand surrounding it.
My first morning in the desert, after a rich breakfast made of dates, bread and cheese, sweets and more, I was introduced to Youssef, my 26 year-old Berber guide and to Khadud, my 11 year-old camel.
I was about to spend the next three days with in their company. My guide didn’t really go to school but spoke conversational French, English and Spanish in addition to his two languages, Arabic and Berber. Therefore if we couldn’t understand one another in one language, we would switch to another one without difficulty.
After he had helped me wrap a turban around my head, leaving only the eyes visible (to protect myself against the wind, the sun and the sand), I climbed on my camel and we left. We started talking right away, while he was walking and following paths only known to him.
He told me about his life as a guide, camel driver, cook and musician (Guides are multitalented!) in the desert and I told him about my life in Montreal and Argentina. Of course, most of the questions I had for him were about the camels and how to talk care of them, a fascinating topic I had already discussed with all the other camel handlers I met since the first city I visited in Morocco–so from Tangier to the desert. He told me that it was the first time he guided a woman traveling alone, people usually stay in groups.
The first stop was at a nomad family’s store where they offered us some tea. These types of families set up home near a small oasis, which means a well in the sand with water in it and a few bushes. After that, we resumed our journey to stop at another store of another family who also had several goats.
We stopped to spend the night. I insisted on giving some water to Khadud, but to my great surprise, Youssef said that Khadud wasn’t at all interested in drinking.
As Youssef explained, camels prefer to travel light through the desert and when they arrive at their stable, they can eat and drink to their heart’s content.
We had seen the camel eating leaves out of a small tree that was nearby, and at night, he would sit in the entrance of the shop. Youssef tied his knees together to keep him from running away. That night, I ended up talking with Youssef and the owner of the store until very late. We were telling jokes and playing riddles.
The second day, we arrived at a very big camp, it had a big store separated in several rooms covered in tapestries. Other people came by here as well, visitors from all over the world, with even more guides and camels.
During naptime, when we decided to take a break, Youssef tied Khadud’s knees so that he stayed near the tent, I said that the rope was too tight so I loosened it a bit. After a little while, I heard someone shout something in Arabic, which my guide helped me translate to: our camel ran away.
So we ran out and started looking for it. We were able to find him, but it took us a while to reach his location. Youssef didn’t comment on the incident, but Ì could I bet that he didn’t have a nice opinion about me at that time. At dusk, I climbed up a dune as high as a mountain and later on I had long conversations with the other guides and camels.
The second night was different; the guides sang and played instruments until late. A life in the desert involved certain surprising modern aspects: cellphones worked, and many employees would bring food in Jeeps while being dressed in their traditional blue tunics and turbans. It was quite a show.
Of course, there weren’t any bathrooms or showers, just the large dunes and water in wells or bottle. In fact, I spent my time collecting abandoned empty plastic bottles and put them in the camp’s trash cans, hoping that they would end up in a garbage dump.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t carry them with me on my camel since there was only enough space for my little backpack and bottles of water in saddlebags.We also made a stop to watch geckos and scarabs that are incredibly well adapted to the desert’s arid conditions.
On the third morning, we went towards the hotel we left. When we arrived, we could finally give some water to Khadud and see all the other camels, the adults and the young. They say camels have a great memory and that they are capable of finding their way back home from any location they are left at.
A great achievement I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish. I once got lost only five minutes after I had left.
After enjoying a well-deserved shower, I headed towards my next destination, leaving a Youssef, saddened by my refusal to marry him, and Khadud, happy to be back to his stable.
If parallel universes existed, I’m pretty sure that there would be one Helena living in the desert as we speak, turbaned and taking care of Khadud and his friends, cooking couscous and tajine with Youssef’s mother. But the Helena who is sharing these anecdotes with you prefers to keep on traveling.
Author: Helena Arroyo
Translation: Noëlla Moussa