Fancy a timeout in the Sahara?

Guys, it’s that time of the year again – the time to sign up for the Road Junky Sahara Retreat in the Sahara Desert in Morocco! If you could only do one cool thing in your life, this one would be a pretty strong contender if you ask me.

As you may remember, this past February I was one of the 24 lucky ducks who managed to take a week off from the modern world and surround themselves with nothing but sand, dunes and bypassing camels.

And what a week it was, as you may have read from my post back in March. The next retreat will take place sooner than you think, from Jan. 27 – Feb. 2, 2013, so jot down the dates in your calendar and dust off those dune shoes (just kidding, there’s no need for that – it’s much easier to walk up and down slippery sand slides without shoes!).

So what can you expect to get in return for you 295 euro attendance fee? In a nutshell: unreal desert scenery, interesting classes such as yoga and aikido, simple but tasty local food, accommodation in shared Berber-style tents, travel stories shared under the full moon by the bonfire and lots of new friends. Most people come to the retreat by themselves, so don’t be afraid to do the same.

Transportation to the meet-up spot in Merzouga is not included though, so you’ll need to find your own way to Morocco (I flew with the superb low-fares airline Norwegian Air but you could also check out Ryanair. In February their flight from London to Morocco was 25 euro – you can’t beat that). Most Sahara Retreat participants fly to Marrakech, and embark on the 10-hour bus ride to Merzouga together as a group the day before the camp starts.

And what exactly goes on during the week? Nothing much and a whole lot at the same time. Quoting myself, “unexpected things will happen if you bring 24 people to the Sahara Desert. An anti-American hippie will befriend a clean-cut Midwestern guy, a vegetarian will succumb to the smell of delicious chicken tajine and a reserved German will throw himself in the middle of a cuddle puddle of entangled human bodies. Unlikely friendships will form, long-overdue tears come running out at the sight of the most beautiful sunset and strangers will care for each other as if they were family.”

“Overall the retreat was great fun and definitely helped me empty my mind of daily worries for a bit. Some of the things others mentioned enjoying were the friendships, sunsets, losing track of time in the desert, workshops, feeling the connection to the earth, sensing love and peace, seeing the moon rise out of the horizon and finding new energy for the future. All very hippie-sounding, but I guess that’s not such a bad thing after all.”

If you have questions about the retreat, feel free to ask me! Or check if your concerns were already answered here, such as these very crucial questions:

Will there be broadband internet connectivity? Can I get a banana milkshake in the shade? What if the guides belong to Al-Qaeda?

(Answer: The Road Junky Retreat is probably not for you.)

(Photos courtesy of various members of our Sahara group. Thank you for all the fun times!)

PS. If you think you might want to go but are not sure yet, don’t worry. Last time I signed up about two weeks before the starting date and that was fine! But of course if you want a spot for sure, you might want to get cracking on this one.

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A different kind of a roadtrip

When you say the word roadtrip, most people start visualizing images of never-ending North American highways, identical Burger Kings, and soulless roadside motels.

But the kind of roadtrip I have taken over the past few months through West Africa has been a world apart from its Yankee cousin.

It’s taken me through four countries, one occupied territory, a no-man’s land full of landmines, past countless herds of camels and cows and sheeps, through 30 hours of pure Saharan desert scenery, past more than 20 police checkpoints, into lush tropical greenery and a world of white sand beaches.

I started my trip in Morocco back in January and have over the past three months made my way through Western Sahara, Mauritania, Senegal and Guinea-Bissau on a quiet, leisurely pace.

My modes of transport have consisted of shared Mercedes Benz bush taxis, colorful ramshackle minibuses, converted Chevy “Sept-Place” cars on the verge of a breakdown, a horse-drawn cart, a pirogue (a shaky little fisherman’s boat), big ferries, comfy buses, motorbikes and my own two feet.

At times I’ve been feeling totally out of place, surrounded only by men wearing a boubou, the Mauritanian version of a Moroccan jilaba

Other times I’ve felt right at home.


It’s been quite the adventure, and I’m sorry I haven’t  kept you updated all that well. Every day here in West Africa seems to be so full of adventure that each would warrant its own blog post, but that’s exactly why it’s hard to find the time to sit by the computer on a regular basis. Not a week goes by that I don’t feel a little guilty for not writing more, especially as my head is full of topics I’d love to discuss with you.

One of them is how Africa surely has the best children in the world. Never in my travels of 50+ countries have I encountered such happy, smiling, positive kids, without fail. I haven’t met a single teenager with attitude problems in West Africa nor a toddler throwing a temper tantrum in the middle of the street.

Instead, I’ve met lovely boys like Makhtar, who smiled so radiantly on the beach in St. Louis, Senegal, that I just had to go say hello. I was so happy to learn his name, as it’s also the name of my favorite little boy in Mauritania.

And I’ve met beautiful girls like Jatou, who was my neighbor in Guinea-Bissau’s capital of Bissau for four days.

And I met tens of smiling kids in the rural village of Bouyouye in Casamance, Senegal.

How can you not feel overwhelming happiness when you look at these joyous faces? These guys and gals were my neighbors for a week in Mauritania’s capital, Nouakchott.

So again, I’m sorry for not including you in my everyday African life a little better. You certainly would have deserved it. But actually rather than a day-by-day count of my travels, I see this blog as being a place where I can share some particular snippets from the road and some observations I’ve made along the way. At least I say that to make myself feel better about it. 😛

If you have any particular questions about the logistics of traveling long-term, please don’t hesitate to ask. Just because it’s not in the blog, it doesn’t mean it’s a topic I am avoiding as I’d definitely love to help out with any info I may have. It’s just difficult to cover it all – especially while trying to also live in the moment, getting to know new cultures, learning new languages, and working as a professional  journalist all along.

Despite my lack of details, I hope this blog will still inspire some of you to take more unconventional roadtrips in the future. During my trans-Saharan trip I barely ran into any other travelers though there are certainly plenty of wonders to be discovered in this part of the world (and on six other continents!).

So please don’t be afraid to venture beyond those well-known vacation destinations, or to look for paths less beaten in those popular countries. At least for me this is the most rewarding way  to travel,  though it’s certainly not always easy or relaxing. In fact, after three months in West Africa, I’m ready for a vacation!

24 people, 6 days, 1 Sahara

What happens if you bring 24 strangers together and isolate them from the world for six days in the middle of the Sahara Desert? Unexpected things, I tell you.

And I am speaking from experience, as I was one of these 24 travelers to take part in The Road Junky Sahara Retreat this February. The retreat, which I randomly came across online in January, was the main reason I chose to start my African tour from Morocco.

In case you haven’t heard of Road Junky Travel, it’s a web magazine dedicated to travel stories and videos. This year was the second time that Tom Thumb, one of the website’s founders as well as a writer, storyteller and permanent nomad from England, organized this retreat in the desert. As last year’s camp was such as success, Tom decided to make this year’s stint a day longer, five nights and six days.

The Road Junky Sahara Retreat was advertised as a travelers’ meet-up, and a chance to meditate in the vast emptiness of the Sahara, and participate in workshops of yoga, aikido and dance. There would also be travel stories shared around the fire, and evenings spent listening to Tom reciting tales from the “1001 Nights” collection.

Those of you who know me probably remember that I am not into yoga, I definitely never meditate and I have never expressed even the slightest interest in aikido. A few years ago at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism I did participate in some martial arts classes held by Sensei George, but mostly just to show my support. I was never a natural-born Jackie Chan, nor into any remotely hippie-sounding spiritual stuff.

Add to this equation that I don’t like being far from the ocean, having grown up on an island four hours
off the coast of Western Finland. As an adopted New Yorker, I also don’t feel particularly comfortable
when I am far away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Three days is usually the max I can handle being in a remote location without getting anxious.

Yet somehow I felt drawn to this idea of spending a week amidst the sand dunes in the Sahara, so much so that I decided to shell out the 250 euro the retreat cost and sign up. I wanted to see how bright the stars would be, whether the yellow sand dunes were really as spectacular in real life as they looked in
photos, and whether I could actually learn to enjoy these activities I had no previous interest in.

As I mentioned in the beginning, unexpected things will happen if you bring 24 people to the Sahara Desert. An anti-American hippie will befriend a clean-cut Midwestern guy, a vegetarian will succumb to the smell of delicious chicken tajine and a reserved German will throw himself in the middle of a cuddle puddle of entangled human bodies. Unlikely friendships will form, long-overdue tears come running out at the sight of the most beautiful sunset and strangers will care for each other as if they were family.

A black-clothed heavy metal singer with a pony-tail Mohawk will turn into a hug monster, and a sandstorm will blow away a songwriter’s creative block. A hyper, cynical city girl will enjoy yoga, aikido and dance therapy lessons held in the middle of nowhere.

Yes, that was me stretching myself in unlikely positions at the crack of dawn, welcoming pretend-attackers into my invisible circle, searching for my sphere of energy and sensing that of others. Without thinking about how silly I looked, I allowed myself to imagine I was as light as a feather dancing in the wind and as heavy as a stone laying in the sand. I learned to lean on other people both physically and mentally, which is at times hard for those of us who are fiercely independent souls.

No matter how “hippie” some of the exercises seemed for my taste, I decided to face this retreat with an open mind and see if it would lead to something new, whatever that might be. After all, “if you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.” And I did enjoy doing things differently for a change, and interacting with the types of people I normally do not encounter.

And though I was even contemplating trying to meditate to the sound of people humming “ommmmmmm” around me, I didn’t quite get to the right mindset for that. The retreat was so action-packed that I just didn’t have time!

In case you are interested in joining next year, here’s what our daily schedule looked like:

-8 a.m. wake-up call: “Yoga in 10 minutes!”

-Crawling out of our tents into the fresh but chilly desert air

-Climbing over the dunes into the designated yoga spot

-Yoga for 45 mins to an hour: stretches, breathing exercises

-Breakfast: bread, yellow and red jam, olives, olive oil, endless cups of Moroccan tea

-Another call: “Aikido in 10 minutes!”

-Climbing over the dunes into the designated aikido spot

-Aikido for 45 mins to an hour: exercises with a partner, pushing, gentle shoving, how to avoid an attack by moving along with the attacker’s movements instead of fighting them.

-About an hour of free time

-Lunch: Bread with Moroccan soup consisting of orange broth with bits of tomato and quinoa. Orange slices for desert, as well as dates, wafers and nuts before and after lunch. More tea.

-Chilling and playing music in the sun for an hour, enjoying the heat that would be gone after sunset

-Another call: “Dance class in 10 minutes!”

-Climbing over the dunes into the designated dance class spot

-Dance class for an hour: touching one person in the group when the music ends, pretending to be a
tree or a traveler in a forest, trying to find your energy center and developing your own dance

-Time for sunset: climbing up one of the highest dunes to see the view. This is harder than you’d think.

-Trying to find your way back to the camp in the moonlight, getting lost for a bit and panicking ever so slightly

-Dinner time: chicken tajine, veggie tajine eaten out of communal bowls. Bread, tea and orange slices for desert.

-Climbing over the dunes to the designated fire spot

-Guitar music and singing around the fire, chatting, Tom telling 1001 Nights’ stories under the full moon. Most of them seemed to include a girl who was “as beautiful as…the moon, shining in the night sky.”

I was officially dubbed the most unromantic person on the retreat after jokingly questioning this funny metaphor. “How can you compare a woman to the moon? The moon is just a white blob! A rose maybe, but the moon?” 🙂

Overall the retreat was great fun and definitely helped me empty my mind of daily worries for a bit. Some of the things others mentioned enjoying were the friendships, sunsets, losing track of time in the desert, workshops, feeling the connection to the earth, sensing love and peace, seeing the moon rise out of the horizon and finding new energy for the future. All very hippie-sounding, but I guess that’s not such a bad thing after all.

If you think this retreat could be for you, keep checking the Road Junky website for details. The next one should be announced in the fall, and will be held around February/March 2012.

Five Surprising Reasons to Pack Light

One of the most common travel questions I get is how to pack sensibly for a trip that lasts several months. My advice is always the same: pack as little as possible. Your body will thank you, and your mind will be at ease as you’ll have fewer material things to worry about.

Don’t let this old photo fool you. I’m currently roaming around the African continent with a tiny backpack that weighs about 9 kg, which is about 20 pounds, or 1.5 stone to those of you following the odd British measurement system. 😛

I plan to be on the road with this bag anywhere from three to six months. And even now I feel like I don’t need a third of the things I brought with me! Goes to show that there’s no such thing as packing too little. You’ll always make do with what you have, and most things that you need you can also get on the road. After all, your home country is not the only place where people use clothes to cover themselves and shampoo to wash their hair.

Not that I was always such a travel minimalist – far from it! I have just learned from experience. Back in 2006 when I headed to Australia armed with the one-year Working Holiday visa, I even packed rollerblades with me! Can you believe that?? Nowadays my entire bag’s contents weigh less than those bulky exercise shoes did. Yes, I still love rollerblading (and nowadays also kangooing), but I have also understood that you can’t have it all. As I wrote earlier, this lifestyle is all about making sacrifices.

And while I haven’t seen anyone else hauling rollerblades around, not a day goes by when I don’t see little backpacker girls carrying rucksacks twice their size, or guys trying to look macho while sweating profusely under their ginormous pile of stuff.

So what’s the big deal about packing light, you may be asking. Well, for one thing: people are not ants. We are not built to carry eight times our own bodyweight. But really, the answer lies in these pictures. Here I am on my Asian tour in 2007, carrying the world in my bag:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here I am today, on the streets of Rabat, Morocco:

(Yes, I realize I look ridiculous in my long Moroccan jilaba robe, but it gets chilly here so I had to get one!)

Picture yourself having to carry one of these bags around every day for, say, five months. Which one would you rather choose? Yep, I would definitely take the latter one too. And I’m so annoyed that I didn’t come to my senses earlier! It was only during my one-month trip to Mexico in the end of 2008 that I first thought about bringing just a small day pack with me. (I figured if I could survive a week with it, I could do a month too.) And WHOA, what a difference that made! Not only was it much easier for me to move around physically, I also noticed the five major benefits there are to packing light:

1) Saving Money

You know those outrageous fees that airlines charge for checked-in baggage? Well, they don’t bother me, as my mini-bag counts as a carry-on. I have even managed to avoid baggage fees on Spirit Airlines, which is notorious for charging $20 even for a carry-on bag unless it is small enough to fit under the seat in front of you. And mine is! Also, buses in many developing countries charge about 50 cents to a dollar for each bag that is placed in the luggage compartment. I avoid that charge too, which may sound miniature but can mean savings of $50-100 over the course of a long trip.

2) Peace of Mind

Back in the day when I traveled with a huge rucksack, I constantly had to worry about it. Will my checked-in belongings make it onto the same flight as me? (Most of the time, no.) Will the bag still be in the luggage compartment of the bus by the time I get off? Has something been stolen from inside of it? Might someone slash the big bag open without me even noticing it? Those are not fun things to worry about, so I’m happy that I no longer have to spend time doing so. My little bag goes with me wherever I go, and is always at my sight. No more lost luggage worries whatsoever.

3) Increased Feeling of Security

Maybe this is not warranted at all, but I feel like I’m less of a target for potential robbers when I just carry a small bag (or at least I can run away faster!). If you arrive in a new town in a foreign country carrying a big rucksack, everyone can see that you are a newbie tourist. With a small bag, however, you can fool people into thinking that you have been around for at least a few days. For all they know you could be an expat walking around town with the day’s shopping in you bag, or a traveler going hiking, who has left most of his or her valuables in the hotel. Either way, big bag = much to steal, small bag = less to steal. The fact that I’ve never been robbed while traveling should speak for itself (knock on wood)!

4) More Room for Spontaneity

This one was the biggest surprise for me personally when I first started traveling light. I suddenly felt so FREE. Up until that point I hadn’t even realized how much my big backpack had controlled my life. Hauling the 20kg on my back like a mule had meant that my #1 priority in a new city was always finding a place to store my bag, which often meant having to book the night’s accommodation right off the bat. If it later turned out I didn’t like the town or the guesthouse after all, I just had to deal with it and stay there anyway since I had already paid. But now, with my tiny bag in tow, I can arrive in a new city, wander around for a couple of hours, and then hop on a bus to continue elsewhere if I feel like it. Perfect! This also helps with…

5) Saving Time

A prime example of how traveling light can save you time is my experience in Mexico: I arrived in Palenque in the morning, visited the Mayan ruins and a waterfall during the day, and then continued on a night bus to San Cristobal de Las Casas. I did all this while carrying my little bag with me. Thus I was able to see more in my one month in Mexico than the old heavy-traveling me would have in two months. And those hours that I used to spend huffing and puffing on the street desperately looking for a guesthouse to toss my bag in were now saved up and carefully spent on a beach instead. Not a bad trade off, huh!

Another time saver is being able to walk off an airplane and straight onto the taxi line without needing to stop by the luggage carousel to wait for your bag to arrive 30 minutes later (or worse than that, never). More often than not, this also means being first in the taxi line out of the people on your flight! Yay for traveling light!

So who is with me on this? What’s the silliest thing you have ever traveled with? I bet nobody else thought of traveling with rollerblades… More importantly, was I successful in inspiring you to travel light next time you go hit the road? If so, stay tuned.

Coming up: tips for how to pack light! Got any tips of your own to share?

Salam Alekoum from Morocco!

Hi everyone! Sorry for being out of the loop again. It’s surprisingly hard to get online when you are constantly on the go.

As I write this, I’m sitting in a palace-looking sand castle in the middle of the Sahara Desert. Well, almost anyway. I’m actually chilling in a small kasbah (village) in Southern Morocco in a house made of clay.  But it looks exactly like a fancy sand castle, as you can see here:

And the beige-colored dunes that start right from the backyard look almost identical to those you see in the middle of the Sahara, though we are actually just on the edge of the desert here.

But make no mistake, this is definitely the desert.  The houses are all brown and made of clay, there are camels roaming around, and sandstorms are a true occurrence, not just a song by Darude (who is Finnish, btw!). The pet donkey’s hollow yelling has awoken me every morning this week.

Unlike much of Morocco, this area of the country around the town of Tagounite seems very conservative. The call to prayer fills the air five times a day, the women all wear headscarves or full-on burkas, and men don the traditional outfit of the indigenous North African Berber people. That consists of an ankle-length robe called jilaba and a colorful turban, which helps keep the wind and sand at bay. Some of the turbans include up to nine meters of fabric! Here’s my new friend Kamal in his favorite desert man outfit:

So what exactly is this dreamy place and how did I end up here? After all, just a week ago I was skiing in chilly Finland. Suddenly the white snow has been replaced by various shades of brown, and the risk of running into wolves has turned into a chance to spot dromedars.

Well, the reason I’m in Morocco now is that this country is the first stop on my 3-4-month African tour. This means I have now officially set foot on every inhabited continent on earth, which was my goal for the first three decades of my life. Check!

And how I ended up in Ait Isfoul, the glorified sand castle that also doubles as a hotel, is because of Couchsurfing – Kamal and his friend Mohamed, fun and friendly Moroccan guys in their late 20s, are fellow members of the travelers’ network. They happily welcomed me and a Canadian couchsurfer girl, Melody, to spend a week in their desert oasis which Kamal has inherited from his grandfather. The guys do this every now and then when there’s a gap in the hotel bookings.

The difference between hosting paying customers versus couchsurfers, Kamal said, lies in the group dynamics. Hotel guests often prefer to do their own thing during the day, and will get lunch and dinner served for them. Couchsurfers, on the other hand, become a part of the Ait Isfoul family: we have cooked together, visited Kamal’s family in the nearby town of M’Hamid, gone camping in the deep desert and spent many nights around camp fires together with Kamal, Mohamed, Ibrahim, Mustapha, Hassan and whichever friend has happened to stop by. We also celebrated Mohamed’s birthday with a Moroccan barbeque.

It’s hard to say what has been the highlight of this unforgettable week. It has certainly been a busy one: we’ve gone riding with camels, gotten thoroughly scrubbed at a traditional hammam (bath house) by a feisty local lady, sandboarded down the huge Laabidlua dune in the Erg Chigaga part of the Sahara Desert (which I was terrible at), got our 4×4 jeep stuck in the dunes, learned to cook a delicious chicken tajine, met  a family of nomads… and we even had an impromptu dance party with some hilarious French people who stopped by Ait Isfoul for a picnic one day. Needless to stay, these have been some memorable days!

I’m also happy to report that the Sahara Desert is just as breathtaking as I had imagined. The night sky is the brightest I’ve ever seen (you can spot shooting stars every five minutes!), and the huge sand dunes continue as far as the eye can see. We even spotted a mirage – the heated air truly looks like water in the distance.

There were some surprises too, for example that as of last year they now have cell phone service in large parts of the desert. My phone got better reception there than at Times Square in New York! That was a relief, as I’d hate to get stranded in the Sahara, as beautiful as it is. I was also caught off-guard by how alive the desert was. There was hardly a moment when we were truly alone. Every 15 minutes we would encounter a herd of camels, a group of nomads fetching water from a fountain, another 4×4 jeep… so I guess it’s true what they say: if you get lost in the desert, stay where you are. Eventually someone will find you. (Or not, if this car below is anything to  go by…)

So a huge THANK YOU to Kamal and Mohamed and all their nice friends for all their hospitality. Ibrahim’s cooking is the best, and we will certainly miss the never-ending tea sessions. Hope to see you again sometime!

If anyone is looking for a truly authentic desert experience, don’t hesitate to get in touch with Kamal and Mohamed! If you are on Couchsurfing, you can find their profiles here:

http://www.couchsurfing.org/people/manodayak/

http://www.couchsurfing.org/profile.html?id=DXBMQ5P&from_search

If you are not into Couchsurfing, but are still  interested in staying in the most peaceful hotel in the Sahara, check out Ait Isfoul’s website for bookings: www.aitisfoul.com