Weekly Wednesday Video: Crossing the Sahara Desert in Mauritania

This week’s video is very short and simple – just 30 seconds of scenery from Mauritania, a little-known nation I visited last year on my West Africa Tour. Some 75 percent of the country is desert, as is obvious from this video that was shot from inside a shared taxi.

Mauritania has been on my mind lately as a fellow travel writer, Francis Tapon, just spent three weeks there. I’ve been eagerly keeping up with his Facebook and Twitter updates to hear about his adventures. Francis is working on a documentary called The Unseen Africa and plans to spend three years touring the continent. That’s quite the plan!

Francis has his own car, but I mostly got around West Africa with public transportation. In Mauritania that includes the bush taxis, which are usually of the Mercedes make (while in Senegal they prefer Peugeot station wagons and call them by the name Sept-place). The shared taxis take off for their destination when enough people have showed up to fill the car, or when the driver figures he has a good change of picking up the missing number of people along the way.

Shared taxis are a pretty handy and cheap way to get around, and observing the locals’ wardrobe choices is an interesting way to pass the time.

Those of you that speak Finnish can read more about my adventures in Mauritania and the Sahara Desert in this article titled “The Sahara isn’t easy on the tourist” that was published by Finland’s biggest newspaper Helsingin Sanomat last year. Among other places, I visited Cap Blanc, known as the largest graveyard of shipwrecks. By February last year, some of the 300 ships had already been hauled away by the European Union, but quite a few could still be seen in the horizon. This one on the beach is the Moroccan ship United Malika that crashed in 2003. This shipwreck bay was definitely one of the strangest sights I’ve seen in my life.

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Have you been to Mauritania or tried out the shared taxis elsewhere in Africa? 

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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.

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.