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.

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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