Either I’ve still not come down to earth after a retreat in the Sahara Desert or I really like to queue, because I almost missed my flight home again. I was happily waiting in line to board the plane when I suddenly realised that the screen read Madrid, Ryan Air. I quickly ran for the next gate, where confusingly there was no queue, and boarded my Easy Jet flight to Gatwick just in time.
Having had countless amazing couchsurfing experiences thus far I decided to couchsurf in Marrakech for a couple of nights before heading out East to Merzouga. Everyone warned me, more than usual, that travelling alone in a country like Morocco could be very dangerous. I reassured them that I would be fine, and that I know what I am doing. I spent hours taking extra precautions, making sure that the couchsurfer I decided to stay with would be A-OK. After sifting through about 50 requests, I decided to go with a Physics teacher, and he would meet me at the medina, Jemaa el-Fnaa at 9pm.
It wasn’t long before I was accosted by taxi drivers at the airport. I stayed firm and waited for the bus with some other stubborn travellers, inspired by a backpacker who firmly refused their pleas, despite the price being lowered to the exact cost of the bus. His excuse was that the bus is much more spacious, which I found rather comical yet true. I was a little ashamed of myself for even considering to take the taxi. I ain’t no common tourist!
I waited in the square for a while, since I was early, just soaking in the warmth of the air and the Gnawa drumming that surrounded me. The couchsurfer arrived and before I know it we’re getting a taxi to his home. But it wasn’t any regular taxi; 7 of us bundled into the small car, whose door handles consisted of a piece of thick fabric and a boot that couldn’t close. It is for instances like this that I love couchsurfing. To experience something so casual, yet so alien.
He insisted on getting me some dinner, the Moroccan equivalent of fast food, despite having eaten too many salmon sandwiches and feeling rather full. He had a very simple way of living, a small room in shared accommodation, with a bucket for a bath and a big chunk of the sink was missing. There was a little balcony, with flowers that emitted a tasty aroma. We watched music channels on television and drank mint tea, cheesy Arabian pop stars distracting us from the awkwardness that a language barrier can create. He was very generous and hospitable and wanted to make fish tagine the next evening, however I couldn’t help but feel a little uncomfortable. This feeling was affirmed when I woke up, with him sleeping unusually close to me and the wall enclosing me from the other side. Fortunately, this was all that happened, the next day I said that I wanted to leave and I did, and that was that.
Little did I know that I would end up finding the best hostel I have ever stayed in. For less than £5 a night including breakfast, this is really quite astonishing. One of the guys who runs it is utterly hilarious, telling new arrivals that there are no toilets or showers and they would have to pay 200 euros a night with the most serious face I have ever seen. What really makes an epic experience is of course the people you meet, and it just so happened that I met some awesome people.
I also met some of the other early arrivals who would also be going on the retreat, everyone from a different country. We were having dinner together when suddenly it began to pour with rain, then the electricity cut out. I couldn’t take it anymore, and with the encouragement of the others to release my inner child I got out from underneath the tarpaulin and danced in the rain. The Moroccans watched, perplexed, as they tried to sell umbrellas to tourists. We later decided that it would be nice to have a cool beer, however alcohol is very hard to come by in Morocco. We found ourselves in the lobby of a hotel amongst chain smoking Moroccans and moody old married couples.
The next night we decided to be even more adventurous and head out to a nightclub. To our great dismay one of us was denied entrance, because of his tracksuit bottoms. We had the ingenious idea that we could perhaps persuade the parking attendant to switch trousers. We begged and pleaded, but it was no use, he wouldn’t budge. Then enlightenment happened, why not turn the sweatpants inside out! Success! We were allowed in. It was all a bit bizarre, surreal, mostly business men in business suits minding their own business. The music consisted of 90s and naughties classics; at one point everyone was going around the dance floor hands on the shoulders of the person in front. I was a little worried that I would be accosted by men, but to my surprise I was left alone to dance in peace.
I initially heard about this retreat a year ago when I was in Canada. I knew that I would participate sooner or later, and it just so happened that it was the former. With a 6000 word essay deadline soon after, I decided to go anyway.
The group was large and dynamic, 28 people in total, including the organiser Tom Thumb. Little did I know that I would be meeting the author of a book I bought 5 years ago, called The Road Junky Travel Handbook, in preparation for travelling on my Gap Year. He is an incredible person, who never ceases to surprise, having lived in endless countries all over the world with a generous handful of languages up his sleeve. He is a delightful storyteller and songwriter too, as well as a never ending list of other wonderful qualities.
We arrived at night, so it came as a shock in the morning when we suddenly saw these tremendous dunes in the distance, I had never imagined that they could be so big! We wrapped each other up in scarves as the camels were ladened with our luggage then set off towards the dunes bare foot. I kept pausing as I went, astonished by where I was. We arrived around two and half hours later, from now on we would have no sense of time, only sunrise and sunset. We were aware. We were being.
The camp looked like an album cover, tents covered in carpets with a table that happened to be sitting on a sand dune behind. Nearby was an oasis, Berbers living in the best of a hostile situation. They wore thick woollen jumpers, amused by our shoeless feet and t-shirts as we sweated in the sunshine. As well as being unaware of the time, we also didn’t have mirrors, it’s different to only look outwards for a week, and have no idea of how you look yourself. Interestingly, someone had told me that I had caught the sun on my nose and cheeks, and immediately afterwards I felt tired and sunburnt. If no one had told me, I probably wouldn’t have noticed.
Immediately the group clicked, with great amounts of laughter ensuing from the first moment. We were constantly uplifted as joy and laughter continued to emanate from everywhere for the entire week, helping us get through the rough and lonely times when we faced our inner demons. We were free to do whatever we pleased, whether we felt like howling like wolves on top of a sand dune as the full moon rose, or going for a solitary walk towards the Algerian border, spontaneously twerking, or drawing henna on each other and reading each others palms. As we introduced ourselves and why we were here, one stated that they were here to get a new Facebook profile picture. We all burst out laughing. There were people from Belarus to Wisconsin, from comedians to mental health workers to acupuncturists to photographers. We were all different ages with a great array of talents. One woman in particular touched us all, she had been diagnosed with leukaemia a year before, and it was only since then that she had felt like she was truly living. She had been an abortion that went wrong, a miracle, she said. We were astonished and moved by her, as well as everyone else, inner beauty shining through led by an open mind and a willingness to learn from one another. Never have I received so many great hugs from so many people in such a short space of time.
I was asked many questions about astronomy, and this would often result in a philosophical appreciation of the topic. I spent a lot of time reflecting on these questions, trying to get my head around how the universe is infinite, yet it can have an edge, but no centre. My mind has expanded tremendously with these discussions, especially concerning light and time. I have come to understand that the edge of the universe is not a real edge, it is only imposed when we consider that it is the oldest light that has reached us, the light from the Big Bang. The edge is the beginning of time. When we think of the universe in only present time, it is therefore infinite, and has no centre. We are surrounded by information that tells us about the past, whether it is light from the Sun telling us what it looked like 8 minutes ago, or it is light from a new born galaxy at the “edge” of the universe. Yet every moment is in the present, every memory experienced now. The present can drive the past just like the ship influences the wake behind it. We are analysing all information in the present, the past affected by what we know now.
Often I’ve considered how light is also infinite, if you were to picture yourself as a photon you would be instantaneous, everywhere at once. It is only from our perspective as an observer that light travels at a finite speed. It blows my mind just thinking about the interaction between light and black holes, both infinite in their own way. How light travelling from a galaxy behind a black hole will bend around the black hole, since it’s gravity is so great, so that we can see the galaxy appear like a ring around it. These so called Einstein rings are formed due to gravitational lensing.
And that if the universe is infinite, then everything within the universe is infinite: there is an infinite number of you and me…
It is very likely that some of what I have said is wrong and that my understanding is a little off, there is always more to learn, new knowledge to be gained. I just hope that I am not too wrong, that I am not misleading.
Besides philosophising we meditated every morning and took part in workshops in the afternoons. This consisted of the perfect merging of aikido and dance. On many occasions we all felt moved, both emotionally and physically. Our environment allowed us to really get in tune with nature, feeling the rhythm of ourselves, each other and the dunes that surrounded us. The startling thing was the silence, you could be entirely alone, without wind, no tweeting of birds, it was almost as if I could hear the cosmic microwave background. It was hard work climbing dunes, the sand falling beneath you with every step. But the sand is also very versatile, a giant sandpit to play and roll around in, to hide things never to be found again, to shape into a comfortable seat…
In the evenings we sat around the campfire, sharing stories and poetry, discussing our reality, singing and dancing, telling each other horrifically awful jokes, sleeping under the full moon. We would climb one of the largest dunes for sunset and I would hang off of one side upside down, resulting in the birth of my tribe name, fruit bat. It is difficult to encapsulate the essence of the sun rising into the earth, with the moon setting into the sky, wisps of clouds like waves of an ocean below. It is for these moments that I realise why I love to travel; I yearn to enjoy all that the world has to offer.
The food was heavenly, even though it was exactly the same every single day, breakfast, lunch and supper. We broke our fast with bread dipped in olive oil, flavoured with salt and cumin. For lunch we ate harira, a Moroccan broth with rice, accompanied by bread, dates, oranges and peanuts. There were also some scary wafer things that you either loved or detested. We devoured chicken tagine for dinner, which remarkably seemed to taste even better each night. It was difficult to stop oneself from having multiple helpings, one night I found that I had had five helpings, possibly more.
It was energising to be around such positive people, yes we all have our own sufferings of course, but everyone was living in the present, in a state of such presence, which was very refreshing. Rather than being stuck on repeat, using the past as an excuse, a way to justify how we are now. I will likely have sand stuck in my hair for a few more weeks at least, reminding me of an experience which already feels like an age ago. Apart from the affirmation that the world is filled with phenomenal people, I also realised how terrifying it is to really look into someone’s eyes whilst conversing. This is something that I hope to work and improve on.
We couldn’t believe it when on the last day it began to rain, an incredibly rare occurrence. It rained throughout lunch, and halted just before supper time, how thoughtful of it. Consequently, the next day we were graced with a magnificent sight. The sun shone for our walk out of the desert, the dunes a vivid glowing orange, still damp from the rain. Contours were highlighted by drier parts, creating stunning contrasts as far as the eye could see.
Some of us stayed an extra night back in Hassilabied before taking the 12 hour bus back to Marrakech. The clouds drew in yet again, lightning blazed in the distance, exaggerated by the fact that temporarily there was no electricity where we were staying. We were unexpectedly in for a delightful treat when some Berbers began to drum and strum. One by one we were enticed to dance, the beat inescapable, despite exhaustion. We felt ecstatic, a relief to dance on solid ground again. On the return journey we encountered snow sprinkled on the ground amidst palm trees; sandstorms whilst eating scrumptious berber omelette; rain and mist so thick that the guy driving the car in front had his head stuck out of the window.