I made it clear to Mohamed that I wanted to walk to the home-stay destination in the Black Desert and not ride a camel. Three days prior, the short ride from the chateau to the Sahara camp had been excruciating and I wasn’t about to do it again. Having ridden camels on two continents I can say with absolute certainty that my anatomy isn’t suited for such means of transportation. I prefer a direct connection with the earth even if it is slower-going. He told me it would be four, maybe five hours of walking and I was overjoyed. He seemed surprised. But I was happy to walk alongside rather than sit on an animal above him. It’s an entirely different social dynamic.
Mohamed, like the other guides, spoke basic english. But he was fluent in reading tone and inflection and a master of body language and subtle cues. He would often point at something and ask me how to say it. I never had to tell him twice. He was a natural linguist.
Like many other men I had met in Morocco, Mohamed wondered why I was not married. To this simple question I had no more than a canned response. Something like, “I never met the right woman,” or, “well, you see, I have a partner but she’d not really my wife.” These answers might suffice in the west, but in a more traditional society they are illogical. Even more confusing is my response to questions about children. It was never if I have kids, it was always how many. “None?” Mohamed refrained from asking me why and simply said, “I wish you for three, maybe four childrens. Insh’Allah.” Insh’Allah, indeed.
Mohamed asked me what it means to “get high.” When I told him, he said many tourists do this then act stupid in the desert. Last summer, some apparently decided to go on a night hike (without water), proceeded to get lost, then became dehydrated as the sun came up and were later found dead from exposure. He sang a broken version of Afroman’s song, “Because I Got High.” But he altered it and sang, “I was gonna go to Sahara, but then I got high.” he cracked himself up. After a silent stretch, Mohammed told me that burping and farting are not considered rude. When the camel passed gas, we both sort of chuckled. Some things are the same, world over.
The Black Desert is a moonscape in the middle of the Sahara. It is wedged between orange dunes and the red cliffs 30k away that line the Algerian border. I joked that we ought to walk to Algeria and Mohamed just shook his head and told me it was a bad idea. The Black Desert is bisected by countless dry rivers that rarely hold water. The small village we were headed to had never, until the previous week, seen its river run more than a trickle. As the mud structures came into view, Mohamed asked me if I want to stay with a “white skin or black skin” family. I told him it didn’t matter and he said many people ask to stay with dark-skinned people. I can only imagine the sort of tourists who return home from Africa, bragging about their “authentic” encounter with the locals. I know he meant well, and it was kind of him to think of me, but I was disgusted that such a question had grown into his repertoire, no doubt the result of his previous clients’ requests.
We stayed the night at the home of Black Stars’ uncle. Their desert garden was flourishing and village women filled baskets with potatoes and turnips. We were shown to our room within the roofless, mud home and promptly brought mint tea by the youngest son, Saeed (whose name, I learned, means “happy”). As the sun started to set, I wandered until the village shimmered in the glowing horizon. I picked up a gorgeous stone and realized it was a museum-quality artifact. The point of an arrow, perhaps. My fellow archaeology undergrads would die for a find like this. As my heart raced I glanced around—and everywhere I looked, and I mean everywhere, all I could see were artifacts. Perfect ones, broken ones, big and small ones. It was the diver’s equivalent discovering a sunken treasure. The recent rains had washed away thousands of years of sand and I was holding a piece of history in my palm. I was high as a kite.