March 31, 2015

A Night in the Desert

A Night in the Desert


“Camel noses!” came the answer from the back of our mini-bus. The question was “what is one memory or thought you would take away from yesterday?” Other thoughts about yesterday centered around the bookends of sunrise and sunset, changes in geography, the orange of the dunes against the blue sky, the beauty of the desert sunset, and the awesomeness of being present in the place and the moment.

Note: This is an expanded version of a post that I wrote for Luther’s Ideas and Creations blog.


So, where were we? We began our day watching the sunrise on the rooftop terrace of our Riad in the ancient city of Fez Morocco. From there we travelled through the Middle Atlas Mountains with stops for a snowball fight and monkey feeding. We descended from the mountains into the plains where we travelled through towns abandoned with the overland spice trade. Ultimately, the plains turn to desert with high plateaus. We experienced the wonder of coming around a bend and seeing a valley oasis, full of Date Palms. We ended our day about 35 kilometers from the Algerian border, at a desert camp site watching the sun set over the Moroccan desert. It was quite a day.

We arrived just after 6pm at the auberge where we met our guides for the night. We tied up our turbans and mounted our camels. This was a new experience for all but one of our group. As we rode out of the hotel area and into the dunes, each camel got a name. We also learned that camels are not the most comfortable beasts to ride. But it was fun, and a great shared learning experience for everyone.

Many of the students shared a sentiment along the lines of “Holy Crap! How did I get so lucky to be here on a sand dune in the middle of the desert?” If you haven’t experienced the quiet beauty of desert sand dunes you should add it to your bucket list. As one member of the group said, “it is just sand, but it is really beautiful.” For me, the word that has stuck in my head throughout our time here in Morocco has been authentic. The leather tanneries of Fez are not selling mass produced goods. The marketplace is a real working marketplace. The dunes are not arranged for our viewing pleasure. You will find no dune gardeners out there arranging things and picking up the trash. The wind and the sand take care of the cleaning. Last night’s footprints were erased by the breeze that came up early this morning.

Desert sunset

After enjoying the sunset at the top of one of the taller (160 feet) dunes, we came down to our little nomadic camp in the valley where our guides, four young men, served us tea. We talked with them a bit about how the recent attack in Tunisia has had very negative impact on tourism in Morocco. It is sad for them, as this is such a beautiful country, and we have felt safe and warmly welcomed almost everywhere. At length, tea was followed by a Moroccan meal. There was a rice salad with tuna and tomato, onion, peppers and oranges. followed by a tagine filled with potatoes, carrots, and beef. For desert, oranges and apples. After cleaning up a bit our guides returned with traditional African drums and played and sang for us.

Jane and I in the setting sun

There were no distractions from this group experience as we had no cell service and no WiFi. They sang some traditional Moroccan songs for us. All of them were Muslim, and at least two of them came from Berber backgrounds. There was a bit of dancing by Jenna and Angel, and drum lessons for a few. When they finished they asked us to sing for them. It was a little bit sad how hard we had to struggle to think of a song everyone knew. The nostalgic part of me thinks that could be because we need more nights of face to face entertainment, and fewer with WiFi. The other parts of me are happy to be writing this post on my iPad knowing I can upload it and all the pictures from almost anywhere else. In the end, Ethan, Ben, and I were the brave one’s and we gave our best rendition of the college hymn, “To Luther.” A bit later the appropriate beat inspired a rousing rendition of “We Will Rock You” with Ben taking the lead and showing a part of himself that I hadn’t seen yet.


This morning, when I got to the top of the dune to watch the sun rise, I found a water bottle left over from a previous group. The wind had blown the sand over and around the bottle leaving a very interesting pattern on the leeward side. A miniature example of the sand dunes and the desert as a whole. I don’t know what the last two days will mean for the students in the long run. I don’t even know how today’s experience will shape my own future. But I know it will, as each past travel adventure has left its mark. It strikes me that the bottle and the dunes are a great metaphor for study abroad and Lutheran higher education. We can lecture for hours, and give them days of homework, but it is these experiences that will shape our students in ways we cannot possibly imagine or plan.