2019 Spring Amideast External Programs Gwen Jensen Morocco

Reflections From a Weekend in the Sahara Desert

Steadily, the train clicked across the old iron tracks as we made our way through the countryside, leaving our homes in Rabat for the weekend. Scattered throughout the faded fabric seats of strangers, my familiar travel companions formed silhouettes against the wide, dusty windows, as the sky began to sleep and purple hues kissed the hilly landscape goodnight. Two hours later, under the pitch black sky, we scurried out of the unfamiliar city streetlights and into the stout concrete bus station. In anticipation for the ten hour bus ride ahead of us, I brushed my teeth in the spastic stream of water from a single water fountain. I layered sweatpants over jeans and a sweatshirt over my flannel, then climbed the steps into the massive humming tour bus waiting outside. In the time warp that was the overnight bus, I drifted in and out of unsatisfying sleep, distorted by the drafty windows and uncomfortable seats. Upon our 4:30 am arrival, we paraded groggily and seemingly aimlessly through the empty streets before I finally collapsed into the awaiting twin-sized bed. The next morning, I woke up in the Sahara Desert.

After a day of resting from the prior night’s journey in the blissful Saharan sunshine at the hostel’s pool, our guide, wrapped in his winter coat, informed the “crazy Americans who go to the pool during winter” that it was time to embark. In our room, we rustled through our backpacks, packing and repacking our already bare minimum weekend necessities, in order to lighten the load for ourselves, and our four-legged transportation into the dunes. Overflowing with excitement, we wrapped our headscarves “desert style” and mounted the massive humped camels to form a caravan. My weekend in Merzouga, a small town enveloped by towering tangerine sand dunes, and only a few miles from the Algerian border offered me the much needed time for reflection after an overflowing two months of travel, classes, and adjustment. With another ten hour bus ride at the summation of the weekend, I was left with ample time to compile the following list of desert reflections:


Without an international phone plan and data, I have become increasingly reliant on wifi. At every new cafe, restaurant, homestay, or Airbnb, my first task is to connect. In the camp where we spent the night in the desert, this search for internet connection was fruitless; however, it offered me a new kind of connection: one with myself and my friends and the local guides, only a few years apart from myself. I had no means of telling friends or family what I was doing or sending pictures; instead I spent the weekend in blissful disconnect from the outside world, giving me the freedom to absorb each moment for myself, and only myself. And throughout my entire weekend unplugged, I never once wished for a hotspot or Wifi cafe.


I came to Morocco to learn Arabic. I selected my program because it promised a language intensive environment that would propel my language abilities. However, in the past two months I have realized that the classroom is where I do the least of my language learning. Instead, it is moments like the night in the desert wherein our guides, who spoke no English or French, taught us words that were on no vocab list in my textbooks, that will never appear on my tests, but I will remember them forever. Like the Amazigh word for camel, which mimics the sound the animal makes, or the word for the canvas of stars that hung above us in the endless pitch-black sky: unadulterated by light pollution, or the word for the fire that we all huddled around after the hot Saharan sun turned to crisp desert night.


I am not a quiet person and I do not live a quiet life. Growing up in Baltimore and moving to Philly has made me accustomed to the sounds of busy streets outside my window: cars honking and music blaring and living in dorms with friends is always full of chatter and music and happy noises. Living in Morocco’s capital city, Rabat, is no different. The study lounges are always filled with exciting conversations of future or past travels, and my busy street has been under construction since my arrival. In my Moroccan home, my host family’s cooking or conversation provides comfortable background noise at all times. But at the head of the camel caravan, there is no opportunity for conversation. Behind me a single file line of friends offered comfortable company but little conversation, and ahead of me was nothing but sloping dunes and expanding blue skies. The silence of the desert gave me refreshing time to reflect and digest the whirlwind of the past few weeks in Morocco and an opportunity to appreciate one of the few silent moments in my life

Acceptance of a Peak Moment

Far too often we don’t realize that a moment will resonate with us so heavily and so lastingly, until the moment has passed and we are left with nothing but the memories, trying to cling to the feelings in that moment. I knew from the moment I woke up on Saturday morning that my time in the desert was fleeting and irreplaceable. From digging for fossils along the Algerian border, to sand boarding down the dunes, sitting under the stars, and watching the sun set and rise, I had the foresight to gratefully engorge myself in the moment and soak in every second before it became another snapshot in my memory. Being in such a surreal moment reminded me to really be in the moment instead of letting it slip through the cracks unappreciated. I left feeling fulfilled and grateful and absolutely in awe of the experience. Taking time to be in the moment, followed by gratifying reflection, is something I feel as though my life has been lacking until this moment–a moment wherein the scattered moments of existence pieced together to form a meaningful quilt of my life.

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