Desert Odyssey, 2008 style

8 minute read
930 Pyramids
Sibelius in the Sahara, or:
Don't drink the water (but do bring your iPod)


I just returned from a long trip to faraway lands. I skirted the Mediterranean, visiting Egypt, Morocco and Spain. I saw many sights— some sublime, others downright ugly and depressing—often in the same line of sight. From a little rock formation on the outskirts of Cairo, I had a panoramic view of the sun setting beyond the Giza Pyramids and the Sphinx. But what the movies and postcards don't show you is the veritable landfill of litter piled literally at the feet of the Pyramids. Plastic bottles and containers, broken glass, rusty hulks, toilet paper, food wrappers, newspapers, dog droppings, horse droppings, camel droppings...

It would not be untruthful to say that the pyramids— one of the world's priceless and most significant monuments— are a shithole. Yet despite the awful smells emanating from some of the lesser tombs around the pyramids, despite the aggressive peddlers and the throngs of tourists, one can still feel the history, the creepy beauty, the awesome spiritual magnetism of this most enduring great achievement of mankind.

Another contrast came in the form of food. Avoiding tourist-priced restaurants and risking the street vendors, I bought a few falafel-and-vegetable pitas for one Egyptian Pound (about 20 cents) each. I also bought a few oranges for about three cents each. (Yes, this is in 2008!) Then I walked to the Temple of Luxor and enjoyed my dinner while watching the sun set beyond the rows of sphinxes and ancient columns. It was one of the best meals I've ever had, and it cost me less than a dollar. The falafel was salty and spicy, moist, with just the right degree of oiliness. The pita bread was wholesome and warm. The cucumbers were crispy cool, and fresh. The oranges were sweet and juicy.

As I left the temple site, I gave the rest of my oranges to beggar children who follow tourists around.

A dangerous choice in touristland

I'll contrast this meal with one of the least satisfying meals I had on the trip. That was in a grand and busy Spanish piazza near the Cathedral of Granada. My travel companions were very hungry and just chose the first place they found— a very dangerous choice in touristland. I never would have frequented such an establishment on my own, but I didn't want to hold up the group, and the truth is, I too was hungry.

We sat and were served by a slick haired and scruffy bearded man who obviously understood English but refused to speak anything but Spanish in his native land. After a frustrating exchange and many hassles and misunderstandings, I was served a rubbery and tasteless pizza, some unidentifiable seafood tapas, and a quarter-full glass of sour wine. The bill came to about 15 Euros per person (more than $20). The meal didn't taste good, but it was edible. With hungry people all over the world, I will not complain.

You get what you pay for (sometimes)

Extreme contrasts in price are often justified. Often they are not. In Luxor, I stayed at a hostel that cost $4 per night. There was no running hot water, and when I lifted the lid in the toilet, I was greeted by a floating brown turd that refused to get flushed. The mattress was hard, the pillows smelly, the blankets scratchy. But the staff was very kind, spoke good English, offered good local advice, provided free Internet, and sold bottles of water for 50 cents apiece.

At a $100 per night hotel in Fez, Morocco, the room was beautifully decorated, the staff was dressed in immaculate uniforms, and the spa (with a chilly pool) provided a place to relax. There was Internet access, but it cost 50 Dirhams (about $5) per hour. Water bottles went for a $3 apiece. A flat-screen TV beamed 20 channels, including the BBC and CNN. But the air conditioning didn't work. After five phone calls to the front desk, someone finally arrived. After flipping the AC unit on and off a few times, he shrugged and said, "Inshallah, tomorrow it will work." Inshallah— “God willing”— the answer to everything.

I continued to insist, however. (At $100, I should at least have a cool place to rest at night.) At last, a technician came over and duct-taped some copper wiring together thereby fixing the problem.

An ageless Biblical sight, and then…

The two greatest contrasting extremes I’ve ever experienced occurred within a few hours of each other. The place was Ait Ben Hadoud, Morocco, a Berber hilltop village restored by UNESCO. The mud-constructed Kasbahs are probably in better shape than they have ever been, and the streets are very clean— some of the cleanest in Morocco. In all, the place feels slightly fake, but it more than makes up for it in beauty and olden Sahara atmosphere. From the crest of this hilltop village the view is gorgeous. A lush valley of palm groves and vegetable fields meets the dry cliffs and the jagged Atlas Mountains in the distance. A weak stream glitters in the sunlight. Mud and straw constructions crowd together on the edge of the farms, where the locals— including children and the elderly— tend to their plants and livestock. The scene felt Biblical in its universality, and its agelessness resonated deep within my soul.

A dry desert wind blew in my face as I took it all in. I could have been standing there a thousand years ago and seen the same scenery, the same activity, the same people. Feeling at one with humanity and the gentle side of its history, I felt very much at peace. I hiked down to the Auberge, and after a fine Moroccan meal of mint tea, couscous, various tagines, and watermelon for desert, I went to bed.

A sudden crisis

I was jolted awake from sleep by sharp pains in my belly. I rushed to the bathroom, where I unleashed the diarrhea of my life. Gallons of it. Pure liquid. For the next two days, anything I tried to consume went the same way. I couldn't even retain a sip of water for more than a few minutes. Naturally, I quickly became dehydrated, which led to headaches, tunnel vision and a high fever. If I sat in the shade, goosebumps would cover my skin and I would shiver uncontrollably. If I went in the sunshine, I felt as if my blood was bubbling and boiling inside my veins.

It didn't help that on that day we were scheduled to traverse the Atlas Mountains in a crowded bus with no AC, on a treacherous windy road with rocky cliffs on either end. The views of red chasms and snow-capped peaks overlooking the Sahara desert were spectacular— if only I felt well enough to open my eyes for a few seconds.

My one constant companion

Although I mostly traveled alone, for certain stretches of the trip I was joined by various friends— old and new (some I met while traveling). But I did have one constant companion: music. The last contrast I wish to write about here is auditory. This experience is only possible with the technology of the past decade— with the ability to carry 1,000 hours’ worth of music in my pocket— and the feature of having a machine randomly select a song from my musical library. Putting my digital music player on “shuffle,” I was surprised with the most incongruous pairings of music and scenery imaginable. Who would have thought to play Sibelius in the middle of the Sahara, Hip Hop on the banks of the Nile, Osvaldo Golijov's Ayre on the shores of the Mediterranean, Mozart in Casablanca's great mosque, Bob Dylan in a museum surrounded by statues and grand paintings, or G.F. Handel in the gardens of the Alhambra?

This isn't to say that I was constantly plugged into my headphones. I only did so when I felt homesick or craved some music. I only listened to a few songs at a time. I tried to listen the local music wherever I went, and was always fascinated.

Visions of an icy Scandinavian cabin

But I will never forget the day when I was feeling sick and miserable in the middle of the sun baked Sahara, climbing onto a bus, and wishing I was anywhere but there, with the dizzying dry mountains blurry in the dusty windows, and the smoke and rumbling engine heat and the smell of sweat and crowded with people. I plugged in my ear buds, and played the first piece of music that came on: the first movement of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, played by Gil Shaham.

Usually this music evokes Scandinavian forests, icy winds, delicate fjords and an austere bald Jean Sibelius in his log cabin, perhaps smoking a cigar and enjoying an evening brandy. But here I was, on the slopes of the Atlas Mountains, literally the edge of the world if the world ever had an edge. I was crouched in the back of a bus, inhaling unfiltered diesel exhaust, with the world's largest desert behind me, the temperature approaching 100 Fahrenheit, not a tree and nary a bush in sight, in a country where hardly anyone has ever heard of Sibelius or log cabins (or classical music, for that matter).

I could hardly get any farther away from Sibelius's snowy forest. And yet his music could hardly have been more fitting, more healing. The desolation of the violin concerto matched my feeling of f

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