Eating sand, sleeping with rats

(I’ve broken this post up into the actual days they occurred, in real life I had no time nor light with which to write in my journal between waking up in Sidi Driss and flying back home 3 days later… the next 3 days were crazy and sleepless- you’ll see!)

I awoke with a startle sometime in the middle of the night, sleeping out in the open courtyard at Sidi Driss, with the strange feeling someone is watching you. It was pitch black outside, but I could hear the sounds of the other guys sleeping around me. Listening a little closer, I heard the sound of someone whispering in Arabic. Then a few seconds of silence. More whispering. Straining to see in the dark, I sit up and try to discern where the sound is coming from. Then I see him, in our courtard on the opposite side from us. Standing in the dark, talking on his cell phone. He ended his conversation at some point, and it must have taken me another 30 minutes to go back to sleep as I was kind of alarmed at first. Also at some point I saw a shadowy figure walking around the perimeter of the top of the courtyard, knocking some sand and rocks down on us. Then it climbed down the wall and leaped down next to our beds… a mangy cat.

A couple hours later I awoke… still dark… and this time the wind has started to pick up and each gust brings a little bit of rain and sand down on us. I drag my bed back into the cave to stay dry.

We woke up in the morning and had coffee and bread, and some pretty dirty showers, although hot. A portugese tour group arrived at some point and paraded around the place taking pictures. We got in our car and started the drive toward Douze.

Camels CrossingSomewhere between Matmata and Douze we came out of the mountains into a massive plain where trees were scarce and sand was abundant. The further we drove, the more desolate the scenery became, and the weather conditions detoriorated. There’s not much to see once you get on this desert highway, but there were a few of these little roadside stands. I was pretty sure if we stopped for citronade during this sandstorm at Cafe Toureg, we would have been the only customers that day.

Camels actually crossing the road The driving conditions got so bad, it was nearly a whiteout (if you were driving in snow). Visibility was done to probably 50 feet when we nearly ran into this herd of wild camels crossing the road!

We got to Douze and it was still very windy, we got sandblasted whenever we stepped outside the car. I was thankful for the turban (shish) I got at El Jem for three dinar. Everyone (nearly) in Douze wore a turban, and we even saw several toureg tribesmen who were dressed in all black with big pointy shoes. We ate lunch at Habib’s and then split into 2 groups to distribute literature. Had some wonderful discussions with a large group of muslims who seemed very open about talking about religion in a very matter-of-fact and secular point of view.

Camel trekkingAt 5:00 we went to the camel tour office to start the tour. Wind had died down, but now seemed to be picking up again. We taxi’d to the starting place, at the edge of town and the beginning of the Sahara desert. Riding a camel was nothing like Lawrence of Arabia. It was quite uncomfortable actually. We rode directly on the camels back, just behind the hump, sitting on the blankets that we would use to make our beds with. Each camel carried a little bit of water and a little bit of food, and we could only assume the tent was set-up, stocked, and ready for us when we got there. Our 2 guides walked, leading our camels, for about 2 hours. I have no idea how they could find the camp site, as one dune looks like the next and once you get out from town you can’t see anything but sand and I couldn’t even tell which direction was which! Not to mention the sandstorm just continued to get worse and beyond that the sun had set by the time we reached the camp. The picture at the right is about half way out to our campsite, and the last good picture of our group before it was too dark for our disposible camera (the only camera we could really risk getting out during the sandstorm)

SandstormThe picture to the left is the best one of the camel trek… that’s me on the lead camel (photo taken by Cam), as the sun is setting and you can get a good sense for the conditions. Awesome photo. Anyhow, when the guides finally stopped us at the “camp” there was nothing to see. It was nearly dark and clearly no tent or anything to be seen. It had probably been several days or weeks even (we were like a month past tourist season) since anyone had been to the tent, and it was completely buried in sand. We started digging it out, and bailed sand for about 45 minutes while the guides tried to erect the tent. I thought surely any minute they were going to call the whole thing off and radio for 4x4s to come rescue us. It seemed like a dangerous condition, like a high camp on Everest except not that cold. I even had a moment of real panic when the sand in my eyes got the best of me… I couldn’t blink and it hurt to have them open or shut. I had to stick my eyes into a water bottle to wash them out.

These guides we had were something else. Not only did they get a fire started in the raging sandstorm, but the cooked cous cous over it for us (with plenty of sand in it!), and even spent the night outside! I was sure we were going to have to dig them out of a dune in the morning.

All the cooking utinsels were buried in the sand as was the lantern the guides couldn’t find. We ate the cous cous in the tent by the light of a cell phone, all eating out of the same pan, using a spoon that someone else had used not too long ago and certainly hadn’t been washed other than by a water bottle and a dirty hand in its lifetime.

Prior to this night, I would have said the night at Sidi Driss was the most “roughing it” experience I’d ever had (I’ve slept in a lot of tents in my days, too). This one beat that night, by at least double, maybe triple. We slept in the tent all huddled next to each other, with myself being the one chosen to lean against the windy side of the tent to keep the sand dunes from building up and collapsing that wall. And there was a big rat (maybe 18 inches long) in our tent that the guides weren’t too worried about.

At some point the wind died down and we ventured outside in the dark. What a beautiful, strange landscape at dark. The guides served us green tea, and we laid on our backs staring up at the most incredible starry sky about as far removed from civilization as I’ve ever been. We laid on our backs and sang songs of worship to our God and it was a really powerful moment of realizing the enormity of our God and the beauty of the world he created.

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