February 15, 2010

One Hell of a Sandstorm

Sahara camel ride

Since I was the youngest of our tour group in Tunisia, which was thirty people strong consisting of mostly English retirees, I suppose it's not surprising that I was only one of three to opt in to the camel ride excursion on Tuesday afternoon in Douz, all of us solo travelers and therefore somehow braver than the others.

Even though I'd taken a camel ride once before in Morocco, I didn't know how brave I'd have to be for this one.

Setting off on the camel was easier this time than last, perhaps because I didn't have Michelle behind me tipping to one side, and, with arms wrapped around my waist, dragging me down with her. My camel this time was smaller than the last, but lifted herself up on her hind legs and then front with considerably less effort and vocalizations. Being only at the gateway to the Sahara Desert, the terrain ahead looked relatively flat, with a light-colored sand that not only matched the fur of my camel, but also the dress in which I'd been outfitted by our tour guide Kamel. He'd insisted against the standard prison-issue black-and-white striped garb, but rather be dressed "like a princess."

After an uneventful saunter into the Sahara, past dunes not taller than me, we felt just a few raindrops before the wind kicked up and nearly blew that garb off of me.

By the time we reached the turnaround point, about a half hour into our ride, it was clear: we were in one hell of a sandstorm.

I'd experienced one before, at the riad in Morocco, which passed fleetingly but sent chairs, drinks, and t-shirts into the pool and darkened the skies as it passed. This one was more like an oncoming snowstorm, with persistent low visibility, screeching wind, and freezing temperatures that seemed to have dropped instantaneously. And it didn't just pass. It got worse as proceeded, our guide on foot and three of us atop camels, thethered together by turquoise rope strung through pierced noses.

The camels didn't resist the worsening conditions, but rather trudged on dutifully, facing the brunt of the wind without a sound. I squeezed my eyes chosed so tihgtly, keeping any new sand out but trapping all existing sand in, despite the tears running down my face. I'd slipped on my sunglasses despite the darkening hour and the setting sun, but it was no use: sand had insinuated itself into eyes, ears, nose and teeth, settling between the lips and beneath the contact lenses.

I was convinced I'd never be able to open my eyes again.

To be honest, I was disappointed to be missing the storm, as much as I could hear and feel it. I wanted to see how our guide was faring, whether other camels had succumbed to the sand, or whether our tour mates traveling en cal├Ęche had been blown over, horses run off.

I managed to get the left eye open a few times, for only a second at a time, but enough to realize we'd turned around and were on our way back. I remembered Aileen, our tour director, telling us to stay on the camel so we could see "what's beyond the dunes," and I wondered whether the sandstorm was a meteorological anomaly that occurred past a certain point, til I realized that the conditions were just as bad now at our starting point, too. (Turns out sandstorms are actually not that commonplace there, so we got quite a treat on our ride.)

Still, exhilaration forced my lips open into a smile from behind my orange headdress, letting more sand into mouth. My eyes were squinted into slits as I dismounted and tried to find the change to tip our guide 2DT, and I ran to take my contacts out at the counter as tears enveloped my face.

I think the others were glad they'd opted out of the camel ride, upon hearing our story, but I was ever so much more glad I'd gone. There's nothing like a little near-blindness to make an everyday camel ride so much more memorable.

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