The Intrepid Starling
Chapter 2: A Sweet Desert
In one fell swoop, Sam is seven feet taller.
First the camel kneels, then pushes up onto its hind legs and finally stands solid on all fours. The swift motion feels unsteady, like the sensation of stepping onto a boat in reverse.
Once up top, a different sensation settles in—a blend of connection and awe. Something about sitting up here, high amidst the dunes, gives her a sense of belonging to one long caravan marching across centuries. She doesn’t wish for a life traversing the desert the way she dreamed of an alternate existence in Fes. This is different. This is an incredulous reverence for the bygone travelers who once crossed this terrain. It is an admiring wonder born from a brief glimpse into their lives.
The heat isn’t too cruel in these few hours before sunset. The wind, on the other hand, is ruthless. It picks up grains of sand and tosses them relentlessly into everyone’s eyes and ears. It is one aspect of the journey Sam didn’t expect. Sand everywhere underfoot, yes, but not sand constantly flung about.
Every few minutes the wind backs off and she takes out her camera to capture the landscape. From the viewfinder, the scene mirrors all the pictures she’s seen of the Sahara. She understands now that photos fall far short in portraying its vastness—its raw, all-encompassing blankness. It’s the sky that can’t be caught, the higher-than-anywhere sky. It’s the dunes, too. Prolific piles of sand fill every inch of horizon. The immensity of it—the eternal stretching of sand to meet sky—can’t be held by the camera’s lens.
“Samantha, please use both hands here!” Youssef calls from the front of the line where he’s on foot leading the camels. He is walking backwards to observe each rider descend a steep hill, holding his hands together in prayer for their safety and imploring them to be wise. She is grateful for the warning when her camel descends the slope in plodding, plunging steps.
Three days into this four-day tour, her guide remains ever vigilant and patient. Being the only solo traveler in the group, Sam has spent hours in the front seat next to him learning the country’s history, exchanging family stories, swapping jokes and even coaxing him to sing a few traditional songs.
A flurry of gray hairs is the only sign to betray his age as the father of three teenage boys. He moves with the same agility his sons might, walking barefoot here and totally oblivious to the blowing sand.
He’s been a guide for two decades and hopes for one more. “I’ll do this work as long as my body gives me permission,” he told her. “It is the best of both worlds. All the world comes to me and I stay in my own beautiful little world.”
After two hours of riding, they reach camp. Semi-permanent tents form a rectangle around a sandy pathway. Each one is a roomy, box-like structure with a rug for the door and sand for the floor. They are furnished with two items—a bed and a light bulb.
Sam sets her bag on the end of the bed and falls back onto the firm mattress. She looks around at the small space she’ll call home for the night.
Home. The word is both precious and puzzling to her.
Ever since she was a little girl cutting photos out of her mom’s Better Homes and Gardens, she has loved the idea of nesting, of making a space cozy and unique. She pores over design blogs like teenage boys devour comic books. Each house tour is a discovery of another way of life, a glimpse into another person’s adventure.
She even created her own website to showcase friends’ homes. She loved the time spent with them doing shoots together. She finally learned the backstory behind so many of their photographs and mementoes. It was a way to peek through a small window into their view of the world.
With her recent months filled with moving and travel planning, Sam put the website on a back shelf. She hopes she can bring it out again during her travels.
“What makes home?” she whispers to the four walls. It is a question she hopes to ask the people she meets. It is a question she hopes to answer for herself.
She hears the camp’s cook calling everyone to the dining area. “Tea is ready. Come for tea.” Everyone gathers in the largest tent where cushioned benches line the walls behind large dining tables.
Sam is joined by Adrian and Marie, the Spanish-German couple who took seats just behind hers in the tour van. Along with Youssef, the four of them played a long game of Never Have I Ever. Going around in a circle, each person shared one thing he’d never done and if one of the others had done it, that person earned a point. Adrian had beaten everyone two-to-one. The skydiving, paragliding, bungee jumping Spaniard had done it all.
There was nothing boastful as he recalled each adventure. He freely admitted his natural clumsiness and subsequent apprehension when checking items off of his daredevil bucket list. “It’s so scary—like riding a bull,” he told them. “But you just have to grab life by the horns, correct?”
“The list is really just his excuse to travel,” Marie chimed in, gently nudging her boyfriend of five years. “He’s using it to cure his fernweh. He’s homesick for places he doesn’t even know.”
“Yes, I love this word,” he agreed. “I am terribly infected by this ‘far-sickness,’ as Marie calls it. The aim is not to cure it, though, my love,” he’d explained, kissing her on the cheek.
“I’m glad it’s not contagious,” Youssef countered. “Give me my desert every day and I’m a happy man.”
“Oh, yes. Dessert every day would make anyone happy,” Adrian patted Youssef’s shoulder while the guide just shook his head and smiled.
After the short tea break in camp everyone sets off to form a new caravan, this time on foot. The sun is sinking and they want to reach the top of a tall dune to watch it disappear.
The sides are steep, so they opt to climb upwards along a thin ridge. Sam leads the way and instantly sympathizes with her camel’s uneven footing. With every step the ground falls away in miniature avalanches on either side. There is no choice but to clamber up in sinking, slipping steps. Squeals and shrieks from her fellow hikers are the soundtrack to this quad-busting workout. Everyone is stumbling, sliding and giggling their way to the top.
At the summit, the view and the wind take their breath away. There is a king-of-the-mountain feeling up here with a birds-eye view of the camp, camels and guides. It is dizzying to stand in the never-ending flow of air and look out on an endless ocean of orange waves. Sand flies off the peak hitting their legs like a million microscopic bullets. Everyone snaps their phones furiously to catch a memory of the disappearing sun before it settles into its sandy blankets.
Adrian brings up the end of the line carrying a snowboard borrowed from the camp. It’s time to check one more item off his bucket list. Marie and Sam cheer for him as he cautiously stands up and begins to slide down the slope. He builds up speed and sand sprays out behind him. Then, just before the end of the hill, the board catches a small shrub and he flips over, sliding on his back the rest of the way.
Everyone gasps from above and waits for him to get up.
“I have enough sand in my pants to build a castle!” he yells up to them. Applause and laughter fill the desert dusk. It’s time to stumble back to the dining hall and congratulate him over dunes of couscous.
After a dinner of warm food and travel stories, Sam ventures out into the darkness for a moment of solitude. There’s a small, rounded hill near camp and she climbs it with little effort.
Just as she reaches the top, she is startled by a voice. “Samantha the Stargazer!” Youssef stands to greet her. “The front seat, as always,” he motions to a wide blanket. She laughs and thanks him as they both sit down.
The wind has died down and left a cool breeze to match the glittering air. The dark dome above is splattered with light. Twinkling dots stud every inch of blackness. Smears of muffled glow reach across the sky where clusters of stars are smudged together.
“I can see why you never want to leave this place,” Sam says, hugging her legs and rocking back for a view straight up.
“It’s enough for me,” he affirms, “but it wasn’t always so.” Sam straightens up to listen. “I used to have a case of fernweh, just like Adrian, just like you. Then Myriam came along, and my sons, and my small world became enough. There is no more longing for everything distant or for everything to be different. I feel full here. All of this fills me up,” he motions out to the dark hills.
After a space of silence, Youssef chuckles softly and Sam knows from their time together that he’s remembering a story.
“Tell me,” she encourages, and he does.
“I am thinking about one night when I was sitting here, just as we are, with a retired astrology professor. She looked to the sky and asked me, ‘Youssef, do you know what I love most about the stars? They are for everyone. We all get to have the stars. If it's under the stars where we make our wishes, aren’t we lucky that they are everywhere?’ I think about her telling me this every time I come here. I love this idea.”
“It’s wonderful,” Sam nods while gazing heavenward.
Suddenly they hear calls from the camp. Another guide is looking for Youssef. “You’ll bring the blanket when you come back?” he asks and then bounds down the hill into darkness.
Sam makes a small pillow from her blue scarf and lies down. Every edge of her periphery is filled with darkness and sparkle. It has been a long time since she’s seen a night sky so bright. It reminds her of a favorite memory with her dad, a camping trip they took together just before she left for college.
On their last night, after they put out the fire, they leaned back in their chairs to take in the stars just as she is doing now.
After several moments, her father had suddenly broken the silence. “Remember, Sam, it’s all within you.” When she looked over at him, he was staring upward with glistening eyes. “Adventure and stillness, luxury and simplicity, strength and vulnerability, foolishness and sensibility, fear and courage. It’s all there—a whole spectrum within you. You have capacity for it all. We all do. Don’t be afraid to wander out to the edge and get to know the extremes. You will find an excellent view of yourself out there.
She thought of his words many times over the years and they hold particular resonance for her now. She senses a blend of anxiety and excitement for the months ahead. She understands Youssef and Adrian both—the homebody and the wanderer—because she has been in their shoes. She sees her own plan for the paradox it is—traveling the world in order to find the meaning of home seems an unlikely strategy. Still, she hopes it will work.
She thinks of Youssef’s story. Yes, the stars are for everyone and she has more than enough to wish on tonight. “Please let this extreme experiment in exploration work,” she whispers. “Please let me discover everything I’m meant to find.”