Riding camels across pale beaches under the North African sun.
Speeding past chaparral mountains, dusty and tan, I gaze out the window, daydreaming. The summer sun beats into the bus, already a touch too warm from scant air conditioning. Sweaty thighs stick to leather seats as lips dry out. A parched feeling settles in the back of my throat.
I am nineteen in the summer of 2019, and we are en route to Tangier-Ibn Battuta International Airport after spending six days in Morocco. The bus weaves through paths carved into the mountainside, kicking up dust. Northern Africa is like a handmade clay bowl, dry and rough but exquisitely handcrafted.
Into the distance, I notice a collection of bushes coated in sand and dirt. The tan mounds vaguely camouflage into the surroundings, and my mind drifts back to the camels.
We arrive in Tangier from Chefchaouen for a whole seven minutes before being packed into another bus, like loads of cargo. After another sticky ride, the bus unloads us at the edge of a cliff overlooking miles of coastal beaches and a spanning ocean. My eyes narrow at the water reflecting the bright African sun and realize a faint line of crashing waves.
To the right, the water is slightly darker, more cobalt. To the left, it’s lighter, almost cyan. This is the tip of Northern Africa, where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean. I continue to gaze where the two seas meet, smashing into one another yet barely mixing. Are those waves hugging friends or sparring enemies?
We’re led down a flight of weathered steps to a soft sandy beach. Ahead fifteen camels lounge, their huge mounds of tan fur blending into the warm sand. It’s like a movie scene; camels lying in a row, pale sand whipping in the breeze while the crystal water sparkles under the sun. My friends immediately whip out their phones, snapping pictures and giggling in excitement.
I stand stone-still, gripping my thumb to the palm of my hand. It’s my version of a mental picture and a reminder to pause. My father always told me, “Your eyes are the best camera. They capture feeling and love like a phone never will.” The stagnant pictures sitting in my camera roll only capture the 2-D version of this experience, unable to remember the salt which wafts through my nose and settles on my tongue. Or the soft grumble of the ocean as it reunites with the shore.
We carefully approach the camels. They’re surprisingly gentle for such large animals, barely lifting their heads as we near. Maybe it’s the heat. If I can feel the peaking sun darken the nape of my neck, I can’t imagine them with their dense fur coats.
I wince when the guides slap them with bamboo sticks. It’s not painful to them but still leaves a sour taste in my mouth. As the camels stand, and the taste along with my breath is gone. Fifteen tanned creatures, pure muscle, at least eight or nine feet tall, tower over us. It’s a picture of power.
The guide points me to the camel at the back of the line, and he’s smaller than the rest by a few inches. Standing next to him, I reach where his neck elongates upwards from his body, gently stroking the coarse fur, hoping my touch will communicate a sense of trust. I suck in short, shallow breaths, scared to move too suddenly, though I’m not sure if it’s for the camel’s sake or my own.
The camel is yanked back to the floor, allowing me to mount him. Leaping from the ground, I swing one leg over and land firmly on the saddle. Within moments, I lurched forward, rocking back and forth like a seesaw as the camel re-rises, scrambling to grab the leather strap for balance.
The rough straps curve in my hands and warm, coarse hair brushes against my skin. Up here, I am liberated, shedding worry and stress, letting the pure bliss of this moment wash over me. I’ve ridden horses in the past, which now feels like child’s play.
As the camels march forward, their two-toe signature prints into the sand, leaving a trail. The navy pashmina tied around my neck, bought just days before, whips in the wind. Turquoise waves roar next to us, wrestling each other until one wins, and the other gently washes to the shore in defeat. A group of birds soar above, then dip and glide across the water, just inches away from its glittering surface. I let my eyes drift close for just a breath, feeling the sun crisp my cheeks and salty breeze tangle my hair, slowly riding along.
My trip to Morocco was full of beautiful, cherished moments, but I come back to this once often.
Yes, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I recognize that privilege, but that’s not what makes me return to this memory. It’s the life that saturates every scene of this moment – the purity and simplicity of this experience.
These moments are why I travel. Simple and beautiful. Impossible to recreate and unforgettable.