Friday, May 15, 2009


As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have been meaning to write something about a particular leg of our road trip through the south. The longer I wait to do so, however, the more I wonder what it was, exactly, that I wanted to say about this piece of the trip, and why I wanted to say it.

The leg of the trip in question was the road from Foum Zguid to Zagora on a Saturday morning. Whereas we had expected about 60 kilometers of the same kind of road that we’d traversed from Tata to Foum Zguid before our coffee break that morning, we encountered instead a 130 kilometer piste, an unpaved road. But not only was it unpaved; it was a road really only meant for (and accessible to) a land rover or other vehicle with a four-wheel drive. We didn’t have such a vehicle, and so drove through riverbeds, over large boulders, pools of soft sand, and other obstacles in our little black four-door Chevy. Not expecting 130 kilometers, we hadn’t filled up our half-empty tank of gas – and not expecting to need five hours for this trajectory, we hadn’t brought any extra food or water.

Looking back, and even at the time, this trip was an adventure. A beautiful adventure, at that: how often do you get to travel through absolutely desolate desert landscape, surrounded by nothing but wild nature, and truly be in the middle of that vastness and feel that sense of solitude? In those five hours, we saw no more than two human beings. I have never been further into the middle of nowhere than during that trip, and have never quite thought about the beauty and power of the natural world (and the smallness of us as humans) as acutely as I did on that road.

Looking back, it was also a huge risk to take, of course. Not only was our car not built to deal with this kind of hardship; more fundamentally, we embarked on that trajectory without having prepared, and not knowing what to expect – a dangerous combination. We neither knew how much better or worse the road was going to get, nor how much longer it was going to be. There was no cell-phone reception, and neither human beings nor dwellings were anywhere in sight. What if we hit an insurmountable obstacle, 100 kilometers in? What if the car broke down, or what if we ran out of gas before we ran out of road? There would be no one to help us, no one to call, and nowhere to go.

These thoughts briefly got to me somewhere at what must have been the middle of our trip. We were driving over a patch of particularly large boulders at 2 kilometers per hour, when a wave of panic hit me. I am always a pessimist, in the sense that I always (and sometimes unnecessarily) prepare myself for the worst-case scenario. But in doing so, I always devise a B plan, an algorithm or two of solutions and ways to deal. I am used to calming myself by discovering that there is a way to solve any problem – but this was the first time I truly didn’t see a solution to the worst-case scenario. It halted my breath and made the world close in on me for a minute as I thought I was realizing there was no way out for us.

It didn’t last, and my spirits quickly lifted in a mood of pragmatism. A stony haze washed over me as we kept going, and the manual labor of pulling the car out of patches of sand that we encountered after those boulders helped keep my mind off panic. But it was the reminder of that brief moment of absolute desperation that caused me such incredible relief when we finally reached the paved road on the outskirts of Zagora. Its famous sign, “Tombouctou 52 jours” took on new meaning.

After arrival in Zagora, I expected the combination of the adventure’s majesty, the awareness of the immensity of the risk we had taken, and the relief of having safely arrived to result in an unprecedented and euphoric feeling of relief. I think it’s mostly this expectation of big emotions that made me want to write this post. I expected a new take on life, a sense of having been given a new chance to rededicate myself, to be reminded of what’s important and what is not worth worrying about.

But the truth is that those feelings didn’t really wash over me in the way I had expected or perhaps hoped. I did feel immense relief after arrival, but not the euphoric invincible sense of weightlessness that I always imagined one might feel at moments like these. Instead, I found myself almost a little hung over, haunted by the thought of the risk we’d taken – uncomfortably looking over my shoulder as though I’d narrowly escaped something that was now lurking in the shadows behind me. I slept restlessly that night, constantly waking up from vague and instantly forgotten dreams.

And soon enough, all those mundane worries of a day-to-day life came back, and my expectation of re-dedication seemed lost forever. Two weeks later, the experience seems so small, my panic so ridiculous, that I’m even wondering why I wanted to write about this in the first place. I think I’m a little disappointed at the lack of emotional weight that this event proved to carry, in the end – or disappointed in myself, for not having been as touched by this as I felt was appropriate. When in fact, of course, I should be grateful that our situation was not so dangerous as to leave a permanent emotional imprint.

But maybe – just maybe – it did leave a trace. I notice that I’ve been more grateful for things lately, and often hear myself whispering “hamdulillah” under my breath. I’m more optimistic than I know myself to be, and I seem to be more content with the way things are. I am more inclined these days to remind myself of how much I have to be thankful for (and it is a lot) – and this seems to alleviate my worries about an uncertain future.

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