In May of 2003, I went on a three day camel trek through the Sahara desert in southeastern Morocco. My camel was called Jimi Hendrix—my tour guide said the camel was wild and hard to contain, and because I was the shortest, I had the honor of riding him and being in the front of the caravan. It was over 110 degrees in the shade and there was sand in my ears, and my eyes burned from the heat. We had a limited supply of water that we shared with the camels and it was carried in large plastic bottles. It tasted like plastic-flavored, hot tea.
We were about four kilometers from the Algerian border and the only thing around besides the sand dunes were the dung beetles – about the size of half a baseball, cut right down the middle. Dung beetles get their name by using camel dung as their playground, rolling it into balls and then in completely straight lines to safety in order to feast and lay eggs in them.
On the last night of our trip we camped under the stars and our generous hosts offered fresh coffee they made on the fire. Having been without coffee for 3 days, I happily accepted, even though the sun had already set. I slept under the North African sky that night on the mat that also served as my camel saddle. About 30 flies buzzed around my face as I tried to sleep and dung beetles waddled all around the camp. I had no desire for poo residue from their little feet to get all over me while I slept, so one of my friends tried to ease my mind by using some extra blankets to make a sort of protective wall around me about six inches tall. I hoped that it was steep enough for the little turtle-like bugs to lose their footing quickly on the incline.
The ancient Egyptians believed that dung beetles were sacred and associated them with Khepri, the god of the rising sun. The dung beetles use polarization patterns of the moonlight to chart their path, and in the same way they roll their balls around the desert, the ancient Egyptians believed that Khepri renewed the sun each day by rolling it over and above the horizon. They drew its hieroglyphic sign on the ceiling of royal tombs to signify rebirth in the form of the sunrise.
It was one of those nights I’m not sure I slept at all. Because the idea of them crawling on me while I slept was terrifying and because of my strong, evening cup of coffee, I arose at about 3am and took a walk around the dunes. As I was sitting atop the highest orange sand dune I could find, I could see for miles across the Sahara desert. Soon the adrenaline wore off and fatigue set in. I was somewhat frustrated with myself for not enjoying and appreciating this hot and exhausting event as much as I should. I closed my eyes to enjoy the silence and the coolness of the roaring wind.
Seemingly without a sound, an old Bedouin man and a small boy came walking up the dune. They both looked at me and seemed to absorb the absurdity of my presence, then sat down a few feet to my right. I said the Arabic greeting I had learned, but it was apparently the wrong and offensive dialect of Arabic to his people, because the old man scowled and stood up to leave. I apologized in French – Je suis désolé and tried again with Bonjour. The little boy looked at me and back at the old man with eyebrows raised – no comprehension. I had used up my only French words quickly. Maybe the old man understood, he glared into the horizon and looked thoughtful for a moment, sitting back down slowly. I attempted to communicate with exaggerated hand motions and smiles. At the least, they were both amused. I showed them a photograph of my family I had brought with me. The old man took out a miniature polaroid picture of a family from the Asian continent. He wanted to trade and I agreed, as you do when an old Bedouin is clutching your family picture greedily. Merci – thank you for this tiny picture of someone else’s family.
It felt peaceful sitting on top of that orange dune with the old Bedouin and little boy. After we exchanged photographs, we just sat there for a few minutes. As they stood up and walked away, the bright ball of the sun came rolling over and above the horizon. And it felt sacred.