Djanet is Magic

Hello from late May in Algiers. We have just six weeks left in Algeria and we’re dealing with it. Adam, by having FOMO and not wanting to miss out on a thing. He stayed out until 5am the other night, like he’s some sort of 22-year-old living in Spain or something. Me, by putting in the orders for the things I want to bring with me – a Berber carved chest and plenty of the blue and gray striped fabric used as drapes on the balcony doors of many Algiers apartments. Work has been busy as usual, but we also went on vacation to France a few weeks ago, and I hope to blog about that soon. France never gets old.

And like every other American I know, I’m grappling with the practically debilitating sadness and incomprehensible absurdity that we allow anyone to quickly buy a semi-assault weapon and use it gun down entire rooms full of people — in a church, in a grocery store, at a concert, in an elementary school classroom — every week.

But, I came here today (and in truth many times in the past few months to start this post, but I’ve been so busy!) because I wanted to blog about my favorite vacation in the past few years. It wasn’t to France. It wasn’t to Spain. It wasn’t to Tanzania. It was right here in our own backyard to a magical area of the Algerian Sahara called Djanet. In mid-November, 2021, we organized a group of 10 colleagues and friends, including two little boys, to fly to the desert and camp for three nights. Traveling in Algeria (for diplomats) ain’t easy as we need to get written approval from the Algerian government each time we leave the capital. It can be very difficult to provide a detailed itinerary for places about which there is not much written on the Internet. But lately, we hire a tour company that does all the planning for us, and we just wait for government approval to travel.

I felt very good about our travel party which included our head of security at the Embassy, who is a former Marine and a Crossfit world champion; a military pilot; a nurse who can outrun and outswim anyone and whom never leaves home without snacks and a first-aid kit; a brawny Algerian professional handball player; and my Algerian friend who can charm the pants of a cactus, in four languages. What I’m saying is, if you were traveling to an unknown desert, this is the group who could probably get you out of any number of scrapes. Adam and I questioned our own utility in this travel party and were assured that we’d provide the entertainment.

So, we flew the several hours from Algiers to Djanet, disembarked into that dry desert air, and were driven immediately into the desert where we had lunch on a low table next to some cool rocks and our guides wrapped our heads with colorful scarves. We were then driven into the Djanet market, which is pretty modest, but has a certain African market charm. I regret not buying hand-forged knives, and I wish I would have bought even more Tuareg jewelry.

After that little brush with civilization, back into the desert we went, this time deeper because while the plan was to set up camp in our lunch spot, our guides noticed we were all checking our phones. They wanted to take us off the grid for the true desert camping getaway, and off we went. They set up our tents for us, we had some fun with a photo shoot, and soon it was time for them to start the fire for our dinner.

It was a cozy scene, us with full bellies, sipping foamy tea, lounging on mattresses in the wide-open desert, listening to the guitar and vocal stylings of local musicians over the crackling fire.

But some of the worst nights of sleep of my life have been in a tent, so I popped a few Nyquils and prayed that I wouldn’t be kidnapped in my drugged slumber and taken to Libya, which is really just right there. (Our Avengers-style travel group put my mind at ease). I woke up to bright sun, plenty of bitter instant coffee, and bread toasted on the dying embers of the camp fire.

You might wonder what does one do all day on a tour in the desert wilderness? The days were actually quite full. (As was the case in Jordan’s Wadi Rum). We all piled into a few Jeeps, our driver put CD containing exactly one song into the player, and we drove through the gorgeous desert landscape to peep various rock formations and cave paintings, some of which are 10,000 years old, if you can even imagine that.

On that second night, we slept at the base of some dunes, which we hiked up at sunset. They were spectacular.

One thing I’ve collected a lot of in my three years in Algeria is bad bathroom stories. Perhaps I was a little concerned about where I’d use the toilet in the vast desert wilderness, but I have to say, going to the bathroom outside in the most pristine sand you can imagine, behind a protective rock is not at all unpleasant. There was one dusk bathroom trip where I got totally turned around couldn’t find our campsite, despite being very close. (It was under a berm and I was essentially walking right on top of it. Hard to explain and trippy to experience. Got me thinking all about different planes and about the sound insulating qualities of sand.)

On day three in the desert, we drove to a nomadic village. It’s my understanding that while the people who live there change locations, the tribe’s elder stays put in the stone house and outcroppings, which were the only man-made structures around for miles. After donating some health and medical supplies to the group, buying a few of their hand handwoven and sewn purses, we sat in the hut of the elder to pay our respects. Then, we hiked through a palm grove and came upon a pristine pool of water. Now, it’s probably not ecologically smart for humans to swim in this oasis and I hate to think we caused harm to such a marvel of nature, but swimming in the Sahara desert is one of my best memories of Algeria, full stop.

Our final night we camped by some rugged rocks and our guides, who were the picture of hospitality every step of the way, prepared a lamb, cooked in the sand. More music, red wine (which we brought ourselves), and lots of laughs, and it was off to bed. I stuck my head out of the tent around 3am to lay on my back and take in the stars, which only became vivid a few hours before sunrise. Seeing all the constellations and hearing not a single sound (well maybe a few snores and one friend throwing up after the sand lamb didn’t sit well) and all I could think is “This is magic!”

Our final day, we took in perhaps the most famous rock paintings in all of Algeria – The Crying Cows, though to depict a major famine (so bad it made the cows cry) from 7,000 or 8,000 years ago.

This is also around the time when I realized the dried-out gourds blowing around like desert tumbleweeds would make really cool objet d’art for my home and a nice reminder of this serene four days in the desert. I got nervous a few days later that the rattling seeds inside were actually like insect or something, so i put them in the freezer for a few days, hoping to not set off the next locust plague in Algiers.

And with that, we were off to the airport to fly up from the Sahara Desert to our Mediterranean home of Algiers. The trip was perfect. Relaxing, serene, off-the-grid, slightly active, culturally interesting, gorgeous, and with a fun-loving group who got on very well.

To magical Djanet,

Emily

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