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Grounded: Finding Terra Firma in Algeria's Sahara Desert

I live on a pile of sand, compacted and coated in layers of asphalt and cement, decorated with palm trees, flowers, and aquamarine swimming pools. My view spans the length of Downtown Dubai's urban cityscape – a feat of human ingenuity. There are play areas made of colorful rubber, steel, and plastic in the shapes animals and other things that would make any kid squeal with delight and gym equipment to keep adults fit for the ages. I get produce delivered to my door along with most anything else I can think of. I can nearly snap my fingers and have my needs taken care of. It's a nice place and a life I never expected to afford as a woman living on her own.

Juxtapose this: I grew up on dirt and soil covered in grass and dandelions. We gazed on a stunning view of God's creativity – Mount Baker and the Cascade Mountain Range in Northwest Washington State. My play spaces included a sandbox that my dad and uncle built and filled with sand from the coast of the Pacific Ocean; a massive old maple tree in the backyard where we could climb and swing from the branches; and a lengthy neighborhood driveway where my lavender-colored banana-seat bicycle and I came to know every crack and pothole. We pulled some of our produce from our own garden, often found eggs and milk with one of the farmers' families from church – most often at what is now Appel Farms where, if we were lucky, Mrs. Appel would be making donuts, too. I am still nostalgic for the simple neighborly environment I was raised in. For me, it was a nearly perfect childhood.

It's important to observe the opposition of these domains to understand why my trip to Algeria's Sahara Desert was an impactful disruption in my current overly-busy city life. In December 2022, I boarded a plane from Dubai to Algiers with three other people – Ben, Elaine, and Mansour (each who I'd travelled with before) – on a trip to explore one of the more challenging countries to visit due to a rigorous visa process.

View from a rooftop across the Kasbah in Algiers to the Atlantic Ocean.
View from a rooftop across the Kasbah in Algiers to the Atlantic Ocean.

Our first excursion took us to the Kasbah, the old citadel of Algiers, where we explored 17-18th century architecture built on a hill that was originally civilized from the 10th century. Though some of the old buildings are crumbling by age and earthquakes in places, we visited other curious shops and homes where we climbed up stairwells to breathtaking rooftop views, and had dinner in the atrium of a family home. We learned how locals took an advantage of their familiarity with the maze of closely and carefully constructed Kasbah buildings to confuse and dart around French soldiers by bounding across rooftops and navigating the walls and stairways. It reminded me of the One Jump Ahead scene out of Aladdin.

The rest of the Mediterranean Coast of Algeria will remain for another visit because the intent of our trip was to spend a week in the Sahara Desert. After our whirlwind tour of the Kasbah and led by our astute guide, Khalil, we cleaned up at an airport hotel and took a late flight from Algiers to Djanet, in the southeastern part of Algeria, where we began our camping expedition. A team of Tuareg men welcomed us from the airport and dropped us in the desert where our tents were already pitched so we could sleep straight away and wake up with the sun in the morning. Our reconnection to the Earth started here.

Woman with scarf haphazardly over her head smiling on the top of the Tin Merzouga sand dune in Algeria's Tadrart. The view overlooks a sandy sea filled with dramatic sandstone formations at sunset.
Sitting atop Tin Merzouga sand dune in the Tadrart, Algeria.

A grounding wire is one that is connected to the Earth for the sole purpose of safely absorbing an energy overload. It gives electricity a safe place to discharge. I think humans can use this concept to take the mental overloading energy of urban life and physically connect it back into the Earth so that it helps maintain a healthier mental burden while absorbing some different pollens, microbes, and dust. A 2017 Preventative Medicine Report supports this by concluding that gardening is beneficial for health.

"Digging in the dirt really does lift your spirits. The digging stirs up microbes in the soil. Inhaling these microbes can stimulate serotonin production, which can make you feel relaxed and happier."

Our days on this trip were simple: We woke up, repacked our sleeping bags and tents, ate a light breakfast with coffee or tea. Then we walked ahead of our vehicles with Khalil for an hour or so until they collected us. Mohammed, an expert on all things in the region, showed us special formations in the stones and petroglyphs left as stories or way markers for other traveller. We stopped for a hot lunch and a nap in the afternoon and then carried on with our walks and rides in the same way until evening. Then we would stop to set up camp again, enjoy a tea and dried fruit and nuts while talking around a newly lit campfire. A hot dinner would be served that always started with borek (Algerian samosa) and soup. We carried on with conversations in three (or more) languages and our Tuareg guides would bring out their guitars and start singing songs around the fire until late. I fell asleep to those songs several times.

Although we travelled together before the Algeria trip, I returned to Dubai with a fonder appreciation for my three traveling companions. We had time to listen to the silence, and the wind, and each other, and talk, learn, and create new memories together. Being disconnected from our digital communication channels meant our time was dedicated to ourselves and each other. I hope our future encourages more of this "grounding" and intentionality with the Earth and those around us.

Woman standing in a beam of light from a camp between towering sandstone pillars at night under a sea of stars in Algeria's Tadrart.
Standing amidst sandstone pillars and amongst the stars in Algeria's Tadrart.

"Reconnect with nature. Though most people live in cities these days, human beings are made to be part of the natural world. We should return to it often to recharge our batteries."

One of my most poignant memories of the trip happened when Mansour recited the Maghreb (sunset) call to prayer from the top of the Tin Merzouga sand dune. Connecting with the Earth's geography, he directed his body toward Makkah to repeat the time-tested prayer to Allah, while signaling the close of one day and the start of another for anyone who could hear; offering a sense of peaceful closure to the day for me while audibly bringing his spiritual faith to the patch of ground surrounding him.

The Magreb call to prayer atop the Tin Merzouga sand dune in The Magreb call to prayer atop the Tin Merzouga sand dune in the Tadrart Park of Algeria's Sahara Desert.
The Magreb call to prayer atop the Tin Merzouga sand dune.

Looking back over the last decade or two, it seems like those extra-memorable travel moments are when I'm connected to terra firma – that solid ground of dirt, ice, sand, stone, trees, and flowers – like traversing through sandstone in Petra, Jordan; feeling true cold and smell-ness-less in between ice formations in Antarctica; tramping in the footsteps (or poo) of gorillas in Uganda; or taking macro photos of hermit crabs on the beach in Fiji.

Feet relaxing at sunset on Tin Merzouga sand dune in the Tadrart Park in Algeria's Sahara Desert.
Feet relaxing on Tin Merzouga sand dune in the Tadrart Park.

Take some time in the next week to seek out and feel the goodness of our Earth in between your fingers and toes, smell the scent of plants and soil, or listen to the wind in treetops. Release your stress to the ground and top up your energy from nature. I think you'll feel better for it.

On our last late afternoon in Djanet, we had some rest time. Instead of writing, napping, or reading, I found a quiet place to stand with my back to a tower of sandstone, anchored my hands on the rock to feel the texture and temperature while being still. I looked out across the landscape and watched the clouds overhead. It was the best way to end the trip – letting go of life's anxieties and topping up my energy from fresh air and gritting stones; all while reflecting on the importance of connecting with God's Creation of the Earth.


Grounded: Finding Terra Firma in Algeria's Sahara Desert – This trip to Algeria in November-December 2022 and was booked through Trekkup Dubai. This blog is not sponsored.

© 2022-2023 Andrea Rip | The Earth Ink. All rights reserved.

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