What am I doing here? A Sahara Desert Creative Retreat

Vago Damitio. What am I doing here?

Moroccan Sahara nearabouts Rissani
25 OCT 2012

Sometimes you just have to get away and sometimes it’s the Sahara sky on a range roverhardest thing to do in the world.  As you may have noticed in my last few columns, I’ve been not so quietly losing my mind in Sefrou. The problem isn’t so much Sefrou as me and what it takes for me to be happy. Solitude, some artistic friends, and a bit of time to think – hard to find in a one restaurant town that doesn’t even have an art gallery or museum. Hard to find when you’re pounding the keyboards fifteen hours a day and taking care of a 15-month old baby, hard to find when you’re packed like a sardine in a concrete block apartment can neighborhood….shit…

patterns in a Moroccan carpetSo, you can imagine how happy I was to receive an invitation from my friend Karen Hadfield to come join a group of writers, artists, and creative types at her beautiful artshouse retreat in the tiny Sahara Berber oasis-village of Tissardmine. Karen and her business partner Youssef have built a serene artists environment where I was able to join with friends both new and old for a weekend of creativity, thoughtful reflection, light adventures, and cultural immersion into the world of the Sahara.

A grand-taxi picked up myself and my fellow artistic Sefroui expat friend Jess Stevens for the long drive through the Atlas Mountains and into the isolated splendor of the Sahara desert near the Algerian border. The giant mass of Erg Chabbi in the near distance looming like a giant red wave of sand ready to swallow us and any cares we may have brought with us. The journey itself was worthy of far more description than I am providing here and as the landscape changed so did the clothing and people we passed on the road with the skin growing darker and the clothes growing brighter until finally in the town of al-Rissani, we were surrounded by brightly clad ‘blue’ men come fresh from the solitude of the desert and women fully covered in black challahs adorned with rainbows of irridescent thread embroidered in strategic patterns. Invisible, they were not and the allure and beauty of green eyes looking out from behind the veil must be felt to be known.

Mandala at Cafe TissardmineThrough the desert with the mass of Erg Chabbi growing as we hurdled towards the vanishing point and finally at a seemingly random spot on the road the taxi pulled over to make a kidnap victims exchange and after hugs and hellos, we climbed into Karen’s land rover and bounced and boggled across roads that only Youssef was able to recognize as such until finally we arrived at Cafe Tissardmine to meet with  our friends and co-retreaters.

Our gathering took place initially in the warm comfort of Cafe Tissardmine’s grand salon amidst a comfortable blend of nomad and Australian aboriginal artwork.  The two cultures blend together seamlessly and one can intuitively understand why the partnership between Karen the Aussie and Youssef the Berber works so well. The cultures are coming from the same place. Karen told us that upon first seeing the aboriginal artwork, the Berbers in Tissardmine immediately understood the art and ‘got it’ with no explanation necessary.

My nomad tent in the saharaKaren showed us to our Berber tents and much to my surprise and delight, I found them to be outfitted with modern comfort and luxury in mind. These tents have western toilets, clean sheets,  and fluffy white towels while still having the feel and trappings of the Saharaoui tribes who made them. On the night of our arrival we were treated to thunder, bright flashes of lightning, and a deluge of water to feed the desert’s thirst. In the morning, a wide river had appeared next to Tissardmine and with the sun shining through scattered clouds – the day was perfect for an excursion to the top of the world.

the desert is a perfect place for reflectionRiding on top of the range rover through a lake and river studded sand land we were faced with Rorschach images of clouds and dunes – a meeting of sand and water that was unexpected and magnificent.  We trudged upwards through the loose grains looking to a lone Berber on top who watched us struggle past camel bones and false ridges until finally we reached the tops and found the Berber’s footsteps disappearing further into the desert with no sign of him beyond those and the memory of his having been there.

Days spent like this while we crafted mandalas, shared ideas, and slept in the afternoon heat in order to find the energy for evenings around the fire and communal dinners of Berber fare in various nooks and crannies of Cafe Tissardmine.  Jess counted 17 shooting stars in an hour after the rest of us had gone to our tents and while I was there I found dozens of fossils lying on the sand where the wind had exposed them after millions of years. On the morning of our departure, the river had dried to a trickle. The donkeys in the night huffed their goodbyes and a final tearful session of dream writing before once again meeting the taxi-man Hassan at the hostage exchange point and hurtling from the desert back into the blank anonymity of the Middle Atlas Mountains.

To arrange a stay or find more information about the retreats at Cafe Tissarmine you can visit or email Karen directly at [email protected]

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Damitio  (@vagodamitio) is the Editor-in-Chief for Vagobond. Life is good. You can also find him on Google+ and at Facebook