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My upper thighs were aching. We were over an hour in riding on camels, and after smacking my chapped lips, it was clear I was in desperate need of some hydration. Strapped in by harnesses along the side of Wirira, I knew my 1-litre Sidi Ali bottles were not going to be able to quench my thirst any time soon. Neither was I going to risk dropping anything into the sand right about now. It would be gone forever.
“Despacito!” my new Spanish friend exclaimed, trying to gain control of the long-legged dromedary giving him a lift. The rest of us who could hear him laughed because yup, the song was pretty popular at that time.
“Despacito!” we all yelled back.
The Berber men that trudged along beside us seemed amused, their bare feet falling deeper in the sand with each step. It was my first time meeting Berbers.
I was barely a week into what would turn out to be a two-month volunteering experience in Morocco. I travelled there all alone, and was staying in a small town in Casablanca that housed only locals, meaning I stood out with every step I took. But I had also been staying with people who travelled to Casa for the same reasons — albeit none spoke English as their native tongue.
The bunch of us took a 15-hour journey cramped in a tiny minivan with Moroccan guides to tick something off every traveller’s bucket list: the famed Sahara Desert.
Getting down from my camel Wirira was a total pain. But saying bye to him also hurt all the same. After snapping the ultimate pic together, the millennial in me got too excited (even as I was in depths of the desert far away from civilization) and dropped my phone in the sand. It didn’t matter though, we were off the camels now and I almost immediately found it.
Fast-forward to finally getting the sustenance I needed in the form of tagine, I grabbed the closest friends I had made and brought them out of the hut to lay directly under the stars. After taking a quick glance at my phone, I saw that it was stained from god knows what – assuming the dry atmosphere and sand was the cause. I could barely make out my background, or even use my phone for that matter, and I tried rubbing the dirt away but it wouldn’t budge – so I just put it away.
That’s when we met Zane. Dressed in a white tunic that fell over his knees, this middle-aged man had a crimson red headscarf wrapped around his head so tightly in order to protect him from sandstorms a dozen. His eyes immediately caught my attention – the softest blue-green hue, and I was convinced he kept stories behind them.
How interesting, I thought to myself. Born in the desert, having only ever lived in the desert, and multilingual as a result of meeting travellers from all corners of the globe. He was gentle and kind, offering us a large blanket that would help shelter us from lying down on camel dung that had found home in the sand. We were now privy to his world.
If you know me, you’d know I’m weak and get body aches almost all the time. While my Turkish friend was giving us the rundown on life in Istanbul, I continuously complained that my neck and shoulders were aching. Seconds later, I felt unfamiliar movement on my shoulders. Someone was touching my back, someone not in my field of vision. I froze.
“Let me massage you,” Zane said from behind me, where he had been sitting for… well, I guess, the entire time. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated his concern but no one was going to touch me without my consent. So I kindly declined his offer. The next thing I knew, after being lost in conversation with everyone, I lost sight of my phone (this also tends to happen a lot if you know me).
I turned, only to see Zane with his hands tightly gripped around the new iPhone I had gotten only a month back, licking my phone screen like it was the first time he was having a lollipop. While his tongue was gliding all over the screen, I froze for the second time.
I’m sure we all have been known to use the little lick-and-wipe trick when you see a stain but damn, let me tell you, this was different. Everyone that was huddled on the carpet just stared at him as he was going at it. They were mostly confused as to why he was even licking my phone in the first place. I vividly remember him turning my phone over on his tunic and giving it one final wipe.
Despite my heart crying a little at a sight that I knew I could never forget, once he gave me back my phone, I saw that it really was as good as new. Zane didn’t say a word. I looked into his eyes and saw only kindness as he cracked a smile that sent the creases branching from his eyes into overdrive. All I could suffice was a forced one.
None of us ever spoke of it again.
Thinking about it now as I write this piece, Zane was a true friend. I mean, find someone who would lick off a desert sand stain on your phone. With no water involved. I’m not sure if there was some otherworldly connection involved though because a week later, I was robbed in broad daylight in Casablanca… and forcefully separated from that brand new iPhone. But hey, that’s a story for another day.
Photos by the author