At the beginning and the end of things

I am in Ain Sefra now. Here is where the Atlas Mountains end and the Grand Erg Occidental, the Sahara’s great western sea of sand, begins. Or it is where the mountains begin and the sand sea ends. A traveler decides his parameters based on the place he most wants to be. That is his perogative. So, for me, this is the beginning of the desert I’ve been waiting to see.

Algeria does not ease into desert; the desert happens all at once. As my bus curved into Ain Sefra on its way south from Tlemcen, there it was. A stretch of pinkish dunes rising over the town. The dunes lay upon the landscape with such lightness you could imagine them floating away in an instant. I wouldn’t be surprised if I woke up in the morning and they were gone.

I walked through town and found it was market day. The weekly souk has a delicious African chaos about it with piles of fresh peas, baby turnips, and blue-black eggplants. Young men with mirrored sunglasses try to sell cassette tapes of American hip-hop by playing them so loud the music warbles and squeaks. As I travel south, tea will replace coffee as the drink of choice in the cafes, so I will have to drink my fill before I go too far.

On the edge of the dunes, there are pine trees among the palms. The smell reminds me of home.