Secrets of the Sahara by Agnes Chew

Sitting in a small circle around the fire that evening, darkness fell all around us.

Beyond the glow of the fire, the endless sand dunes that extended outward in every direction fell asleep in the alluring shadows of the night. Above us, the scintillating stars in the infinite sky twinkled with divine secrets to which we were not privy. Someone in the group pointed out Mars in the starlight, and another, the Milky Way. We see what our eyes allow us to see; in the middle of the Sahara, your imagination takes rein and you find your wildest dreams taking flight.

Four snowy-white cats with features resembling that of leopards encircled us. I wondered if they were residents of the desert or nomads at heart, with an insatiable bout of wanderlust, not unlike myself. In the distance, the camels were sound asleep. I smiled at the thought of my intrepid camel with the jagged half-ear, that had hours before ventured with me into the heart of the Sahara.

There are countless ways in which the losses in our lives manifest themselves. Yet, there are also joys. For instance, the joy of hearing your sentiments being shared aloud by a Dominican traveller named Marcel, who had, at the sight of the sun setting over the undulating mountains of golden dust, exclaimed profusely in Spanish: “Gracias, muchas gracias, God, for creating this beauty, and for allowing me to be part of this beauty!”

Most of all, it is for me the joy of meeting like-minded wanderers on the road, with whom your paths cross ever so briefly, and yet, have the power to leave an indelible mark in the geography of your heart. In the desert, I met one such inspiring woman who caused me to tear while listening to her story by the fire. Her name was Teresa Cardenas.

A single, immigrant mother who had painstakingly brought up her daughter to have her child leave home at the age of 20, Teresa decided that she had to – for the first time – live not for others but for herself. Her lifelong dream was to travel the world. To embark on this journey, she sold her material possessions, abandoned all forms of convention and kept her zeal shining in the paths she has chosen to walk, touching the lives of those she has met, mine included. Despite having suffered multiple humiliations, Teresa remained stoic in the pursuit of her dream. She shared with me her stories from the road thus far, and the exotic destinations she planned to go after leaving Morocco: Kenya, Egypt and subsequently, wherever else her heart led her.

Her face lit not only by the light of the fire, she effused, “Mija, I urge you to go travel. Travel as far and as widely as you can. Do it when you’re young. When you reach my age, you’ll realise how the muscles start to ache and the bones, they hurt from walking too much. Travel is the best education anyone could ever have. You learn so much about people, about different cultures and about yourself. This is something no one and no university can ever teach you.” Smiling to herself, she said in a whisper: “And I want to do that now – to travel the world. Just imagine all the stories I can tell my grandchildren one day.”

That night, with neither electricity nor a proper toilet, I lay awake on the sand-crusted floorboard of my tent as the faces of all the individuals I have met in Morocco, who have each moved me so deeply in their own ways, floated in my mind. As the stifling heat gave way to a frigid cold, I drifted off to an intermittent sleep, wondering what new adventures awaited me when I awoke.


Agnes Chew is a writer, traveller, and change-maker at heart. Her writing has been published in literary journals and thought publications based in the US, UK, and Singapore. In the in-between hours, she enjoys writing poetry and prose (mostly in English and sometimes in German) at