Don’t miss the first part of Michael Singer’s experiences in the Sahara. -M
Several Tuareg, the nomads of the Sahara Desert and our guides for this trip, meet us in traditional desert clothes.
You ride a camel barefoot. It’s much easier than riding a horse. The camel rests on its haunches, and you climb into a stiff leather saddle cushioned with thick blankets and balance your hand on a three-pronged horn that protrudes in front of you majestically like antlers. Your legs cross at the ankles, planted firmly in the back of the camel’s neck. A Tuareg, a nomadic tribe living throughout North Africa, coerces the camel to rise, and you create a balance by digging in your feet. When you want to go faster, you tap your foot. Sometimes it’s fun to press hard, like you’re flooring the accelerator of a car. Pull the rope that is looped through a ring in the camel’s nose right to go right, left to go left, up to stop. That was all the instruction I received. It was almost all I would need.
Technically they are dromedaries, not camels, as they have just one hump. They look like camels to me. In the desert, the differentiation seems irrelevant. I could hear some men in our group insistent on showing off their unimportant knowledge that only two-humped desert beasts are called camels, as if they were as different as horses from giraffes. It’s more like the difference between breeds of dogs.
The Tuareg carefully select our camels. They have been observing us. They sense the elements of our characters —our personalities and beings. Somehow they see with ease that we believe we have been adequately hiding, such as the fact that I am pretty uncertain about this whole business of riding a camel. Others are squawking in fear, and this informs the Tuareg’s choice for them. I am someone who naturally has trouble figuring out new tasks that require instruction. I can freeze up, and I try not to show my inner struggle. They do so naturally because it is their way of life, but they also do this in service to take good care of us.
There seem to be two different tiers of Tuareg. There are those who have migrated into the cities, working and interacting with the rest of the world. The others are the true nomads who travel the desert with their camels and goats, rarely, if ever, venturing into the city. Unlike other desert cultures where the women cover their faces, it is the Tuareg men whose cheche (pronounced “shesh”) is drawn across the face. The cheche is adjustable and can cover the nose and mouth so that only dark eyes show through. As he becomes more comfortable around you, a Tuareg will allow more of his face to be revealed. But at first, he will bring his food and water underneath his cheche in front of his neck to protect his modesty. I walked over near a group of Tuareg squatting around their fire to grab something out of my bag, and they scurried to bring their cheches up over their mouths when I approached. It was as if I had caught them naked. I had the strong urge to tell them not to worry, that I was a friend. I knew not to try and just looked down to allow them to feel their privacy uninvaded.
Our camel guides are an entirely different type of Tuareg from those who have driven and cooked for us so far, and they bring to us an entirely different energy. Miden is clearly the leader, a gentle expert. He has one of those faces that is fixed in a perpetual smile, his mouth and many-directional teeth a continuous laugh. Everything makes him laugh. And scream. You never heard a shriek like this, a higheeeeeee yowl of utter delight. The travel time from his soul to what we hear is instantaneous. No matter how I am feeling, I am lifted up into the air every time I hear that scream.
One thing is common to all the Tuareg: you can feel their hearts.
What I do not realize until much later is that I am the only true Sahara novice in the group.
They all want to shake hands, and we are instructed not to take anyone’s hand. If we do, we are in for an unending sales pitch.
Our caravan begins. My camel, At-Lah, is clearly the best camel of the entire group. He holds his head high with visible pride. The stronger I plant my feet onto his neck, the more he responds. I can tell he likes that. At-Lah is not immediately thrilled with me. He won’t take acacia seeds from my hand. He seems to suffer more than enjoy it when I scratch his neck. But we finally have our moment. The camels are totally infested with ticks. I hate them, but for At-Lah’s sake I pluck one just as it lands and begins to bore its way in and flick it away. After this, At-Lah eats from my hand. Perhaps I imagine it, but now when I scratch behind his ears, he seems to love it as much as my golden retriever does. When I ride now, there is a sense of mutual trust and respect between us. The ground feels firmer beneath us.
The initial wonderment of being atop a camel and figuring out how it all works is soon replaced by the realization that I am in a very different place. I look around and see that I am surrounded by a group of camels ridden by people in flowing gowns and turbans, as am I, in the midst of endless dirt, sand, huge boulders, small mountains, and an occasional higheeeee from Miden. The rhythm of riding is slow and melodic underneath the syrupy canopy of the Sahara heat. It is an ancient feeling.
The days are divided into segments. We awaken. We circle and drink tea and eat a simple breakfast of delicious bread that has been baked in the sand the evening before, adding perhaps some preserves or cheese. Sand, of course, is a vital part of every meal. I remember a time in my life when the tiniest bit of grit or sand in a bite full of food would ruin it entirely. Here, it’s like a condiment. We rest under the protection of an expertly-chosen acacia tree. The heat is pesky but endurable. The wind can be far worse, disconcerting and disorienting. Time under direct sun is limited to the bare minimum, except during the camel trekking. All day, our pace is unhurried. We pack up. We ride. We stop. We shai, a Tuareg tea ceremony in which green tea, mint, and sugar are poured three times in a long stream from high above into small glasses, frothing at the top. Then finally we rest. Lunch, rest, ride. Dinner around the fire. Three more delicious shots of shai. Circle after dinner for storytelling, recounting the adventures of the day or perhaps sharing a parable of a heroic Tuareg to make us think of how we might want to be more like them in our Western lives. Sleep under the stars.
Any money exchanged with customers disappears quickly underneath him.
As with everything I am letting go of, I can feel that each little convenience on which I can no longer rely brings me one layer closer to myself.
The heat is pesky but endurable. The wind can be far worse, disconcerting and disorienting. When we are stopped, we find comfort under the protective shade of a generous acacia tree. Time under direct sun is limited to the bare minimum, except during the camel trekking. All day, our pace is unhurried.
With each segment, I am feeling more peaceful. It is as if I am successively relaxing deeper into a new layer of myself each time. When you are looking so deeply at yourself from the inside, you forget that you haven’t seen your face for many days. Suddenly, it’s no longer important to make sure your face looks the way you want other people to see it. With less and less to focus on in my external world—choosing clothes, making sure I look good, deciding when or what to eat, all of my diversions—I am left to settle into my inner world. I like it there. I find a soothing peacefulness I’ve never before experienced. The world moves more slowly.
And the mild desert evenings. Seated on a high boulder alone, looking far, far out across the rocky sands and silhouettes under a purple sky. So soft. So thick. So silent. That may possibly have been the most wonderful sunset of my life.
Sunset is the only deadline in the desert.