Thanks to Michael Singer for his blog contribution this week to Cargo, and watch for his desert continuation in the near future. -M
Several Tuareg, the nomads of the Sahara Desert and our guides for this trip, meet us in traditional desert clothes.
My initial experience of the Sahara was one of surrender. Bit by bit, I found myself surrendering that which I had automatically and unconsciously accepted as my way of life. I watched others do the same. You leave your life behind and just see what happens. And you begin to become more conscious of these things you have accepted as familiar as you watch them disappear, one by one.
We arrive late at night in Tamanrasset, Algeria. Several Tuareg, the nomads of the Sahara Desert and our guides for this trip, meet us in traditional desert clothes. They are wearing sandal-length gowns called gandoras and long coiled head scarves, their cheches (pronounced “sheshes”) . There is the typical confusion over bags and passports. Most of the group is loaded onto a huge bus, the Tuareg piling bags high atop the roof. We continue to wait because there is a problem. Our friend Anina’s bag has not arrived. In fact, it would never arrive. For some people, this could be an absolute tragedy, especially in such a foreign place. Making it worse, Anina was intending to stay in the Sahara for several weeks after the rest of us returned. Her bag contained not just her personal items, but many homeopathic remedies she would be sharing with the Tuareg. From her demeanor, Anina seemed barely troubled. I’m sure she was not happy, but she clearly accepted that she would continue on without her bag and be just fine. She surrendered.
We drive to a campsite through a town like nothing I have ever seen before. It is all brown. There is very little difference between buildings, all of which are constructed from the red-brown sand and dirt of the Sahara. Essentially, mud. They are all just square, mud buildings. I am amused to see many Yellow Peugeot sedan taxicabs. They remind me of the Peugeot sedan I drove for ten years.
We arrive at our camp spot. As would be the procedure for the next few weeks, the Tuareg lay down a circle of carpets and mats for us to sit and lay on. First thing we give up: chairs. There is a long discussion in the circle, with Marianne, my wife’s closest friend, leading. We are along for a “marriage caravan” that will culminate with the wedding of Marianne and Adem, her Tuareg partner. Second thing I give up: English. I have to assume that what is essential for me to know, either Marianne or Sabina will translate for me from Swiss German. What I do not realize until much later is that I am the only true Sahara novice in the group. This is at least the second trip for all the others except one, and he has ridden a camel elsewhere in his life. What this means is that Marianne does not need to give the lot of logistical directions that usually begin every trip. Not knowing any better, I simply surrender to not knowing how things will work. I’d just figure it out as we went along.
Next item of surrender: toilet.
The next morning, some of our group have on their gandoras and cheches. Unlike most tourist groups that travel the Sahara, we will not be wearing Western clothes. Today we will travel to the marketplace to purchase our outfits. Some of the veterans have brought theirs along from prior trips. I am beginning to formulate some basic operational questions around which shoes to wear and where to sit or stand, but I surrender having to do it right and decide to select what will work best for my comfort, regardless of what others are doing or what looks alright. This will be a good general procedure to follow for the entire trip.
Now in my red gandora and indigo cheche . Western clothing surrendered, I deplane in Agadez, Niger at the expansive “international” airport. My passport and visa are checked three times by three different customs or police officials within the span of about 15 feet, and my bags are thoroughly searched. We complain about delays for airport security. It’s laughable compared to the scrutiny one has to withstand in third world countries.
Most of the group will be staying at a local hotel. Sabina and I will stay at Marianne’s place, a center she has built in the town. Again, all the structures are brown. There is little differentiation between any buildings, and all of the businesses are odd anyway: a disco, a place to make phone calls, one more thing here.. Little stands are lined up side by side in the heat selling old pop bottles re-filled with some odd opaque fluid I later learn is moped fuel..There is litter everywhere. Goats. A little girl turns away and squats.
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.
Marianne’s place is a collection of small mud structures with two important features: a toilet and a shower. We lay on carpets and jet lag overtakes me. I am so happy to just lay there. After a while, I smell food. One of the Tuareg brings out a large metal bowl of pasta, sauce and meat, with five large spoons. We sit in a circle and all of us share, eating from the same bowl. This is yet another form of surrender, and one that I like. I am accustomed to eating my own portion from my own plate. I have been taught to be suspicious of sharing food with strangers. I am happy to let all of this go. I feel a special type of privilege that the Tuareg have invited us to join them. There is a silent connection among the co-diners as we plow through the pasta. I’m pretty sure that meat is goat, though.
That night we sleep under the stars on the roof of Marianne’s place. I cannot believe the unending noise. Not to mention the mosquitoes. I sleep very little, and I awake at dawn to loudspeakers blaring that semi-tonal Islamic chanting I have only heard before in movies or on the Discovery channel. When it ends I notice that the air is mild. Better enjoy these few hours before the unrelenting sun takes over.
The marketplace in Agadez is another story altogether. Stationary wheelbarrows are lined up, filled with purple potatoes and other vegetables and fruit I cannot recognize. The booths of the merchants are made of long sticks holding up tubing under a ragged cloth covering. I see a labyrinth of tiny booths selling cloth, sandals, carvings, bags, and jewelry, beautiful and inexpensive: some of it elegant, some of it common, all a flurry of colors for the eyes. And we move quickly, with a new Tuareg friend, Mmete, as our guide. Everyone recognizes Westerners, gandora and cheche notwithstanding. 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. The word Ano is understood but has no meaning. Mmete takes us to the place of the finest fabric.
A large dark man presides over an iridescence of ornate golden patterns and delicate solids stacked floor to ceiling lining all the walls of this tiny booth. He sits on the floor in a sea of flowing white cloaks and asks exorbitant prices. Any money exchanged with customers disappears quickly underneath him. Mmete wonders about the cost of a downy soft, sky blue cheche. A quiet grunt and click issues from the merchant in Tamashek, the native Tuareg language. Mmete throws the cheche down with disgust, knowing he will soon be buying it for much less. He is an excellent bargainer, and soon a deal is struck for less than half the actual asking price amid wide smiles and indecipherable Tamashek well wishes. . A beautiful, ornate men’s purse has caught my eye. Worn around the neck and hanging at the belly, it is a rectangular shape with strips of turquoise and red dyed leather and long leather fringe. Marianne can see I am absolutely taken by this and she finds a way to buy it for me without revealing to the vendor just how much I want it. As is her generous way, she makes this a gift to me.
Then we begin our journey by four-wheel drive: a caravan of five Toyota Land Cruisers. My wife Sabina and I do not ride together. I would prefer having her to literally lean up against, but I am also conscious that I do not want to figuratively lean up to her any more than the minimum usage of her Sahara veteran’s expertise. The truth is that she has not been here for over ten years herself, so she has her own figuring out to do. And she has her duties ministering to the participants’ homeopathic medical needs, which begin to reveal themselves immediately. One man is already having a severe gastro-intestinal reaction to the desert. The homeopathic approach is that he is going through a process, a cleansing.
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.
Within moments the car I am riding in has a flat tire. This is how I learn of the Tuareg’s expertise with their vehicles. I am used to such events being minor tragedies. Here, we exit the car and within five minutes the replacement tire has been put on. No wheel covers. Nothing fancy. Screw in the lug nuts. On we go. The cars are stripped to their basics. They are all ancient, white Toyota Land Cruisers with ratty seat covers and hand-cranked windows. Certainly no air conditioning. One more luxury abandoned that would help right now. Not a chance. 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. I’m also finding that once I release these previous necessities, it turns out I require them far less than I had thought.