Men of Salt: Crossing the Sahara on the Caravan of White Goldby Michael Benanav
Barnes & Noble "Discover Great New Writers" Seasonal PickAn American's life-or-death adventure to the salt mines of the Sahara Desert See more details below
Barnes & Noble "Discover Great New Writers" Seasonal PickAn American's life-or-death adventure to the salt mines of the Sahara Desert
- Baker & Taylor, CATS
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Chapter SevenAs we ascended ridge after ridge of sand, my anticipation swelled, certain that from each crest the caravan would appear before us, marching in regimented rows across the undulating ivory earth. Upon spotting specks of brown in the distance, I felt my heart race, only for it to slow with disappointment when the "camels" proved to be nothing more than bushes. On and on we rode. My eyes grew tired from squinting, seeking a mass of motion within the perfect desert stillness. But I saw nothing. When we stopped for a break some eight hours after we'd left camp, I asked Walid where the caravan was. I figured enough time had passed to allow us to catch it. "They're going a different way," Walid said. "What?" "They are going the long way," he said, and drew a diagram in the sand that depicted the caravan's path as an arc, while we traveled in a straight line. "They need to pass places where there is enough food for all their camels. Since we only have three, we can graze where they can't, and can travel a more direct route." "But I'm here to travel with the caravan, not just in the same desert as it." "Don't worry," Walid said, without the slightest hint of apology. "We'll meet them up ahead at Foum el-Alba." I was torn by conflicting reactions to this news. Part of me was angry that my trusted guide, and now my friend, had changed the plan and was directly contradicting my wishes. But another part of me thought it was possible that though I believed I'd been perfectly clear about my desires, I might have been misinterpreted. And I knew based on Anselm's experience that I couldn't trust Alkoye to have properly conveyed any instructions to Walid. While I was disappointed, perhaps it was the result of misunderstandings. There was nothing that could be done about it at this point, so I chose to accept it, enjoy being with Walid and Baba, and look forward to our rendezvous at the well at Foum el Alba.
By the end of the day we had left the rolling ridges behind us. The earth had settled into an endless sheet of orange sand. In the evening, the pleasant breeze became a blustery squall, buffeting my body and hurling plumes of grit through the air. When we camped for the night, I laid my blanket on the lee side of a grassy bush, thinking only of taking shelter from the wind; I'd forgotten that windblown sand accumulates in precisely such calm spots. By morning, it had worked its way inside my blanket, my ears, my clothing, and coated every inch of my exposed skin like a well-floured loaf of dough. The gusts persisted for the next two days while we traversed terrain so changeless that we might have been walking on a treadmill for all the difference each mile made to our eyes. In the wind, the desert floor came alive; broad snakes of sand slithered swiftly over the ground in long, sinuous patterns. The sky hung low, aswirl with a hundred shades of gray. Rain fell one drop at a time, each drying before the next hit the ground, yet it provided enough moisture to fill the air with the scent unique to wet desert - the pungent breath of parched soil sighing with relief. For hours at a time we crossed zones so barren that not a single plant grew; not a single rock broke the earth's endless emptiness. It seemed like we'd entered a two-dimensional world, in which the flat orange plane of the ground met the flat gray plane of the sky at the flat, hard line of the horizon. The sky appeared more substantial than the earth, creating the illusion that the ground hovered above us and that we were treading upside down on air. We had entered the Tanezrouft, the ancient "desert within a desert" some four times the size of England. Known variously as the "Land of Thirst" and "Land of Terror," it is feared and respected by all who pass through it, a great dead zone that might have inspired the old adage, "One does not live in the desert. One crosses it." From here on, we'd see no nomad camps, no birds, no signs of animal life but for the rare beetle track. We traveled longer and longer hours, pushing through this comfortless land as fast as we could. With sand whipping through the air, I wrapped my turban around my head and over my face, covering my nose and mouth. With my sunglasses on, I was completely concealed in my helmet of cloth. Looking down at myself and over at Walid and Baba, our faces mysteriously swaddled, each of us dressed in dirty boubous filled with wind as we rode bizarre creatures through a mist of orange dust and occasionally passed creepy piles of camel bones, we could have been starring in a B-grade post-apocalyptic science fiction movie. Cutting through the storm with no possible refuge and nowhere to go but deeper into the Sahara, it dawned on me that this was the real thing, and I was doing it. I smiled beneath my turban, aware that I was starting to appreciate my flight with the Rukh. Out of nowhere, lyrics popped into my head. "Cosmic Charlie how do you do? Truckin' in style along the avenue. Dum de dum de doodeley doo. Go on home your mama's calling you." I ran through the entire Grateful Dead classic, fudging a few words here and there, then started again. And again. And again. The song stayed in my head for days, running as though the "repeat" button had been pressed in my brain. But I didn't mind -- after all, even low-budget films need a soundtrack and Lord knows I could have been cursed with something far worse.
When came upon a mass of camel tracks and my mind returned to the task at hand: finding the caravan. Walid declared that the footprints were left by the very camels we were seeking. They were partially filled with sand and looked less than fresh, though with the wind it was possible that they'd been formed only a few hours before.
I had no idea how Walid could tell that our caravan had made them, but if he was right, I thought, it was bad news. If they were now ahead of us, it meant that they had completed their long detour. And if that was true, they were making significantly better time than we were. Suddenly, it seemed like our chances of meeting them at Foum el-Alba were dashed. I wondered if we'd catch them at all before Taoudenni. With the speed at which they were obviously moving, it wasn't unreasonable to imagine that we'd arrive at the mines just as the caravan was about to return south -- or worse, after they already had.
I was furious -- at Walid, at Alkoye, but mostly at myself. Here I was, having taken myself into the middle of the Sahara the hard way, and I'd screwed up completely. I kicked myself for not urging Walid to return to where the caravan had been camped on the night we first passed it. I walked with a fast, angry pace, cursing myself and my idiocy. I envisioned returning home and having to tell people that I'd been so close to achieving my dream, and had blown it. I convinced myself that we'd never catch the caravan; that I had risked my life and forsaken all comfort and would have little to report on but some fool errand into the desert.
That night -- the third since we'd passed the caravan -- the clouds began to break, and my anger cleared along with them. Riding towards the tail of Cygnus the Swan, whose celestial body soared low in the heavens before us, I regained my emotional equilibrium. I decided to talk with Walid and, without blaming him for anything, explain how important it was that we catch the caravan -- and that I was willing to travel as long and as fast as we had to in order to do so.
We surged deep into the night. The moon, which had been obscured for the past few evenings, was now a day past full. It slid across the sky, ever higher, as we continued on. Exhausted from the day's physical strain and the internal abuse I'd heaped upon myself, my mind was a weary blank when we entered a field of dunes that rose abruptly from the flats. In the eerie moonlight, it looked as though we were wending our way among massive snowdrifts, the sheer lee sides of the dunes resembling glacial bergschrunds. It felt like we'd been transported to a place out of time, an ancient world of black and white before color was invented. Its pristine beauty seemed delicate, fragile, as if a sudden burst of noise could scatter the moonshadows and shatter the elegant, ice-like architecture.
We camped among the dunes. Awed by the otherworldly beauty that enveloped me, I forgot completely about my failed agenda; I brimmed with gratitude at being exactly where I was. So stirred, my weariness left me; I felt fresh again, as though I could travel many hours more. When I laid down, however, I fell asleep instantly.
We rose before the sun. As we were about to hit the non-existent trail, Walid pointed to some nebulous place in the distance and said, "The well is right over there." This was good news, since we had less than a tube of water remaining.
A pale, pre-dawn light bled across the sky, erasing the stars one by one. The silvery moon still shimmered above. We wove our way through a labyrinth of dunes, around their curling tails and up soft slopes to saddles between converging ridges, our feet plunging deep into the cool, loose sand. As the glow from the east intensified, the dunes blushed with color, like life returning to the pallid cheeks of a waking Snow White. Long shadows fell from sharp, serpentine spines, accentuating the hard angles and voluptuous curves that flowed into one another.
I expected us to stumble upon the well at any moment but wasn't worried when we didn't, since I'd learned that Walid's "right over there" could mean a couple of hours distant. But a couple hours later, we still weren't there. Walid looked puzzled, as though the trusty map in his head had a piece torn off of it. He thought we should've reached the well by now, and was confused that we hadn't. Maybe we were off course; maybe it was further than he'd predicted; he didn't know. For the first time, my confidence in him was shaken. Though Walid wasn't yet willing to concede that we were lost, the possibility loomed over us, unspoken, like a monster we hoped would go away if we ignored it. We all understood the potential consequences of being lost in the Sahara.
Walid handed me command of our camels and pointed in the general direction towards which he wanted me to head. He and Baba split up, climbing different dunes and walking along their ridges, scoping the vistas for a familiar sign. I imagined that one of them would soon shout and wave, indicating that they'd found the well. But they didn't.
I lead the camels along the base of the dunes while my companions scampered on the crests above. Minute after uncertain minute passed. My thoughts turned to our nearly depleted water tubes. We probably had enough to last us the rest of the day, but no more. Suddenly, everything changed: my concerns about finding the caravan evaporated in the face of the much greater problem of finding the well. We had no way of calling in help, and it was hardly likely that anyone would randomly happen to rescue us. I remembered tales I'd heard of lost desert travelers forced to kill their camels, squeeze the juices from their stomachs and drink their blood in an effort to buy themselves a few more days of life. Fending off visions of shriveling to death while the Saharan sun sucked all the moisture from my body, I tried to convince myself there was no need to panic until Walid did.
After about half an hour, Walid and Baba joined me again and paused for a minute to talk. Neither had seen anything recognizable; neither had any idea where we were. We were officially lost among the dunes. So, pursuing the only sensible course of action in one of the worst possible desert scenarios, we unloaded the camels and made a pot of tea.
When we'd finished the three rounds, Baba embarked on a scouting mission. He mounted his camel and shot off into the desert alone. I laid down with my turban over my face, protecting me from the now blazing sun. For a few minutes, I wished I'd had a GPS and the well's coordinates, but I quickly banished this heretical thought. Nomads never travel with technological aid; they had to work their way out of difficult situations with nothing but themselves to rely upon. It was one aspect of their lives that I'd wanted to experience first-hand, and I saw this as an opportunity to do so, if an extreme one. My curiosity about how they'd manage our escape from the dunes overpowered my desire for an easy way out. Neither agitated nor optimistic, I waited for Baba's return.
In fifteen minutes, he was back. He hadn't found the well itself, but said he'd spied the telltale tracks that led to it. Though there is no single trail that the caravans follow, their paths converge near wells, forming highways of trampled sand which eventually thin to invisibility the further one gets from the watering holes.
We packed up quickly and continued through the dunes, trying for a shortcut to the well now that we supposedly knew in which direction it lay. Since the caravans avoid traversing dunes at all costs due to the dangers of getting lost, the possibilities of injury to their animals, and the time it takes for long strings of camels to negotiate them, there were no tracks before us.
Cascading crescents of sand formed a magnificent maze. Frequently, we worked our way down an alley between towering, sculpted fins, only to dead end at a sheer, impassable wall. Forced to retrace our steps, we'd try another avenue, hunting for a navigable route. I felt like we were in a laboratory experiment, with humans instead of mice for subjects, and water instead of cheese as the prize at the end of the course. For over two hours we wandered through the dunes. I began to wonder whether Baba had, in fact, found the way, or if we were going ever further astray. Yet I was so entranced by the beguiling patterns formed by the sand -- a breathtaking synthesis of chaos and order blown by the wind into perfect aesthetic harmony -- that I cherished every moment we were among them, any worries about being lost diminished by the realization that if we were, it'd allow us to spend more time there.
At last we emerged from the mouth of a narrow, winding gully onto a broad open plain. A freeway paved by countless camel prints ran directly past us, so we got on and took it a few minutes north to our long-sought destination. The heaps of decomposing camel carcasses scattered around the well -- their bones bleached and brittle, their hides withered and hard -- underscored how fortunate we'd been to make it there.
It was nearly noon. The sun blasted from above, the sand scalded from below. We set up a blanket for shelter and crawled beneath it. We would wait to get water, Walid said, until the caravan arrived.
"The caravan?!" I said, stunned. If the tracks we'd passed the day before were theirs, they should be long past us by now.
"Didn't you see them as we were coming through the dunes?" Walid asked.
"See them?" I wanted to say, "Everything I've thought might be a camel for the past three days has either been a bush or a rock, so I've given up on seeing the caravan until it's right in front of my eyes." But all I said was, "No, I saw nothing."
"Well, they're coming," Walid maintained, pointing in the direction whence we'd arrived. "Give them half an hour."
I couldn't believe it. I checked my elation, though, knowing by this time that until we were with the caravan, we weren't with the caravan.
While we waited, Baba walked among the bales of grasses cached by Taoudenni-bound caravans so their camels would have fodder on their southbound return. He snatched a handful from one after another so our camels could snack, and carried a sheaf back to our shelter and made some repairs to his cargo pads. Though I wasn't sure if this unapproved appropriation counted as stealing, it seemed in line with the nomad ethic of sharing, and he took so little from each pile as to hardly deplete any one stash. When the camels finished eating, they stood motionless, heads high, facing straight into the sun. Though they do this to minimize the amount of direct sunlight on the bulk of their bodies, it looks as though they're receiving silent signals from outer space.
Sure enough, in half an hour, a dark stream of camels poured over the ridge to the south. Two of the azalai broke ranks and trotted ahead to meet us. The greetings were ardent and long, and when they were over the five us filled inner tubes and poured some water for the camels. Before we finished the caravan, seventy-five camels strong, was upon us. They were loaded with food sacks, ropes, goatskin buckets, inner tubes and many bundles of grasses -- a few of which they dropped about a hundred yards from the well before marching on. The two azalai we'd hauled water with hurriedly left to join their convoy, while we loaded our camels and set out after them. A deep sense of relief swept through me.
The camels were strung in three rows that marched side by side, as though in a military parade. One azalai rode at the front of each train, one at the back. We hung toward the rear, and Walid bantered with the camel drivers, exchanging news. I instantly understood why Walid preferred traveling on our own. Contrary to what I'd imagined, the caravan moved surprisingly slowly. Though I was glad to be riding alongside it, I felt constrained, like finding myself behind a slow-moving car after cruising along at high speed. The caravan compensated for their pace by traveling long hours with no breaks. Some of the camels were so big, so impassive, they bore a resemblance to the ships with which they're so often compared; their solid front flanks and stout chests looked as sturdy as any boat's hull, their slight pitching mimicked the motion of a waterborne vessel steaming forward, rocked yet undeterred by waves. Other camels were young and irresistibly cute, just old enough to make the journey for the first time and begin learning the jobs for which they were bred; as with an adolescent azalai on his virgin voyage to Taoudenni, it seemed like a rite of passage for these camels, too, as they left the pasture and their mothers to set off into the world with other males. Though females are more manageable, male camels are stronger and endowed with greater endurance, so they alone compose the caravan corps. The females are left behind to breed, nurse the young, and provide milk for nomad families. Similarly, no women accompany the caravans; they stay with the tents and tend to the herds and their children while the men strike out on the salt trail. Rather than the result of sexism, this tactical division of labor between the genders, both human and animal, is simply another strategy to promote survival. We climbed atop a lifeless plateau, barren but for an occasional boulder that seemed to have dropped from above. Plodding forward through dizzying heat and overwhelming desolation, relief for body and soul came only with the sunset, which painted the cloudless sky in luminescent watercolors, all shades of the rainbow washing into one another. When we made camp at dusk, heaven and earth glowed in a purple light. Since we'd run out of the cooking wood we'd carried from Araouane, Walid instructed me to collect dried camel dung, with which the ground was littered. Camels excrete pellets about the size of robin's eggs. Nearly dry when they drop, after a short time on the ground they are ready to burn and so hard that they leave no stain upon your hands. They light easily, smolder well, and are an excellent substitute for charcoal. I formed a basket with the front of the shirt I was wearing and carried a pile of poop back to where we were camped. Meanwhile, the azalai had unloaded their camels, working in fast-motion to free them from their burdens. They threw bales of grass on the ground, which the camels huddled around, lowering their necks to grab a mouthful, then raising their heads and chewing contemplatively, as though engaged in deep thought. Rather than cooking all together, Walid, Baba, and I had a fire of our own, and the azalai had three separate fires among themselves. In fact, this large caravan was a coalition of three individual caravans that had linked up and were traveling together for safety. The leader of the camel train we had planned to accompany came over and joined us around our fire. Named Bakai, he was twenty-two years old and a cousin of Walid and Baba. His smooth-shaven face made him look younger than his years. Over his blue boubou, he wore a blue cotton knockoff sweatshirt printed in white with the word "NIKF" and the "swoosh" logo of the company normally spelled with an "E" at the end. He greeted me enthusiastically, and was quick to laugh given the slightest cause. While our rice was cooking, I asked my companions about their names for some of the constellations. Since we often seemed to be heading straight for it, I pointed first to Cygnus, then drew its pattern of stars in my notebook, which I lit with my headlamp. Baba said that, to them, it was a big bird. "Okay," I thought, "we're seeing basically the same images in the night sky." But then I asked them about Cassiopeia. Baba explained that it was a hand, and not just any hand, but that of the Prophet's daughter Fatima -- a common symbol in the Muslim world that protects against the evil eye. "For us it's different," I said. Along with telling them it was a woman in a chair, I sketched a rudimentary picture of a sitting woman, with a few long lines for hair and a pair of round breasts to emphasize her gender. When I showed it to them, Bakai chortled with laughter and pointed at her well-endowed torso, like a schoolboy seeing his first copy of Playboy. Walid and Baba cracked up, laughing more at Bakai than at my drawing. We went through a few more sets of stars, including the Pleiades, which they said they called Thureit, which was their pronunciation of the more common Arabic name Thuraiya, derived from the word meaning "existing in plenty," since its rise coincides with the start of the rainy season. After dinner I went to bed and read for a few minutes, escaping to Europe and the sinister world of occultism in Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum before fading off to sleep. When Walid woke me in the morning, it was still dark. But the caravan was already gone.
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