Thursday, March 6, 2008

A trip to the Sahara

The middle-aged South African arrived from the desert in the outfit he’d wear if he were coming out of the desert in a movie. Except his shoes were made by CAT, which otherwise makes heavy machinery, and probably wouldn’t spend the money on the product placement in a movie.

He had a wide-brimmed safari hat and a million-pocket safari shirt and below his safari shorts were leather-tanned calves. He and a few others like him rolled into our campsite in Nouadhibou a few days ago and you could tell they were hardened by the trip (or had made the trip because they were already hardened) and when they turned their eyes in your direction they didn’t look at you so much as through you and they could see you weren’t really one of them.

It was then that I got to thinking about that kind of adventure travel. The kind where your GPS, a very good four-wheel drive, and giant quantities of water are all requisite for survival. When you come in from that kind of stretch you can stagger up to the four-star hotel and take a bubble bath because there is no need to prove your travel stripes by staying in some cheap guesthouse. No, you’ve proven yourself where they don’t have guesthouses or roads or people.

The next day we headed for the desert with a tattered map of the national park with suspect GPS coordinates. The smooth, black paved road headed south and the map sent us west into the nothingness of our adventure.

The sand was packed down with tire tracks and we followed our directions towards the ocean until the sand got loose and we got stuck. We un-stuck the car with the wooden planks we had bought the day before and headed on and true to promises and plans there were no guesthouses, roads, or people.

Once or twice a day we’d reach a very small village of crumbling, almost empty shacks and you’d wonder who could live in a place so harsh and inaccessible. But a few people do and if they were to see how you and I live our lives I don’t think they’d be mad so much as amused. Why do we need to be so pampered? Why can’t we do more things for ourselves? We’d look to them like we live within the walls of a five-star hotel.

The functions of their lives are much like ours—getting food, maintaining a home—but all the frills and excesses have been stripped from their lives until the most basic answers to questions like “Food?” and “Shelter?” have been given.

The desert is like they say. It’s very hot in the day and cool at night and when you turn on a flashlight all the tiny bits of sand float by and explain why your camera lens is grinding. You feel weak and tired as soon as it gets dark and you keep drinking water whether you’re thirsty or not because you know you’re dehydrated from those stretches you spent baking in the sun to push the car free or take pictures outside the comfort of the air conditioned cars.

When its time to leave the empty desert you use the map some more and it leads into powdery dunes that the cars can’t cross. You run out of water and buy more from a village and then nearly run out of gas. But you cross back onto that smooth, dark black road two days after you left it and leave behind the people who are even more legit than the people who survived the desert for a few days in a safari hat.


Kate said...

Your feet must have some grip to them now.
amazing world out there.


Jeffrey said...

the sand must've been cool on your feet. early in the morning/late in the day? i just think about those hot days on the beach where the sand is so hot, you'd be a fool to walk without sandals or shoes!


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