I spent my first night in the desert with an international cross section of people: A Swiss couple in their late 70s who had just circumnavigated the globe in a sailboat, three Australian law students on holiday (two men, one woman), one Aussie dropout with baby dreads (man), Lithuanian newlyweds, two dating thirty-somethings from Chile and Mexico who are grad students in Holland, and a solo young man from Japan en route to Times Square to see the ball drop. Together we rode through dunes on pungent camels and the entire way I was kicking myself for being so stupid. How did I get myself caught in this herd of tourists? What did I agree to that included a string of dromedaries and an “authentic” desert Berber decked out in Sean John jeans and a neon blue turban? I was the only rider not machine gunning my camera. Top it off with the guy on the camel behind me who, when he wasn’t trying to imitate the sound of a camel fart, kept making comments about scoring some weed. I fumed as the sun set the dunes on fire.
I battled my thoughts. I was a tourist, sure. But I was different. Right? Wrong. I was no better or worse than the rest of the crew: wide eyed with soft hands and a pocketful of money and opportunity. We all needed this sort of spoon-fed experience because otherwise, we’d probably not spend much time in the Sahara. I mean really, would I actually try and hoof it for miles into the dunes all alone? I’d probably get lost or be too scared to go big and disappear for a week. To see the Sahara I needed both transportation and information, and alone I had neither. If I was being honest with myself, I needed to admit that I actually enjoyed having people around. Not so much for companionship, but for the noise that humanity makes. I wasn’t special or different, and I needed an attitude adjustment.
We all sat around a giant table and waited for dinner. Cats swarmed and sat on laps. They knew food was coming. When the sun set, an erratic generator kicked in and illuminated the tent with inconsistent bursts of soft light. Our faces flickered as we took turns draping ourselves in woolen blankets. We waited two hours for soup and tagine, during which time folks told stories about themselves. The Swiss sea captain was like everyone’s grandfather. As he talked, his wife sat submissively next to him and only chimed in when he couldn’t remember the name of a port, which was often. “That was Sydney, dear,” or, “I think that was Algeria.” He told us he was in the Red Sea during the last big tsunami, and that later, when he sailed over the quake’s epicenter near Sumatra, he lost the use of all his instruments for six hours. He was 77 and didn’t start sailing until he was 60. Took him seven years to go around the world.
The Japanese man sat quietly, listening to everyone talk. The cats loved him, but he didn’t seem well-versed in cat, nor was he interested. Rather than push them off his lap, he just sat with a disgusted posture, looking down his nose at the overly-affectionate felines. His fancy camera sat on the table in front of him and he occasionally gave it a look, then brushed off cat hair that floated and landed on its body and lens.
The Aussies could have easily been characters in a film. They kept conversation alive by asking questions or making jokes. I found their dynamic curious. Both men seemed to be fond of the woman, Eva, but Eva seemed to be interested in only one of them—a guy named Zac with the nickname, “Bushy.” A mating dance ensued. There seemed no obvious jealousy between the men, but they both sought her attention. Bushy’s efforts never fell flat.
Before the sun was up, I awoke to the sound of two kids in the camp. I joined them by the warm coals of last night’s fire. They were maybe five and eight years old and named Yusef and Nora. We did our best to communicate, then I grabbed my notebook and drew pictures of animals which Nora promptly translated into Berber.
As the sun started to rise, I climbed to the top of a high dune and took a seat in the sand. Bushy and Eva joined me. Eva used her finger to write Z-A-C in the sand. She looked to him and he smiled. Then she wrote a ‘B’, then a ‘U’, then stopped and looked at him again. She continued with two Ts and poked a period at the end. “I bet you thought I was going to write ‘Bushy’?” He looked at the sand and said, “Zac Butt. That’s real cute.” They got up and raced to the water well where Bushy pulled up a bucket of murky water. In the desert you can hear voices from far away; I heard him say, “Do you think I should take a sip?” She laughed, then he dropped the bucket and they watched it fall to the bottom. Then ran off behind the tents.
Watching them reminded me how fantastic it is to feel new love. Odds are the best part of their story was what was happening right there. He was off to study in the Netherlands and she had a steady guy down under. If I had been alone, I’d have missed their careful display, their savoring of each moment, and that would have been a shame.