Jinny Webber earned her doctorate in religious studies from UCSB while she was teaching English, particularly World Literature and Shakespeare, at Santa Barbara City College. Now retired, Jinny recently wrote The Secret Player, a novel about a girl who disguises herself as a boy and becomes an actor with Shakespeare’s company. Go to www.jinnywebber.com to read her blog, “Sex and Gender in Elizabethan England.” AT www.ShakespeareanTrilogy.com The Secret Player may be ordered or on Amazon.
On the trip across the Sahara I often resented Ted, my traveling companion and ex-bhusband. My safety depended on him, and it didn’t make me happy. He brought me out to the trackless wastes to put me in danger so that he could save me. I couldn’t speak up, couldn’t act on my own behalf. If I wished to, as with my attempt to drive the Beetle or my need for tampons or my wish to have a desert meal with that would-be Algerian host, I was unable and had to be grateful to him.
And I was grateful for much: who could imagine such a venture? No post cards to send home; we were out of touch with everyone and no one knew where we were, nor could they begin to picture it. I had pangs for my children from time to time, thought of my daughter sadly on her birthday – they were worlds away.
So much to savor, particularly the oases. Water ran in narrow open channels and smelled of mint. You caught that watery pungent fragrance the minute you passed through the encircling palm trees and felt as if you were in a French Foreign Legion movie.
In Algeria oases could be more than a day apart. We poured over our Michelin map every night, until by the end of the trip it fell apart at the folds. I’d have loved it as a souvenir. We used no light but a flashlight in our remote campsites. In the desert behind those dunes, we listened to the sounds of the night and studied our next day’s route. Now I understood why every water hole was marked! At least we wouldn’t die of thirst. We carried one five-gallon can of water and two of gasoline on the back of the VW. I can picture them, but did we really bump along with ten gallons of gasoline sloshing? For the first time since I started writing this, I wish I could ask Ted. He made such careful preparations, based on foresight and his previous trip.
Back to the map: yes, those water holes were reassuring, but also ominous. We might end up dwelling in an endless mirage away from all hope of delivery, kept alive if we could dig deep enough for water with our little spade—and thus spared for death by starvation. Not that I let my imagination run away with me, but I did hope never to need to make use of a water hole! Ted liked that map for its sense of destination. It was huge when unfolded, displaying all of Africa.
To reach the east coast, we would have to cross Rwanda and Burundi—not exactly safe in 1977—but would worry about that when the time came. The visa for the Central African Republic we’d secured in Rabat might not be valid if we couldn’t reach its border with Cameroon within the date limits. The next round of visas would have to come later.
Ted also liked the Michelin map for orienting his sense of direction so that his compass could serve maximum purpose. Only once did it seem possible that, as my daughter feared, I’d be lost forever.
We had crossed over the border into Niger where the piste markers were much harder to make out on the horizon, sticks instead of the stone ducks, and suddenly there were none, only mirages in every direction. I kept quiet, heart pounding, praying to the goddess of the sands, guide for lost travelers. We stopped, rigging our makeshift shelter, a tarp over the door on the shadier side of the car, sipped water and collected our thoughts. This was not a problem Ted could solve. And then within the hour, we saw a cloud of dust. It came nearer: a covered jeep, bright red! The driver stopped, black eyes, deeply browned skin, a wrapped muslin turban above Western clothes, and an educated speaker of French.
“Just go that way in a straight line for two kilometers or so and you’ll hit the piste.” He laughed at Ted’s question what he was doing so far off the track. “I’m going to visit my family.” He waved toward low hills in the opposite direction. “They’re Tuaregs, camping somewhere up there,” and drove off in a whoosh of dust.
We folded our tarp and headed as directed, reaching the piste just as he’d said. We’d seen those Tuareg camel riders, struck by their brilliant white smiles, the gorgeous beaded clothes of the women, their kohl and blue paint and decorated saddlebags: exotic remnants of a bygone era when the desert belonged to them. But apparently, a young man of their group could make his way to Algiers, get himself an education and a job and a jeep. Hard to imagine that sort of leap. More than curiosity about his story, I felt gratitude to him and to that guardian goddess, to luck. We were safely on the track again—for the moment.
Next post: An American basketball player in Timbuktu.