Mali #9: Essakane

After our expedited tour of Timbuktu, we hopped back into the 4x4s and started the 2-1/2 hour drive out of the city, a drive into the harsh terrain of the Saharan desert.

You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover is yourself. -Alan Alda

We drove past Tuareg children and men, many who waved and others who stared. I could only wonder what they were thinking.  How long will this foreigner onslaught last? Will I meet one of them at Essakane if I go? What do they understand about this place? After heading on the gravel road north we were diverted (for security reasons) to another “road” – and by road I mean sand path. The new path provided far more entertainment as we jumped dunes and briefly found ourselves stuck attempting to summit one.

Sometimes your 4x4 gets stuck in rural Mali

Sometimes your 4x4 gets stuck in rural Mali

Up until this point, the sand was a dishwater blond filled with thorny bushes. This landscape dramatically changed one particular summit. In front us, the bleach white Saharan sand of Essakane welcomed us to the southern tip of the Saraha desert proper. A white concrete stage stood off in the distance and one extremely random cell phone tower not too far from it. These fixtures stay year round, signs of the human touch in a land seemingly bereft of it.

Stage in the far background

Stage in the far background

Mohamed had secured a close, safe camping spot for us and we met our 24h guard for our stay, an older gentleman with a wicked looking stick that looked like a convincing deterrent to theft!  (We had opportunity to watching him chase hawkers away on many occasions.)

Our camp for 3 days

Our camp for 3 days

In the afternoon on that first day, some of us walked along the ridge of the big dune facing the stage. A couple of Tuareg men faced Mecca around the time of prayer as we passed. I looked around at a brilliant world – mountains in the distance, fine, white sand for miles and miles, and the more-than-occasional stoic, hard-to-read Tuareg on camelback.

Peace in the desert

Peace in the desert

A camel promenade led by the Tuaregs and then some West African music followed by speeches about the festival kicked off 3 of the most unique days I have had traveling. On that note, I do not know exactly how to describe these 3 days, how to divide up the experiences. But here goes an attempt which is painfully abbreviated as I reflect on memories months past.

Camel race commencing the event

Camel race commencing the event

Picture 1,500 people, mostly Tuareg and West African but with a substantial number of European (and sparse American) faces in the crowd. Imagine dancing along to Salif Keita, one of Africa’s most famous music artists with Tuareg children huddled next to one another all around you. Meanwhile, the sun is setting, creating silhouettes galore. Sunset set

Camels are in the crowd with a Tuareg father and son watching the stage. West African tones with subtle European/Moorish influences fill the night sky in a land where the nearest settlement is farther away than the eye can see. If you can start to picture some of these things, then you can begin to immerse yourself in the desert.

Spheres of influence intersecting

Spheres of influence intersecting

Groups from Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Morocco, Mali, Libya, and Niger dazzled us each night with a prelude before dusk from local Tuareg groups off the main stage. Guest performances by a Brazilian guitarist and a Dutch woman brought slightly less enthusiastic applause, but applause nonetheless, from the Malian crowd.

Time was a relative notion in that remote desert landscape with young people from another world. Yet it was there that the gap between cultures was naturally bridged.” -Jolijn Geeks on a trip to Mali

How did we spend our daytimes? After eating breakfast at our campsite, we would walk, read, relax, or go around with one of the Tuareg guys, all who become friends of ours quickly. When you hear desert, you may think of the heat. In fact, we spent more time chilled than hot. I would wear a wool sweater and coat comfortably until 10AM and then again after 5PM. Between those times it would get very warm. I have to say, putting your bare feet in the sand at dusk, even late at night is one of the most relaxing, primal feelings.

An ad hoc market went up with brilliant wares and some kitsch. We frequented it and became known, especially since there were so few Americans there, as in no more than a dozen as far as we could tell after 3 days. The travel warning had done a good job staving off people as we were told 6000 people attended last year compared to this year’s 1500.

Some of my favorite evenings were spent around a bonfire, drinking the grin with the group. To keep warm, we all huddled together closely each night. I think that’s another thing that humanized the experience all the more. By humanized, I mean the friendship and affection brought people together closely and quickly. Part of it was functional – warmth from the cold of the desert evening, but part of it was just because of friendship and trust.

The group huddle-cuddle

The group huddle-cuddle

It’s interesting really – Tuaregs and Bedouins are known for their supposed ferosity and stolid nature. But become friends and you see another world, a world of kinship, loyalty, and affection. A simple satisfaction in the routine of our days with Moussa, Mohamed, and the others made leaving difficult.

Cousins Moussa and Mohamed

Cousins Moussa and Mohamed

Tuareg women had far less visible presence at the event. Any reason why would be speculative, but they, like the men, were friendly, joyful, and extremely close to the other women in their group. When they led music, the characteristics of their voices truly mesmerized me.

Wonderful tones of the Tuareg women

Wonderful tones of the Tuareg women

It was the typical illusion of space – the belief that whatever is far away is different, and the farther away it is, the more different it is. -Ryszard Kapuscinski

Melancholy lingered in the air on the incredibly fun last night. Sally, Mitra, and I from our group stayed up the latest with the guys. Moussa had me practice some card tricks. Mohamed gave Mitra, Sally, and I jewelry gifts, an extremely generous gesture, especially in light of his family’s difficult economic situation. I think the most moving part of the entire visit with Mohamed and the guys happened when the normally reserved Mohamed said to me, “You are my brother.”

Brothers in Mali

Brothers in Mali

For 3 days we were.

In [the trade routes of the Silk Road, the Amber, of the Saharan] people encountered each other at every turn, exchanged thoughts, ideas and goods, traded and did business, made alliances and unions, found common aims and values.. Each person discovered in himself at least a small particle of that Other, believed in it and lived in this conviction. And so the three possibilities always stood before him whenever he has encountered an Other: he could choose war, he could fence himself in behind a wall, or he could start up dialogue. – Ryszard Kapuscinski As far as the eye can see 

 

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