Friday, November 30, 2012

The Desert and the River (part 2)

"Run!" I implore them, "Go as fast and as far as you can. Do not look back. Just run. Do you see those rocks, way over there? Run to them, touch them, and then come back and tell me what you saw. Or don't come back until the sun is setting and the smell of dinner grilling reaches you on a breeze. Go and follow the curve of the Earth until all I can see are the tops of your heads racing across the sand. Go."

At first it is difficult for the girls to believe that they are free. They have been tethered to us on such short lines these last few months. "Don't touch that. Come closer. Hold my hand. Look out for cars. Watch your step." We are all conditioned to the city, always fighting and flying - looking both ways before crossing every one way street. We are jumpy, hyper alert and flinching at the sound of car horns. But this is the desert and we have left the daily rules and frustrations of society behind in the city.

And then a scarab emerges from a tiny hole in the desert and they are off, chasing the bug on all fours - clambering to grab it and feel the tickle of six little legs, teasingly putting it on each others' backs. We are all laughing as they kick up sand, scampering around with their new toy. They play like puppies, tumbling and rolling. They play like children should.

I try to help our bedoin guides put up the brightly printed canvas wind break. They smile and humor me, allowing me to uselessly hold up a corner post while they neatly hammer stakes into the sand, fasten ropes against the wind. They are a father and son team, quiet and calm - proud in the subdued manner of the vast western desert. A smile between them tells me that they have everything under control, that they have been doing this for a thousand years.

I sit back against a white chalk boulder and breathe, attempting to comprehend the vastness. This desert flows across the great sand sea, across Libya and the seemingly endless Sahara to the Atlantic Ocean. It is too huge for me wrap my head around. Eventually I relax into the realization that I don't need to understand it, to grasp it or own it. My thoughts retract to the enormous glowing monoliths that jut out of the desert floor haphazardly, and closer still to my breath that is finally calm and even for the first time in months.

Our guides have been cordial, if slightly remote. Mina cements the relationship when she explains to them in gestures that we don't want to sleep in the provided tents. She lays out our familiar pallet of blankets and sleeping bags on the sand as the sun sets and the first stars appear on the eastern horizon. She helps build the fire and insists on heating pumpkin seeds on rocks beside the grill. She is in heaven, useful and competent. She glows with the confidence of a person who has broken the language barrier, communicating fluently with her actions. She is furious with me when I share a sheesha with her bedoin friends. Luci quietly busies herself just being Luci.

Our guides never stop feeding us - bread, slow cooked fava beans (fuul), tomatoes, carefully grilled chicken, and tea. The making and drinking of tea is a ritual of highly practiced motions. Small shot glasses and a steel kettle are unwrapped from a soft cloth every few hours. Water is poured and poured again over gunpowder tea, sampled and distributed. The tea is brewed brutally strong and sweet with small mint leaves delicately floating in the potion.

Night falls and the foxes emerge from the desert. This is the moment the girls have been waiting for. We have been observing their tiny prints in the sand, seemingly trotting from nowhere to nowhere with obvious purpose. They come in close to the fire, searching for scraps. The bemused looks on the faces of our guides tells me that these are the racoons of the deserts - fearless scavengers who are waiting until our guard is down to steal our food, to tear into anything that has not been carefully stored - sand colored varmints with burning eyes and enormous ears.

Jenn and the kids fall asleep, exhausted and contented. I am tired but not ready for sleep. Mars glows orange on the eastern horizon. I lay awake for hours, back on the sand, eyes in the sky. For the first time in my life I can actually feel the Earth slowly rolling eastward. I am riding it, flat on my back watching the horizon drop farther and farther away from Mars. I drift into sleep and I dream that I am in an enormous desert on a glorious planet breathing fresh air as a fox slips in close to steal my breakfast.