In the distance, where the rising heat made the horizon look wet, a figure waved at us. My guide waved back, then turned to me with a huge, open-mouthed smile. "You see?," he said, patting his hands against his chest. "Everyone love Moussa!"
I forced a smile, even though a wave across such a barren landscape seemed merely polite, and not a vote of popularity.
"You having good time?"
"Yes," I lied.
"Everyone have good time with Moussa!"
Again, I nodded. Better than pointing out that the need to claim a good time was a good indicator of a bad time. Which, in fact, was what I was having: a bad time.
I'd dropped everything back home — my job, my love life, my apartment, my dog — with the idea that traveling sans possessions to the edge of the world should somehow bestow upon me an epiphany. And so I'd traveled deep into Africa to a country that by some accounts is the most desolate on the planet: Niger. The driest, most inhospitable of places; a country so inherently at odds with itself that it's named after a body of water.
From Agadez, I rode on the back of a motorcycle across a hard-packed, sandy landscape, cruising along a path that wasn't a path in any way I could discern, unless one were to say the entire desert was one wide path, in which case we were right on track.
Moussa, the guide I'd hired back in Agadez, pulled up behind us, riding on the back of another motorbike, his billowing robe settling down to earth as they slowed. Money was paid to our drivers along with instructions to come pick us back up in three days. And then the motorcycles drove off, and we were left alone. "You having good time?" Moussa yelled at me. Always a yell, this question. Always as if there was a howling wind that would have otherwise drowned us out.
"Yes," I said. I was wearing an indigo robe, just like Moussa. And a turban, just like Moussa. So that, from afar, I'd look just like Moussa. Otherwise: "Bandits," he warned. Sadly, though, my outfit was an attempt at camouflage that had me feeling anything but camouflaged. Rather, I stood out like the sort of ill-advised tourist who believes he can pull off going 'native,' by dressing in, well, a robe and turban.
We set off, finally, on camels. Me, Moussa, and Moussa's sidekick, who'd appeared as if out of nowhere with our steeds. He was a mystery, this man, who spoke no language I could understand, and whose name, in fact, I never learned. He tended to the camels and our meals with a stoicism that seemed an extension of the very desert itself.
Our schedule, which I became aware of only as it unfolded, was this: ride first thing in the morning, sleep for an incredible length of time, then sleep some more, then nap, and then, just before the sun disappeared, ride a bit more. I hadn't been warned of these interminable siestas, and so I'd brought no book to read or pad on which to write, packing instead as if one item too many might've been the straw that'd literally break the camel's back. What was there to do, then, but sleep and think? And yet, having traveled through West Africa by myself for months, speaking no French or indigenous language, I was, in short, out of thoughts. Previous to this camel trek, I'd tended to think about this camel trek. Now that I was on this camel trek, I found I had nothing left to think about. Except, of course, those same sorts of thoughts I could've as easily been thinking about back home: friends and pop music.
It had taken a lot of effort to get here from New York. And so, here I was. Day two. Me, Moussa, and Whatshisname. Beneath this tree, beside this well, our camels seemingly in service to the desert, devouring anything remotely green. We had eaten lunch and — just as we'd done before lunch — were again resting. There was no way to measure the time as a continuous sand-blown haze made the sun seem everywhere without being anywhere in particular. I sat up from my camel-hair blanket — made from camel hair, and imbued with the hair from my camel — and sipped water from a large plastic canteen that at one point had held gasoline. A highlight of the hot, dry day, was each and every one of these sips, but a highlight short-lived, and unable to forestall the obvious question: So what am I doing here?
All right, let's have it: this is the kind of place you want it to take a lot of effort to get to. You want to be sore and dehydrated; you want camel hair in your mouth, and sand in your ears. In each direction there should be nothing except the peace of mind found in sought-after hardship, the soulful bounty of deprivation, and such. And yet, despite my best intentions, all I felt was bored.
It occurred to me what I should have done. Of course! Too late now! When I was in Niamey, I'd ended up at the capital's crown jewel: the Musee National du Niger. And it was there, tucked away in a tiny outdoor pavilion by itself, that I'd made what seemed to me an astounding find: Le Arbre du Tenere. Now sun-bleached, stuck in concrete, and covered with cobwebs, this piece of wood had, in fact, once been the very last tree in the Sahara. This tree that had stood for untold years amongst the rolling dunes of the desert, with no other living thing in sight. It had served as both a testament to extinction, and as a slender beacon of hope to men and their caravans of salt as they had made their way across a vast, dead, featureless terrain. That is, until one particularly unskilled truck driver from Libya had used it to guide himself a bit too precisely, and had smacked it head on. Imagine that: the one tree in the entire desert! If only someone had warned him before he'd left on his trans-Saharan trip: "Drive safely. There's a tree."
At least the dead tree could be afforded an appropriate resting place. So it was loaded onto the bed of another truck, like a casket onto a hearse, brought to the museum, and set into a vat of concrete. But this wasn't homage enough. And so a replica was constructed out of solid steel, and set into the sand in the exact spot where the original had once stood. Gleaming and indestructible, it would bridge the gap in the forest, a gap of a few thousand years between the last living tree in the Sahara and what would one day be the first. That is, barring another Libyan in a larger truck.
I was now sitting beneath the relative shade of a less remarkable tree, one living in the buffer zone between hardcore desert and merely arid plains, as Moussa and Whathisname slumbered for a frightening length of time, the three of us needlessly resting from this needless navigation of the desert. The thought plagued me: I should've gone to see the new tree! It was true, that metallic facsimile was a good hundred miles from here, out in the real desert, where there were no wells, nor accompanying vegetable gardens. It would've involved hiring a jeep, and booking a week-long trek. Men, money, and equipment, not to mention a constant awareness that my team would've regarded me as a frivolous madman. But better that than this, the definition of pointless: not trying to get anywhere in particular, and not getting there particularly quickly. Our path was a big, purposeless loop, in which all points on the loop looked nearly the same, a route which suggested that if one napped for half the day, one would miss nothing more than half the day.
Moussa stirred and looked at me from where he lay on his matt. "You having good time?," he shouted, startling Whatshisname awake.
"Yes," I replied.
That night I couldn't sleep. The whole notion of sleep was, at this point, exhausting. If only we were set upon by bandits, I thought. But I knew there were no bandits, nor would there be. All just trumped-up excitement. This robe. This turban. This trek. A masquerade. And I realized then, quite suddenly, that I was in the throes of depression. How pathetic. Here in the bread basket of famine, poverty, and desperation, I was feeling sorry for myself. I wondered whether other grand adventurers ever succumbed to such a sorry Western malady. Or was it only those intrepid travelers who realized, like myself, that they were merely on glorified pony rides?
Rats, I chastised myself. I should've gone to see that tree. I considered what my chances would be if I took a canteen of water and slipped away into the night and walked with the utmost firm conviction that I would, sooner or later, Libyan-like, run into the tree. Problem was, amongst a million other problems, I didn't really know in which direction to head. Nonetheless, I found myself getting up, spurred on by a sort of desperate, senseless sadness, not really believing I was leaving for good, but pretending I was. A heavy canteen in both my hands, I stole away.
Instantly, I felt better. Freedom will do that. I didn't much like having to pay someone to lead me, anyway. Also, he'd started pitching me for a tip, which, of course, was what the whole "Everyone love Moussa" had really been about in the first place. I'd finally cracked, of course, and agreed to finance a celebratory dinner upon our return. "For our friend," Moussa had suggested of Whatshisname. And so I'd agreed, for the sake of Whatshisname, whatever his name had been. But I was free of that contract now, and finally on my way: a real fool's mission, but at least not one disguised as anything but.
And then I heard Moussa calling my name. I'd barely gotten anywhere. Not far enough away, certainly, to pretend I couldn't hear him. I walked back, trying to console myself that in any case my canteen was too unwieldy for escape, bouncing against my thigh, loudly sloshing a cry for help.
"Where you go?," Moussa demanded. "Dangerous. Bandits!"
I apologized. I tried to take the bandits seriously, which wasn't easy. After all, this supposed constant threat didn't exactly disturb their sleep habits much. Nonetheless, I thanked him for watching out for me. We lay back down on our camel-hair blankets, and all was soon forgiven. "You having good time?" He asked.
"Oh, yes," I affirmed, staring up at the moon, unable to avoid the thought that my aimless drifting pertained to more than this mere desert meander.
The next day was the same as the last, which had been the same as the last. I rode barefoot, my dirty feet the same color as the camel. "You know Le Arbre du Tenere?" I asked Moussa over lunch. I think he was surprised to hear me speak since I'd grown rather quiet over the past two days. He was eager to respond as he fancied himself quite the tour guide — not content to merely get me from point A to, well, back round to point A, but to educate me about his corner of the desert as we walked. "Bush," he'd say, pointing at a bush. Or "rocks," he'd say, pointing at rocks. And I'd say, "Huh," doing my best to play the part of a city dweller who couldn't have picked out such features from a police line-up of suspicious terrain.
"Yes, yes!" He clapped and laughed, which seemed inappropriate, given his next word. "Dead!"
"I know, but there's a new one, right? Is it far?"
"New one. Made of metal," I said, rapping my knuckles against a pot.
He looked confused. He patted the tree next to him. "Tree," he said.
"Right, but metal," I said again.
"Mm…" He looked dubious. "Tree," he repeated, still tapping the wood.
We went back and forth like this a few times, until Moussa won. "Yes, a tree," I relented.
"Yes, tree," he nodded knowingly. "Dead."
"Yes, dead," I agreed.
Moussa clapped his hands, satisfied. Then he lay back and rested for the next five hours.
I don't know why I imagined that in intending to replicate Le Arbre du Tenere, the Nigerians would've created a structure that resembled a giant spaceborn candelabra. But that's how I pictured the tree: intricate, bright, and monstrously huge. Terrifying, even. In short, an unparalleled photo op. A story I could've told of a land so inhospitable that only solid steel could sprout from the ground. Like the Burning Bush to Moses, this gleaming tree would've revealed to me the divine! Good God, it burned me up to think about it. But what else was there to do in the middle of the day as my comrades slept, but think and burn? That, and plan my escape, of course. And tonight, tonight I would succeed!
Nerve, though: there was the rub. It seemed to loom larger than lack of water, food, or direction. What had seemed not only possible, but necessary during the day, turned quite the opposite as night fell. We'd eaten dinner, drank tea, agreed that Moussa was great, then gone to sleep. The time for escape was now! But still I lay, as I berated myself: To have come all this way, only to languish amongst the hairs of a camel, like a flea that's lost the will to leap. Curse this pathetic depression! The illness that makes a miracle of wanting to breathe. And that this should be a miracle: depressing, which only feeds the depression.
I steadfastly refused to think of so-called deeper reasons as to why I might have been depressed. Of all that I'd failed to accomplish at home, of the steady succession of girlfriends I'd disappointed, of that coveted American spirit of individuality, that seemed now more like solipsism. Don't go there, I told myself. This is not the Epiphany you want to have. The reason I was depressed, I decided, was simple: I was going nowhere. No different than how I would've felt on a New York subway that was stuck between stations for an indefinite period, or a lifetime.
That's when I heard the singing. And so, finally, I escaped. The song was for me alone, and so the others continued to sleep, no less soundly than if we'd exhausted ourselves by moving the entire desert around with shovels. I picked my way past the sparse bushes, leaving everything behind, including water. As the breeze blew, it carried both sand and song equally, both surging and dying with each puff. Far away, voices wafted in from the outskirts of a tiny, dark village — a speck, really, a conclave that could've entirely decamped at a moment's notice, a cartographer's nightmare. My robe fluttered about me, a sail catching the wind, urging me further across a plane of domed homes that looked like turtles who'd tucked themselves in for the night, wary of the dark.
Beyond this, a slight hill, and on top, the chorus. I hesitated. Escape, as I'd imagined it, was to have been a much more solitary endeavor, involving a certain amount of thirsty staggering and pointless heroics. But of course, I had no choice. You don't pray for something — anything — to call to you, and then ignore it.
I was surprised, of course, to find that the singers were all children, 30 of them, teenagers. The girls, in dresses, stood in a tight bunch, singing and clapping rhythmically, while the boys, in robes like mine, danced in front of them. One hand in the air, holding a large, threatening stick, the other hand on a hip, the dancing boy would gracefully hop from one foot to the other, until — smack! — the stick would be slapped at the feet of the other boys, causing them all to jump back. It would be sliced again and again across the sand, brushing them further away. And then, just as swiftly, the dancing boy would return to his hopping, as the watching boys would slowly crowd back in, making the circle tighter again.
My appearance created a stir, of course, but the girls, giggling to each other, didn't miss a beat. The boys, likewise, were further electrified, one running pell-mell in a giant, exuberant circle around the entire hill. But the dancing itself was never interrupted. Boys grabbed my arms, bubbling over with enthusiasm, telling me things so rapidly that even if I'd spoken their language, I wouldn't have understood. I clapped with the girls, and everyone laughed, though whether it was for the absurdity of my being an adult playing a child's game, or being a boy clapping a girl's rhythm, or simply, well, the absurdity, I couldn't guess. A few of the boys offered me their sticks, and indicated that I should dance. I declined. How could I possibly? Then again, I thought, had I really come all this way not to dance? So, I took a stick and hopped. I sliced the sand, rapier-like, at the other boys' feet, brushing them back. I twirled, a dervish; I pranced. The girls clapped and sang louder; the boys laughed, then cheered when finally I yielded my place in the circle's center.
A half-hour together, and then I bid adieu, slipping back into the night. I felt I'd discovered something — namely, what happens to those mysterious figures who seemingly appear from nowhere, play a brief, absurdist role, and then fade back into wherever they'd come from. And what happens is that they return to their camelhair blankets. They get chastised by woken desert nomads who warn them of "bandits." They apologize, then affirm that everyone, without exception, would have a good time with a desert nomad.
I would like to say that by the next morning my depression had lifted. But I found there was a perverse part of me that didn't want to let it go. A strange satisfaction in feeling sorry for myself. As wearying as it was to constantly be in the midst of a sigh, there was also a feeling that in my depression, I was approaching a certain emotional purity. Riding through the desert on a camel with no name, with men who either refer to themselves in the third person, or not at all, there is nothing to distract you from yourself. If what you're left feeling, then, is depressed, this is your Epiphany.
Just as planned, we met up again with the men on motorcycles. I would've said goodbye to Whatshisname, but he'd wandered off and didn't seem to care, which was nice because I didn't care either. Back in my featureless hotel room in Agadez, I lay on my lumpy mattress, feeling disinclined to ever stand up again. But I had a date, of course, and reluctant as I was to keep it, there was nothing to be gained by being rude. And so the next night, for our so-called celebratory meal, I made my way to the home of Moussa. "Home?" I wanted to ask, but didn't. "And this makes you a nomad how, exactly?"
It was immediately apparent that the money I'd given him had not been spent on the feast, which was, simply, a bowl of fat and bone stewed in a broth. Not that I could see it, really. We sat in the darkness of his tiny courtyard, which was itself tucked away in a labyrinth of similar, tightly packed homes. This time Moussa was quiet nearly the entire meal, only making noise when he'd occasionally step away to violently throw up in a bucket. And then he'd spit. And continue spitting. An action that greatly added to the mystery of the dark food, as well as my own daring-do for continuing to blindly put it into my mouth.
What do you do when you and your host aren't speaking, and worse, he's vomiting up the food his wife has prepared for you? Well, of course, you simply pretend that everything's fine; that you are, in fact, having the good time your host has been insisting on for days. After all, it was the tactic his wife was taking, minus the pretending to have a good time part. In silence, she made us tea. A highly ritualized, time-consuming process that involved pouring a shot of black tea back and forth between two tiny glasses so as to build up a head of froth. I knew that to quit one's host before the whole process had been repeated three times was highly improper. Though how to keep track of this number when your host was violently unconsuming his portions, I wasn't sure.
"I had a good time, Moussa," I told him.
His response was a groan, but the meaning of it was as clear as it was automatic, "Everyone have good time with Moussa." Surely, he knew, though, that we both were lying. That if this was a good time, then a bad time was Hell itself. Still, it seemed a fitting finale, this. One that inspired in me a certain humor.
Who knew what mental anguish lay behind Moussa's sickness, as we had, after all, eaten the same foods. I wondered what psychic wounds may have been festering between Moussa and his wife, between Moussa and Whatshisname. Perhaps, during our trip, Moussa had dreamed of not only escaping me, but of escaping everything, that he may very well have walked away, with either a tree in mind, or some other emblem of mental salvation. He may have danced with the same children on the same hill, and felt for a short while that he'd stumbled upon something which for its unreality had felt singularly real. But what can you do with these moments, when, sooner or later, you have to return to your own camel-hair bed, the one you've made?
I continued to sit in Moussa's boxed-in courtyard, looking up at a mind-bending volume of stars, aware that I was not so much in awe of them as wishing I could point out to someone that I was in awe of them. As if an experience only made its mark in the retelling, only became permanent in the reminiscing. As such, it suddenly felt debatable as to whether the entire trek had ever really happened at all. Even as Moussa continued to purge in the corner, I was aware that this moment, too, would soon seem no more tangible, no more verifiable than a dream. And that this is what it meant to travel alone. In Africa. In New York. I would've wanted to ask that tree, the last tree of the Sahara, what it had meant to stand alone for a time that could've been marked by generations, if it still had had generations of fellow trees by which to mark the time. But this, too, was just trumped up excitement, meant to instill in my own mind a sense of intrigue. Because I had to finally admit to myself: trees don't talk. And that, in any case, I had seen the tree. It was in the museum, stuck in a vat of concrete, bleached and forgotten.
Once we'd met all our responsibilities to the tea, Moussa led me through the alleys and out to the street, holding my hand, as is the expected gesture between all good male friends, which we weren't. Thus our days can seem an endless procession of formalities, consensual illusions meant to keep the peace, as we drift round and round through an unchanging landscape. This is the insight of the depressed, something akin to wisdom. But I knew that soon enough my mood, sadly, would lift, distracted from its brooding by cold beer and West African music videos. And with it would slip my conviction for a life affirmed by companionship. A friend to travel with. Or more: someone to love, with whom to share memories, a life. Alas… distraction can seem like satisfaction, and in satisfaction there's inertia.
Without further ceremony, we parted ways. Once across the intersection, I turned to look back at Moussa, who had met someone he knew on the street. He saw me, and so I waved, and he waved back. He patted his hands against his chest, and said something to his companion. I couldn't hear, of course, but there was no mistaking what he was saying. And so, for Moussa's sake, I forced a smile and continued waving, long enough so that his friend, if no one else, would think what he said was true.