By Robert Dale Fama
Grand Prize Bronze Winner in the Sixteenth Annual Solas Awards
A premature midlife crisis, a sack of money, and a backpack combine to reveal that a beginner traveler learns quick in the Sahara.
We had already broken down five times when Amadou snapped the ignition key off in his dilapidated Land Rover. He reached up and rubbed his necklace, a black leather amulet that contained gris-gris, written prayers to protect and bring luck to the wearer. Beltrán lowered his head and made the sign of a cross. In Mali and surrounded by sand on the last leg to Timbuktu, a turn of a key changed everything. Suddenly, I thought we would never arrive, and with that, that I’d fail to accomplish the first phase of my round-the-world trip.
Beltrán and I had met a few weeks prior in a dust storm on the Senegal-Mali frontier. The wind was fluctuating like a drunk compass and I’d had enough. Alone, I crouched beside a lanky bush and sulked, exasperated in predicament. I had flown from USA to Morocco and then on to Senegal. Despite knowing I was under prepared and over confident, boarded a train to Mali. Filthy, tired, hungry, and demoralized, I wondered why I came to Africa at all.
A figure approached through the gloom. Someone, apparently, had pointed me out and he called “Toubab,” a word West Africans use for foreigners. He moved one arm like a radar beacon and dragged a bright orange backpack with the other. Dressed in an I don’t care about being clean anymore outfit, I could tell he was, like me, backpacking across Africa on the cheap. That meant instant camaraderie, the sharing of stories, and the possibility of adventure. My spirits brightened.
“They said you’re American,” he called out through the wind, “and going to Timbuktu.” He had wavy hair that served to rearrange the dust on his sunglasses. “I am going too. What are you doing there?”
“Always wanted to go,” I said. “It’s the first leg of my around-the-world trip.” An extended whoosh made hearing difficult; he leaned in and cupped his hand to his ear. “I want to know what’s out there.” I pointed up and around. I didn’t have the nerve to tell him the truth: single, unemployed, and twenty-nine, my orbit had prematurely swung to mid-life crisis.
I had been a white-shirt blue suit banking computer salesperson. After a financially lucrative five years, I received an even more lucrative exit package after a corporate merger—pay and health insurance for a year. I didn’t know what to do next. So instead of finding another job, or career, I choose to run and move beyond my sheltered life at home in Reno. With the money, time, inclination and a backpack—the travelers jackpot—I packed a bag to test my mettle against world travel.
“Why are you going?” I asked Beltrán.
He lowered his voice and spoke seriously. “I hated medical school and don’t want to practice; my parents made me go. I daydreamed about going to Timbuktu when I should have been studying. After graduation, I told them that I was going to walk the streets wearing a white suit and Panama hat.”
“A white suit?” I glanced down at myself, pinched my shirt, and shook a burst of dirt. I was a mess. Besides being disheveled, my clothes sagged from weight loss. My focus was survival, and his, amazingly, was a white suit.
“It’s sealed in plastic to repel the dust.” He chopped his right hand repeatedly into his left palm. “I will take it out and open it only when there.”
Timbuktu retained its mythical status—it satisfied an inner yearn to redeem, cleanse, or prove something deeper. We were two lost people turned desert nomads, or so I thought.
“I need a photographer to take pictures,” Beltrán said. He snapped a picture with an invisible camera. “We’ll go together.”
Meeting others and going someplace was one aspect I liked about overland travel. The spirit of mutual adventure manifested in a quest; it made events interesting, and for me, better preserved to memory. Nobody at home would have been able or free to travel as I intended to on this journey; asking was preposterous. Now, already halfway across the world, I was relieved to encounter Beltrán, but our ambitions could not be more divergent. Mine were vague and sprawling, and his was singular. Amused by his fixation on such a specific goal, I nodded in agreement. “I don’t want to miss that spectacle!”
“Spectacle?” He rotated towards Timbuktu and raised his arm like the Statue of Liberty. “It’s art!”
Push-starting the Land Rover in the sand failed. Beltrán wagged his finger. “This is ridiculous!” Then he point-gestured, like tapping a window. “This will be in my movie.” Besides practicing medicine, and roadside drama, Beltran, who was Chilean, had studied cinematography as a Fulbright scholar.
Beltrán joked. I paced. Two months of my trip had passed and I’d only been through a piddling corner of Africa. Mali was only the third country of my planned one-year trip and I needed to keep moving. But as I began to understand the scope of my travel ambitions, I redefined expectations—it would take me five years, not one, and reckoning that change required a decision: do I declare myself a nomadic traveler? Or do I return home to look for a job or otherwise figure out what to do next? Given that my invested money could actually pay for a lengthy trip, the looming decision occupied my mind.
“In this piece of shit?” I’d asked Beltran when he showed me the Land Rover after he had arranged the ride. “The tires are bald and it’s rusted through. We’ll never make it.” The other passengers watched our antics while Amadou collected fares.
“It’ll be fine.” He tamped his hand, as if patting a child’s head. We had waited days. “This is the only ride.”
Now, in the stinging hot, I had an idea. Beltrán knew how to say “open” in French and Amadou, the man with whom I entrusted my life, popped the hood. I recognized the components to hot-wire start the ignition—something I learned from a tow-truck driver when I was a teenager—and point-demonstrated the set-up; Beltrán translated. Amadou, who was about thirty-five and drove his Land Rover through the desert for a living, connected the by-pass and the engine started. Amadou looked towards me, nodded, and smiled. Beltrán rubbed his hands together briskly.
We’d earned enough goodwill to share the front seat with Amadou and his assistant. I’d never been happier to squeeze into discomfort. There were nineteen people behind crammed atop rice sacks and three on the roof with the luggage.
Getting out of the Land Rover when we stopped for the night was painful; my joints ached stiff as I tried to contort my body into a standing position. We didn’t know what to do or where we would sleep. We decided to wander toward the village perimeter to spend the night on the sand hidden under a market stall table. Along the way, a man grilled meat on a fire in a stubby metal barrel; customers sat on wooden benches and ate with their hands; some spit chunks of gristle. A boy and a girl pushed an old bike tire with sticks. The drumming never stopped.
“Kwashiorkor, marasmus, vitamin deficiency. I see them here.” Beltran gave a lesson on dietary insufficiencies the next morning as we walked through the tiny village. A woman made puff-puffs, deep fried sugary dough balls served in a cone of paper as three naked children with distended stomachs gestured for food. We bought each a portion but the juxtaposition—food among this rampant hunger—evoked guilt with every bite.
We followed a boy to a square mud structure festooned with four squat towers on each corner. Nearby, Amadou’s legs protruded from beneath the Land Rover.
“Eleven.” Beltrán swept his finger upward in a circle. We kept track of the number of breakdowns for a ten-dollar bet.
I crawled under to investigate. Splayed open, the front differential looked atrocious. Amadou fished through a splotch of oily sand and pulled out a bolt.
“Señor, It’s bad.”
“Caramba!” Beltrán kicked sand. We retreated to shade and wrote in our journals.
Later, Beltrán stood and squinted as if looking through binoculars, “Let’s explore.” He grabbed his camera. “I need light.”
On a corner in the village, below a reeded shade structure, he motioned light-rays with an overhead arm and kneeled. “I will publish these in Noreste.” Beltrán had founded and published Chile’s only literary journal. “The shadow must be perfect.” He slow-motioned angles, adjusted, and snapped one photo of a child’s wrist adorned in a silver paper bracelet.
Apart from our journey, though, Beltrán and I were different. He had a joy to live, took each moment lightly, and lived unburdened. He knew where he was headed in life. I did not. He was a doctor, and a mysterious poet. I was an unemployed practical backpacker with a sack of money and a dream. Yet I saw him as a guide who might help determine my unclear future.
Back at the Land Rover, I watched Amadou crawl back under the engine with a new tool.
“Name a country,” Beltrán commanded.
“Three horizontal bars, red, white, and black; gold bird in the center.” Beltrán had memorized the design, colors, and symbolism of every country’s flag. To pass time, I quizzed him, fascinated by his mind. But I wondered if this random exhibition of detailed memorization was a veiled intellectual brag.
“Mathematics determine shapes; humans determine design.” He grabbed his sketchbook and drew world flags. “Compare the ratios.” The pen darted like a pin ball. “Note the aesthetic differences; some pleasant, some not.” He was, in every way, unlike me—he, precise and analytical, me, loose and open to chance.
We had used head wraps to keep the incessant flies out of our eyes. The temperature was over one-hundred degrees. We slept in the shade of a nearby veranda.
Sometime around noon, I heard sounds of agony from Beltrán. “Something’s wrong,” he said.
When I sat up, I saw Beltrán on his knees vomiting. I grabbed water and a towel and ran to him. Minutes later, Amadou started the Land Rover and honked.
Later that afternoon, Amadou guided us around a dune and stopped at a well. Beltrán was pale and feverish. He had to use an arm to hold himself against the Land Rover, and when he let go, he wobbled. He lowered himself to the sand.
Camels drank from the trough as Bedouins sat crossed-legged, brewing tea on a twig fire. I had never drunk from an animal trough.
I filled the jugs and then carried one to Beltrán.
That night, he couldn’t stand without assistance, and the assistance came from me. During a Niger River fording, he stayed in the Land Rover when everyone else had to wade across on foot. On the far side, surrounded by members of the nomadic Fulani group, and their cattle, I lay him in the sand. He was frightened and shivered uncontrollably. I covered him with a sleeping bag retrieved from his backpack. Fellow passengers and Fulani encircled and looked upon him.
“It’s malaria,” he self-diagnosed. “Hijo de puta.”
At least he wasn’t delirious.
“Everything’s going to be OK.” I held his hand. “We’ll get you to Timbuktu.” Beltrán looked grave. It was the most scared I’d ever been. I barely knew the man, but suddenly felt responsible for his survival. At home, I would have called 911. Here, I was the hospital, and there was nothing I could do. The sheltered life back home seemed awfully comforting.
I remained at his side, took deep breaths, and watched the river. Beltrán unexpectedly sat up. A woman offered a calabash of fresh cow’s milk, and he sipped.
The moon illuminated the group of women, some held handmade wooden buckets. Amadou had said the group spoke Fula, a language I was hearing for the first time. “Look, listen,” said Beltrán. “Listen to the cadence.” Even when he was at risk of dying, I envied how he could live in the present without worrying about his dire situation.
Later, Amadou and the others helped placed Beltrán atop the rice sacks in the Land Rover. I remained at his side and said, “We’re on our way.” There was no response from him because he was already sound asleep.
The next day, the terrain changed to scrub and we followed a deteriorated intermittent one-lane dirt track. The attack had passed; Beltrán was reanimated, back to his philosophical observant self. Any remaining joy had left me. I was overwhelmed with concern for Beltran to the point of thinking how one might transport a corpse in the desert. Amadou had bought a haunch of meat and to dry it, entwined the slab through the radio antenna. A passenger disembarked at nothing but horizon.
Sometime later, a vehicle approached in the distance. Instead of pulling to the side of the track and stopping to let the truck pass, Amadou proceeded to steer through the scrub.
“Hijo de puta!” Alarmed, Beltrán instinctually safeguarded my chest with his extended arm and then pointed up. “Look.”
“What?” Half asleep, I floundered.
We slammed hard. The rooftop passengers flew over the hood and rolled onto the sand. The Land Rover rocked to a stop. That brought it to eighteen breakdowns.
Amadou drove over an embankment. Everybody was OK.
“Why? Why did he do that?” Beltrán got out and assessed, bending at the waist to scrutinize with hands clasped behind lower back, like a crash scene investigator. “What is this piece?”
Front leaf-suspension parts looked lonely scattered in the dirt. The once-approaching truck disappeared to doppler effect silence.
Beltrán scowled. We had both had enough, but Beltrán, fortunately, seemed to be feeling better.
After so many breakdowns, setbacks, and recoveries, I trusted Amadou to get us going. Besides, it seemed futile to buck fate.
Beltrán eyes bulged, “We’ll never get there,” he muttered.
I said, “We can use your backpack to signal search and rescue!”
He gave me a look, trudged away, and stewed.
I couldn’t blame him; uncertainty abounded. But this was not the time to pout and I wanted to tell him to grow up. We had a problem. I rigged shade and signaled him back.
Under Amadou’s tutelage, we collected stones. He built a small cairn under the front and with everyone’s effort, hoisted the Land Rover atop to suspend the axle.
“See!” I pointed.
Amadou used rocks to pound the suspension into shape. He fit one piece into the next and then, in a move of mechanical ingenuity, used a piece of roof rack to fashion a replacement clasp. It was twilight when he re-assembled the lot.
Timbuktu remained elusive. A night and a day remained on what was already a fifty-five-hour trip that would have taken four hours on freeway.
The next day toward dusk, Amadou bumped onto the five-mile asphalt road from the Niger River to Timbuktu and at last we had arrived. “We made it!” I said. I held up my arm to show Beltrán my goosebumps.
“Desert Arabesque.” He stared out the window at the modern suburb on our approach to the old adobe city. Neat, attractive, single-story white homes flanked the road, each on a lot with a guard. They were solid and thick, to repel heat. Palm trees abounded.
After a three-day trip, I was almost ecstatic to arrive in Timbuktu. Somehow, I was proud too and it confirmed my contention that such experiences exceeded anything I might have been doing at home. In my heart, I was doing exactly what I was put on this earth to do. It also lent me some credibility as a world traveler and I thought, having done this, that I could travel anywhere in the world and survive—no other journey could be as difficult.
Beltrán turned and looked at me, indicating the exquisite facades. Each home had three pointed arches, stout double front wood doors, and external staircases to roofs. Friezes of squares, triangles, and diagonals crowned. We spied Timbuktu’s largest building, the mud mosque, in the distance.
Amadou had slowed, the asphalt ended; before us: Timbuktu. We entered a sand plaza, stopped, and then proceeded to circle the perimeter in the Land Rover. Beltrán jutted his head and extended an arm toward the flag. I arm bumped Amadou and gyrated my hand to request a second lap, like a rodeo cowboy after a winning bronc ride. He rubbed his necklace, then the dashboard, and circled again. He stopped dead-ahead of the police station and a sign that read: Tomboutou.
Beltrán karate chopped air.
We staggered out of the Land Rover, congratulated Amadou, and said goodbyes.
“Passport stamps,” Beltrán said. I followed him forward and he cajoled the officer to action. Once Le Commissaire de Police flourished his signature atop the purple stamp, Beltrán smiled and said, “We have arrived.”
Days later, Beltrán unwrapped his white suit. It had cooled off, the sun was lower, the shadow right. Beltrán opened his journal to the Timbuktu map he had drawn and said, “The house with the cracked wood lintel.” He placed his finger on the page. “Wait for me there,” he commanded. He stood, held the suit in one hand and pointed me outside with the other. I dutifully followed him, as I had done since I met him. I, consumed with curiosity for the world while I ran away from it, he, a philosopher doctor who had traveled all this way for this one moment. He said, “I will dress now.”
The moment drew near. I floated through the old city on the main road past the plaza, mosque, and community well. I pivoted left and entered the maze of sand footpaths and brown adobe homes. The facades looked weathered and unkept. Most were spotted with crumbling mud-stucco and all were pocked by time. I wandered and waited with two cameras and spare rolls of film.
Beltrán, in his white suit, approached and stopped. An entourage had gathered. Men wore sky blue or white kaftans and head wraps. A woman balanced a jug of water on her head and looked agog. Children clambered to the front of the pack and one cried in fright. I snapped away.
“A profile now.” Beltrán said. Posing like an impresario, he calculated movements, postures, and compositions of photos, and at each location—abodes of early European explorers, centers of cultural learning, or mosques—expounded on the history and significance. Within the sand passageways, I wondered what the Malians, with their animistic beliefs, might have thought if they knew, like I did, that a dust storm had conjured the spirit before us. Or if they looked on this man as vaguely ridiculous, a cliché and reminder of their colonial past that his blinding white get-up had emulated.
And somehow, I was immortalizing this moment for him. And though I became, temporarily, his student and acolyte, there were no similarities between him and me except for the moment we were living right then, on that street, both of us far from home and both of us somehow finding what we were searching for. He permanently, me, temporarily. But where his journey had ended here on the streets of Timbuktu, mine would last another five years. I would befriend many strangers, share many breakdowns, and nurse each other through illness and adventure. But Beltrán remains for me an inspiration to pursue a dream, no matter how nonsensical, while endorsing the concept of world travel as a noble occupation.
In front of the library, which was filled with historical manuscripts dating from the thirteenth century, he placed his hand upon the wood door.
“This is why I came.” He narrowed his stance, stood sharp chest out, bent a closed fist arm in front of his abdomen, and gazed to the distance.
Later, we hitchhiked north to an area labeled intense sand on maps. We sat under a truck in shade and made good on our bet to guess the total number of breakdowns.
“Diabolical” Beltrán had said as he flashed two digits on each hand. I paid him ten bucks.
Even when things went wrong, they went right on the way to Timbuktu. Amadou and his Land Rover persevered. A dust storm produced a man in a white-suit, a spirit who begged me to emulate him even though I knew I could not. The Sahara delivered resilience amid hardship and Timbuktu offered solace, understanding, and reflection.
“That trip was brutal.” I said as I spread my pointed index fingers to an arms-length width, “Regardless, if that was one corner of the world, I want to see it all.”
I overcame my shyness and admitted to Beltrán that I felt unsettled at home. I lived with an innate desire to explore. It consumed and directed me. I likened travel to finishing school. I had hoped that the experience would help me find answers to some questions I was still asking. Questions that, remarkably, eluded him.
Want to come along?” I said.
“I’m ready to be a doctor.” Then he pointed straight up and vibrated his hand in front of his face and said,
The only one
who wore a white suit
I wanted to give him five gallons of water. I admired his quest, his singular focus, how he crossed the world for the almost ludicrous goal of being photographed in a clean white suit. But my goal was simply to keep moving.
I wandered up a wind-polished dune. At the crest, mesmerized by the Sahara, I lay down and watched fistfuls of sand trickle in the breeze. Among the grains and dunes, where some saw mirages, I imagined each handful a place: Victoria Falls, across to Nairobi, the Himalayas, Chile.
Elated, I jumped-slid down the dune like a little boy. Breathless, I told Beltrán what I had imagined. He kneeled me down and began to trace proposed travel routes across maps drawn in sand. He looked at me, and then, like a laser, extended his arm and pointed toward the maps. “Remember this.”
Robert Dale Fama is a San Francisco based registered nurse. He traveled around the world when younger and recently digitized his extensive travel journals. A newcomer to writing, this is his first story.