It's November of 2006. Cliff, Kunta (our guide) and I have just spent 3 days traveling on a small boat up the Niger River to our destination, the fabled city of Timbuktu. Our goal for today is to head up the Sahara Desert to our new destination, a Tuareg camp on the way to Taudenni with its important salt mines. There are no roads here! You don't just hop in your jeep and cruise up the highway! Instead, you get introduced to the camel that will be your companion through the heat of the desert.
It's pretty hot out here and I haven't taken a shower in about 3 days. I'm not sure who smells worse, the camel or me. I know I should be getting acclimated to my new adventure in the Sahara Desert. However, I seem to be consumed with worrying about whether or not my back will go out in this orthopedically incorrect camel saddle. Not to worry. As long as my camera bag is securely attached to the saddle, I am happy.
The salt mines of Taudenni are 500 miles north of Timbuktu. I learned that salt from the Sahara Desert is considered to be gold, a necessity and source of commerce. This condiment has been in high demand since its discovery in the sand dunes in the twelfth century. Because of the salt trade, Timbuktu became an important epicenter for business with Europe, Persia and Southern Africa. This gave rise to a golden age in which the area became a focal point for great wealth and Islamic study.
It's now time to proceed into the desert with our Tuareg guides. We trudge in a small caravan for about two hours until we reach our camp site. Here we encounter a group of Tuareg nomads who are temporarily inhabiting this part of the desert. The Tuaregs are Berber people with a population of about 1.2 million that live in the Saharan parts of Niger, Mali and Algeria. I'm struck immediately by their distinctive clothing which includes an indigo blue colored veil known as an Alasho. This garment is felt to ward off evil spirits and helps to protect these vagabonds from the harsh desert sands as well.
After pitching our tent, evening has descended upon us. We sit around a campfire and Kunta translates as our Tuareg host tells us a story about an exchange program that was enacted between a group from Spain and four Tuareg families. When the Tuaregs arrived in Bamako to get on the plane they all vomited and said they would walk to Western Europe instead. After being convinced to board the plane and successfully reaching their destination in the Spanish hotel, they had trouble understanding how the elevator worked and refused to get off. Eventually, they were forced off and taken to the rooms provided for each of their four families. However, this was unacceptable to them and they all ended up staying in one room.
Having had my experience as Lawrence of Arabia, it was now time to start heading back to Bamako. As I thought about the places I had seen, the people I had met and the Tuareg culture I had been exposed to, I realized that the more I learned about the world, the less I really knew.