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Tuesday, April 23, 2019

A Love Affair In The Sahara –Incidental, Temporary, Unique

The trip from Nouakchott to the El Habib oasis is not far, perhaps no more than 50 miles; but it is travelled on desert pistes which disappear in the frequent sandstorms blowing from Algeria across Brakna and Al-Alahoui.  Then, it is navigation by familiarity, by the largest dunes whose profiles are changed by the wind but whose massiveness does not and serve to guide the way.  The off-piste ride is like riding the swells of a storm, sliding down and making headway up and through the dunes, back to the track, barely distinguishable from the rest of the desert sand except for the slight indentations made by the tires of the camions bringing provisions – water, Pernod, thread, couscous and material – to the oases of the north.

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This trip to El Habib went well.  The miles were covered without incident, the piste trackable for most of the trip, the weather calm and the heat bearable, and the accommodations in the house of the prefect comfortable until shortly after midnight when a sandstorm came up and sand sifted through the cracks under the doors, around the windows, and through the chinks in the roof.  The onward journey was delayed until noon when the skies finally cleared.   Each sandstorm narrowed the perimeter of the oasis and this one completely covered the briar fencing around the watered garden near the house.  The camels tethered in the palm grove hadn’t moved during the storm and their legs were shank-deep in sand, but as the team went up to the roof for breakfast, they began to move and bite, bellowing for feed or for movement, anticipating the trek which always came with good weather.  Even with Land Rovers and eight-wheeler camions the camels were still used to transport goods from Algeria, salt, and dates from the oases.

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Dinner, bed, and breakfast on the rooftop of the prefect’s residence was the best the team would have on the long trip to the far north of the region.  Accommodations were scarce, food marginal and sandy, and the water brackish. Washing – except for the ritual rinsing of hands before meals – was out of the question, a change of clothes impossible because all available space in the vehicles was reserved for the medicines, equipment, and nutritional supplements needed by the desert health posts to be visited.  On the second day, the wind shifted, and although light and variable brought high heat from the south, temperatures well over 100F that tried the engines of the diesels already taxed by constant low-range gear driving.  Despite being fitted for desert travel – exhausts mounted up and over the roofs, special sealant on the undercarriage, triple-filters for the air exchange, sand fouled all.  The air-conditioning on one of the Mercedes failed, and worked pitifully on the other two.   A tire was punctured on one of the long, sand-less, Mars-like stretches of rocky basalt and red dirt and the pressure so low on another three that small leaks were suspected, found, and sealed but only incompletely.

Roger and Miriam were colleagues on the UN team commissioned to service the farthest health outposts in the Mauritanian desert.  She was a medical doctor from Denmark, he an American public health specialist from America and they had become lovers on a previous trip to Kenya – a far less difficult mission than this one, most of it spent in the outskirts of the capital where tent cities had been erected to house the thousands of refugees from Southern Sudan and Ethiopia.  The work was difficult, often tedious, and emotionally disturbing, but there was always the Norfolk – the old British colonial hotel in downtown Nairobi where they were lodged – at the end of the day. 

Conversation is easy and comfortable among development workers in Africa with few of the social inhibitions of Europe and America  There is an automatic camaraderie among them, and any invitations are always assumed to be professional.  “Which cam did you visit today? Who do you work for? How long have you been here?  Where are you from?” are not come-ons and the answers to which are but markers of institutional place.  At the same time, if responses seem as congenial as they are professional, and if interest seems more than just passing, sex might well follow.  No one is looking here, nobody cares, and personal commitment to the health and welfare of others is a strong signifier, if not of rectitude than at least circumspection.   A love affair of travelers in Africa or Haiti, or Bucharest has had the annoying trappings of marriage, family, and home-office responsibility temporarily removed.  No one ever suggests carrying the affair farther than Port-au-Prince or Nairobi unless there is mutual agreement to do so.  Both partners in these initially one-off affairs want nothing more; and a romantic interlude between here and there is exciting, energizing, and uncomplicated.

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Much has been written about these cross-continental, international love affairs. In Paul Theroux’s The Tao of Travel, a collection of reflections on the seductiveness of travelling alone, he writes that travel encourages a willing suspension of disbelief, a temporary pause in rational judgment, an irresponsible dive.

To a greater or lesser extent there goes on in every person a struggle between two forces: the longing for privacy and the urge to go places: introversion, that is, interest directed within oneself toward one’s own inner live of vigorous thought and fancy; and extroversion, interest directed outward, toward the external world of people and tangible values (Vladimir Nabokov 1982)

One can never reinvent oneself. We are all programmed and conditioned to such a degree that what we were, we are; but at the same time, it is hard not feel that it is possible.  Conformity can only be a social construct as easily defied as it was adopted, we think.  There is no reason why not to live in another place with another person, in another life.

Love in a foreign place with someone who is just as foreign to it as the traveler, is always incidental, always temporary, but always unique. Both lovers are freer from inhibition and guilt than they would be at home. They will only be seen by passers-by.  They are in no hurry.  Nothing reminds them of home.

The strangeness of the room, the hotel, and the city is protective, insulating and exciting.  Travel holds the magical possibility of reinvention”, Theroux writes, “that you might find a place you love, to begin a new life and never go home.”

Roger and Miriam had been brought together by Haiti. There would have been no lovemaking in his balcony room at the Toulon; no dark night with only the Chinese coil burning to keep away the mosquitoes; no breeze from Kenscoff blowing the wide open windows if it hadn’t been in Haiti.  If it hadn’t been for Haiti itself.

There would have been no sexual intimacy without the voodoo drums, without the scent of jasmine growing in the gardens of the estates above the hotel, or without the rancid smell of the port that drifted up from the city in the early morning when the air pressure and the direction of the breeze changed.  They danced in Carrefour, spent weekends in cabanas on the beaches of Les Cayes and Macaya, and drove up north to Gonaives and Cap Haitien; but never would have had they met across the mountains in the Dominican Republic. Haiti was their go-between, their matrix, their enabler.

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They never talked about Haiti, Duvalier, the Tontons, or voodoo.  They only shared experiences from New Brighton,  Harvard, and Spring Valley; or Radisson, Fort George, or Nemiscau. Haiti gave their stories a common context. New Brighton and Fort George would now only be remembered as not Haiti. Not hot, tropical, gingerbread, threatening, ominous, passionate, and violent.

There is something disassembling about foreign places to which no one is immune.  Once one leaves the tarmac at Dulles, homegrown cultural constraints are loosened; and once once one lands in Niamey, Bamako, or Luanda they are untethered.  There is no liberation to compare.

It was not intended that their Haitian love affair continue.  As is generally the case, temporary lovers in strange places never suggest that they meet in Boston, New York, or Miami; and when her summer internships were over and his last contract delivered, they thought that their affair was over.  Yet it began again in Nouakchott, both as excited by the Sahara – its unknowable dimensions, its immensity – as they were by the tom-toms and voodoo of Kenscoff.

They did not sleep together in Nouakchott before the trek into the desert.  Too much time had past since Haiti,  and the unspoken rules of such incidental affairs – that they were over when they ended – were assumed. Yet that particularly potent chemistry of dispensation from the responsibility of home and family and the particular allure of solitariness in very strange, foreign places was irresistible.  And the sexual adventure – making love on the rooftop of the prefect’s residence under a full moon, only hours before the sandstorm but after all had retired for the night – was as Lawrentian as that on the high terrace of the Splendide Hotel, above the harbor of Port-au-Prince and beneath the hills of Petionville and Kenscoff beyond.

If the trip in had not been so difficult, had the radiators not overheated in the sand, had the air transfer not gotten so fouled, had the heat not been so desperately frightening, and the sandstorm not so intense and seemingly unending, the remote nutrition rehabilitation centers of the interior so filled with starvation and death, and the trip back not interrupted by more sandstorms and breakdowns, they might have ended the affair like all those that preceded them.  Yet they could not, planned to meet in Europe after the mission and again in New York.

They should have known better.  A love affair begun in the desert or in the strange voodoo Tonton Macoutes world of Papa Doc has no chance of surviving elsewhere.  There is no carryover, no re-creation, and no going back.  After a long weekend in Paris and a shorter one in Washington, they never saw each other again.  ‘There are many kinds of love in the world’, wrote Fitzgerald, ‘but never the same love twice’; and without regret but with frequent nostalgia, they agreed.   They went back to home, family, and responsibility as if they had never left; only to find incidental love many times thereafter.

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