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Katherine Bernhardt: Tombouctou 52 Jours

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Canada
55 Chrystie Street, between Hester and Canal, 212-925-4631
East Village / Lower East Side
April 16 - May 23, 2010
Reception: Thursday, April 15, 6 - 8 PM
Web Site


We picked the best camels, big reddish tan ones with long eyelashes and brightly colored tassels hanging from their bridles. The group was quiet as we finished packing our provisions, there was tension in the air, so unlike the laughing and chatting we were used to in the cafes in Casablanca and Tangiers.

As we started out the thrill was almost impossible to contain; all the preparation and talking were behind me as we headed into the Sahara desert: so still, clean and open. Malik the young guide and leader of our group had made the journey many times, but his manner was aloof and quiet so it was hard to feel anything other than alone around him.

On the 10th day we came across a small band of Bedouin, passing through just like us. We camped together and were happy to be in company of others. Their generosity seemed boundless, even more so when I considered how little they had and how utterly barren the vast desert was that engulfed us. At night, under the brightest stars I have ever seen, we sat in their black wool tent keeping the chilly night air off with tea and bits of camel meat cooked on a spit. A woman I liked pulled out a dozen carpets from a burlap sack and began explaining to me who had made them (her sister, her aunt or her mother) and what the symbols meant. She gestured for me to pick one to take with me, I choose a bright beautiful one with squares and diamonds and I sheepishly offered her all the money I had brought.

The heat made the sand shimmer in the distance and it only got hotter and hotter so we decided to travel at night to spare the camels and ourselves. I cut myself opening a can of sardines, everyone saw but no one said anything. I had to take care of myself now. The hills of sand turned red then orange, then violet, and finally blue as the white sun fell. We walked until I lost count of my 52 days. I wore turban and long cotton cloaks of the camel drivers. Then I saw it, just when I felt I couldn’t take another step, a place I thought more and more was just a myth. The mud brick houses clustered around a spot of green that I knew must be the oasis. It was Tombouctou.

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