This was the first night that we hadn't set an alarm on the entire trip. The first time we opened our eyes, after a surprisingly sound night's sleep, was at 7:20 am, and Craig could see Susan's shoes outside of our tent. We called to her and chatted for a bit. Their tent had woken up earlier than we had, but they had managed to get a decent night's sleep as well. The goats near our tent were bleating and some of them sounded downright strange.
The baby goat sounded like a human infant crying. Our ear plugs had done a good job blocking them out, though. We walked over to the bathroom and all of a sudden a small plane started making repeated passes above the camp. The Tuaregs who guarded our camp pointed to them and said, "Security."
We headed to the mess tent and there were actually empty spots at the picnic tables. We sat at a center table with Pam and Tina, and it was much nicer than being relegated to the periphery of the mess tent. We realized that this was the second shift of folks eating breakfast. People sure were early birds around here! What time did breakfast start, anyway? We had no idea as to the schedule. We had Laughing Cow cheese, scrambled eggs in a weird honey sauce, bread, hot chocolate powder (a rare treat!) and Nescafe. It combined to make a nice mocha. We chatted with Heikke and her husband (from the German embassy in Nigeria) and Amy from New York City. We enjoyed talking with them as well as Tina and Pam.
We went back to the tent and brushed our teeth with our bottled water. Someone from another tour company came by selling Festival T-shirts. They had the company's logo on the back, but they were the only Festival T-shirts we had seen for sale (apart from some dodgy hand-stencilled ones). There was a cute stylized camel on the front and we decided we'd like to buy some. He didn't have the sizes we wanted with him, but he promised he would be back with them.
Bahini came to get us and told us that it was time for our camel rides. Camel rides were supposed to be included in our tour, but so far we had steered clear. We had heard other travelers complaining that the ride only lasted 2 minutes, and that they were harassed for a tip by the camel drivers. Various Tuaregs had approached us since yesterday asking if we'd like a ride, but we hadn't felt like haggling.
But here Bahini had the whole thing set up for us, so we followed him to a group of Tuaregs with camels. I climbed onto the wooden saddle and the camel stood up, pitching me forward and back. Though I was wearing an ankle-length skirt, the saddle and the motion caused it to ride up a bit, exposing part of my leg. The Tuaregs were looking at Craig and seemed to be concerned with this, female modesty being very important in Islamic culture. Craig clued me in and I was careful to gather my skirt around my calves and held it in place for the duration of my time on the camel. One of the Tuaregs took my flip-flops off my feet and tied them to the back of the camel. He told me to cross my feet and rest them on the camel's neck.
I assumed (based on what we had heard from others at camp) that I would take a short ride and then I would trade off with the next person, but to my surprise, they loaded Craig, Tina, and Susan onto their own camels and we would all be going together. There were several young Tuareg boys accompanying us as well, and one of them hopped onto the back of Craig's camel and rode bareback.
Unfortunately, Pam's skirt was too short to modestly ride the camel, so she stayed behind. Nobody thought she would be missing very much, as we expected the ride to be very short. We took pictures of each other as we rode. I gave my camera to Mohammed to get photos of all of us. The camels walked past the main stage and then turned left over the dune. We saw a group of women in a circle singing and drumming, and Mohammed approched them to take some pictures.
The Tuaregs gave us pointers as to how to ride the camel, which is actually not too much different than riding a horse - leaning into the direction that you want them to go, leaning forward going uphill, and leaning backwards going downhill. Camels are notoriously ill-tempered, but these were quite pleasant and docile, plodding along through the sand.
As the ride progressed, we found ourselves in a section of the desert where there was no other sign of civilization. This was turning into a lengthy ride, and we joked that Pam would wonder what had happened to us - her whole group having headed north (of all directions - the travel advisory had warned against traveling north of Timbuktu) with a group of Tuaregs. This got a hearty laugh. One of our escorts was Achmed, whom we had met yesterday. We were doing our best to recognize people and remember their names, but it was difficult when they all wore indigo robes and had a turban concealing half of their faces.
After about half an hour on the camels, the Tuaregs told us that we were coming up on the Tuareg settlement at Essakane Village. Our camels laid down to let us off. We walked around the settlement, which consisted of several tents, a run-down mud brick structure, an outdoor cooking area, and a couple of 50 gallon oil drums. Several small trees provided some shade. There were several Tuareg women and children around. We said hello, and one little girl seemed particularly interested in us. Tina and I took photos of her and showed them to her, which elicited a big smile. The father said that his family had never seen their photograph before, and he asked if we could print it out then and there. We wish we could have.
Our Tuareg escorts started the tea kettle on top of the little metal basket which contained wood coals. They then led us into a tent, which was made of various colored fabrics which looked like bedsheets and blankets. We left our shoes outside and entered to find mats and pillows on the ground. We sat down. It was very comfortable in the tent, as the sun filtered through the colored fabric, creating a diffused glow. The tent was held up by a framework of tree boughs lashed together with fibers. The father and little girl also came in to join us, and watched the proceedings silently and intently. Mohammed and his friends told us about Tuareg culture, and about the salt caravans which still cross the desert. We assumed that they would entertain us in the tent and ask us to buy some of their wares, which we were happy to do to get souvenirs from this interesting excursion.
We chatted with them about their lives. They told us to feel free to ask them anything. We should have had a lot of questions, but were so overwhelmed by these incredible experiences that we could barely think of any. They said that they leave this area for the rainy season. There isn't a centralized village as such. Families set up camps spread out over the surrounding area. Mohammed had been educated in a Quranic school, and demonstrated Arabic writing for us, writing out the first line of the Quran in my notebook. I asked if he could write our names in Arabic as well, and he happily obliged. The writing was beautiful, and the graceful letters were punctuated with dots and lines.
Meanwhile, the other Tuaregs in the group made tea for us. Once again there were just two glasses on a silver platter, and Craig and I were served first. I could not get the Police song "Tea in the Sahara" out of my head. Craig and I toasted with a hearty "Bottoms up!" in homage to Michael Palin's camel trek across the Sahara. (Having had no common language with his Tuareg hosts, he taught them the phrase "Bottoms up!" and it was a real ice-breaker for him.)
I asked if Tuaregs had multiple wives. They smiled and said no. "We have a saying: One wife, one problem, more wives, more problems!" We asked how many children families tend to have. He said that they may have up to seven, but they generally have less than the polygymous Dogon.
Mohammed and his friend then got out their bundles of wares and spread them out on cloths in front of them. I asked how much a pair of earrings were, and was told that there was protocol to follow. "You put aside what interests you, then we put the rest away, then we discuss." We realized that commerce is a social activity for the Tuareg, much as teatime is. There are certain norms to which we must adhere. In addition to the earrings (the design of which he told me signify dunes, a turban, and a tent), I was interested in a chunky "Tuareg passport" necklace. This symbol was used as identification and would gain Tuaregs the right to draw water at Bouctou's legendary well in Timbuktu. Craig was looking at the other spread of goodies, and he picked out a necklace bearing the symbol of Essakane as well as a small knife in a decorated camel leather sheath.
We pulled these items aside, and then they wrapped up the rest of the items in the cloth and put them away. "Now I give my first price, then you give your first price, then we discuss," they coached us. The prices for the Tuareg silver pieces were not cheap, but our "discussions" did lower the price by quite a bit. We were then served a second cup of tea each. They told us that they have a saying about tea. The first cup is strong as death, the second is mild as life, and the third is sweet as love.
We reflected on the fact that we had shared tea with the Dogon as well; two different and geographically separated tribes with similar tea customs. After business had been conducted, we left the tent, said our goodbyes and thank yous to the women and children, and mounted our camels once again. Mohammed told me to drive, and handed me the rope rein. I was afraid the camel might freak out, but it didn't bother him one bit and he just kept plodding along, docilely following the others. Camels are amazing creatures; we they step, their feet spread out and work like snowshoes, so they don't sink in the sand. We were reminded of how silently elephants can move because their feet are similarly cushioned. It was a very peaceful ride back, with the sound of the desert wind in our ears. Mohammed eventually took up the rein again to speed my camel up a bit, because I was lagging behind.
When we arrived back at our camp, my camel sat down to let me off. He bent his front legs first and I pitched forward as he sat, hanging onto the wooden saddle for dear life. Then the camel bent its back knees, and I careened backwards. They are definitely not the most graceful animals when it comes to lying down! Pam greeted us, and the T-shirts that we had asked to purchase right before going off on the camel adventure were there waiting for us. Ask and you shall receive in Mali.
We went to the mess tent to sit in the shade and tell Pam about our excursion. We wished she had been able to join us, since it had been a really enjoyable trek. We all reflected on the Festival so far, and looked forward to another evening of music. Last night, we hadn't known the name of the impressive closing act. After talking to a few people, we found out that it was Bassekou Kouyate and Amy Sacko.
Immediately, Camara asked if we were interested in buying the CD. We weren't sure whether CD's here were pirated copies or what, but we were willing to take a look. Camara took off on a mission to find the CD. A few minutes later, he was back. The name of the CD was "Ngoni Blue." It was a CD-R, though a more "professional" looking one. The insert was just a computer printout, but we knew if we pointed this out, they would try to attest to its authenticity due to a small hologram sticker on the front. We realized that for some of these Malian bands, a CD-R is probably as "official" as it gets. The price was rather high and we negotiated it down to around $15 (still higher than I would expect, but even buying it online is expensive as it's an import). We decide dto buy it anyway, as we like to buy at least one disc from local bands on our travels, but we decided to limit ourselves to one due to the price. We just hoped that the thing would play when we got home, and luckily, it did.
I wrote in the journal at the picnic table, and soon it was lunchtime (1:00) and the tables started to fill in around us. Ha! We had secured ourselves a good spot early! Lunch consisted of rice (which was very good with the hot sauce on the table) and some of that same bowl of chopped up fish, skin and all. Craig tried to convince me that it was just like tuna straight from the can, but I stuck to the rice.
After lunch we retired to our tents for a rest. It was the warmest part of the day, and I still had some notes to write up. So much had happened in the past day and a half, and I wanted to capture all of my thoughts and impressions while they were still fresh. We laid on our sleeping mats listening with headphones to Craig's mp3 player on which he had recorded last night's music. After writing for a while, I started to get sleepy. Tonight would be the grand finale of the Festival, and I didn't want to doze off like I had last night, so I took a short nap.
Last night's sunset had been fantastic, and we wanted to make sure to catch tonight's as well. We got out of the tent shortly before 5:00. We saw Bouba, who had been back to Timbuktu to get the radiator fixed, and was now back at the Festival. As we started to walk toward the stage area, El Hadj appeared with gifts for us. He gave Craig a necklace with the Timbuktu symbol, and he gave me a necklace with a Tuareg passport. It was very sweet of him; he didn't need to give us anything. But he wanted us to remember our time together at the Festival. We walked one row of dunes further west than the one that we had sat on for last night's concert. El Hadj took a saber sword from one of his Tuareg friends and asked me to get a picture of him posing with it. I tried taking a few, but the lighting wasn't cooperating, and unfortunately, they didn't come out very well.
On the next dune even further west, we noticed a young Western man being filmed. He had the gorgeous sunset behind him and they shone the light back onto his face with a reflector. We then could hear him singing and we caught the words "Beyond the horizon." It appeared to be a music video. We watched as he walked back and forth across the sand, cavorted around, did a one handed cartwheel and then turned so that the nearly full moon was now behind him. We watched them with interest for about 10 minutes, and were amused by the repeated shots that they were getting, knowing that the finished product would probably be edited to look entirely different. After the light had faded, they started to pack up their equipment, and the singer stopped prancing around.
My curiosity got the better of me, and I walked down the dune and asked, "Are you filming a video? What's your name?" He said that he was, and his name was Zander Bleck. He was from New York City, and he was performing tonight so he had to get to soundcheck. I asked if I could take a photo and he posed like a professional. I walked back up the dune and almost lost my flip flops to the sand. After getting home, we searched for the finished video on YouTube and found it. Although we're not fans of his style of music, seeing the images from our trip made it a must-see for us. There's a lot of good footage of Essakane...the sunset and full moon look absolutely gorgeous. It really gives a sense of what it was like to be there. There's also some fun footage of him playing soccer with kids in Bamako, and the kids clown for the camera the same way that our kids in Kori-Maounde did. (And you'll notice that we were right about the editing - you would never know that we were just 100 feet away from them - it looks as though Zander had the entire desert to himself!)
The dune stage was still active at this time and we headed over to see male saber dancers and clapping, ululating female singers. How do they even make some of those noises? It was really interesting to see close-up, but unfortunately the light was low and the photos that I took didn't come out very well. When they finished up, we walked down to the main stage and watched a bit of soundcheck. We chatted some more with El Hadj and then it was time to go back to camp for dinner. We said our goodbyes to El Hadj in case we didn't run into him again, and we exchanged contact info. We had made a good friend, and hope to return some day so that he can show us a local's perspective of his hometown of Timbuktu. (Timbuktu somehow has a poor reputation among travelers, but we had found it absolutely enchanting and fascinating. Maybe it just differs from people's idealized expectations. But we are eager to explore it even further).
Back at camp, we were able to squeeze into the picnic tables and had a quick meal of goat meat and couscous while chatting with a woman named Ilsa who lived in Ireland. Then we were back to our usual dune, better equipped tonight with two extra pairs of socks and a sleeping bag, just in case. We laid out my sarong to sit on, put two pairs of socks on our feet and one on our hands as mittens, and enjoyed the show. Desert Blues started at 8 o'clock. It was a supergroup which consisted of Habib Koité, Tartit, and Afel Bocoum. It was very enjoyable and eventually morphed into a kind of blues rap fusion. They mentioned in French that Tinariwen hadn't been able to make it to the Festival this year, but that apparently one or two members of the band had come and were sitting in.
Pam, Tina, Susan, and Bahini were on the move again tonight, watching at times from the dune, from up near the stags, and even just listening from their tent. Pam climbed the dune and showed me some of the pictures that she had gotten from down in front of the stage. They were amazing. She offered to go down with me so we made the trip. "We're crossing the rope!" she announced, and we ducked under a rope and into a crowd of Tuaregs against the amps on the left side of the stage. I hoped I wasn't disturbing the folks around me, but they were quite gracious. They made room for me to get some pictures and a short video. The view was fantastic and it was a whole different atmosphere down here. Because we can't understand French, we had absolutely no idea who the performer was that we were seeing from this excellent vantagepoint. We found out afterwards that the main performer was Abdallah Ag Alhousenyni from Tinariwen (the critically acclaimed Tuareg band which has its roots in the rebel refugee camps of Algeria). The amps were incredibly loud, and there was only so long I could stay there before I motioned to Pam that I was all set and we headed back up the dune.
It was a difficult hike in the soft sand up to our spot on the dune. It was quite tiring to walk in the sand. Although the view had been fantastic from up near the stage, Craig and I decided that we liked our dune spot better. It gave us an overview of the whole, surreal scene. If we were up at the front, we may as well have been at a concert at home. There wasn't much difference and it would have been like having blinders on. But from our view we could see what made this whole experience so special - the desert, the dunes, the full moon...
By this time, Tina's still camera had gotten some sand into the mechanism and refused to work. She sat next to Craig on the dune for a while with her video camera, and we were very impressed with how much she could zoom in on the stage.
(20 second clip)
Vieux Farka Touré played, and he totally rocked out. His late father, the renowned Ali Farka Touré, was a staple in Festivals past, living near Timbuktu in the town of Niafunké. During the in-between-act banter they talked a lot about security. We couldn't understand the French, but it seemed almost proudly defiant. It was as if people were concerned about the safety of the Festival but the organizers knew that they would be able to keep it safe, and that they had it all under control.
During the main stage performances, Festival workers broke down the dune stage. It became apparent that tomorrow the Festival would be a memory, and all that would be left here was the main stage (made of concrete) and a couple of WC buildings. Tartit, a group consisting of Tuareg men and women, whose name means "union" in Tamasheq, played after Vieux Farka Touré. To quote their website, Tartit "formed in a refugee camp, during the Tuareg uprising in the early '90s". Their music was hypnotic and rhythmic. The moon and the stars were gorgeous, and people once again began lighting campfires. You could look off in any direction and all you could see were dunes. It was surreal, as if the whole Essakane experience was some sort of mirage.
Habib Koité ended the show with an awesomely smoking set. Habib sings and plays guitar. His band, Bamada (a nickname for residents of Bamako), has a very strong rhythm section, with a percussionist who plays a mean talking drum and a balafon player (The balafon is is a traditional West African instrument similar to a wooden xylophone or vibraphone). In between songs, Habib apologized for his English, but said that he wanted to thank everyone in English anyway, as he is the "ambassador" of the Festival. The group's energy was contagious, and kept the crowd going late into the night. An announcement was made that tourists flying out of Timbuktu in the morning needed to be at the airport at 4 am. Yikes! We may have a long drive ahead of us tomorrow, but at least we didn't need to leave the campground until 5 o'clock.
All of a sudden, Craig leaned over and whispered into my ear "I think we're going to be seeing my dinner again tonight." This was news to me. "What?" I asked. He explained that ever since we had eaten dinner, his stomach had not felt right. He had kept it to himself thus far, but now felt that the evening was drawing to its inevitable conclusion. I asked if he wanted to head back to camp, but he said he would rather stay and enjoy the rest of concert. After another 15 minutes, near the end of the performance, he walked down the private back side of the dune and got sick. I asked (more forcefully now) if he wanted to go back to the tent, but, typical Craig, he wanted to stick it out and see the end of the concert. During the encores (after 2 am) his mp3 recorder ran out of battery power and that was the signal that it was finally time to leave. We would still be able to hear the final song as we walked back to camp. The walk back to camp seemed particularly long tonight. We walked down the dune and then parallel to it back toward camp, passing the platform of sunken railroad ties which functioned as a makeshift parking lot.
On the walk back to our camp, he got sick again. We made a stop at a bathroom and then we climbed the final small rise to our camp. We said goodnight to the security guard by his fire before we arrived at our tent. By the time we settled into the tent, the live show was over, but recorded music was blaring while Festival workers wasted no time breaking down the main stage. Craig wasn't sure how his stomach would fare overnight, so he moved all of our bags a safe distance from his sleeping mat and dug a hole in the sand in case he needed it in the middle of the night. I was reminded of Bob Dylan from "Tombstone Blues:" "Is there a hole for me to get sick in?"
We wondered if we would be able to sleep with all of this noise, but luckily we were both exhausted. We put our earplugs in and did our best to get what little sleep we could. We would be departing at 5 am the next morning, along with just about everyone else in the camp. We set our alarm for 4:45, trying to squeeze in every last minute of sleep that we could, and hoping that Craig would be feeling better for the long drive to Mopti.
Waking up in our tent in the Sahara
Tina and Pam at breakfast
Heading north on camels - Steph, Tina, Craig, & Susan
Steph on camelback
Craig and Steph in a Tuareg tent
Tea in the Sahara
Returning to camp
El Hadj and Craig
Full moon over the Sahara
Soundcheck under a full moon
Campfires on the dunes
Abdallah Ag Alhousenyni
View of the stage from our dune