A White Western Nomad
Feb18

A White Western Nomad

The blowing sand rocks our Land Rover as we reach the outskirts of Timbuktu. Mahkmoud leans over the steering wheel and peers into the hazy, lemon-yellow hue that fills our windshield. There is no horizon between earth and sky, and I wonder how he can continue to drive with no reference points. Yet, on he goes with the instinct of a desert nomad. I realize for him this is normal, but have to wonder how we are going to negotiate the open desert by camel and on foot in these conditions. He tells me these storms can last for days, but I do not care. We have finally reached one of the oldest and most remote cities on earth; so let the wind blow. I have come to see the Tuaregs, or Blue Men of the Sahara, an ancient Berber tribe that ranges from southern Morocco through Mauritania, and south into eastern Mali. They are regal in their indigo turbans, dyed with the ink of Mediterranean Sea urchins, and flowing blue robes. Astride one of their white camels, they are seemingly a sight directly out of Arabian Nights. In hopes of entering their world for a brief time, I later ask Halis, my Tuareg guide, if it might be possible to don the blue robes for a quick photo, praying he will not take offense. “No problem,” he says, as he disappears into the night. An hour later he is back at the door, arms piled high with blue fabric. “We will all travel as Tuaregs,” he says. “It will make things easier.” I do not know what this means until he points at the wall map. Our ultimate destination is his home village of Arawan, a former Foreign Legion outpost north of Timbuktu in the trackless Sahara. This is an area my guidebook calls “bandit country.” It is the only speck on the map for 120 miles in every direction. I had not bargained for this, but cannot pass up the opportunity. Halis shrugs off my query about bandits, saying they will not bother us. My own paranoia will have to decide if this is simply his own hubris, or statement of fact. We are going into the deep desert not only with, but dressed as, Berber nomads. Just after dawn, we tie and retie my turban in hopes of not making fools of ourselves. I walk through the hotel lobby feeling totally self-conscious, but no one gives me a second look. I am just another Tuareg in search of a morning coffee. An hour later, we are riding north on camels that seem to hate our very presence....

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Cruising with the King
Jan12

Cruising with the King

While in Africa, I met a king. That continent has many kings; some self-proclaimed, while others are hereditary, and they run the gamut from despot to enlightened ruler. I have met more than a few in my travels, but never before sought one out. The oral histories of Africa allow for personal interpretation, and stories of great men usually carry much embellishment, creating a chasm between the myth and the man. The stories I heard of this king could only be called legendary; that he was a shape shifter, assuming the guise of a leopard at night. Some said he could fly, talk to animals, and was wise beyond belief. They also said he was still a boy. Some say this king took the throne at age eleven, showing a world view that far exceeded his isolated existence. Such a story begged to be followed. Centuries ago, the Kaan or Gaan people (pronounced Goon) — depending on who is doing the spelling — migrated from Ghana into what is now the southwestern corner of Burkina Faso in West Africa, settling near Loropini. Theirs is an ancient culture, and today they number less than six thousand. They are primarily animists and practitioners of voodoo, a religion that permeates most West African cultures. Their king is elected from and by members of the royal family, rules for life, and is the keeper of traditional fetishes that are the soul of Gaan beliefs. Monsoon-clogged roads forced me to abandon my vehicle miles from my destination, forcing a trek of several miles through dried millet fields. Here, I accidentally stumbled into the voodoo soul of the Gaan — a re-created burial ground, as it were — with stone houses, each containing a clay effigy of a seated former king, and inlaid with cowry shell eyes and mouth. At first, in the darkness, I thought I was viewing mummies lifelike enough to stand and accost me. It was the Gaan place of ritual and the source of the king’s power, where he goes for the advice of his ancestors when the mantle of rule proves heavy to bear. I did not linger, for in many tribal areas, violating a burial ground is a serious offence. I left an offering of salt, more for the benefit of prying eyes than my own beliefs. Not far away, I saw his majesty sitting placidly in a wooden deck chair under a shade tree. He was not a boy, but not yet fully a man either. His ebony skin was flawless, and he had long, thin fingers that would be at home on a piano keyboard, or locked...

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From The Ashes: A Buddhist Monk’s Tale
Jan03

From The Ashes: A Buddhist Monk’s Tale

The smoke of wood fires dulls the sunrise, silhouetting the spires of Angkor Wat as if in an impressionist painting. These temples, the soul of the Khmer nation, form a gorgeous backdrop for the tale of horror I have come to record. I see Pan approaching, fingering his prayer beads, his saffron robes seemingly ablaze in the yellow mist. He walks as though he is not really there, feet barely touching the ground, a saint incarnate to the world at large but in his own eyes, a simple humble monk. He is bent from time and suffering, having lived through and seen more than anyone should, and I know through mutual friends he wishes nothing more than to spend his remaining time in secluded meditation. But, upon hearing of my book project, he readily agreed to speak with me in the hopes that no one should have to relive his experience. Pan is a Theravada monk — one of about 350,000 throughout Cambodia prior to the Khmer Rouge, and now one of but 30 to have outlived the regime. Besides surviving personal atrocities, he bears the weight of trying to re-establish a religious order dragged to the brink of extinction under such a barbaric reign. Theravada means “teaching of the Elders”. It is one of three main branches of Buddhism that originated in northern India and Nepal in the sixth century B.C., which rapidly spread throughout Southeast Asia until it was introduced to Cambodia in the 13th century via monks from Sri Lanka. It is a personal religion that worships no deity, but teaches self-control in order to release all attachment to the material world and achieve personal enlightenment. Most Khmer men spend several years as a novice before deciding to take the saffron robes, or return to a secular life. For many, it is the only escape from a life of crushing poverty, and the only hope for at least a minimal education. For Pan, it was an inner calling that put him in the eye of the storm. The reign of the Khmer Rouge has been likened to a shark attack: increasing in speed and fury, and feeding upon its own momentum as more and more blood was spilled. In the headlong rush to turn Cambodia into a submissive, agrarian, socialist state, it was the Buddhist monks who bore the brunt of the assault. Their modest education made them a threat to the powers that were, and since they did not work in the traditional sense of the word, they were easily made into the national whipping boys, publicly declared useless and a drain on society to be removed. Pan...

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