The word oasis has been reverberating in my mind lately. Such a beautiful-sounding word with such dazzling promise.

When things are looking bleak, we can scan the horizon and set our compass in the direction of our longed-for oasis. Or we can make an oasis for ourselves right where we are, such as many of us gringos here in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, are doing. Or we can be surprised by an oasis that arises like a dream to meet us on our journey.

Six years ago I wrote a WOW post (“Oases”) about an experience I had in Mali, West Africa, in late-2000 that fits into this latter category, which bears reposting, I feel. I was with a friend on our way to Timbuktu, and our car broke down in the Sahara Desert. Well, here’s the whole story:

[Oasis (n.): a fertile spot in a desert where water is found…]

 When my dear friend Monty Freeman, an architect in New York, came to visit me in Mali, West Africa, in December 2000, we decided to go to Timbuktu together. I had been living and working in Ségou, Mali, for over two years by then and hadn’t done much traveling within the country. I knew I would likely be leaving Mali early in the new year. Who could say they’ve really been to Mali without having experienced its most fabled ancient city? So Timbuktu, for both of us, became a must-see.

Monty hired a multilingual Malian tour guide, a sturdy car (SUV) and an experienced Malian driver, who’d made the trip to Timbuktu many times before; and we four set off. Monty, of course, had architecture on his mind, so along the way we stopped to admire the magnificent sunbaked earthen brick mosques that Mali is known for – especially the Great Mosque in Djenné, which is said to be the largest mud structure in the world.

Postcards from Djenne and Timbuktu (spelled the French way). The structure on the right is the Great Mosque in Djenne.

Our drive was steeped in history. As we learned from our guide and Monty’s guide books, between the 15thand 17th centuries much of the trans-Saharan trade in goods — such as salt, gold, and slaves — that moved in and out of Timbuktu, passed through Djenné. Both towns became centers of Islamic scholarship. The population of Timbuktu swelled from 10,000 in the 13th century to about 50,000 in the 16th century after the establishment of a major Islamic university, which attracted scholars from throughout the Muslim world. Word of all this fueled speculation in Europe, where Timbuktu’s reputation shifted from being extremely rich to being extremely mysterious.

The drive from Djenné, in central Mali, to Timbuktu, which is nearly due north, takes more than eight hours and covers just over 300 miles – when all goes well. At some point the paved road disappears and one is left with sand as far as the eye can see. This is the Sahel – the “shoreline,” literally, of the Sahara Desert. Somehow, though, our able driver miraculously knew the way, despite no road signs or markers of any kind. Despite no signs of life anywhere — no trees or houses or little stores or even roaming goats. But Monty and I had faith. We chatted in the back seat and marveled at the monochromatic sandy scenery.

And then, suddenly, still some distance from Timbuktu, as the Saharan sun was beginning to sink, our car broke down. Our guide and our driver looked under the SUV’s hood and conferred in Bambara, Mali’s native language. Monty and I looked at each other silently, then studied the vast, undulating ocean of sand. The two men came back from their car-engine-inspection shaking their heads.

“Well, we can always sleep in the car!” I vaguely remember saying, merrily, to break the gloom.

Not possible, I learned. We had not come prepared for that. The desert, I was told, gets very cold at night, and we had no blankets. We could also be eaten alive by malaria-carrying mosquitos – not to mention other, unknown, unnamable deadly dangers. We sat and muttered.

And then, just as suddenly, as if literally dropped from the sky, there appeared an angel-like young man dressed in Tuareg robes, telling us, in French (Mali’s official language), “Come with me.” Monty looked dubious. I thought, “Adventure!”

We must have followed him on foot (I don’t remember getting into another car) for a while, until we reached his family’s compound (if that’s what you call a cluster of Tuareg tents staked out in the lonely desert). The young man introduced us to his father, the patriarch, who welcomed us warmly in French and excused himself abruptly because it was time for him to pray.

We watched as the old man, who looked to me like a miniature Santa Claus, rolled his prayer rug onto the ubiquitous sand, dropped to his knees, bent to press his forehead on the ground, and repeated the prayers he’d been faithfully reciting five times a day for well over half a century. When he was finished, and we explained our plight, he raised an arm, clicked his fingers, and told another of his sons who ran to his command to set up tents for “our guests” and to tell the women “we have four more people for dinner.”

By this time the sun had nearly sunk into the desert and the stars were about to take center stage. We ate outside under stars that seemed to multiply exponentially as the night wore on – so many stars I felt I could reach out and swoop them up into my hand. I was included with the men (perhaps because I had short-short hair at the time and was wearing long pants and the patriarch and his many sons didn’t know what to make of me?), sitting on folding chairs in a circle, with our tasty dinner of rice with a savory meat sauce served on large dishes in our laps. We spoke in French.

The old man had been following the news of the U.S. elections on Radio France. He knew all about “hanging chads.” He was stunned that Al Gore hadn’t won. He wanted to know what was wrong with America’s electoral system. I looked up at the stars, which were not that far away, and wondered whether I was dreaming.

The next day the old man saw to it that his sons had our SUV repaired, so we could be on our way. We made it to Timbuktu safely, and we were glad to say we saw that mythical city. But to this day Monty and I agree that more than anything in Timbuktu, we remember most vividly that kind old Muslim man and his oasis in the desert.

[Oasis (n.): … a pleasant or peaceful area or period in the midst of a difficult, troubled, or hectic place or situation.]

26 thoughts on “Oasis”

  1. Bonnie, your tale is really a delight. It reminded me of the absolute most fun day in my 2 1/2 years with Pan Am after college. A picnic on a hot day in the Outback (Darwin, Australia). Our crew took us out miles and miles to Berry Springs passing 6 feet high ant hills ! We drank beer and swung on a vine splashing into the little natural pool. A wonderful memory etched in my brain. Considering your traveling past I’m surprised we didn’t see you there

    1. Thank you, dear Jan! I didn’t know you were with Pan Am. You must be filled with travel-adventure-stories too. Thank you for sharing this one of yours.

  2. It is always a great pleasure to read your entries. You are such a great writer.and your adventures are amazing!
    You are monitoring joining us at the winery?

  3. I love this story, Bonnie. My husband, who is from Ghana, also had his car break down when crossing the Sahara, he was on his way to Sweden (It was a long road trip for sure.) He too had a bit of an adventure. Hopefully someday we can all be together so he can share his story with you.

    1. What a wonderful thought, dear Barbara! I’d LOVE to meet your husband and hear his adventures-in-the-Sahara story! Why don’t you two plan a visit to SMA so we can all meet up here?

  4. Gosh I love this story so much and it does speak of the wonders of travel and why it’s so important to visit faraway places and cultures so different from our own. I think also what a delight it must have been for them to encounter people from the USA, a place as mysterious to them as they were to you.

    1. Thanks, Kharin dear! So glad you liked it. Yes, you’re so right about the glories of travel. But this old guy was pretty clued in (thanks to Radio France) as to American life. And maybe we weren’t the first tourists to wash up (so to speak) on his tent’s doorstep! 🙂

  5. Hi Bonnie — My what a fine story! If you have not seen the extraordinary book, Villages of West Africa by Steven and Cathi House, run get it at the Tienda in the Biblioteca. You will love this extraordinary book. Thank you for sharing this great story. — I follow your outstanding, fun and interesting blog regularly, even when I don’t reply. Keep up the great work! Susan (Page)

    1. Thank you so much, Susan. It’s great to hear from you and to know you read my WOWs! I’ll look for the House’s book. They designed Kathleen Cammarrata’s casa, I believe. I hope you are well. — BB

  6. what a wonderful story..theb kindness and generosity of strangers is always an oasis in the desert or anywhere love you postings Judith

  7. Dear Bon,
    It’s a wonderful, incredible story. It’s also a story that confirms my aversion to travel. I don’t ever want to be in the position where I’m stranded in the middle of a desert. I’m delighted you were saved, but I would never assume the same happy ending waits for me.

    1. Yes, I so understand, dear Paul. I’m not sure I’d be quite that adventurous now either. That was then (23 years ago), and this is now. It seems to be a different world altogether. — LU, BB xx

  8. Prayers five times a day? I had to stop and visualise the lifestyle this man lives through. Constantly deferring to his God and striving to be worthy!
    You were very fortunate, Bonnie, to encounter a humble Muslim, as opposed to a ruthless mercenary, and I’m glad you are able to share that encounter through your writings. A reminder that there is the very good as well as the evil, in every culture or religion. As for my “oasis”, I visit it every time I write, and am transported into a world of my own creation.
    Still, I would have loved to have visited the Timbuktu of another era!

    1. Oh, you’re so right, dear Loula — there are good and bad specimens in every culture and religion. In the three years I lived in Mali — a predominantly Muslim country — I met mostly good, kind, generous, devout (in the gentle, African way) Muslims, I’m grateful to say. And, yes, they pray five times a day, at appointed times; this is one of the tenets of that religion. At close range, I found it to be a very admirable religion, frankly. But you’re also right about the fact that Timbuktu would NOT be a safe place to travel to now. Sadly, far too dangerous. 🙁

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.