“We don’t follow time”

Cultural Insights, Travel Perspectives — By on February 18, 2009 at 4:37 pm

So says a nomadic guide to Joe Ray, who wrote a nice article for the Boston Globe about his experience trekking the Sahara in southern Algeria. The piece captures the harsh beauty of the desert as well as the unique culture of the Touareg nomads who live in the region.

The author on the desert:

Desert silence is disconcerting, melting time and perspective, leaving you listening to the blood swish through your veins as Polaris and the Southern Cross play cat and mouse across the night sky. Later, the sense of time dissolves and the silence becomes addictive: literal quiet comfort that allows the beauty of the desert and the people who live here to reveal themselves…

Over the course of a few days, fear of the unknown is replaced by a heightened sense of surroundings. Our first night out, we sleep beneath a freestanding rock arch hundreds of feet high. With no light pollution, the stars are so bright that picking out the principal constellations becomes tricky. Orion has a bow-shaped string of stars to his side that I’ve never seen and all seven sisters of Pleiades are visible. One moonless night, I take a 10-minute walk to the top of a dune and, once there, realize I’ve done it by starlight.

And on the Touareg nomads:

“We don’t follow time,” says guide Abdou Zounga as we share a pungent lamb, barley, and vegetable stew called chorba. “No one here ever asks what time it is.”

Zounga, 30, is a Touareg, desert nomads descended from Berbers who have roamed the northwest African desert for millennia. Though he earned a degree in computer programming and had a desk job in the city of Tamanrasset, the call of the desert was too strong.

“One of the first things I learned as a child was respect for my elders,” says Zounga, explaining a system where the final say always goes to the oldest in a group. As part of a team of guides, this might mean he calls the shots on one trip and washes dishes on the next, all depending on the ages of the others.

Aside from an old-fashioned respect for elders, one of the most important traits that Zounga explains is solidarity among Touaregs, no matter which country they are from. Another is sharing whatever you have, whether it’s with someone who needs it more or as a way to express gratitude.

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