Sitting in the 4WD bashing our way through the Tunisian desert, I put my essentials in a purse: my phone, credit cards, keys. Which I bury deep in the bottom of my bag. For the next seven days I’ll be trekking through the Sahara with ten Poles. What is ‘essential’, I notice, is rather different here.
The first day I meet my camel. Her name’s Lalaha. She carries my bag, and me when I’m tired. The rest of the time we walk, side-by-side, through the Sahara desert. The sanddunes seems to stretch so far that I wonder if it’s possible the earth is actually flatter here. The camels seem to float along between them, just like boats on the ocean. My Polish is embarrassingly clumsy. “We say them ship of sea in English”, I tell Dominika, pointing to one, hoping to share this moment. “We don’t say that in Polish,” she replies. Lalaha and I are silent again.
Silence here isn’t like any silence I’ve ever known. There are sounds, but no background noise. No traffic, no airconditioning, no humming computers. I find my ears ringing, like after a concert. Or just a lifetime in the city. I find my hearing has become so sensitive I’m sure I can hear the sun set.
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At night, our Bedoin camel drivers sit by a fire, playing beautiful desert melodies. The Poles sing their folk songs, too. Unfailingly cheerless, mournful dirges. History has given them a lot of misery to work with. The Bedoins ask what the Polish songs are about. “Beautiful women,” they reply. “Ours too”, the Bedoins say, “and finding your way home from the Libyan border.” Every culture writes what they know, I guess. I give an embarrassed solo rendition of Waltzing Matilda. It’s all I can think of. Is all we know stealing sheep?
The Sahara sky is full of shooting stars. Every night I count ten of them, then try to sleep. But the wind that takes the edge off the scorching heat during the day is my enemy at night. There seems to be no way to keep warm against it. Each day I wake up more exhausted.
On the third day, one of our Bedoin guides, Zena, throws a piece of rope towards me. I jump, thinking it’s a snake. “Virri funny”, he says, giving me a thumbs up. “Virri funny”, I repeat, my heart thumping. A scorpion had crawled out from under my bedroll that morning. I count how many days are left.
The Poles wonder why their songs are so depressing. “It’s not like the Bedoins have such easy lives. If Poles lived here, would we write songs about how there’s no water, and the camels are pretty shit?”, asks one. It’s an interesting question. I wish I could join in the discussion, but I can’t really express myself in Polish. I listen and observe, instead. I’ve never been so quiet for so long.
I wonder if I might actually be invisible.
I watch Lalaha walk for hours. She barely seems to touch the desert sand. Her feet are like half full sandbags, they don’t sink. She’s perfectly adapted to this environment.
I stop taking toilet paper when I wander off to distant dunes. Burning it is too much hassle. I notice how much less rubbish I create when disposing of it is also my problem.
A load falls off a camel, and we stop while the Bedoins fix it. They take their time. There is enough time, after all. To do what is to be done. I think how stressed I feel when a webpage won’t load. It seems faintly absurd.
One of the Polish women in our group, Madga, is 70. It’s the same age as my stepfather yet he barely moves from in front of the TV. How much of the difference is circumstance, and how much is choice?
On the fifth afternoon, I write out ten copies of the words to Home Among the Gum Trees. I don’t know the second verse, but I make up something plausible. I push through my shyness, and tell them I have something to share.
I translate the lyrics. “This man sit on verandah, he have everything he need. Verandah like..umm.. balcony.” They don’t know what a “goom tree” is exactly either, but they get the idea. And the feeling that history must have largely been kind to Australia.
That night ten Polish women sit around a campfire in the Sahara, belting out “Gif me chome amonk goom tree.” The Bedoins join in with the actions. They have no idea what’s going on, but they love it. “Virri funny,” says Zena afterwards, giving me a thumbs up. I think he prefers Australian songs to Polish ones.
On the seventh day we reach our destination: a huge rock. We climb it and sit quietly. I listen to the sun set over the desert for the last time. Zena sings one of his beautiful desert melodies. I close my eyes. I don’t remember ever feeling so perfectly connected to the world. A beetle climbs a dune. I wonder if it knows where it’s going. And why I think it’s important.
The last morning I watch each star disappear. If I’m watching them, perhaps they’ll stay longer. I want to drag out every second. We’re unusually quiet as we eat breakfast. “Give me chome amonk goom trees,” Joanna starts singing, to cheer everyone up. It works. All of a sudden people are drawing gum trees with their hands and laughing. “You really added something, being here,” Hania says to me, quietly. So I was here, then.
Another 4WD carries us back to civilisation, although there’s no sense of achievement when we arrive. It took no effort, after all. The road to town is lined with eucalyptus trees. I point them out, and everyone takes photos. I feel a pang of homesickness for my faraway chome amonk ze goom trees.
The trees must have been there a week ago, too, I think. I just didn’t notice them then.
Jay Martin is a writer from Perth/Canberra who landed unexpectedly in Warsaw, Poland three years ago. She is currently shopping her Oz-chick-lit manuscript around to potential publishers, while living her subsequent witty Central European travelogue. Find any amount of cool stuff you can do in Central Europe at her home page, or check out her past Crikey columns here.