Tuesday, August 20, 2002

An oasis is kind of a mythical, mysterious, magical place, particularly for those of us who've never experienced one first-hand. My archetypal oasis is a cartoon line drawing of a small pond lined with three palm trees, with sand dunes all around. Maybe a camel drinks from the pond, or more likely he just stands there, as if posing for a cigarette ad.

Juliette and I took a side trip on our hot and sandy way through the Sahara to an oasis village called Chinguitti, said to be the most touristed place in Mauritania for its ancient Islamic scrolls. Being the most touristed place in Mauritania is kind of a contradiction in terms; we were the only foreigners in town when we arrived.

So what happens when you actually go to a real oasis? Is the myth dispelled, is the mystery solved, is the magic destroyed? Not for me; I'm as oblivious as ever, except for perhaps a few details.

First and foremost, there's no crystal clear pond beckoning one to dive in and frolic while camels lap at the shore. Though some oases have water above ground level -- one is even said to have a waterfall -- most are merely places in the desert where the ground water level is high enough to support plant life and man-made wells.

Okay, so there's some water. What about food? As you might guess, most comes from somewhere else. It seems like the only export from this oasis is dates, which are plentiful. There is some livestock as well, but everything else is brought to the shops in a four-wheel-drive pickup. The grains come in large stacks, imprinted with the name of the country or organization who donated it. Makes one wonder who's making the money from the sale, as the shops certainly aren't giving it away. The price of food seems to double with each truck ride, so it's relatively expensive to eat in an oasis.

And entertainment? Well, watching the sand dunes move is fun for a little while, at least for tourists. Because of the extreme heat and because nobody is in a hurry anyway, everything takes a really long time. A wedding, for example, takes three days. Tea takes about an hour, and comes in a series of three tiny cups, fulfilling a specific sequence of relative proportions of green tea, sugar, and fresh mint leaves. So I suppose the most common local entertainment is seeing how long you can make each activity last.

So what's so nice about an oasis? It's all relative, I suppose. Compared with anywhere else in the desert, for example, it's a luxurious haven -- you won't die of thirst here. And compared with a city, it's also a kind of escape; there's a calm here that allows you to notice nature's subtleties. One auberge manager told us of a woman who'd flown in with a tour group, who asked him, "Where is the moon tonight?" The sky was clear -- she'd never noticed that the moon rises at a different time each night, or even that it has different phases, until spending a few nights in the desert. The nomads who travel from oasis to oasis, he told us, know each sand dune and plant along their routes, and know when something changes -- the dunes themselves are not stationary, but move one grain at a time with the wind, like slow-motion waves in an ocean of sand. Living a simple life, away from a constant barrage of abstractions and distractions, allows the mind to calm down and notice more about the world as it is.