Sand

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

My ass was sore for a week. For days after I could hardly move it. Overnight train rides were spent on my stomach, meals were taken over the backs of chairs, and I was more comfortable than ever about squatting over toilets. It was probably how long the damn thing took. I don’t care who you are: three hours on the back of a camel will do strange things to your body—the nearly constant state of gyration, made all the worse by an irrational fear of being slumped off at any moment.

Tyra and I saw brochures for the outing at our hostel in western Gansu Province. The literature was picketed with phrases like “relive the mystery of the Silk Road” and “experience one thousand and one Arabian nights!” The translations weren’t nearly as polished, but what really sold us were the tiny snapshots superimposed over the text—smiling tourists posing on camel-back, peeking out from inside a tent, and climbing up sandbanks. Almost two full days in the beautiful Mingsha Sand Dunes, the advertisement continued, complete with an overnight stay in the desert followed by a breathtaking morning sunrise.

My eyes widened to the size of saucers. “A camel,” I said to Tyra, beaming. “How many people can say they’ve done that?”

There were seven of us on the trip—two other couples, one Chinese and one American—neither of which could communicate with the other—and a lone female traveler from Shanghai, a spunky twenty-six year old intent on seeing more of her own country. She was seated third in the pecking order of the camel caravan behind Tyra and I, with the final two couples to follow, and an 8th camel charged with carrying the camping tents and cooking supplies bringing up the rear.

Each camel was tied to the one in front of it with a thick rope, a wad of knotted string protruding through its nostril and capped with a stopper to hold it in place. Any hold-up in the journey meant that each subsequent camel in line was turned sideways, its head precariously hooked to the one behind, which forced the camels to quickly learn to cooperate and move in tandem. At the head of the caravan was an older Chinese gentleman of Tibetan or Uighur descent whose inhabitants were not uncommon in the Far West.

The older gentleman acted as the foreman, and walked the end of the rope out in front of the line of camels. For a man of fifty or sixty (I have always been mercilessly poor at predicting age), he was rugged and fit, certainly aided by a profession that involved trekking ten or twelve miles into the desert every day. It didn’t help that it was the middle of July and the desert was sweltering. The foreman was wearing a long-sleeve shirt, gloves, and a hat, certainly to protect himself from the sun, whereas I had rolled up the sleeves of my thin T-shirt to my shoulders and was tugging helplessly at the hem of my jeans. Tyra was wearing black leggings and a button-down shirt and looked equally flustered.

For all of my ballyhooing about the camel ride, it didn’t take long before I began to tire of it. Out in the dunes, everything begins to look the same. On all sides there were white clouds, blue skies, and towering piles of sand that seemed to reach the stratosphere. The size and scale of it was dizzying. The closest I had ever come to sand was the gravely Coney Island coast, which, even in memory, bore almost no resemblance to the shimmering mounds that swelled and swooped around me, consuming nearly every square inch in sight.



I could tell Tyra was exhausted—as far as I remember, she nary said a word the entire time we spent bobbing up and down like inflatable buoys. Still, it was easy enough to stay amused by the feisty back-and-forth between the foreman and the young unmarried Chinese woman. It was as if she wanted to know everything about his life story—when he got started raising camels, how much he made per year, and what his family was like. It appeared that the Chinese fascination for “otherness” extended well beyond the American foreigner—it was true of its own marginalized citizenry as well.

The foreman acquiesced to her every nagging inquiry. The camels were not his, he explained, but he was able to rent them from a friend to do his treks. His expertise was in leading trips out to the desert and the care with which he took to make his foreign guests comfortable. He had been doing it for over thirty years, and in the winters when it got too cold to camp in the desert overnight, he helped to raise his grandchildren at home, of which he had over a dozen.

The woman seemed particularly intrigued. “How do you make your foreign guests comfortable if you can’t speak any English,” she asked with a smirk. Conversation up to that point had been entirely in Chinese. The foreman remained unfazed.

“Once a foreigner asked me where he could go to the bathroom,” he recalled, repeating the word “bathroom” in English. He hadn’t understood what the word meant and asked the tourist to repeat the question. “Toilet,” the Australian pleaded, looking close to desperation. “Where can I find the toilet?” The foreman smiled. He pointed to a shrub in the distance and, in his most exaggerated English, shouted, “there is toilet.” The whole caravan chuckled in unison.

“So besides speaking English,” the woman asked snidely, “what else can you do?” The foreman thought for a moment.
“I can sing,” he exclaimed, and almost immediately launched into an enthusiastic rendition of a popular Chinese folk song. The woman clapped her hands and looked pleased.
“What about you?”
“I don’t sing,” the woman said doggedly, waving a hand in front of her face.
“Well I’m not going to sing alone,” the foreman averred. “You there,” he said looking up at me, the first one in line. “How about it?”

“Me,” I asked defensively, wishing to distance myself from the banter. “I can’t sing either.” The foreman shook his head.
“Oh I’m sure you can sing,” he said eagerly. “All you Americans must be able to sing something. What about your national anthem?”

There were few things I detested more than my own singing voice. Karaoke with friends in an enclosed room was one thing, but the desert was suspiciously quiet and sound tends to carry for a long time across an open space. I spun around to look at Tyra. She was applying a new layer of sunscreen; the others on the tour looked even more disinterested.

“No, I’d really rather not,” I said. I thought it was an adequate enough rejection, but the foreman pressed harder.
“You need to sing.” He paused. “Or else I’m turning all of us around.” He was staring me dead in the eyes.
“I don’t want to sing,” I blurted out, half-shouting. The foreman’s pace slowed to a halt. The only sound was the lithe crunch of sand beneath my camel’s hooves. For what felt like minutes, no one said anything, and then, at last, the woman from Shanghai piped up.

“What else can you do?” she asked him.
“I can also cook,” the foreman said, as he gradually took the reigns in his hand and resumed course.

At some point along the way I managed to fall asleep. How one falls asleep riding on the back of a moving camel sounds hyperbolic, but there was something otherworldly about the experience. I could almost picture myself a wealthy Chinese merchant, a team of vassals at my beck-and-call, lazily slouching along the Silk Road. For the moment, neither time nor bodily desires seemed of the least concern.

By the time we stopped it was almost dark. The foreman helped let us down, and began unpacking the tents and cooking equipment. He tied the first camel to the last, rigging them in a closed loop, and instructed each one to kneel on the ground one-by-one. He announced that we would have dinner there at the base in an hour, but that in the meantime, we should enjoy the sunset on the lookout of a tall sandy peak he pointed to not far in the distance.

It was as if the sand rekindled some deep child-like exuberance in me. From the moment I stepped off the camel I caught myself running across the plains, rolling down hills and scrambling up embankments. I was six years old again playing in a giant, ever-expansive sandbox. Tyra, sensing my mood, began stalking me like a lion, and the two of us got down on all fours, pouncing and shuffling barefoot in our imagined African Sahara. When she got close enough to touch, I wrestled her to the ground, dusting her clothes and mine with sand. Her skin, white and smooth, contrasted perfectly with its tawny coarseness.

We galloped our way up the sandy peak to the lookout. At one point, we tried to race headlong up the nearly vertical shaft, but with each beleaguered step, we slipped increasingly more deeply into sand. Ours was a cacophony of laughter and high-pitched shrieks. When we reached the top, the lone Chinese woman offered to take our picture. Tyra and I sat with our backs to the sunset in the distance, her head nestled firmly in the crook of my neck.

We had dinner on two squat collapsible tables back at base. In front of us, the foreman had constructed a small fire out of packed twigs and brush. He brought out seven metal containers and placed them on the tables. Under each lid was a brick of instant noodles mixed with the once hot water transported from the town. On all accounts, it was a letdown. My body was starving, and after a full day out in the desert sun, the last thing I wanted to eat was lukewarm noodles. The foreman, sensing the collective disappointment, explained:

“The government doesn’t give me enough money to provide any food for the trip,” he said, in his accented Mandarin. “But since I expect tourists not to bring enough, I buy this out of my own pocket.” The foreman looked around the circle but still strained to make eye contact with me. It was easy enough not to trust him—that perhaps he just skimmed the extra money off the top to pay for cigarettes and liquor and gambling. But the narrative didn’t seem to fit. I added a flimsy packaged sausage to the water—something I almost never eat—and slurped up my noodles in silence.

Nearby, the camels snorted and shifted positions. They slept a stone’s throw away from where the foreman had set-up our sleeping tents. All roped together in a circle, they looked like this single living entity, the silhouette of their humps rising and falling with their breath. No respite from the cold night air, nor any food or water of their own, they still seemed perfectly, dispassionately, content.



Pretty soon everyone began preparing for sleep. Tyra and I and the other two couples each had a tent to share, and the unmarried woman had one to herself. The foreman slept outside beneath the stars—“how he liked it”—though I suspect it was more that he could afford to rent one fewer tent, further defraying his overhead. The tents were roomy but provisions were scarce. Other than a thin mat, the only covering we had was the tattered fleece blanket we had previously used as a make-shift saddle on the camels.

I was unfolding the mat when Tyra grabbed my arm to stop me. She had changed into a long black dress that cut a V beneath her neck and rested just above her ankles. Her lips were a searing, plump, red, and she had a ferocious, naughty glint in her eye. She pointed at me, then at herself, and finally at the mesh flap of the tent leading outside. In her hand was the clear Ziploc of condoms we had been steadily exorcising throughout the trip. I nodded greedily and she laughed, stashing the bag in her purse.

We made our move after the last of the tents went dark. Tyra brought the tiny flashlight we had used to examine cave paintings all morning, along with her purse and the quick-dry travel towel we had been sharing, and we slogged up the little ridge. Our tiny encampment was positioned in a man-made hovel at the bottom of a hill. There was higher ground to every side of us like the raised crust around a dessert’s center. This sand hardly gave at all—each step had to be calculated, like we were snowshoeing up a steep cliff.

When we reached the top, Tyra pointed at the sky. I’d never seen stars like the ones that night. Zealous and bright, the constellations shined like dazzling stadium lights in the distance. Further from the ridge’s lip, the view was the same: hundreds of flecked sand dunes, the moonlight shimmering off their glittery surfaces like a theater packed with flashbulbs—an entire inter-stellar audience waiting for the curtain to be drawn and the show to begin.

All at once, a wave of fear came over me. Not two hours earlier, the sand was near scalding to the touch, but now the cold was sending chills up my feet. I was shaking—those innumerable stars, like thousands of piercing stares, felt almost too much to bear.

At the same time, I realized that there were not many other chances I would get. Tyra rolled out the towel and laid it gently over the sand, and I held her tightly, easing her body to the ground. My body glided between her legs and she wrapped them flush against my thighs, bringing me closer still. My lips coursed over her lips and tongue, following the ridge-lines of her mouth. I wrung my shirt over my head and hooked her arms through the thin straps of her dress. She undid the buckle to my belt and I carefully folded the tapered ends of her dress above her waist.

A part of me ached desperately to take her then, to leave the two of us drenched and smoldering beneath the moon’s glow. But a different part yearned for something else, though it was impossible to communicate. In a parallel world, there would be no cosmic witnesses, no dull hum across the floating expanse—the shared moment existing for the two of us and us alone.

The words began to form in my mouth again. “I don’t—,” I muttered under my breath, but just then something stirred inside me. A blast of wind rolled over the dune, fanning out the sand beneath Tyra, and I slid inside her. There was something screaming inside me that needed to be released, a fire burning in the pit of my stomach. I grabbed her arms and held them firmly to the ground. Her body shook as the sand pulsed and swayed, each thrust sending the earth’s force resisting back against us and into the wind.

Beads of sweat trickled down the nape of my neck, but they didn’t last. As suddenly as it came on, the fire went out. And when it was over, we were both still breathing heavy, Tyra on her back, and me crouched in front of her, the jeans still looped around my ankles. The sand had coursed through her hair and mine, matting it at obtuse angles. She propped herself up with both arms and exhaled deeply into the sky. Her eyes, hazel-green, scanning the clouds like a beacon in the desert.

We ambled back down the sloped ridge, Tyra leading the way with her flashlight. As quietly as I could, I unzipped the mesh shell of the tent and we stepped inside. The temperature had dropped precipitously. On the thin mat, we huddled close together—her back curving to form a tight seal against my chest, and my arms clasped firmly against hers. We pulled the blanket up and let it hang loose around our necks. For some time, everything around us was still. I had nearly fallen asleep when Tyra stirred and reached for the flashlight. Rolling to my right, I took her hand in mine and whispered softly: thank you for being so wonderful.

She squeezed my hand and switched off the light. Silence filled the void like a vacuum. What else was there left to say?

*

This is the first of many semi-fictionalized short stories based on my two years abroad to be written and anthologized in a future book-length project by Wilder Voice Press. More details forthcoming soon!

Read more...

  © Blogger template Shush by Ourblogtemplates.com 2009

Back to TOP