Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Speaking of deserts

Although the entire centre of Australia - the wide brown land - is desert, when I lived there I clung stubbornly to its coastline. The only experience I've had of being in a desert was in the Sahara.

When I was living in London, the bells of the silly season started ringing up a storm in French's head and he came up with the madcap idea to book a Christmas tour to Tunisia for his whole family. He was always lamenting that he didn't spend enough time with them - according to him this would kill all the birds of guilt with one sharp stone. It would be a veritable desert storm of blood and feathers. I was on a short leash back then, so I kissed him with my wet nose and agreed to come along.

This concept of the tour was all very new to me. I'd always travelled independently and I wasn't sure how I'd go with a tour leader acting as traffic controller inside my head, telling my thoughts when to stop and reflect over the landscape and when to keep on moving.

The tour was with a French company, and was full of families and couples, rather than swinging singles in need of a squeeze. It was the stuff that Houellebecqian nightmares are made of (although I'll say straight up that although I've referenced the guy here, I'm not a fan of Michel Houellebecq's pessimistic and misogynistic view of realism).

We had the whole shebang of packaged `culture' sampling. Our very own desert olympics. We were dressed up in traditional costume and placed on salivating camels, made to dance traditional jigs, taken to where Star Wars was filmed and then, as if to say: we rode your miserable camels, we gawked at your hollywood film set but it's been just a little bit too much of the Other now, so give me some homegrown French tucker would you - we had Christmas French style, complete with congealed foie gras, melting Buche de Noel and a little drummer boy drumming La Marseillaise.

We travelled around the Sahara in a convoy of jeeps - six tourists per jeep plus the driver. Beneath the sounds of the motor, French’s parents bickered in hushed tones, his teenage sister desperately tried to dodge the overprotective beams of her parents and fall in love with the tour guide, French struggled to compensate for thirty years of indifference, and I fell asleep. As we had one more space in the jeep, a lone woman - who had probably come on the tour to meet a group of like-minded people - perhaps find love and roll around the dunes, found herself sandwiched between a worried mother, an angry father, a teenager daughter in need of a kiss and a zombie `english' who could pass hours and hours without saying a word, none of whom would probably notice if she was accidently put on the roof rack of the jeep with the luggage.

I really was switched on zombie mode this whole eleven days or whatever it was. I felt like a screensaver, just biding time until I would start to be active again. Maybe it was the monotony of the democratic sun dappling endless grains of sand. More likely it was the fact that everyone on the tour was French, all the Tunisian tourguides spoke French, and I studied German at school so I didn’t have even your basic Kommt gleich zum hafen unser boot heisst seeteufel (come straight to the harbour and the boat’s name is Seadevil) to help me communicate. Words had grown wings and were flying straight over my head and buzzing around my ear like feral flies. My way of dealing with this was to retreat inside myself, to my personal oasis.

In fact I spent so much time off partying with an assortment of elves, fairies and pixies in my brain, that by day seven I still didn’t know the name of the lone woman, the non-family member in the jeep. I was trying to pick up French words here and there and commence to learn the language. There was a word I’d heard bandied about many times on this trip so I thought I'd better ask what it meant. C’est quoi `une giselle'? I asked the lone woman.

She was a bit shocked that someone had suddenly put into words what she had been feeling all along, that is, that she had become a thing, a hatbox forgotten by a pre-occupied family. French to the rescue, he quickly straightened my bent back, brushed some unbecoming desert dust off my collar and said sternly, gesturing at the woman: This is Giselle, Pinochiette. I think you’ve already met.

Leaping lizards! And that wasn’t the worst of it for poor Giselle. When we'd all reached the end of our tether and couldn't look at each other without wanting to vomit up desert dust, our honorable tour guides decided the ideal thing would be for us to spend a night outdoors, in tents (one tent for each jeep). This being the desert, the night temperatures plummeted to antarctic depths and body heat became the only solution to chronic cold. We all huddled together in the tent and I found myself rubbing shoulders with French's mother and playing footsy with his Father, not the ideal first tent-sharing experience with the potential in-laws. But Giselle wasn’t as ruthless as me in her need to hot-up and while we all melded together, Giselle remained apart and emerged the next day, looking old, borrowed and blue.

Probably the best part of the trip was one night when we were given a break from sampling softened culture and French and I decided to give his parents a night off from teensitting. We took his sister for a long desert stroll. "Look I saw a falling star!" French's sister cried, quickly making a wish that she would have four bouncing babies with Zahid, the tour guide, before the star came crashing to the ground. And then I saw one. And another and another. A natural fireworks display in the sky. The sky was alight with flashing, falling stars - explosions of peace, rather than war.