hind me as I awkwardly climbed the craggy face of the cliff, reaching thetop after twenty minutes of exertion and controlled panic. Once we werethere, a vast, lifeless expanse of rocks and boulders opened up across thehorizon, pierced by sawtooth outcroppings of rock.
We walked in silence for about three hours over a landscape of blackened rocks, except for Mr. Sayed’s occasional observations, which wentunanswered. The heat of the day set in. I was too focused on walkingover the uneven surfaces, trying to ignore how my flimsy sneakers wererubbing against my heels, to ask questions about our path or surroundings.
When we came upon an eroded riverbed, Sarmi announced that wewould take a break beneath a lone cypress tree just ahead of us, which hesaid was three thousand years old. While I was skeptical of this claim,I saw the thick, gnarled branches and large, exposed roots sandblastedsmooth and stretching as if searching for moisture. I reached into mypack for my camera to photograph this ancient tree but realized I musthave forgotten it in my hasty departure from Oran. I was almost gratefulfor my carelessness, since I would have to record the landscape and thepeople in my mind without relying on a camera lens to see.
Kader pulled a bag from one of the donkeys and prepared thick slicesof crusty bread and chunks of dark, grainy chocolate for our afternoonsnack. I was hungry after the exertion, and while I’d never eaten breadwith chocolate, the taste of the two together, even now, evokes the Tassilirocks and sun. No one else ate or drank except Mr. Sayed, and I askedSarmi why. He said they were used to being like camels, practiced indrinking and eating as little as possible for long periods of time. I felt myneed for food and drink as a weakness, and the unexpected pleasure Igot from both seemed like an indulgence.
As I ate, I studied Sarmi’s features for the first time. Since the material of his white cheche fell well below his chin, his full face was visible.His eyes were like charcoal marbles, with thick lashes, and his teeth hada brownish tint from too much tea.
“Sarmi, where do you come from?” I asked. He answered in his slow,clear French that he was from El Mihan, a village near Djanet. Withoutprompting, he offered that his mother’s brother had helped him get a jobleading tours of the plateau two years earlier. He was twenty-six, my age.As I listened, I wondered how someone from such a different place andexperience could share anything with me, even my age. He abruptly roseand said we must continue walking to make camp before sunset.