Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A camel ride to the Niger River

Why would anyone pay thousands of dollars to travel thousands of miles to a remote, river settlement on the edge of the Sahara desert? An excellent question that I failed to ask myself until I arrived in Niamey, Niger on a sleek Air France flight from Paris. The scene was reminiscent, if one were imaginative, of the arrival of a riverboat in Vicksburg during the 19th Century.

Actually, I exaggerate. Niamey has a population of 1.3 million people and Niger a population of 17 million, close to the population of Florida. Niger, like Senegal, lies in the Sahel of West Africa. The Sahel is a three thousand plus mile band, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, of semi-arid land that divides the Sahara desert from the wooded savannah to the south.

What that means is the landscape is dotted with gnarled trees, twisted by the wind, in a sea of brown grass. The River Niger, swollen from the seasonal rains, courses through the center of Niamey, and is both the origin and the sustenance of the city. Two bridges are prominent when viewed from the air: the Kennedy Bridge, donated by the U.S. government, and another, newer bridge to the east, donated by the Chinese government.

So why did I come? First, I could cite the educational advantages of international travel. In Niger, I learned how the untrained eye (like mine) can differentiate between the types of scrawny, white animals seeking slim sustenance in the countryside. A goat's tail is pointed up, for example, while a sheep's tail is pointed down. It's hard to tell the difference otherwise because the sheep have neither the need nor the desire to generate a lot of wool.

The day after we arrived we headed west out of Niamey with two other Americans to have an adventure. The entertainment options in the Capital City are limited so we chose a camel ride and a boat trip on the River. After stopping to pay a toll we turned off the hard surface road at the golf course sign. The golf course, on the right side of the dirt path we were following, had a driving range and piece of bare, packed earth with a hole and a flag in the middle.

The Driving Range and "Putting Green."

Shortly after, we reached the river's edge. The camels, huddled in the shade of some trees with their attendant herders, were underwhelmed at our arrival. Omar, our guide for the brief journey, hailed from a local village on the River. He negotiated the price with the chief camel-herder, a Father Time look-alike. For 7 thousand CFA (about $14) per camel we would be transported 5 kilometers to another village where we would meet a boat for the return journey.

Omar and Father Time negotiate a price.
I had never ridden a camel before. I have seen camels in Turkey, Kuwait, Iraq and Senegal. I have ridden horses in Florida and an ornery mule up the side of Yosemite Valley, but nary a camel. And let me add that the phrase "riding a camel" is not on my bucket list.

The trick to getting on a camel.
But maybe I came to Niamey because I believe that I should force myself to do new and different things. Memories of everyday life are as smooth as river pebbles that wash down to a forgotten sea. The new and different create memories that are hard, jagged, at times unpleasant, but always vivid. They cling like barnacles to the chronicles of our lives, rich stories that ripen with each telling.

My backside still carries memories of that camel ride, but I hope the damage is not permanent. I don't mean to complain, but the thin strips of cloth separating the hard, wooden slats of the saddle from my rear end were thinner than those offered to my companions. Forty five minutes into our hour journey every position I tried had passed uncomfortable and had arrived at painful. Omar noticed my distress and advised me to move forward in the saddle as far as possible and cross my legs over the camel's neck. This was a dramatic relief and a great improvement in my morale. Another example of the educational benefits of travel: tips on camel riding.

The highlight of the boat trip (of the day) was a cautious survey of three hippos in the River. Evidently, hippos are not the happy, jovial, clumsy, vegetarian animals of Disney lore. They have the disposition of an NFL linebacker in a Playoff game.

Omar and I taking pictures of the hippos. We were too far away for a good shot.
While we returned on the boat to our departure point and our cars, I had to chance to chat with Omar. He desired to improve his English in talking to me, but we settled by silent agreement on my limited French as a better form of communication. He tried to interest me in some of the American rap songs on his phone, but I replied that those songs were for the "juene," or young people.

He searched his memory, hand to chin, staring into the distance, and came up with a name for a band that fit my demographic.

"Phil Collins?" He asked me.

I nodded. Close enough.

That night Lindsey, Gale and I went to an notable French restaurant in Niamey. The restaurant is notable because some foreigners in Niamey will eat at only two restaurants, and this was one of them. I have vivid memories of every incident of food poisoning in my life, and would hesitate to criticize anyone who wanted to avoid a repeat of the experience.

The food was delicious and the Bordeaux wine was excellent. In the midst of our delightful conversation I remembered why we decided to come to Niamey. She was sitting right next to me.

We came to see our daughter's home, the city she lived in, the place where she worked, and the people that were a part of her life. I had just arrived and the price was already worth it.