Updated: Feb 18
I was in a flux of emotions leaving Sudan because I felt so strongly about the country and wanting to stay there. I was probably still depressed from everything that happened leaving Spain. But, I had plans lined up for Chad already, so I had no choice but to move on. This only taught me that if I ever decide to leave home for a few months, I should not be so structured because I will never know if I love a place and want to stay longer. Or, I may find other places along the way that I want to go to instead - Mauritania, Algeria, Eritrea, Somalia, Somaliland, the list goes on, etc, not that I could have lined up the visas so easily anyhow – another time, maybe another life, who knows. Being so rigid and orderly in life has gotten me nowhere apparently anyways, so this has definitely taught me that I need to let go, and just be spontaneous sometimes. With everything in life, I just need to let go, and then maybe I will finally start living.
All I can say is that after the past few weeks, Chad has definitely helped with that.
Honestly, I was attracted to Chad because of the desert and the possibility to see the Ennedi Plateau and Ounianga lakes – the Chadian Sahara desert. I knew that Chad’s geo-landscapes were going to be stunning, and all along the way, I also knew that experiencing the villages and seeing the nomadic people living in these harsh environments would add to the connective learning experience I have been looking for. Chad after all is next to Sudan, so there would be connectivity visiting both countries back to back. A large number of Sudanese refugees have been displaced to Chad following conflict in Darfur. There are number of theories related to the crisis in Darfur and how it started – land disputes particularly between nomads and sedentary farmers, and access to water resources. There are convoluted disagreements between the government and various rebel groups. And finally, there is extended conflict from the civil war between the Arabs and the Christians, which ended up in the civil war that separated the South.
For my personal journey, I knew Chadians would have its own story to tell. Chad has suffered ethnic and internal conflicts and civil war, terrorism, and lives under pretty much a military democracy. The travel advisories against the country still remain pretty extensive even though most of the dangers are along the borders, and not within the country itself. It faced a brutal war with Libya at one point in time. The country continues to see political violence, and is one of the poorest and most corrupt places in the world. The area of Tibesti saw a major civil war, which lasted many years. That area opened up for tourism again in 2008, but recently has shut down again because there have been newfound problems between the local tribes and the government over newly discovered gold resources. Chad has the largest army in Africa; and well, as aforementioned, is surrounded by problems in Sudan (Darfur), Libya and Nigeria. Even as we were driving back, we saw all this military training – soldiers parachuting out of heli-planes.
Chad borders Libya which is pretty much in disrepair, and so all the along the borders, there are dangers. But generally speaking, the places I am visiting in Chad are safe. Tourists come through, but there is still caution, so the country does not see as many foreigners as it would like. N’djamena is the only place in the whole country with westernized hotels – to me, this gives a feeling of purity to the country. If you want to see out of this world places like Ennedi, you camp.
When I got on the plane to N’djamena, I had to switch my brain again to process a bit more French. But, I felt like my mind was playing games on me because I would hear some people speak French, and others in Arabic. Both languages are spoken after all. When I landed, all my formalities at the airport were carried out with French and English greetings, even though I was still stuck on Arabic greetings. The airport is super small. When you land, you fill in a customs form, they take your fingerprints and picture, and check your yellow fever vaccination records. I coordinated my visa through Ottawa, and it was a pretty quick process. There is an additional immigration process, which requires a passport photo and another form to be filled out, but the group I went with processed this with the immigration office the next day. Prior to even arriving, you send photos of your passport and visa. Luggage handlers and baggage control at the airport are pretty aggressive. I was trying to avoid some pushy luggage handlers, and got yelled at by baggage control because I missed the scanner way off to the side. But, that aside, I got out and found my way to the city.
Chad is land-locked. So, because of its desert climate and distance from large bodies of water, it is sometimes referred to as the “Dead Heart of Africa”. Chad reminds me more of the Mali, not just because of the spoken French, but just the behaviour of the people. I feel less Middle Eastern undertones, but that changes slightly when we go to the North. The people do feel a bit more guarded than Malians and the Sudanese. They observe you very closely. They are not as friendly, but this is just a generalization. Some people we met were very conversational, friendly and full of smiles and warmth.
The country has a population of approximately 13 to 14 million. Chad has over 200 ethnic groups. The nation’s main ethnic group is the Sara, followed by Arabs. The North is inhabited primarily by nomads, known as the Toubous. Though majority Muslim, there is a high percentage of Christians living in the country. The South is predominantly Christian. The people speak Chadian Arabic, French and their local tribal dialects. I love observing the people. Men are dressed in local clothing – a turban called a “shesh”, and a long dress called a “jalabiya”. The women are dressed in long colourful robes and hijabs, and they just shine against the desert sun and these expansive landscapes.
People flock to the capital, N’djamena because there is the most opportunity. N’djamena is an expensive city, the most expensive actually in all of Africa. But, I happen to visit other major towns like Abeche, which are growing in population and economic activity. The people are very sensitive about photography especially in the capital and when you go into North. We are warned continually not to show our cameras as we drive past villages and into cities. As we drive along the road we continually see trucks full of military personnel. It is bit intense. At one point, we see twenty trucks continuously of soldiers covered up and with rifles. Apparently the president was in Abeche. He flew back to the capital by plane, but the soldiers return by road.
My group (SVS Tchad / Native Eye Travel) travels in a convoy of three 4WD cars. This is for security, but also as a precautionary measure - if one car breaks down, then the others can help. The crew knows the desert in and out, and are very connected to the communities that live there. In northern Chad, the distances are so long and the environment so harsh that it only makes sense to travel in a slightly larger group. I would not attempt to travel this area on my own at all. I have nothing on my side – I am female, and I can barely speak Arabic or proper grammatical French. Our group of nine are the only tourists in the area so we are constantly stared at already.
Being in Chad is definitely more expensive than Mali. I purchase a SIM card that apparently works slightly out in the desert to ensure to Jon that I am still alive, but it costs an arm and a leg. I get a Tigo card, which apparently works better in the desert. I see signs all around the villages for Air Tel – apparently you can get 1.5 GB for 3000 CFA. That’s still not very cheap in comparison to Mali. But, they are different countries.
The country’s primary industries are crude oil and cotton. The country also exports dates locally to Libya, Niger and the South. They import a lot of products, and the economy is not that strong. I see rampant Chinese investment again – hotels, factories, refineries. It reminds me a conversation in MBA strategy class where China maintains presence everywhere to maintain a strategic hold over resources. China is also responsible for fixing road infrastructure, and is involved with a lot of construction initiatives. In conversation, I learn that these African countries get bids for all types of construction initiatives, but China always wins out because it puts in the cheapest bid.
A similar story to Sudan and Mali, women lack equal opportunities in education and employment. If there are schools, they do teach French. However, teachers are not paid so often in the villages, so French is on the decline. It is hard to find teachers. Teachers may come from the south, but they are not paid, and so they leave after the dry season. We do visit a school in the village but it is not open. It seems like it has not been open for a while. There are cobwebs everywhere, and abandoned chalkboards strewn around the floors.
The drive is really beautiful and switches scenery quite often. I do notice the vast green plains leading to the desert because of an unusually long, rainy season. I see some little ponds with lily pads and purple flowers. The rainy season has produced lots of water pools. Some of the villages are surrounded by granite mountains as we drive deeper into the country. There are goats, cows and zebu everywhere. It does feel like a mix of Sudan, Madagascar, and Mali, so once again everywhere is really connected, and every fabric of this journey for me is coming together.
My trip is to the North, consisting of nomadic tribes and semi-nomadic Arabs. The journey on the first day is about 300 km from the capital. We end up in an arbitrary campsite between Bokoro and Bitkine. There is calm weather the first night – it is cool with a light breeze, and it easy to set up camp and get dinner starting. The days are short, so we sleep at 8PM, and wake up around 5AM. We are nearby to a village, so in the morning children cautiously watch us at the camp. They are shy, but they move closer and closer. You wave, and do little motions and they repeat after you. It is really endearing.
The second day is a really long journey again, and we end up about 20 km outside of the city of Abeche. Leaving our first campsite, we stop at the ‘Vulture Mountains’, these really looming and beautiful granite mountains, with villages set against the dramatic landscape. We stop for a little in the town of Mongo. Surprisingly enough, the Mongo gas station is pretty luxurious. There is a Western style toilet and hand dryer. They sell alcohol and a bunch of imported snacks – candy from Poland, drinks from Vietnam. It is really quite odd.
In the north, all the clans consist of Toubou people. They engage in camel breeding and agriculture. We visit Abeche tomorrow, and are told it will be chaotic. Because of the Darfur crisis right at the border, people have been flocking in and out of the ciy. The city has become much bigger. Groups are displaced all over the country. For example, near Lake Chad, tribes have had to move away because of terrorism (i.e. Boko).
I wish we can stop for more photos and leg stretches but the distances are so long just to reach where we are supposed to go in the desert. I fall asleep for some of the drive, but when I keep myself awake, what I see is beautiful, and almost too difficult to describe through written word. There are mountain landscapes, villages, and scatterings of goats, camels, cows and horses. The women especially look very young; they are dressed again in colourful robes, and a lot of them carry heavy cargo in donkeys. Some wave, and others do not. I find Chadian people do not smile the same way as the Sudanese. They are more cautious and apprehensive to open up. They are a bit shy and wary of foreigners.
There is not much more to this day than a long distance of travelling. We are caught in a massive rainstorm at about 4:45PM, very near to sunset. There is barely visibility on the road. The rain stops for about 20 minutes, so we quickly find a spot to set up camp. The drivers really know the area, and can spot out slightly dry lands with really great instinct. By the time the tents are set up, it is pouring. We will all stay hidden in our tents for the night. It is an incredibly long night. I am not sure if I will survive two weeks of this if it rains every single day. But, I need to build mental resilience. This is just camping. I am dry and I have water; it could be so much worse.
Day three starts with a walk to Abeche to get supplies for our next stretch of travel. Abeche is a bustling town full of a pretty big vibrant market with lots of alleyways. People are hostile to cameras, and apprehensive to us as foreigners. It makes sense. If someone was taking photographs of me walking home from work, I would be like “what the fuck”. Children scream repeatedly “cadeau, cadeau”, so you can see the workings of tourism over time, even in a country like Chad that sees fewer tourists than other parts of Africa. Because of this, I hope Chad continues to stay pure. As I continue to travel throughout the country, I feel how pure it is; and I only hope decades from now, it retains that same purity even though I hope that more of the world can see how beautiful this under-the-radar country is.
Out in the countryside, people still wave and smile shyly. Abeche is the third largest town in Chad. We want to try to get close to the town of Kalait tonight, and reach the Guelta D’Archei tomorrow for spectacular landscapes. We have been travelling a long time, and it is time to actually see something. On the way out of Abeche we see Nomadic camel tribes surrounding a huge water hole. We are lucky. The water hole formed out of rains this week. The tribes will move tomorrow. We notice some of the camels are castrated. They prefer to drink out of open tins versus actually getting their feet wet. Watching their behaviour is remarkable.
In today’s long distance, we also pass the villages of Biltine and Arada. Everyone really stares at us in the villages. The children and sometimes the younger women will smile and wave. Driving in the desert is madness. The steering wheel goes crazy as one of our drivers – Yousouf– does some serious fast off-roading. It feels normal to him when we ask what it’s like. There are dunes, but they are dead dunes, so vegetation grows on them and they do not ‘roll’. It is fascinating. We manage to set up camp near these huge boulders just in time for a huge orange African sunset. I miss it with my camera because I am trying to still set up my tent, but there are still many more days to catch sunset.
On day four, we walk through long yellow grass back to the dirt track road. We are about 25 km from the town of Kalait. Kalait is a small little town with a lot of unique white and pink architecture. It is less bustling than Abeche, but it does have what could be a fairly big market. There are only a few shops open when we walk through. Some people are friendly, whereas others will stare at us with caution and wag their fingers to indicate “no” to photos even if we just take photos of the town or architecture in general. There are lots of small shops, and the bustle comes a bit from the many tuk tuks.
We continue the drive on pretty crappy roads. We have covered a long distance now, so we have the ability to stop for snacks, coffee, tea, and even photographs. At one of the stops, we eat sesame balls with honey and dates. They are supposed to be a good source of calcium. We drive through a hell of a lot of isolation through rough roads. It is hot, and so there is nothing but hot wind, and I get really dehydrated. We finally hit the Ennedi Plateau and finally, the fabulous Massif where we camp for the night. The views are spectacular, and just breathtaking. Ennedi became a UNESCO World Heritage site as of 2016 – naturally for the landscape, and culturally for the prehistoric paintings. It covers approximately 46000 km, and is considered a national park.
In the plateau, there are the aforementioned prehistoric red and white paintings, which are well preserved in a canyon because there is literally no exposure to sun or rain. The paintings tell stories of families, animals, hunting, tribal life. It feels very spiritual. At one point a really long time ago, the Sahara used to consist of lakes, but this area is now all arid desert. I climb to a viewpoint with one of the eldest in the group. She is strong and inspiring. Her husband died 12 years ago, but she writes a letter to him about her travels all the time in a diary. It is her tribute to him. They used to write letters to each other every day when he was alive, and the day he died, she read all of the letters in memoriam. I became emotional hearing this, and I started bawling at the table when I heard the story. I think everyone in life just wants that kind of endearing, passionate love.
The best part of the day was when we climbed a sand dune to see 360 views of the valley, the massif and just the beauty that is Chad. The views were like no other, and you just have to sit and take it in sometimes – moments like these. I am really lucky, and every day I feel more and more alive.
The next morning, I wake up early enough to catch sunset. I climb part of the plateau myself to a good spot overseeing the valley. It is just so soothing to sit there alone with nothing but the wind swirling around you and this breathtaking view to take away all your negative thoughts. It is day five now. We are not even half way through the trip but I am somewhat getting used to the heat and difficult conditions. After all people live their whole lives in these difficult situations and have been happy. I am exhilarated from my early morning walk.
Today, we walk through various rocky areas. We see little camel paintings etched in the rocks, and these tall looming rocks stacked on top each of other. They look like mushrooms. It is literally a valley of boulder mushrooms. We drive for a little while through a slow grassy sandy area past more plateaus. We reach the notorious flying horsemen cave paintings. They are from 5000 years ago. They are incredible, and well-kept as if they were continuously restored. You can see the red and the white with such clarity. The paintings are very spiritual and you think possibly that they had to do with maybe prayers or meditation; but mostly they are there to tell stories. There is one painting with a cross. Unfortunately, Libyans added that during the war between Chad and Libya.
We reach this valley with a number of nomads, their goats, donkeys and camels. Camels are a signal of wealth – they are used for meat, dairy, transportation and business. The number of markings on their body denotes how many owners they have had in the past. Camels are considered assets like houses, cars, etc. The hump has fat and oxygen that stores water. Camels are all owned, but some of the donkeys we see in the plains are wild.
The nomads are hostile to us. We take pictures, but they flick us away and probably shout derogatory things. I get it still; back in Toronto if anyone tried to take photos of me walking to work, I would find it a bit offensive; but sometimes you forget. In my car, the older lady takes a picture from the inside, of a male nomad. He whips the car in anger, and the whip touches my chest. I am stunned. Our drivers get out and have a heated argument with the nomads. I am more annoyed at the other woman in the car, who starts lecturing me for taking photos; but she was taking a bunch of photos of people. And, while the nomad took out his whip, both my cameras were off. I felt like getting hostile at her, but decided it is just not worth it. I mean, there is still one more week. I am emotional. I do not need to fight with anyone. So, we move on.
We have lunch at this beautiful arch called Gughi or the Elephant Arch. We then take a sweaty walk through a canyon. We see more paintings in a really narrow cave overlooking the valley. Then, we drive to the camp for the night. The choice is between an area full of these annoying prickly flowers called cram cram that just stick to your shoes and clothes; an area potentially with scorpions, and another with possibly snakes. We can survive the prickly plants even though they sting like hell. Tomorrow we have another intensive day in the heat, trying to hike up to the top of the Guelta.
Day six is really intensive, not necessarily because it is active day but because it is entirely active in 40 degree desert heat. It gives you a great appreciation of course for life back at home – access to water, cold showers, cold drinks. Anyhow, it is a hot day, but not without with rewards. We hike up to the Guelta D’Archei – probably the most famous spot in the Ennedi.
It is this breathtaking canyon, which is cool and full of vivid rocky colours from the sunrise reflection. The hike is not hard, but you go through some hard sand patches, and rocky up and down hills. It definitely needs concentration still. It overlooks this pool that apparently had crocodiles but I was setting up my camera and I missed two of the four crocodiles. Locals nonetheless tramp through the waters with their camels, and go there to wash. We wait and wait for the camels; it turns out they are just outside because there is access to water from all the rain. The water in the canyon is much colder, and harder for the camels to navigate through. Anyhow, I really appreciated seeing the canyon from above and from below. It was absolutely stunning.
While we were waiting for the camels, I had a long talk with one of my travelling partners. She had a schizophrenic brother who went through a lot with his mental illness. We bonded, and it was just nice to have someone to talk to so carefree about everything that was hurting and emotional. I started bawling again, but it was good to have someone hug me, to listen and exchange ideas. I missed the human connection a lot. As much as I love travelling, it did get lonely sometimes even though I was always ‘with someone’. But, like at home, I do not often always connect with anybody about being bipolar, and it was just good to have this woman be empathetic and almost loving.
We camp just outside of the Guelta. All you hear are camel noises echoing within the valley. It sounds like dinosaurs; I swear for a second that I am in Jurassic Park. Some of us walk cautiously past the nomads and their camels. They do not mind you photographing them, but they freak out once you photograph their camels probably because they are afraid you will spook one and freak out the rest of the pack. Funnily enough, they start taking photos of us. The water inside the Guelta is pretty filthy. I wished for a moment this morning that I could take a cliff-dive. After actually walking through the Guelta in the bottom, I changed my mind.
We drive through some spectacular plateaus, one of which is the Lunette. This standing rock formation looks like spectacles, and is named after an ancient mask of theatre. We get water from a well in the middle of nowhere. Every day I cherish so much my access to water. It is crazy how lucky we are with access to clean and cold water every single day. There are water resources here, but we have to purify the water, and it is quite a manual process to pull the water from the wells. Women usually carry and gather the water even though men may pull them from the wells. The Nomads will naturally move if there is no water of course.
Day seven covers approximately 200 km (the whole distance of the entire trip actually spans 3000 km). We are reaching another hump of long, travel days again. I climb a small plateau in the morning to see the valley. I get a bit of a lecture from some of the older people in the group who ‘worry’. I get a bit emotional both ways - from the care, but because I do not want to be anyone’s worry - but I hide the tears behind my sunglasses. I have been crying a lot lately. I am taking my meds daily, but I think it’s the stress again of not being connected to anyone back at home.
A small group of us walk through a wide canyon this morning. I talk to the same lady in my group about mental health a bit more and just growing up. It’s weird how much she understands me. She actually shares the same name as someone who was close to me at points in my life, but once everything happened with me, we drifted apart. It just feels odd being so close with someone that shares that name again.
We drive to an amazing panoramic view of the valleys and dunes. It is really beautiful against the glowing sun. These views do not get tiring, they just get more and more beautiful. They make you realize how much you have to live and thrive for. We head to Fada. It is a super small town, but has a lot of military presence. There is a fort in the centre of the town, an influence from the war between Libya and Chad in the past. The war was intense, but Chad drove the Libyas out with such force that they left a bunch of tanks behind that we see along the way. We are told not to take photographs at all, but some of the people just do not care and do so anyways. For the first time in days, I drink something cold. I buy two bottles of this sugary, fizzy strawberry drink. I know it’s probably really bad for me, but it feels good in the moment. It helps to cool my head.
Before and after lunch, my car gets stuck in the sand repeatedly. We are unfortunately the car with all women. So, four girls get behind the car and try to push it out of the sand. I have to say, it’s a great work out and a good experience. Prior to making it to our sand dune camp, we see these piles of tombs. These tombs were there before the arrival of Islam in this area of the desert. We are in the Mourdi Depression now. I see gazelles running in the distance. I also see vast fields of these little melon balls called kolacande. They are food for the gazelle, but nomadic women will also take them and crush them into flour. We finally end up in a less sandy spot for the evening just as the orange sun rises down. We are parked right in front of a looming dune. It is absolutely gorgeous.
I wake up to a really cold breeze and so for the first time I use my sleeping bag on this trip as a blanket. There was even some cold breeze this morning for sunrise. I climbed the dune and it was really nice. I did not feel well emotionally at all this morning. My head was spinning and I had nothing but a flurry of negative thoughts just even looking at this breathtaking sunset. My travelling partner pulls me aside at breakfast and asks me to take a walk. I break down, and just weirdly enough, she listens and knows exactly what to say. Without being a doctor, she does not try to make it about her. She actually listens to me, and she gets it. She gets the obsession with death. She gets the immense sadness. She gets my need to understand the reasons for survival. I do not tell her yet why I picked all of these countries – though it is apparent. I still know that if I were to die, I would at least feel better that it is at the hands of something or someone else, and not exactly me. It would not be my body at home for Jon to find.
We walk through rolling dunes. There are lot of dung beetles and mice holes. I do not mind at all. This was the nicest campsite. I am happy where there are no mosquitoes. I cannot handle forcing myself into a sweater even at night. The whole day is pretty much a shit show as we drive through a pretty wild sandstorm in the Mourdi Depression. There are piles of red dusty rocks everywhere. We drive through planetary Mars, and at moments, there are these whimsically smooth sand dunes. The long stretches of beautiful sandy smooth desert are almost ghostly in the winds. It is mesmerizing. We end up in a village in literally the middle of nowhere to stop for lunch. We have to eat under the tree right by the cars because the wind is whipping sand everywhere. The conditions are desolate.
Be still our hearts, these little kids and some older women come out to hawk what little they have – bracelets, some rock tools and knifes. They charge literally an arm and a leg and do not seem to bargain, but you see desperation in their eyes. They are literally in the middle of nowhere in a sandstorm trying to broker a sale. As we leave, we drop by the well to refuel on water supplies. The drivers all give us a splash of dunk of water to our heads. This feels amazing since my head was boiling. Once again, I have this incredible appreciation for water right now. Life is so harsh out here. We visit a salt lake – the first of many. There are a million mosquitoes, so this particular lake is not as beautiful as I imagined. We watch these women grind salt from the dried up lake (for cooking). I reiterate how harsh life appears here.
It is day nine – the day of the Ounianga lakes. We exit the Mourdi and go to Lake Borkou. This is the only freshwater lake in the area of lakes. It is an absolute oasis and we have it all to ourselves. With all the desert heat and preservation of water, it feels like literal bliss to swim in this oasis. It is set against palm trees, tall reeds and stony-like mountains. It is exactly what you would imagine out of a storybook desert mirage. The water is a clear blue – not exactly my preferred turquoise, but I do not care. Swimming in it gives me life again. We also do a bunch of washing, and hang our clothes amongst the trees. The desert wind dries everything in pretty much ten minutes. It is a really nice way to bond, and everyone is just feeling blissful at the magical scenery and the access to all this water. We have so much appreciation for what we have at this very moment.
We subsequently visit salt and sulphur lakes. Apparently, locals drink the salty water for their stomach; and of course, people congregate around the salt lake for work (women especially – as they pound the salt for cooking). We visit Lake Motro first, which is this stunning pinkish-red salt lake. We are told it has never been this red, but this is maybe the effect of the long, rainy season this year. I just cannot stop staring at the lake. It reminds me of Maharloo lake in Iran, but it has a deeper hue. It is magnificent. I wish we could have stayed at these two lakes forever. The final lake we visit is a divided salt and sulphur lake called Kadam. We climb up on a cliff and you see the clear divide between deep red and green lakes. Once again, it is set against palm trees and stony structures. It is out of this world. The villages around these areas feel a little desolate, but people slowly walk out to converse with us.
We end up in a town before setting up camp to pass police formalities. This requires our passports and some time. I manage to speak to Jon briefly, and while it is short, it gives me life and emotional strength. I can handle these highs and lows. There is no suffering here. I am alive.
We camp next to a huge salt lake called Lake Yoa. We can hear jackals screaming in the night, and in the morning we see their paw prints everywhere. Before sunrise, I take a run because the sand is flat and does not sink as much. This feels good for my body as even though I am walking a lot, running does help with the psyche. I wish very much though that we camped next to Lake Yoa. When we walk through the bushes into the clearing you see this large crystal body of water. It glimmers in light blue, but when you walk closer you realize the lake is dark green. It looks so pure. There is no one around, no boats, no infrastructure – just water, cliffs, palm trees and a light breeze. We drive up to the cliffs to see it from above and it is equally as stunning.
Today is a travel day. The warm wind puts me to sleep, but every once in awhile I wake up to a different landscape. Every once in a while you see tires. These are road markers to provide drivers with direction in the case of a sandstorm. I am reminded once again through conversation that I am travelling with a well-seasoned group of travellers. Some of the people have the craziest stories in the wildest of countries. There is one woman who tells stories like no other. She and a group of others were arrested for allegedly crossing into Mali illegally, and spent 4 days in a Malian prison because they refused to give the 200 EUR fine -they were young, and trying to preserve cash but ended up paying it and got out. She also spoke of a time where she was in Niger during the Tuareg tribe rebellion and it was havoc across the country. Her car broke down, and they had to dig holes each evening to hide their possessions until help came for fear of being robbed. I love being with people who just thrive on life like this and want to get out of their comfort zone to see and experience the world. There is so much more to life than Toronto.
As we pass through the desert, I am reminded that these are deserts of war – notably the war between Chad and Libya. You see tons of abandoned tanks everywhere where the Libyan army left them behind. The Chadians were fierce in this short war. They fought on foot or in pick-up truck. Many years later, Gaddafi would ask for some of the tanks back. Some in the desert now are in great condition while others have clearly been exploded in bits. Our group acted like we were kids and we played on them. It felt innocent, and it was a lot of fun. I was reminded sometimes that even though we are in dark places (and we were not trying to be offensive to war) or harsh environments, we can make light of the situation regardless of age.
It is day eleven. I cannot sleep even though the campsite is great and there is cool air. I wake up every hour until I wake up for good around 4AM and start to climb the plateau around us with my torch. I reach the top and watch the sun rise over another plateau. The orange, pink and purple hues just capture you and remind you how little you are in this great, big world. We have a few professional photographers on our trip. One of them uses some of the sitting mattresses to create a little set, and we have a fun time taking pictures of the group. It is weird how after only two weeks you grow attached to people. I will miss this unique group very much; and as aforementioned, I will miss my walking partner every morning that got my spirits and momentum up just through little pep talks about life. She will never really know how much she helped me every single day.
For the last surprise of this trip, we drive to the western most point of the plateau – Bichagara. You drive up this hill and you already see large sand dunes and huge, looming rock structures and plateaus. But, after you walk about it, you see endless dunes and rock towers called arga stones. The dunes just roll onwards forever whimsically and gracefully. They look like huge snow banks. I am without words; it is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. A picture cannot capture it; neither can a video or words. It is just a place you need to see for yourself. After this beautiful surprise, we start a really long journey back down south to the capital. It will be a few long, hot days of driving. But despite all that, I am so grateful for the last few days and everything I saw and experienced. I feel so alive after this trip, and every single second – good or bad – made me feel stronger.
We ended up at a campsite that was really humid and balmy. It had rained for days before and there were crickets everywhere. Dinner was a bit of a nightmare and we had to eat really quickly with napkins over our bowls. There were crickets in our cups, and even as we sat there they were bouncing off our arms. In the morning we saw a golden scorpion, so that particular campsite was full of surprises.
On day twelve, I woke up really early because the person in the next tent snored like a monster. I ended up taking a run, and it was really nice in the cooler breeze. We drove a lot today across the Bahr El Gazal region. We had officially left the desert area and entered into more of a Sahelian environment. The roads were not bad and we were able to travel quickly. All I could see were flat plains with spots of green, and sand here and there. We stopped at a unique nomadic well 100 metres deep. Water had to be brought up using camel and rope. The people specifically asked that we not take any photographs. The day otherwise was rather anti-climatic because of all the travelling. At this point, we are all counting down the kilometres to the capital and a real shower.
I had a lot of down time to think about everything that had happened over the past few weeks. I ended up writing down a story of messages to Jon that he would probably receive the next time I got into a town with reception. I told him that I grew apart from my life in Toronto, and the mental neuroses followed soon after. I needed more people in my life that were interested in same things as me so I would feel less lonely. I had a support structure at home, but it was not the one I needed especially when I was suicidal. I needed protectiveness and connection, which I could not find at home. I understand that I will need to work and start a family, and Toronto is my root and foundation. But, I think a part of me will always need to be ‘nomadic’ to survive. I know it’s not quite right to use that term because I do not need to survive like the nomads here in these harsh conditions. But, I can understand and resonate the feeling of wanting to leave a place when it no longer gives you utility – in my case, feeling and emotion. That being said, I need to think about this more, and talk about it with Jon when I see him in a month.
So, we reach day thirteen – our last full day. Everyone is feeling ties to Chad, but at the same time, we are bred the way we are. We speak of clean clothes, access to clean water. We are bred to be this way. But, I think after a trip like this, even after only two weeks, we have a bit of desert in us. I still have a bit of desert to look forward to with my upcoming trip to Saudi after spending time with the aforementioned NGO in Lesbos next. At this point, I need a bit of a cool-down. I am pretty brown. So, day thirteen starts with a run at around 4:30AM. I get a little bit disoriented. I think I am running in a straight line, but when I turn around and look back, I cannot see where the tents are. I get a little bit lost and panicked and I think I have gotten myself into another Afghanistan – Band e Amir situation. Everywhere I look I just see plains and trees. Anyhow, I stop and gather my thoughts and wait for a little more light to come. And finally, like a mirage, I see the tops of tents and start running. It is not a mirage, I make my way back to the campsite before most people are awake.
The group is feeling a little wistful, so we set up yet another playful shoot on top of the truck with the whole crew. It kind of mirrors the locals riding on top trucks everywhere. Every one climbs to the top and we have a bunch of laughs. I will truly miss these people, but we have set up contacts and chats, so the euphoria of the trip will at least last for a little while. I end up finding a scorpion under my tent. Everyone laughs as I give a little shriek; it turns out there were a couple of little scorpions in the area and yes, these ones are lethal.
On our way out of the area, we stop by a car that has been broken down apparently overnight. A bunch of men are sitting on the roadside looking completely exhausted and dehydrated. We donate what water and food we can because we know we will be stopping into a town for supplies later in the afternoon. The day is long again and we travel hundreds of kilometres pass Salal and other villages until we reach a larger town Moussoro. We have entered back into the Sahelian environment. There are cows, ponds and the roads are rougher and muddier. This makes the journey a bit long and slow again. But, we cover a lot of ground. We pass by villages where the architecture reminds me of the mud mosques in Mali. They look free-form with wooden sticks to hold them together.
Moussoro is a small city, but it has one huge shop with air-conditioning and fully stocked fridges. We grab one last lot of supplies, and we are on our way to our last campsite. It is a little weird thinking that two weeks have passed in the desert already. Our schedule is so regimented that I am so used to waking up before 5AM, going to bed at 8PM, and setting up and tearing down camp. I am used to being dirty now, so that is helping with letting go even if just a little.
We stop in one last village for a well-water run. My walking partner and I walk up to the women in the village. They are pounding millet in sequence; a large mortar in one hand pounding, with a baby in the other. Their strength is just awe-inspiring. We laugh and giggle together and it is an endearing moment. We reach our final campsite, and I feel a bit emotional because it will be our last night together as a group in this journey. I feel a bit tired but invigorated all the same just because of how amazing the experience has been. It has definitely opened my eyes to the world, to living, to thriving, and most importantly, to surviving. I have so much to live for. I did not need Chad to show me that, but Chad showed me so much.
It is odd sometimes to think that one of the least developed countries in the world can make you have so many epiphanies about what you want for yourself and out of life. Over here, time has stood still, and in some ways, the environment is so biblical. We are closed off to the rest of the world, but at the same time, our eyes and minds are kept wide open more than ever before because of what we see and what we experience. I am so grateful for these past few weeks. I feel so emotional just thinking about every day has gone by, and how lucky I am to have experienced somewhere as beautiful and meaningful as Chad. I feel like I have so much more to say, but for now, the journey comes to an end. I say goodbye to a group of people I became really close with. And, I continue this nomadic journey to find peace.
The last many legs have now led to a very important piece of my journey. I stop travelling per se for a few weeks to help out with an NGO that supports the women and children of a refugee camp in Lesvos. I think it was important for me to travel for a little to gain a fabric of understanding and empathy before I go into this next leg. I am scared, apprehensive, and anxious, but I know I am going to experience so much psychosocial learning in the next few weeks. The next leg will be crucial to my further growth and regaining of strength. I still feel like I have a lot to say about Chad and what it means to me, but maybe I will leave those words for my mind and heart for now.