It was still the fourth day of the crossing, and there has been more activity than I could have anticipated. All that I wanted was a bit of quietness to think about life while we crossed the seemingly endless desert. Contrary to what I had imagined, there is no boredom when you are in a caravan. The desert is a peculiar universe that pulsates as a living body, undergoes constant changes from the wind hitting the sand, day and night are strongly contrasted, and it is home to a countless variety of beings. Migratory birds and birds of prey, small rodents, reptiles like lizards and serpents, in addition to small invertebrates, some quite dangerous, like spiders and scorpions. I had also heard about the existence of felines, but it seemed to me it was more of a legend; I doubted this species existed in such an inhospitable region. That day had been sluggish, much to my liking. I alternated my time between reflection, while observing the landscape, the many pictures I took to memorialize the journey, and the reading of a book, which I have gotten used to do without getting sick, despite the swaying of the camel. I wanted to be prepared for the meeting with the wise dervish who knew “many secrets from heaven and earth”, who lived at the oasis. The caravanner led the convoy, riding his horse. For a few hours every day he enjoyed trotting on his horse carrying his falcon perched on the thick, long-sleeve leather glove he wore on the left arm. On that day I had not seen the gorgeous woman with lapis lazuli colored eyes.
The caravan, with dozens of participants in addition to the crew, was composed not only of pilgrims, like me, but also of traders and tourists either going to visit relatives who lived at the oasis or who were just curious about the place and interested in buying the famous handmade rugs designed by the skilled hands of local weavers. The caravan followed its course when my attention was drawn by a tremendous hubbub. I turned to the direction people were pointing. I got scared when I saw, afar, an imponent leopard climbing down a dune, with the attitude of one who reigns in the desert. The caravanner seemed to have paid no attention and kept the caravan in motion. I picked my camera from the knapsack and delayed the pace of my mount to have the feline framed in a better angle. I thought that I could make some money selling a picture like that to specialized magazines and wondered how amazed my friends would be when I reported that experience.
I let everybody pass ahead of me. I took some pictures, but their quality was worse than I had expected. Some were shaken, others were blurred. After considering some factors, like the slow and paced march of the caravan and the unexpected sighting we had, I did not think much before dismounting the camel to have a better framing and focus. I would have no problem in reaching the caravan after taking the pictures. I took many of them, but the leopard, always in motion, did not seem willing to collaborate. Until it vanished behind a dune. Resigned, I went back to my camel, which was a bit distant. When I got close, the camel moved a few steps away. We started a game that seemed amusing, at least for the camel. As I moved towards it, it moved away; it would also stop when I stopped. I was getting nervous, because the caravan kept moving, distancing itself from where we were; and I became quite annoyed when the camel turned its head and showed me its teeth. I even imagined it laughed at me, and I cursed it. The fun, for the camel, and he discomfort, for me, lasted longer than they should. When I finally managed to mount the camel, the caravan was out of sight. As if that weren’t enough, a strong and swift gust of wind, typical of the desert, forced me to stop and protect myself, my eyes in particular. When it was over, I realized I had another problem. The tracks of the caravan had been swept away from the sands of the desert.
I had the setting sun as reference, as we were heading west; not the magnetic reference West, but we were westbound. Minute variations of angles are enough to take you to a destination far from the intended one. I galloped to the top of a huge dune, with the purpose of seeing where the caravan was, but I only saw other dunes ahead of me, which seemed even higher than the one I was at. I climbed up another dune, and one more after that. Nothing. Only the sun and the desert. It took me some time to admit the foolishness of the situation, typical of childhood or irresponsibility: I was lost.
Time was short to decide whether to wait, and hope people would miss me and return to pick me up or run the risk of distancing myself even further in trying to find the caravan. I recalled a situation I had experienced as a boy, leaving a stadium with my father. We had gone to watch the championship finals. On the way out, I got lost when a confrontation between supporters of both teams broke. I waited in a bar close by as soon as I realized he was not by my side. Even though it was only few minutes of distress, it seemed an eternity to me. Soon, my father retraced his steps. He cracked a large smile when he found me and realized I had followed his advice for such a situation. However, I had no friends or relatives in the caravan who would miss me and warn the caravanner. There were dozens of people I did not know who should look after themselves and keep the party harmonious. I believed it could take days until my absence was noticed. By then, it would be of no use sending someone to look for me. It was better to perish fighting than regretting. So, with the setting sun as reference, I followed in that direction, always paying heed to any signs or tracks on the sand that could help me in the quest.
With the passing of the hours, the feeling of helplessness increased. I had little water in the canteen and no food in the knapsack. I hastened the pace of the camel, because I had to travel faster than the caravan, if I were to catch it, not to mention the need of, at times, climbing up a huge dune to have a broader view. In the beginning of the afternoon, it became more difficult to be calm. A feeling of despair started to emerge. It made me upset to think that a mere picture could be the cause of my death. Some stories of similar foolishness came to my mind. I made a heartfelt prayer asking for the help of the High Lands. Time flew with the wind while my words seem to dissolve in the scorching desert sun.
I felt abandoned by men and God.
When I was a child, in the district I was raised people would say one should not complain of a bad situation because it could get worse. That came to my mind when, in face of that dire situation, I watched the leopard, the cause of my misfortune, watching me from the top of a dune. Despite the heat, I felt my guts shivering with cold. My pettiness and greed came to mind as I was in that situation because of the money I would make selling the pictures, and the vanity and pride of telling my friends an adventure that I could illustrate with pictures. At that moment, just like a desert sandstorm, a whirlwind of thoughts circulated aimlessly in my mind. If it is not properly managed, it can cause much distress. I even thought that death from the attack of the beast could be less painful than the slow death of he who withers from suffering. It may seem ludicrous, but I even thought that that wild beast could have been sent from heaven to alleviate my pain. But I immediately dismissed that ridiculous idea from my mind.
I realized that I counted only on myself and depended only on me to get out of that situation. And that was quite fair, I pondered, as I was in it from my own doing. I recalled that death is not the end, but a passing, and every day is a good day to die when one lives with love and dignity. I considered that I could face the desert, and all living creatures that dwell in it, as an ally or an opponent. I had a choice.
I let the idea ripen for quite a while. As ludicrous as it may seem, fear and guilt gave room to an absolute calm. The way one deals with death changes the meaning of life. The way one deals with life changes existence. Replacing guilt with the responsibility of doing differently and better, of counting on myself, with my strength and power transformed the mood and the sense of the moment. Entirely.
We faced each other, the leopard and me, for minutes on end. I whispered, as if it could hear me, that I would not give up living, that I would fight for my life, and that I had as much right as it did, as did the grains of sand, the sun, the stars and all other creatures of the desert, to be there, in peace. Just like it, I was an essential part of the whole.
Perhaps because it was not hungry, perhaps to look for a more appeasing prey, the feline turned around and started to move in the direction opposite to mine. This is when an idea hit me. An animal that size needs to drink water with some regularity. I knew that, in addition to oases, there are some water sources in deserts. I considered the possibility that the leopard was thirsty, rather than hungry, and was going to a water source of some sort. In addition, I also knew that a caravan could not carry all the water it needed for the crossing, particularly in a 40-day journey with dozens of people. Sometimes the caravanner would have to make a detour to supply the caravan with water. We were on the fourth day, and the time seemed right for that. Therefore, instead of trying to run away from the leopard, as would seem the normal thing to do, I made the decision of following it. At a distance, of course. After all, I was reasoning, not delusional.
I followed the feline from afar for about two hours. That was quite a difficult task, because of the tremendous difference in agility, even if the pace of the leopard and the camel was not hasty; but the camel had the additional burden of carrying me. A strange feeling of excitement warmed my heart. The leopard seemed not to care about my presence, of which, I have no doubt, it was aware. However, despite my efforts not to lose sight of it, with the setting of the sun it had vanished. I realized that I was quite off from my original geographic reference. I did not regret it. It was not dark yet, but in the horizon in the twilight sky the blue was being replaced by the pink that precedes the appearance of the stars. Even though I got lost from the caravan and, at that time, was even more distant than it, I had within a different certainty, an unshakable belief that I was connected to all things around me, as if the universe and I were one. There was no fear, despair or frustration. There was serenity in understanding that that was a situation to be experienced. With its pains and pleasures; lessons and transformations. No more, no less. To that end, I had to be there in whole. My heart had to be where my body was.
I thought I should stop, as the camel showed signs of tiredness. I got off the camel and sat on the sand. I drank the last drop of water from the canteen and felt hungry. I thought I would have been good if I had any hunting skill to catch, for instance, a careless rabbit going back to its warren. I immediately stopped that thought, so that I would not fall in useless regrets, and felt happy for not having been found by a serpent, a scorpion or any predator. Less than a minute had passed when my attention turned to a bird that flew over the desert in circles. At first, I thought it was a vulture, a sign of bad omen.
After a moment, I realized it was a falcon. My heart jumped. The caravanner’s falcon? Blessed the falconers! Honestly, I did not know. But as people also said in the district I was raised, “a man who has nothing to lose has everything to gain”. I mentally registered the direction which the bird seemed to land, mounted the camel and went after it.
From the height of a dune I spotted the caravan camped by a natural water spring, to get water supply and spend the night. For need of water, the caravanner could not have the caravan follow a straight line over the desert, between the city of departure and the oasis, which would be the normal course between origin and destination. He was a bit distant from the group, as he usually did whenever he would take his falcon hunting. As I approached, the caravanner made no objection. I told him all that had happened and asked if he had noticed I was missing. He just shook his head, negating. I confessed that, at times, I felt abandoned by men and by God. He just looked at me without saying a word. I wanted to know if he believed in God. The caravanner looked deep into my eyes and answered: “I don’t have to believe.” He made a pause, but soon what seemed to me a demeanor of arrogance disappeared, giving room to humility, when he added: “I feel Him.”
We remained silent while watching the flight of the falcon. I broke the silence saying that I did not have a nice photo to sell or a good story to tell, as no one would believe I reverted logic and instinct by allying myself with the leopard. It was a sort of crazy lucidity. But, I added, oddly enough I felt stronger and whole. Even though I counted only on myself, I knew I was not alone, or in half. What made me complete was not external, but within myself.
The caravanner turned to me and said: “Greed and pride gave you a fine lesson. Use it well. Darkness can be a wick for light.” Then he looked back to the desert and continued: “All the time, we are guided through life. Either by intuition or signals. Their purpose is to guide our choices or correct our course. These are moments when we feel safe and supported, and they happen in most of our existence. However, one cannot deny our dependence on them. Thus, out of need for evolution, a complicated situation arises in which we feel helpless, with no support from the good spirits. Then, by having to deal with naked facts, we are led to face the naked soul. You will have a distinct feeling you can only count on yourself. To overcome the moment, you will have to listen to yourself and reconsider what you believe true, regardless of social rules and cultural conditionings. Deep inside yourself, you will know the right thing to do, even if many disagree with you. ‘To see from inside’ is different than ‘to see from the outside’. This certainty gives plenitude to those who, while seeking their essence, end up finding the Absolute. Then, they find out they have never been alone. This is the beginning of the maturity of being. When the world seems dark, and there is no one to give us a lamp, this means it is time for one to light their own light. What seems abandonment is, in fact, the best opportunity”. He looked to the desert for a moment and completed: “To know the destination is to understand the journey; to know the Mystery is to understand oneself. This is when plenitude emerges.”
Later on, after the meal, I thought I saw the gorgeous woman with lapis-lazuli color eyes contemplating the stars, seated on the top of a small dune, a little apart from the group. I walked in her direction, but had to stop for a few seconds, to give way to a member of the crew who was leading the camels to their designated rest area. Once they passed, I had lost the woman from sight. She was no longer there. I went over to the place she had been and saw the marks she left on the sand. I sat on the same spot and watched the entire scene, immersed in my thoughts. Suddenly, I got a fright. I saw the leopard from afar, on the top of a huge dune ahead of us, silently lying down, waiting for the caravan to leave, on the next day, so that it could quench its thirst in that spring, quietly. I had a feeling it looked back at me, in impossible complicity, for the day we had, for the lessons I learned.
Kindly translated by Carlos André Oiguenstein.