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William Langewiesche
Excerpts from Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert
(Pantheon, 1996)

From Chapter Five:

The Physics of Blown Sand

Neither Lag Lag nor his assistant was a navigator. They knew only that the sun rose from Mecca, soared high all day, and plunged into the west, and that it was chased all night by a universe of stars. And so they began to wander. Eventually they realized that nothing looked right, but they did not panic. For three days they struggled with the dunes, until they ran out of fuel.

Since they carried water, they were in no immediate danger. But the long-term prospects were not good. Walking out was unthinkable, and it was unlikely that anyone would come their way. The oilmen at Hassi Messaoud expected them, of course, but had no idea of the route they had chosen. The possibility of aerial search did not enter their minds. It was accepted then as now that people die in the desert.

The sun forced them into the shade under the truck, where they dug a shallow trench. Day after day they lay there, watching their water dwindle and waiting for God's will. They turned inward to Islam and talked about the afterlife. They had food, but did not eat, fearing it would magnify their thirst. Dehydration, not starvation, is what kills wanderers in the desert. And thirst is the most terrible of all human sufferings.

The physiologists who specialize in thirst seem never to have experienced it. This surprises me. You would think that someone interested in thirst would want to stop drinking for a while, especially since for short periods it can be done safely. But the physiologists pursue knowledge, not experience. They use words based in Greek, which soften the subject. For instance, they would describe the Sahara--the burning sand and relentless sky--as dipsogenic, meaning "thirst provoking." In discussing Lag Lag's case, they might say he progressed from eudipsia, meaning "ordinary thirst," through bouts of hyperdipsia, meaning "temporary intense thirst," to polydipsia, by which they mean "sustained, excessive thirst." We can define it more precisely: since poly means "many," polydipsia means the kind of thirst that drives you to drink anything. There are specialized terms for such behavior, including uriposia, "the drinking of urine," and hemoposia, "the drinking of blood." For word enthusiasts, this is heady stuff. Nonetheless, the lexicon has not kept up with technology. Blame the ancients for not driving cars. I have tried, and cannot coin a suitable word for "the drinking of rusty radiator water."

Radiator water is what Lag Lag and his assistant started into when their good drinking water was gone. They had been under the truck for three weeks, and no one had come to find them. They wrote good-bye letters to their families, and stuck them up in the cab.

The assistant sobbed.

Lag Lag was annoyed, and said, "When you die, you die." He lay quietly, preparing for the end.

Years later when he described his peace of mind to me, I admitted to him that I found it strange. Afterward, I would have my own experience with a stranding in the Sahara. But Lag Lag was the first to say to me that such a death is not complicated, that the Sahara overpowers its victims and offers no choice but acceptance, that Islam too requires acceptance, that the greatest God is the desert God.

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    Copyright © 1996 by William Langewiesche. All rights reserved.