I'm a sucker for any book or movie about camels, and Michael Benanav is a sucker for camels. Part of the charm of his account


Men of Salt

Learning to love camels, and a new recipe for making tea.

I'm a sucker for any book or movie about camels, and Michael Benanav is a sucker for camels. Part of the charm of his account of a 40-day camel journey north from Timbuktu (in the West African nation of Mali) is that he stumbled on the idea while on the Internet, researching the difference between Bactrian (two-humped) and dromedary (one-humped) camels, which evolved from the former. Then he stumbled out of the 21st century into an ancient tradition of Saharan nomads, or alazai, who caravan rock salt from quarry to market. I wish more journalists—Benanav has written for The New York Times—would be as candid as he when admitting that the entire premise for his trek was wrong. He thought trucks were displacing the camel-based transport of "white gold," but everything he encounters contradicts that notion of globalization crushing a timeless and romantic local custom. As anyone who's recently priced a new car knows, motor vehicles are expensive; they also require fuel and maintenance; and then there's the insurance. As Benanav learns from the alazai, however, camels are basically free: bred to perfection for long arid days of travel between wells; subsisting on sparse grass and bales of fodder cached en route; even providing cooking fuel in the form of their dry droppings. Could any SUV exist in such perfect harmony with its environment? When was the last time you heated tea over the excrement of your Lexus? In the ecological and historical asides that punctuate the journey, Benanav tells us how the wheel was introduced to North Africa by the road-building Romans. With the decline of their empire, the more adaptable camel replaced carts and wagons (wheeled transport disappeared for centuries). He also has a minor penchant for eco-screeds, praising the Saharans' "ethic of mutual sustainability" with their sparse environment over "the American proclivity for outsized consumption." These and other green musings are a little too easy and obvious—not all of us can take the family camel to Costco or use it for morning car-pool duties. Benanav also betrays some anxiety that his guided adventure—"This was no Outward Bound course"—doesn't rank with, say, Into Thin Air, Kon-Tiki, or Seven Years in Tibet; it's basically a magazine or travel-section piece padded with ruminations and—groan!—even a passage where the author decides to dump his girlfriend back home in New Mexico. But his photos are good (even if a detail map is sorely missing), he has a genuine admiration for the nomads' desert-honed minimalism, and he finally learns how to mount a camel not by having it kneel (as is done for tourists) but by jumping onto its lowered neck and then sliding onto the hump. Of course, the driver's seat isn't as comfortable as in an SUV: "My ass felt like it was being pummeled by a splintery club," Bananav says of his first few days on the trail. Still, if gas gets much more expensive, I can't think of a more stylish way to commute to work. Tea, anyone? I made it myself. Michael Benanav will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 4:30 p.m. Sun., Feb. 5; and at University Village Barnes & Noble (2700 N.E. University Village, 206-517-4107), 7 p.m., Tues., Feb. 7.

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