Agadez: Gateway to the Desert

Our drive to Agadez from Tahoua put into my head the passage from the Wizard of Oz — the book — where Baum describes the deterioration of the landscape as one leaves Munchkinland. The farms grow poorer and farther between, the yellow brick road gets more potholed — it’s a passage that comes to mind often when going from place to place, you could even think of it leaving Emeryville in some directions, but the thing is, Tahoua was pretty much the Blasted Heath of the Wicked Witch of the West to start with, and the growing desolation is relative to that. The trees grew dead and shrank and finally vanished, the grasses gave way to red dust and scattered black boulders from the cap of some long-eroded mesa, Ahmed finally decided to give up on the pavement and go fourwheeling across the sand, which had a much better surface. The intermittent wadis were replaced by continuous mirages.

You’ve read in the romances how the nomads live in goatskin and camelskin tents. For that, replace, blue polyethylene tarps of Chinese manufacture, and don’t tell me that half the fabrics in your centuries-old culture haven’t been replaced by the same material.

It’s possible that the children aren’t as desperate as you think; there seems to be literally nothing else to do in Tahoua, but to stand in front of anyone you haven’t seen before, presenting an empty bowl in front of you. The lead beggar at the gas station when we topped off for the trip to Agadez, was definitely the Tough Darkly Good Looking Guy who gets the Bad Girl in my and your and everyone’s seventh grade, except here, where the average child does not attend school. Literacy rate in Niger: 13%. And they use the Roman alphabet, no excuses. For girls: 6%. I gave the rest of my breakfast bread to a crippled retard, trying to follow the example of Kone in picking Queen for a Day.

What ever happened to Queen for a Day? I can’t imagine a TV show now based on sympathy for the downtrodden. Today’s audience wants to savage the wounded gazelle with the champion hyenas.

At 1 P.M. we drove through the arch welcoming us to Agadez. Or more specifically, welcoming the youth of 1982 to some function in Agadez. I wonder if they are all right?

And how embarrassing for our guide and driver: on the last day of the trip, when they are to take leave of us and when everybody knows that the customer is deciding how big a tip to leave; we pull up to the Auberge d’Azel after Ahmed had to ask somebody how to get to it (recast your gender stereotypes: men ask directions here at the first inkling of anything having changed), and CĂ©line has no record of Sagatours’s reservation. And at the hotel across the street, complet. And at the next four ostensibly nice hotels, nothing. Tomorrow is the weekly plane flight to Agadez, and every desert tour in the province has deposited its ruddy load, trickling down from the finest suite at the Hotel de la Paix. Some townie joins us based on Ahmed’s Old School Tie and we drive around from place to place, finally being deposited in the Hotel Tchin-Toulos in a garret opening onto the roof where you wish the bathroom weren’t en suite.

At a certain point, sliding down the scale of construction and maintenance standards, a bathroom inside the room is no longer an advantage. The books that assign stars to hotels never recognize this. All hotels with attached bathrooms rank above all hotels with the bathroom down the hall. But, the retrograde condition arrives at a much higher star-score than Fodors might think. We’ve stayed at four star hotels — one in the town of Fes comes to mind, Justin can vouch for this — where the plumbers evidently didn’t know why one puts in a p-trap. The room I’m writing this in is small, dark, musty-plus, the walls stained and flaking, again no toilet seat, but, you know, it has its points. The floor is gravel but there’s a carpet over part of it; the light fixture with its twenty-watt bulb has a calabash-gourd ornamentation casting decorative shadows on the rattan ceiling, there is a hot faucet and a cold faucet in the shower — there are worse hotels. If I ever get busy with the scanner and post blogs describing the circumstances of the eclipses we saw before digital cameras and websites, that last will be a link to Kidapawan on the island of Mindanao.

The rattan ceiling mentioned above turns out to be the entire roof. Our Garmin GPS receiver can get four satellites, inside the room. You who are familiar with the Garmin product, will chuckle knowingly at this: you can easily make it lose reception by holding it in your hand or putting it in your pocket.

All this is what I get for not having worn anything green on St. Patrick’s Day. Although, there is nothing in the immediate vicinity (say, from here to the 6th parallel of latitude) top remind one of the Auld Sod. The desert from Tahoua to here was devoid of green almost entirely. Maybe a couple of acacias had a couple of leaves, if their roots happen to have found water.

(A note about hot and cold running water: they are relative terms. In the middle of August, water delivered from the tap at ambient temperature would get McDonald’s sued for unsafe conditions. We actually couldn’t tell the difference between the temperature of the water coming out of the hot and the cold pipes, which was neither, assuming any water came out at all.)