Six Deserts

Myself and a friend spent three days on camels in the Thar desert, which stretches from northwest India to eastern Pakistan. That was the first desert of my life. I remember the rolling-swaying motion and outlandish rubber faces of the camels, the sense of jelly inside their bones, but the desert I can barely recall. To everyone but those who live there deserts are a manifestation of nothing, and it's hard to remember nothing. The only thing I remember clearly is the dog that appeared from nowhere and attached itself to our expedition, a bag of bones kept alive by hope, which followed us for two days back towards the city. Pathetically begging for water and food, what she wanted most was kindness. The camels despised and resented her, aiming kicks when she staggered too close. On the second night, lying under heavy blankets on the dunes, I felt a trembling warmth at my feet; the dog had crept underneath to mould herself to the shape of my body, and despite her scabs and threadbare skin it made me strangely happy. It was a secret both of us shared, a conspiracy against the camels, who, I suspected now, despised me even more than her. I woke at intervals in the night to see that the stars had turned, as if rotating on a giant wheel; I became aware of my body as a conductor of solar heat, a temporary localised battery for the great power-source above, from which the dog was drawing warmth, gathering energy. This exchange subtracted from the sum of the desert's harshness.

She was gone by dawn, but appeared again later that day. Was it my imagination, or did she seem less wretched? As if sensing the faintest glimmer of her newfound hope, and finding it objectionable, the lead camel aimed its foot the moment the dog strayed into range, hoofing her across the sand with enough force to break ribs. Her yelps of shock and pain gradually diminished to familiar whines. She had become pathetic again, wincing in our wake. In a silent and absurd procession – humans, camels and dog – we returned to the stone-walled city, exhausted and detached from one another. No affection was left between our species.

*

The second desert of my life was in northern Mexico, where I worked for several weeks on a farm between dry yellow mountains. My host was an ageing flower child in self-imposed exile south of the border, and parts of her land were off limits to humans, reserved for local spirits – plant-spirits, rock-spirits and other small deities of place – with whom she conversed daily. I helped her water, weed and sow in exchange for food and board, but the work I enjoyed most was transplanting the giant maguey cactuses that thrust like clumps of assegai spears from the arid ground. It took hours to dig around their base, carefully cleaving the roots from the soil, and strength to heave the succulent weight of the plants towards their new home; we were creating a boundary fence to keep away coyotes. In addition to the magueys, and the even larger cactus trees that looked like prehistoric birds strutting awkwardly on the horizon, the land was populated by a type of cactus known as ʻchurrosʼ or ʻjumping chollasʼ: low trunks with segmented arms bristling with barbed spikes, which had a reputation for meanness that almost implied sentience. ʻStay away from them,ʼ said my host. ʻIf you're passing one, never take your eyes off it. They're crafty – they'll get you if they can, when you least expect it.ʼ I assumed this was more hippy talk, but one day, walking in the desert, found myself passing between two churros and remembered her advice; maintaining what seemed a sensible distance, I took my eyes off the nearest one for a fraction of a second. The next thing I knew was startling pain: I looked down to see, impossibly, an entire segment stuck to my arm, clinging to the skin with multiple hooks. The only conceivable explanation was that it had flung itself through the air.

I remember detaching the painful barbs, one by one, from my flesh, and feeling the shock of malevolent attack, the sense that I'd completely failed to understand the rules of this place. Like that dog the camel had kicked, I had transgressed a border.

*

The third desert of my life gave me only the briefest glimpse, but that glimpse was all I wanted. It was outside a city called Ouarzazate, below Morocco's High Atlas mountains, and to the south stretched the vast and monstrous Sahara. My memory is of sheer fright. The furnace heat of the sky gave me a constant searing thirst, as if the inside of my body was burning, and no amount of bottled water was ever enough to slake it. But it wasn't this that produced the horror, even though that physical discomfort was a reminder of how close death was in this environment; the horror was caused by the shock of being out of place. Much more than in the two previous deserts, I felt like an interloper here, dangerously out of my element. The emptiness was incomprehensible, beyond maps or reason.

I didn't stay looking at it long, but retreated through the city gates to sample the less alarming strangeness of unfamiliar streets and signs, houses containing mysterious lives, a language I couldn't understand; strangeness at human scale. My relief felt embarrassing for someone who likes to think of himself as being thrilled by the unknown, open to new lands. The Sahara produced a rare feeling: I didn't want to venture in. I was content to let that desert remain beyond understanding.

*

I've often thought that if I could travel back to any point in time, I would choose the earliest migrations of our species. The first people to filter east along the verdant Asian coast, away from the African cradle of life, or the first to encounter the untrodden vastness of the Americas after crossing the Bering land-bridge, must – at least, I imagine – have known a completeness of human experience I don't believe we'll ever know again. I have nothing to back this up but a feeling, buried in the gut: a vestigial ache for some vast unknown that our crowded modern consciousness simply does not have room for. I'm not saying there exists no wonder in the world anymore – if I thought that, there would be no reason to go anywhere – but that, in the mentality of our rationalising, quantifying, vivisecting industrial culture, our capacity for wonder has shrunk to smaller proportions. Our species was built to range over wide expanses of land, and the happiness I've always felt at travelling towards strange horizons, with no preconception of what might lie ahead, must be as deep as human existence on this planet. I am able to lose myself in this feeling, but only for a short time. The gaps between one familiar thing and the next are filled much quicker now; the truly unknown has become so rare that many will never encounter it. That discomforting glimpse of the Sahara is probably the closest I have got.

But my fear on the edge of the great sand-sea alerted me to another deep truth. It was perhaps a shade of the fear our distant antecedents felt, having wandered from lands they understood, at meeting an environment they had no comprehension of; the gathering awareness of scales immeasurably large, of flora vivid and threatening, of animate beings unlike anything they'd met before. From the perspective of our culture, it seems scarcely possible to appreciate that kind of awe – awe in what I dimly understand as its original sense, where ʻawesomeʼ and ʻawfulʼ might mean more than ways to describe a film or a sandwich – and even less the profound respect that awe necessitates. To fully experience such a thing would be to inhabit a world in which that churro cactus, flinging its limbs off in attack, was not just something to be recounted as an anecdotal aside, but an encounter with a being possessed of cognisance, and a spiteful attitude to strangers who got too close. Those cactus trees, which looked so much like sentient entities, would have been understood as sentient entities, quietly engaged in their own unfathomable occupations. And the Sahara's fearful power would have been recognised as a force, an active malevolence, something not to be conquered but respected.

Again, I have no particular evidence to back this up; the earliest Homo sapien migrants left behind no records. The belief-systems of indigenous peoples come close to describing such an awareness – an integral universe populated by living spirits, rather than collections of cells mechanically going through the motions – but indigenous peoples also live in the same world as the rest of us. There are no great migrations today, no venturing forth across tundra and steppe, just an economic trickle towards urban centres. So I return to that feeling again – the buried flesh-memories of wonder, happiness and fear inspired by my own brief visions of lands glimpsed for the first time – and somewhere in that feeling is an echo of awe.

*

Another desert: Mexico again, heading north in a long-distance bus through lands once raided by the Apache, the Comanche and Pancho Villa, rumbling through waves of heat towards the Texas border. The view through the dust-streaked glass showed the desert's disintegration from scrubland to suburban sprawl, its emptiness increasingly cluttered with half-constructed developments of rebar and cement, lurid billboards advertising hypermarkets and hotels, strip clubs and casinos, crudely-painted ʻSe Vende Loteʼ signs announcing land for sale, skeletal gantries of power-lines marching on the horizon. Occasionally cactus trees would flash past in curious herds, but whatever mysterious presence they had once assumed was lost; they looked merely comical now, misplaced Dr. Seuss illustrations, unfitting for a world increasingly straight and human.

The thing I remember most from that journey was a sense of gathering dread. It started with a nagging disappointment that mounted as the hours went by into full-blown dismay that almost felt like a panic attack; all I knew was that this feeling had something to do with the land outside, the way the emptiness of the desert was being filled up. Probably it was also connected to leaving Mexico for the US, the sense of one part of my life ending and another beginning, but the overriding sense was that something I'd just begun to discover was rapidly dissolving. I didn't want the desert to end, especially not like this, with the dreary inevitability of constructed things. I felt that whatever fleeting insights I'd gained over the previous months – my tentative first steps towards an understanding of place – had come to nothing now. Perhaps this sounds melodramatic, but landscapes have that power.

I drew my first impression of deserts from comic books and illustrated atlases, the interminable Westerns my old Cockney neighbours watched on TV. Like all things discovered in childhood the image remained fixed in my mind as something immutable, impervious to change; like icecaps, rainforests and mountains, they would always exist somewhere far beyond human control, and even from an early age I found this comforting. As I grew up, of course, I realised this was not the case. Our culture's influence is everywhere, from golf balls on the moon to the infinitesimal plastic particles swirling around our oceans.

I think the dread I felt on that bus, crawling towards the border at the city of Nuevo Laredo, stems from the loss of that childhood awe at the hugeness of the world. It was confirmation that nothing, not even emptiness, is beyond our reach.

*

For six weeks of my life I had the misfortune to stay in Dubai, that glittering advertisement for capitalism and hedonism, luxury and slavery, squeezed between the desert and the sea. I won't dwell on the city itself, or the hyperbole that surrounds it – the world's tallest skyscraper, the world's biggest shopping mall, the world's largest per capita carbon footprint – or the remarkable way it has married the very worst of two worlds: the consumerist excesses of the West with the bigotry of ultraconservative Islam. I want to speak about my fifth desert, even though I only reached its edge. I was making a radio documentary about the plight of migrant workers – indentured labourers from South-East Asia, largely tricked into employment and held in appalling conditions of exploitation and abuse – which led me to the labour camp of Sonapur, Hindi for ʻCity of Goldʼ.

Even though I'd been in Dubai several weeks, it was the first time I'd seen the desert. The desert is not easy to access, lying behind a protective wall of ever-expanding construction sites, half-completed skyscrapers, business parks and industrial zones, a wasteland of diggers and cranes. White people do not go there, unless they are responsible for overseeing the brown people toiling in 50 degrees centigrade to build Dubai's future. White people stay by the sea, confined to beaches and hotels, air-conditioned offices and gated communities; I met ex-pats who'd lived there for years ignorant of these places.

Sonapur was less a labour camp than a sprawling labour city: poorly-constructed tenement blocks that housed half a million men – Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Nepalese – many of whom were too in debt to buy their passage home. The boomtown of luxury hotels, beach resorts and artificial lawns was no more real than a dream for them; shuttled back and forth all week from one construction site to the next, permanently sleep-deprived and exhausted, they may as well have been living in another country. ʻI am working seventeen hours a day,ʼ one young man told me. ʻThey fine me if I forget to shave, or go to work in a creased uniform. All my wages go on my debts.ʼ ʻWe are living like sheep and goats,ʼ said another.

I'd been warned that journalists who found their way to Sonapur risked arrest and deportation, but it was surprisingly easy. There was no security on the gates, and the workers were willing to share their stories; things had got so bad that they had nothing to lose. By afternoon I was drained. I'd recorded more than enough, and wanted to make a getaway before unfriendly eyes spotted me; but first I decided to walk a little way into the desert. The yellow sand stretching ahead, beyond the walls of the labour camp, was the edge of the thrillingly named ʻEmpty Quarterʼ that reaches for hundreds of miles into Saudi Arabia.

It wasn't particularly empty here. The sand was like a polluted beach, littered with plastic bags, drinks containers, scrumpled foil, straggling barbed wire, discarded packs of paan. As I walked, I became aware of what seemed an optical illusion: the rubbish was apparently moving, flowing majestically towards me, as if I was at the centre of a vortex. It was dizzying. And then I heard an accompanying sound: the whistling, sliding, skittering, scraping and hissing of plastic over sand, rolling on a sudden wind that was flapping my shirt like a sail, buffeting me in long hot gusts. Then my hat flew off my head. The sky turned brown. The air was opaque. I wheeled back towards Sonapur, and it had disappeared: all I could see was swirling dust, rubbish flying past my boots and vanishing into nothingness, as if I was standing ankle-deep in a flowing river. I attempted several steps, and was lost; the storm swallowed all sense of distance and direction. All I could do cover my eyes and breathe through my hands until it stopped.

It didn't last long. Within minutes visibility improved, and I picked my way carefully back. Something solid loomed ahead which turned out to be a brick wall, and then two figures appeared in the gloom, their heads elaborately turbanned and wrapped. Men were fumbling blindly about, dusted orange from head to toe; I had turned orange too, blending into my surroundings for the first time that day. Relieved as I was to have found my way back, I couldn't help feeling a note of disappointment. For a moment back there, the desert had revealed its transformative power, temporarily wiping all man's workings from the map. Although I probably hadn't been more than 50 feet from the camp, I'd felt like the only human being in existence.

One day I took a ride on the newly opened monorail, which runs parallel to the sea to the district of Jebel Ali. The size of the city astounded me, elongated along the coast; every time I thought it was ending, another zone of skyscrapers would soar into view. But when I looked closely, I realised that the majority of what I was seeing wasn't a real city at all, not a place in which people lived, but rather a vast construction site, seemingly frozen in time. This was the height of the economic crisis and Dubai's bubble had burst; the cranes had stalled, the migrant workers were sweltering in their labour camps – many hadn't been paid for months – and the skyscrapers were either half-built or else apparently abandoned.

It looked like a ruined civilisation. It was hard not to think of Ozymandius, of clichés of cities built on sand. Behind those pointless, empty towers the desert glowered in a haze, and a pall of dust reduced the gleam of glass to a dull smear. The impression it gave was the opposite of what I'd felt near the Texas border, watching the emptiness lose its power to mankind's cluttering. Dubai had declared war on the desert with irrigation, desalination, air-conditioning and untold wealth; from this vantage, it looked very much as if the desert was winning.

*

Deserts always do, in the end. In Mongolia, China, the Sahel, South America, the Middle East, across swathes of South Asia – even in southern Europe – desertification is increasingly turning green places yellow and brown, choking agricultural land, inching towards the cities. Lake Chad has shrunk by 90% percent in the last 40 years. The Aral Sea, once one of the largest lakes in the world, isn't much more than a silted pond, with rusting ships lying permanently beached upon the sand. We can hold deserts back with anti-sand shields, plant trees and dig canals, but these are only temporary measures: across the planet, human populations are being forced to retreat, falling back to more easily-held positions. A few weeks ago the sky over London had a glassy, jaundiced appearance, and a fine layer of orange dust settled on parked cars. This, the newspapers said, was sand that had blown in from the Sahara; even here, on this wet green island, deserts are not so far away.

Perhaps this is the difference with deserts, in this age of shrinking wilderness, when the non-human world seems besieged and reduced on every side. While forests are being thinned and felled, while glaciers melt and icecaps collapse, while rivers trickle into streams and lakes evaporate away, deserts are increasing in size, inexorably spreading. They are making more of themselves, imposing their own terms on the world. They are doing it quietly, with only the hiss of sand on sand. This whisper goes against the narrative that we have been telling ourselves for so long: the story that says the planet is being recast in a human image. Is this why they frighten and fascinate us? Having cut the tops off mountains, turned rainforests into plantations, and melted the north and south poles of the globe, sand is the one thing we can't stand against. Deserts might be forcing us back towards something approaching awe.

*

One last desert. In the back of a car – air-conditioned so cold it felt more like a travelling fridge – driving across Nevada towards the fantasy of Las Vegas. We pulled up at a roadside diner, and when I stepped outside the heat slammed me like a physical body. Glittering chrome, the wing mirrors of cars, the polished silver cabins of trucks; every manmade thing shone with that special clear American light, the Stars and Stripes dazzling against a cloudless sky.

Back on the road, for hour after hour we cruised through a landscape of baked beige, with occasional biscuity mountains rising in the distance. Again I remember nothing, because nothing was all I could see. Inside this metal and glass cocoon, with its interior climate system of chilled air and soothing radio waves, we were removed and protected from the reality outside, granted passage through this land by a ribbon of tar that flowed unbendingly as far ahead and as far behind as we could see, the yellow dividing lines of the road counting down our miles.

We passed a single settlement: a quadrant of white bungalows laid out in neat parallel lines, with small square lawns of sprinkled grass and vehicles gleaming in each drive, strung together by electric wires as if on life support. A satellite dish on every roof, angled at the sky. The word ʻvillageʼ didn't seem appropriate, although it was no bigger than that. A village suggests permanence, somehow, but in the glowering heat of the desert these prefabricated dwellings were so unmistakably temporary, existing only because cheap electricity and fuel allowed them to forget, or ignore, the limits of the land around them. If those lines of connection were cut, even for a week or two, life would not be tenable here. The artificial cool of the air would become a furnace heat, the satellites would not be heard, the grass would shrivel up. Something about those bungalows – the trust and frailty they implied – made me strangely sad. And again I remember that dog in the desert, the night she slept at my feet beneath the stars, our two bodies huddled up together against the harshness.