Journal Excerpt: On Location/Sahara Desert

I was attacked by a camel today. I was knocked down from behind while shooting Tuareg nomads who were riding camels against a “Lawrence of Arabia” backdrop. All I remember was a loud belch, the tripod and camera falling to earth and a giant camel toe next to my head as I laid on the ground. My scalp and shirt was wet but it was not blood but camel saliva that was as thick as jello . After dusting myself off and getting back to work I detected an odd smell of  coffee grounds mixed with asparagus emanating from my hair and stained shirt. Later tonight I plan to stand in the shower with my clothes on and free myself from camel drool and Sahara sand. My clothes will be dry by morning.

Last shot of the day and a welcome relief from the desert heat. If all goes well this will be the money shot – but most of the time it is just plain luck and being in the right place to capture a good image.

The Parting Shot

Journal Entry: March 30, 1999 / Marathon des Sable / Morocco / Sahara Desert.

“This is our fourth day of covering the Marathon des Sable; so far we’ve managed to lose our way, we’ve been blasted by a sand storm, we’ve run out of toilet paper and are now surviving on granola bars, turkey jerky and hot bottles of Coca-Cola. I have no idea how many miles we have traveled or how many times we’ve managed to get stuck in the sand. My driver, Nouh, speaks no English and smokes three packets of Marlboro Lights a day.  He’s also fond of breaking wind each time he exits the Land Cruiser.

What I can tell you, should you not already know, is that the Marathon des Sable is a stage race that lasts 7 days and covers 243km/151 miles. To make things even more difficult, each competitor has to carry everything they may need for the duration of the race (apart from their tent) on their backs in a rucksack – their food, clothes, medical kit, sleeping bag, etc. In addition, runners’ water is rationed and handed out at each checkpoint.

The backdrop to this event is the Sahara Desert. Not only is the Sahara the largest desert on earth, covering an area of 3.5 million square miles, (which amounts to 8% of our planet’s surface area), it stretches from the Atlantic Ocean in the west across half of Northern Africa, to the Red Sea.  It then extends down to the highlands of Ethiopia with temperatures recorded as high 40° +Celsius / 120° + Fahrenheit. The Sahara is a great leveller, making all men equal regardless of their station in life. So, when you come across another soul within this vast arena of sand, you stop, share, and remind yourself that here, we are all brothers.

 

Depending on whom you ask, the estimated population of the Sahara Desert varies from 2.5 million to 4 million people – so you would think finding a singing rabbit would be easy. Oh contraire.

The singing rabbit is competitor Derek McCarrick of the UK. Mr. McCarrick has been running marathons for Leukemia and Breast Cancer Research for the past 20 years and is still going strong at the age of 73.  Mr. McCarrick has personally raised a staggering £200,000 ($ 319,920.00) for charity, an achievement which is all the more impressive as he has completed each race dressed as the cartoon character, Roger Rabbit!

Eureka! On the horizon we spot a lone figure of a man with the head of Roger Rabbit tied to his backpack.

 


‘I’m the only rabbit in the world that’s run across the Sahara,’ Mr. McCarrick once told me. He also added, ‘People think I’m bonkers!’ In 2008, this former coal miner was awarded the MBE (Order of the British Empire) by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. For those who are not British, an MBE award is one of the highest distinctions that can be gained by a British citizen.  Not bad for a chap from Minster on the Isle of Sheppey.”

 

Excerpt from Cue The Camels, Chapter Eight, Dog Biscuit and Noah’s Ark 

We waited another half an hour after the Turkish patrol had disappeared out of sight before we hauled ass off the apron of Mt. Ararat and on to flat ground. My knees were shot and my feet were thrashed. We crossed numerous gullies, sliding down their drops then trudging back up their inclines, which rapidly depleted our Mt.Ararat-On plainremaining energy reserves. 

Stumbling forward, my boots scraped against the rolling rocks as I repeatedly stabbed with the ski poles for an opening between the rocks to right myself. The flare must have burned out because it became dark again. I faltered a number of times but kept an eye on my fellow climbers Cronuck and Stublich and watched them move at a steady pace towards the faint yellow and white lights of Doğubayazıt on the horizon – which I affectionately call Dog Biscuit

My feet felt warm and soggy which was a sure sign of blood. 

Mt.Ararat-2nd paragraph-BlogIt was at this point – stemming from many things, such as dehydration and sheer exhaustion – that I fell into mild delirium and David Byrnes of Talking Heads became my chaperones. 

‘And you may find yourself in another part of the world. And you may ask yourself: well, how did I get here?’

‘You know, David, you’re holding me hostage with that broken record. I mean, I can appreciate your words but after a while it gets a little old. Know what I mean?’

I didn’t get a straight answer from David; instead, he gave me his advice. ‘The sound of gunfire, off in the distance, I’m getting used to it now…’

                 At that moment, a second flare burst in the night sky. It was a couple of seconds later that we heard the low boom of the flare gun, which meant there was a good distance between us and the Turkish military. I made it to the edge of the stone field; Cornuke and Stublich stopped long enough to ask me if I was okay. My lips were cracked, my tongue was swollen and all my saliva had evaporated. I could only answer with a nod and a whisper: ‘I’m okay.’

Ahead, I could hear Dick slapping the iridium satellite phone repeatedly, trying to get enough charge out of the dead battery to make a call to Micah, our Kurdish fixer, so that he could meet us at the predetermined rendezvous point.

George grumbled. ‘This is fucking stupid. Let’s go to the main highway and catch a ride to town.’

Mt. Ararat  3rd Paragraph Sepia-BlogDick stopped smacking the sat-phone and directed all his attention towards George. ‘Shut the fuck up, George. The Turkish military use that road all the time. What do you think they’ll assume if they come across us on that highway with all our gear?’

George didn’t listen and relentlessly argued his point as the sound of the dogs’ howls grew louder. There was a gunshot in the distance followed by the hiss of another parachute flare. That was all the motivation we needed; the five of us turned and hauled ourselves across the plain. David followed nearby. ‘We make a pretty good team. Don’t get exhausted; I’ll do some driving. You ought to get some sleep.’Mt.Ararat-003-Blog copy

‘You know, David, it must be Mercury in retrograde with all the hurdles we’ve had to clear,’ I muttered.

There was no response.

We’d been tramping about in the darkness for hours and we were spent, physically and emotionally. We walked on autopilot, using the light of Dog Biscuit as our beacon.

‘You know, David, I could’ve stayed in L.A. picking up work shooting a mindless sitcom and watching a celebrity with two soft, protruding organs give us the local weather report. I could have, but I wouldn’t have had this wonderful field trip to remember. Know what I mean?’

David paused then caught up with me. ‘You may ask yourself: well, how did I get here? You may ask yourself: where does that highway lead to? You may ask yourself: am I right; am I wrong? You may say to yourself: my God, what have I done?’

While researching material for Cue The Camels, I came across this old journal entry from a shoot I did in Egypt. Which was included in my book Cue the Camels.
Assorted images from my years in the Middle East

Northern Alliance, Afghanistan

Saqqara, Egypt
High Atlas Mountain Range, Morocco
Northern Alliance, Shibar, Afghanistan
Sahara Desert, Morocco
Sahara Desert
Bedouin Girl, outskirts of Jerusalem
Passport Lane, Kabul, Afghanistan
Mt. Ararat, Turkey

Eighteen countries, five shock absorbers, two bikers, and one amazing adventure…. That’s what the back cover of the book- Long Way Down – describe within its pages. This was an epic journey by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman across the continent of Africa on two BMW R1200GS Adventure motorcycles. The book was a good read and I am envious of their adventure. I owned a bike once. Well, not a bike but a scooter, a Vespa scooter. I was the big white guy on a Vespa scooter riding from Burbank through Griffith Park to Los Feliz on my way to work. And, I loved that little white Vespa, So, you can only imagine that while I was in Italy my love for the little Vespa was reignited. Vespa, in Italian means Wasp and true to its name and nature the Wasps are everywhere and going in every direction including the sidewalks. It is nothing to see a family of three on a Vespa or a woman on a cell phone smoking a cigarette with a baby strapped to her bosoms on the streets of  Naples or Rome. The Vespa has it own filmgrpahy that goes from, “Quadrophenia” to “American Graffiti” and the most memorable of all “Roman Holiday”. For a scooter that was intended primarily to solve the problems of urban and intercity traffic the Vespa has a rich history of adventures. In 1997 journalist Giorgio Bettinelli started out from Chile, reaching Tasmania after three years and 150,000 km on his Vespa across the Americas.  Bettinelli continued his adventure to Siberia, Europe, Africa, Asia and Oceania. All in all, Bettinelli has travelled 254,000 km on a Vespa. Pierre Delliere, Sergeant in the French Air Force, reached Saigon in 51 days from Paris, going through Afghanistan. Few know that in 1980 two Vespa’s ridden by M. Simonot and B. Tcherniawsky reached the finishing line of the second Paris-Dakar rally.What do you think about that Mr. McGregor and Mr. Boorman ?

For those who have not experienced the backs streets of Naples on a Vespa. Compliments of my Italian brother Vittorio and myself.

Written in 2012, “My Affair with Anita Ekberg, Sort Of ” is the most popular read of my blog. For your reading pleasure I extend to you without any significant changes or improvements my own awakening which is whatever young boy experiences when entering puberty.

images-8

This is the real story of my affair with Anita Ekberg. In 2012, I had written a very short paragraph of my first visit to the Trevi Fountain in Rome, Italy. I recounted how I found a spot away from the gaggle of tourist and for a moment had a short-term detachment from my immediate surroundings to relive the famous scene from Federico Fellini’s film, La Dolce Vita. In my daydream, I replayed the black and white scene of voluptuous Anita Ekberg wading through the fountain as her long blonde hair cascading down her back like the falling water’s behind her. The scene was glorious and lush with sensuality. Anita’s was wearing a strapless black evening gown with its plunging sweetheart neckline and seductively urging Mastroianni to join her in the fountain, 

“Marcello, come here, hurry up!”

All that was missing was Nino Rota’s music when suddenly, I’m back to reality when a tourist with a New Jersey accent asked if I would take a picture of him and his wife in front of the fountain. I was happy to do so, but I remember thinking that I would have loved to stayed little longer in the fantasy corridors of my mind with Anita.

 That’s what I wrote in 2012, but the real backstory is this. It happened one night at the age of thirteen when nature’s process of physical change presented itself while a tourist in slumber land. As I recall, I strolled from scene to scene of Fellini’s movie, La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life). Unknown-3I’ve always dreamed in color but that night of adolescent awakening, my dream was in black and white and was accompanied with a soundtrack of skewed martini lounge music – which only added to the surreal atmosphere of the celluloid dream. Thinking back, I can only guess that my dream may have been prompted by watching La Dolce Vita on the local PBS station before going to bed. But once in rapid eye movement of deep sleep, I fell from reality to a fantasyland that I can still recall to this day. 

5846The transitions from scene to scene of my dream were preceded with burst of light from the cameras and flashbulbs of the “buzzing insects”, aka paparazzi. I would find myself in the background as a causal observer or a participant in each celluloid episode. Whether strolling among the ruins of Rome or on a luxurious balcony of Rome’s decadent and papered rich high above the City of Seven Hills. With another intense burst of light, I found myself on a Vespa speeding down the narrow lanes of Rome with a twin-lens reflex camera in hand as my fellow insects and I were in hot pursuit of Anita.  images-3

The climax of my dream came as I followed Anita down dimly lite cobbled maze of alleys while a tiny white kitten sat on her head,

“Meow”

“Meow”

“Oh hello”, Anita said turning towards me.

At that moment, my emotions and body began to feel different and quite strange. Here I was with the most unattainable dream woman of my youth, and to top that off, I was being acknowledged of my existence. images-9Before me, Anita wades in the Trevi fountain in her black strapless dress, voluptuous, glamorous, and oozing with sensuality.

“David, come here, hurry up!” Anita’s urging me as she reached out to me

“Hurry up!” she repeated.

Even thought I was lost in my dream, I could feel my heart racing and a fever of heat images-6building up the core of my body. As Anita touched the tips of my fingers, I stepped into the Trevi fountain and instantaneously in a whirlwind of flashing lights; Anita’s lips met mine. – I need not go any further, because it all about biology.

 On January 11, 2015 Anita Ekberg passed away on a Sunday morning in her home near Rome. As most men my age would say, “Forse, quando un sogno diventa una memoria, la memoria diventa un tesoro per la propria vita più dolce. Grazie Anita come bella era, arrivederci e velocità di Dio.”

(Perhaps, when a dream becomes a memory, the memory becomes a treasure to one’s own sweet life. Thank you Anita, how lovely it was, goodbye and God speed.)

 

In mountaineering, there is a phenomenon known as ‘Summit Fever’ in which the heightened anticipation of summiting out weighs all reasoning. It is a step into the Twilight Zone where one’s critical faculties take a leave of absence and reckless decision making begins. The boiling frog story is often used as a metaphor for the inability of people to perceive significant changes that occur gradually –  the premise is that if a frog is placed  in cold water that is slowly heated, the animal will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death.

In Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air,  he describes climbers so intoxicated by the drive to get to the summit that the common sense of survival gets discarded even when exhaustion, dehydration and  bad weather becomes overwhelmingly evident – not to mention the absence of  fellow climbers who have met their death.  

Summit fever is not only limited to the tallest peaks in the world but can be found anywhere the human spirit is challenged- including the Sahara Desert. 

It has been called the toughest footrace on earth, The Marathon des Sables. Competitors have described the event as running on the surface of the sun. The  race is  held each year in Morocco over six-days covering  254 km which is the equivalent to six regular  marathons. Competitors must carry all personal belongings and food for the entire event in their backpacks. Water, tents and medical support are supplied by the race organizers. During the 1994 race,  Carabinieri (Italian police officer) Mauro Properi lost his way during a sand storm. Not wishing to endure a long drawn out death of dehydration, Mauro attempted to commit suicide in an abandoned mosque by cutting his wrists. The attempt failed – lack of water had caused Mauro’s blood to congeal the wound before the blood could escape his emaciated body. Nine days later he was found by a nomadic family and taken to an Algerian military camp. Mauro was nearly 200 miles off route.

Whether in the mountains, oceans or deserts for many adventurers the ultimate goal is to finish – at any cost. 

” I think that if you see me crawling I might be in trouble, but until then I think I’m okay.” Triathlete Felicia Wilkerson, competitor # 378, Marathon des Sables.

 

 

 

 

The wind whispers Mary, Broken pieces of yesterday life, Somewhere a queen is weeping, Somewhere a king has no wife. And, the wind cries Mary, Will the wind ever remember the names known in the past? And the wind cries Mary.  – Jimi Hendrix
 
                                     Dear Mom,
Mom and MeThis is your day, a special day and I want to share with you some really good news on this Mother’s Day.
Researchers at Queensland Brain Institute in Australia have shown that a non-invasive ultrasound technology can be used to treat Alzheimer’s disease and restore memory. This innovative, drug-free method breaks apart the neurotoxic amyloid plaques that result in memory loss and cognitive decline. It may seem to some that you have vanished  into the dark corridors of your mind. Yet, I hold on to a faint gleamer of hope that you will find the right passageway to your future and all your sweet memories.
Until that day comes don’t be embarrassed to ask where you are or who has passed away I will be your narrator to the life of a woman I call Mom.
I love you and happy Mother’s Day.

From the Banks-Soulam family to yours, we wish you all a very Merry Christmas and with current events as they are, for “GOD’S SAKE” we all could use a better year to come. A special blessing and thank you to my Irish cousins who have graciously allow this Scotsmen to share their Irish Blessing and their much loved Irish song “The Season’s Upon US” with you.

Enjoy my friends, travel well, travel safe. Cheers, Dave

May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of his hand.

May green be the grass you walk on,
May blue be the skies above you,
May pure be the joys that surround you,
May true be the hearts that love you.

 “Season’s Upon Us” by Dropkick Murphy’s is available on iTunes and http://www.dropkickmurphys.com