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A Priceless Photo in Timbuktu

Posing as a Tuareg nomad.

In the Sahara Desert, appearances can be deceiving...
In the Sahara Desert, appearances can be deceiving...

When you travel far enough for long enough, sometimes very cool things happen that sound like a far-fetched story to many.

I have traveled both long and far enough.

Photographing in Mali, West Africa, I spent two weeks traveling with Tuareg nomads, the famed “Blue Men” of the Sahara.

Staying connected.

The Tuaregs (pictured) are known not only for their brilliant blue robes and turbans but because they dye them with ink purloined from sea urchins that over time permeates human skin – so they really are blue men. For more than 2,000 years they have operated the Trans-Saharan caravan routes, hauling salt from the mines in Mauritania down to Timbuktu, where it is shipped across Africa and into Europe.

I was traveling with them, by camel, dressed in the famed blue robes to facilitate my entry to nomad camps along the way, and simply because these are the most practical clothes to wear in the blowing sand and heat of the southern Sahara.

We had ridden for five days, making a wide sweeping arc north of Timbuktu, and were on our final day in the saddle, about to return to the ancient city that many people are surprised to learn actually exists. The trip had been a great success and I had thousands of photos documenting the harsh nomad life in the desert.

As we neared the mud battlements that surround this oasis town, I noticed a man standing on a wall. Dressed like an ad for REI with three cameras hanging from his neck, he was clearly a tourist. As we rode near he raised his telephoto lens to take our picture.

Without thinking I raised my hand and called out, “Cadou!"

In this part of French-speaking Africa that translates loosely into "Give me money," a common practice of the locals whenever they spot a camera aimed in their direction. My Tuareg guide began to giggle, knowing full well what I was doing.

The unsuspecting photographer hopped off his wall and walked toward us, digging into his pockets, and produced a bill, which he handed up to me.

I made a great show of holding it up to the light and examining it. I tugged on it, turning it over and over. I finally tucked it into my robes, raising myself in the saddle like a noble warlord, and said, “Ok, take photo.”

With that, the man backed up and took what he thought was a National Geographic shot of us Lords of the Desert astride our camel mounts.

My Tuareg guide and I continued on into Timbuktu, laughing to ourselves, and that poor photographer will never know he has a photo of a middle-aged white guy from Los Angeles.

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In the Sahara Desert, appearances can be deceiving...
In the Sahara Desert, appearances can be deceiving...

When you travel far enough for long enough, sometimes very cool things happen that sound like a far-fetched story to many.

I have traveled both long and far enough.

Photographing in Mali, West Africa, I spent two weeks traveling with Tuareg nomads, the famed “Blue Men” of the Sahara.

Staying connected.

The Tuaregs (pictured) are known not only for their brilliant blue robes and turbans but because they dye them with ink purloined from sea urchins that over time permeates human skin – so they really are blue men. For more than 2,000 years they have operated the Trans-Saharan caravan routes, hauling salt from the mines in Mauritania down to Timbuktu, where it is shipped across Africa and into Europe.

I was traveling with them, by camel, dressed in the famed blue robes to facilitate my entry to nomad camps along the way, and simply because these are the most practical clothes to wear in the blowing sand and heat of the southern Sahara.

We had ridden for five days, making a wide sweeping arc north of Timbuktu, and were on our final day in the saddle, about to return to the ancient city that many people are surprised to learn actually exists. The trip had been a great success and I had thousands of photos documenting the harsh nomad life in the desert.

As we neared the mud battlements that surround this oasis town, I noticed a man standing on a wall. Dressed like an ad for REI with three cameras hanging from his neck, he was clearly a tourist. As we rode near he raised his telephoto lens to take our picture.

Without thinking I raised my hand and called out, “Cadou!"

In this part of French-speaking Africa that translates loosely into "Give me money," a common practice of the locals whenever they spot a camera aimed in their direction. My Tuareg guide began to giggle, knowing full well what I was doing.

The unsuspecting photographer hopped off his wall and walked toward us, digging into his pockets, and produced a bill, which he handed up to me.

I made a great show of holding it up to the light and examining it. I tugged on it, turning it over and over. I finally tucked it into my robes, raising myself in the saddle like a noble warlord, and said, “Ok, take photo.”

With that, the man backed up and took what he thought was a National Geographic shot of us Lords of the Desert astride our camel mounts.

My Tuareg guide and I continued on into Timbuktu, laughing to ourselves, and that poor photographer will never know he has a photo of a middle-aged white guy from Los Angeles.

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