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Saturday, January 19, 2013

Second Chance Cafe

Life in the half-fast lane

Life as I see it from the middle lane, where we no longer scream along like a runaway rocket, nor are we looking to exit.

Second Chance Cafe

It should be noted that life continues to march regardless of who we are, what we have done, or how much money we have.

In most towns you can find a dining establishment that serves a good meal for a decent price. The often repeated advice given by experienced travelers is to, "Find the spot frequented by the locals, and follow them in." As a kid I had heard the want-to-be wise men spouting, "Eat where the truckers eat, they always know the best spots." Although I have found that last one had a bit more to do with where a driver could park his rig, than the quality of the food.

Our town has many fast food establishments as well as what we refer to as “sit down restaurants” where wait staff take your order and bring your food to you. The former is perhaps cheaper, but to me the second choice is far more satisfying.

As people get older and have less demand on them to provide for others, (which might be referred to as the “empty nest years”) they find that spending time slaving over a hot stove for two people no longer seems reasonable. It does still happen occasionally, just not often.

Some people become full time “nibblers” and snack themselves out of wanting meals. Others eat fewer meals and exist on coffee or tea.Then there are those of us who combine all of that with a daily trip, (sometimes two) to a local eatery for both food and a certain amount of socialization.

Many empty nesters say that something is missing since the house got so quiet. The simple fact is that two older adults do not make as much noise as even one child and most of the time there is quiet.

What seems to drive many of the retired folks that we know to restaurants is not just freedom from cooking and cleaning up afterwards, but the chance to interact with other people.

Our diner of choice I will call “The Second Chance Café,” which is not its real name, but it is safer that way.

If you frequent the same establishment repeatedly over a period of time you get to be known as “regulars” and achieve a reputation with the staff as either good customers or “PITA” types with the first word of the acronym being “pain.” I’m sure that you can figure out the rest of it.

Those who are students of human behavior or just good observers can have a lot of fun watching the antics of both customers and staff on any given day. There truly is a plethora of free entertainment to be had while you dine.

People in the food industry have hard, physically demanding jobs. Add to that the aggravation of dealing with the public and the stress score climbs pretty high. There is a trait common to all of the restaurant workers that I have observed doing well in their jobs, and that is a good sense of humor. From manager to dishwasher and especially the servers (as waitresses and waiters are now called), it is a vital quality if you are to make it longer than one week.

Anyone who has ever worked with the public can tell you that interacting with customers is far harder than being isolated with just co-workers or solo jobs.

When you throw in the attitude of many customers who have never had to deal with demanding individuals (like themselves) into the mix, it just gets crazy.

Say what?

The following examples were just a few of the things overheard in our local diner.

“I am paying for this so whatever I want, it is your duty to provide it.”

“Do you have vegan fish sticks instead of the all you can eat fish special? Oh, I don’t want them; I just wanted to know what kind of establishment you were running.”

“Can you take 50% off of my bill, because I only ate half of my  hamburger?”

“Why can’t you send the bus girl across the street to get me a beer? They have a liquor license.”

“Can I have three large go-boxes and fill them up with more of the all-you-can-eat spaghetti? Well I can’t eat it now, but I can eat more, later. No, you can’t charge me for four meals, it is just one order.”

“Why did you butter my toast? I wanted to butter it. No, I don’t want more butter, you have ruined my toast. I want you to take my entire meal off of the bill. You have wrecked my dining experience.”

“What kinds of tomatoes were used in the making of this soup? You don’t know what kind of tomatoes Campbell’s uses in their soup? I should call the health inspector. What kind of joint are you running here?”

I am really surprised that more bowls of soup aren’t dumped on people’s heads.

We are evidently on the “good” list as we are greeted like family and hugged by waitresses and bus girls both upon arrival and departure. We were also the only non-employees (or their families) invited to the closed door Christmas party held at the restaurant. The staff all knows us by name and treat us like family all of the time.

If I were being cynical I could say that it is because we probably spend more money there than any other customers and they like the financial support. But the truth is that the place is one big family.

Many of the employees are related and those who aren’t have known each other for years. I have known many of them for years myself, having met them delivering their mail. Some of them knew Anna at the high school. For whatever small town reason, there is familiarity and closeness.

The work environment is a happy one, with laughter being a near constant sound and very, very rarely is an angry sound heard from anyone. On the odd times that discord erupts, it is nearly always a customer fussing with someone that they came in with.

The current manager was the lead waitress for several years and when the existing manager got fed up with her corporate bosses and the commute to work and quit, she stepped in without a hiccup in the operation as far as the general public could see.

Within the first few days I could see the mood improving and the quality of the entire operation stepping up to a new level. A person with “from the ground up” knowledge was at the helm and respect was now a two-way street in the building. People tend to react positively to being shown respect.

This restaurant is a special kind of place where everyone is made to feel welcome, the service is good, and the food is worth the money you pay for it. That combination is not as easily found as one might hope.

So why do I call it the Second Chance Café?

Like so many people working in low paying, demanding jobs, most of the staff have had rough spots in their lives and didn’t have the opportunity or good fortune to make it to (or through) college. Some have seen the inside of the “barred hotel” and others have burned up eight of their nine lives with personal problems that that would have killed a weaker person. No one spends their youth dreaming of being a waitress in a small town café. At this establishment everyone is respected and equal. They are judged solely upon the effort they put in and how they conduct themselves now. The past is over.

Another reason for the name would be the giving and supportive attitude of the entire group. When misfortune strikes, whether it be death, or house fire, or any number of calamities that can and do happen, whatever needs to be done, will be done. Money is raised, comfort is given, hours are covered, and places to live are found. They exhibit the finest qualities of humanity without hesitation.

All waitresses are not (thankfully) created equal

There are endearing qualities present in all of the servers and staff -- some of it just won’t stay inside of them.

The staff plays jokes on each other and keeps up a running banter of jibes and faux insults that you would have to be blind to not see through. To those of us who know them well it is easy to see that they love each other more than most blood-related families.

One star of the floor show is empowered with an over abundance of awesomeness. She knows it, and we all know it. I have known this woman for more than twenty years and I can truly appreciate the difference between her former aggressive, obnoxious self and who she has become in the last few years. There is no one who can handle a full house like she does, and make you like it while you wait for your order to hit the window. Your meal comes out right, the food is hot, the drinks get refilled and she keeps you laughing the entire time you are there. It is no wonder that she is the top tip earner and the most requested server in the house.

Another of the wait-staff warriors is a woman who is generous and giving to the extreme, often turning over her daily tips to a family member or a bus person who mentioned a need for something without a moment’s hesitation. She knows what it is like to have nothing and be hungry and I have seen her pay for a stranger’s meal out of her own pocket. She laughs so much that if she stops, we look to see what’s wrong. To say that she is a character is like saying that the Pope is a Catholic.

One of the veteran servers is an accomplished horsewoman who not only can handle cranky horses, but can put an unruly customer into the back of a booth with a single glare. I am fortunate that she likes me and uses her powers for good and braids my beard for me. Nothing can get the plaits to lay flat and tight like her experienced hands. She also makes the cook fix my /quesadilla/ the right way and finds jalapenos for me when they have some.

Another long time hash slinger is closer to our age and is raising a grandson which means that retirement is not an option and like it or not, she has to roll out early in the a.m. to put on the coffee for a few hundred folks. I have seen her in the place on her day off, popping up out of her booth to get coffee or tea for customers in her civilian clothes. She is always ready with a laugh and smile.

Cooks are a tough crew

Cooks at most restaurants are scary people. Many are given to angry outbursts and mood swings that make you think that they are all bipolar. Wait staff and managers alike have cautioned me against upsetting a chef or cook when I needed something out of the ordinary. I consciously look for the location of all knives and the available exits whenever I enter a professional kitchen, just as a habit.

The Second Chance Café cooks labor for long hours trying to make every meal come out right and quickly, facing constant pressure to perform.They get oddball requests and last minute changes tossed at them by servers who are trying to give their customers what they want. To their credit I have not seen a meat cleaver thrown into a wall or a steak burned to a lump of charcoal in this restaurant like I did at another eatery in this very town. It is a rare occasion that they even get upset to where the customers notice. I must lead a charmed life because I have never had an order request turned down in this restaurant. These cooks care about what they produce and it shows.

Young people get into the profession for different reasons. Sometimes it is purely a lack of experience at any job and getting hired to wash dishes or bus tables is a doable entry level job.

The latest hire into the floor staff tells me frequently that she is so happy to work at this restaurant and even though it is hard work and long hours she can’t wait to get there each day to see her coworkers. She has friends and a life, but knows the value of employment and feels fortunate that she has such a good work environment.

One young shining star of the local eatery has lived far too fast and hard for her years and nearly ended before she began. Today she is living, learning, earning, and gaining respect for herself and from others who gave her the chance to act like the adult that she can be. Life is still one day at a time for her, but I have every confidence that the woman she is becoming will make her proud. She has an infectious laugh and a smile that melts bad moods on contact. She has gone from a bus girl who spilled everything that she touched, to handling (as the waitress) a full-on lunch rush solo with a prep cook chasing refills for her.

There are young people who work at the diner because they have family members already there and it did give them a chance to get a foot in the door. Those folks have to perform twice as hard to meet the scrutiny of both boss and the relative who spoke up for them. It is not a cake walk for them as they soon learn.

I am very pleased to be a part of a learning environment where we get to practice Spanish while helping others perfect their grasp on their second language at the same time. Several of the employees speak Spanish as their native tongue but must speak English to the customers and fellow staff members who do not know their language. Their progress is an inspiration and their patience with me as I mangle their language is a great lesson in how to behave.

The work ethics shown by the least well paid employees at this restaurant is another lesson in how people should behave. They never do as little as possible to get by, which I have seen in many higher paid vocations. From the dishwashers to the food prep crews they bust their butts supporting the staff out front. They are willing (to the last person), to come out of the back and do whatever is necessary to make the operation work. On many occasions we have seen dishwashers acting as hosts, seating customers, taking their drink orders, carrying plates of food to tables, and then cleaning tables on the run so more people could be seated. They know that their tasks are still waiting and no one will be washing the dishes while they are doing the extra work, but they never hesitate. We should all be that willing to step up when needed.

There are families that have three generations employed at this diner and it is a joy to be around them. The work ethic and enthusiasm is consistent from grandmother to granddaughter. They are a joy to be around and always earning their wages.

It is both amazing and amusing to realize that I have known some of the people waiting on me since they were little children.

One of the waitresses, who was a little girl when I delivered her grandmother and mother’s mail, now has kids of her own and takes care of me. A hostess/bus girl used to drive her mother crazy at work asking questions until she got parked in a corner with a coloring book. Now she hugs me when I walk in the door of the restaurant and before I leave. That doesn’t happen at Mickey D’s.


The customers who frequent our chosen oasis are even more varied than the staff and span the age range from newborn to over one hundred years young. The place has been open since 1966 and some of the original customers still get their morning coffee there.

Some diners I have been in have a particular clientele made up of locals with the same opinions who seem to run off anyone who doesn’t agree with them. Since one of the commonly heard nicknames for our town is  “Fal-abama” you can probably guess how conservative and redneck things might be here.

I am happy to report that while the “Good Ole White Boy” (Tea Party) contingent is still present, and still wanting things to go back to 1950, they have no control over this restaurant.

The presence of the navy base brings a delightful mixture of humanity to add to our Native American and Hispanic cultures, and the influence of Burning Man is felt in a very positive way. The clientele is as diverse as the United Nations, and are better behaved (no diplomatic immunity.)

I used to get harassed and called names because of my beard braids, and people with ink and/or piercings were rudely stared at until they left. That is no longer the case. Gay couples or mixed race couples were made to feel uncomfortable and in some cases refused service in this community as late as the late 1980’s. That is no longer openly true (you can’t fix everyone) here and most certainly not at the Second Chance Café.

There are characters that make the world unique and like them or not, they do add color to the mixture.

One such person is a very large man with a burning need to be the center of attention. Not just the focus of his captive group seated with him, but everyone within earshot of his always too-loud voice. He will often wear a top hat to the diner and sometimes rides up on his Harley and revs the motor loudly before shutting it off, to let everyone know that he has arrived. The man says whatever he can to cause the most controversy, upset the most people, and agitate the largest group. He lives for argument.

There are people who are referred to in diner language as “campers,” meaning that they “camp out” (usually in a booth) and spend hours drinking coffee or tea and don’t order anything else. This ties up the seating and cuts into the profit made from “turning” tables quickly. The real money is made from turning tables as often as possible, not from which meal customers order. This is why the most successful restaurants have bus people cleaning tables as quickly as customers get up, and frequently come by and take the “finished” dishes out of your way. It isn’t “to give you more room” as they are trained to say, but to cut down the reset time when you leave.

The Second Chance Café has its share of campers, some of whom are senior citizens who will generally take a table and hold court for several hours in the middle of the day between lunch and dinner. They are not too much of a problem and do order a meal or two among the group.

A far more problematic group comes around in the evening hours and is usually young people who will attempt to camp out in a prime corner booth where they can put their legs up and stretch out. They usually order water to drink and share large orders of French fries, making a mess all over the table with salt and ketchup and if left unchecked will get loud and rowdy. This is the group that unscrews the lids on the salt and pepper containers and spills water “accidentally” into the artificial sweetener holder. By the time they leave their tab will be five dollars or less, they leave no tip, and the booth looks like a group of toddlers had a confetti party. The cleanup efforts take forever and it adversely affects all of the tables around them. As you might guess they are very unpopular with the understaffed and overworked swing shift crew.

The toughest campers to deal with are on the midnight shift. These are frequently people who have had too much to drink and/or have nowhere to go. People under the influence of whatever, are unpredictable at best. They hang out for hours and vent their frustrations on the staff. This can make the graveyard shift a scary shift to work with only three people on duty. To make it worse sometimes if it is slow the supervisor lets one person go home early.

In recent years we have seen homeless people use their panhandling money to buy a cup of coffee (and free refills,) spending all night inside where it is warm and there is a bathroom. If they behave themselves and stay awake (no sleeping allowed) they are usually tolerated at the Second Chance Café. People who work there understand what being down on your luck is like and aren’t as quick to toss people to the curb.

We are part of the growing group of “I don’t want to cook” customers who have enough disposable income to exercise the option of paying someone else to handle the kitchen duties. We trade the grocery bill and entertainment allowance (we don’t drink or gamble) for a restaurant bill.

The Second Chance Café gives us another chance to interact with people and have a sort of second family to pick up the slack where our own busy family has departed. Life is good and every day is another adventure with old friends. I’ll drink (iced tea) to that!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Life in the half-fast lane

This piece is opinion, not a story, at least in the sense of my other entries.

I have toyed with the idea of doing a new opinion blog called "Life in the half-fast lane" with the subtitle of "Life as I see it from the middle lane, where we no longer scream along like a runaway rocket, nor are we looking to exit."

I don't know if I want to yet, so for now, you can read the entries here.

Life in the half-fast lane

Life as I see it from the middle lane, where we no longer scream along like a runaway rocket, nor are we looking to exit.


On the road

We all know the scenario: the guy in front of us is going slower than the speed limit, while the guy behind us is trying to set a new land speed record. Frustration, anger and a rebirth of all of the bad language that ever got our mouths washed out with soap, surfaces without restriction. We are pissed off and feel completely justified for being that way. How can they let that idiot drive when he can't even maintain the speed limit! What is that nut trying to do behind me, cause an accident? You slow down and keep to the right, letting rocket man do whatever he is going to do.

You can't know the what or why of their situation, only what you have control over. Somehow we get through the predicament and move along to the next one.

In the store

Sometimes you get behind a person in the express lane at the grocery store (you know, the one with the 10 or 20 item limit) and it is obvious that they have many more things in their cart than the limit. Now what? Do you make a fuss? Does the checker make a fuss and risk delaying the whole process even longer? If the checker stands up to the numerically-challenged individual she risks bringing down the wrath of the young punk assistant manager on her head, because "the customer is always right" (as per the management handbook). You both (you and the checker) give the miscreant "the look" and just let it slide. To do otherwise would just add grief to your life and one more nut, more or less, won't matter in the long run.

Choose your battles wisely. Is it life or death? Will an innocent person suffer because you failed to act? Is it necessary? Is it wiser to let things go and keep your blood pressure down?

At the drive-through

I recently witnessed a strange act of impatience and anger. An undecided person was at the ordering station of a drive-through fast food place, you know the kind; no idea what they want or even IF they want what is on the menu. It would seem logical or sensible to us that they would figure that out before they got in line, but they didn't. Behind this person was also someone that we can identify with, the hurried worker who only has a thirty minute lunch break and half of that is used up driving to the restaurant. Stress was rearing its ugly head as Mr. Impatient began to yell at Ms. Undecided and bang on the outside of his own car door. This only served to fluster the young lady and she couldn't get her order right. The angry man yelled obscenities and attempted to pass the car in his way and depart. He gunned the motor and managed to drive up and over the concrete curbing and promptly hung his car up on the bushes planted in that divider. The young lady got scared and drove through the lane, right past the delivery window and out of there. Mr. Impatient now had to wait for Mr. Policeman AND a tow truck. I'm pretty sure that his boss won't be amused. I know that the restaurant manager wasn't.

Someone else does a silly or unthinking action, or possibly a selfish one, and we react by getting angry and losing control. Have we gained anything? I would say no.

It all comes down to us

We get angry at young people because they do things without thinking, acting on impulse and living life faster than their brains can keep up with. I think that perhaps we are just resentful that we no longer are able to live without care, having learned responsibility and being accountable for our actions. There is also the physical restrictions that age places on us, a little at a time.

Sometimes we get frustrated at elderly folks for being so slow and forgetful, making us repeat everything that we say, and often for not caring about what is important to us. The real reason is that we are afraid that we are becoming just like them and we don't want it. We are still trying to hold onto the youth that we no longer have and fear being less than we once were.

I can tell you that image is NOT everything, regardless of what the advertising says. Who you are remains the same.

Let me leave you with this challenge:

Strive to be as at least as nice to others as your dog is to you.

The world will be a better place and we will all be happier, together.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

A Time of Sands

Greetings friends,

I am recovering really well from the medical procedure I had done yesterday and decided to take this opportunity to post this story from the late 1970's. I hope that you enjoy my tale of life in a far away place and time.

A Time of Sands

Thirty plus years ago in a place where time means nothing, I had the distinct pleasure of traveling with members of a nomadic tribe called the “Blue People” by many, although they are more properly known as the Tuareg.

Theirs is a truly ancient culture that has endured many, many attempts to assimilate or swallow it up. The Tuareg have been doing things their way for at least ten thousand years according to the words of the old chief, who lead the talks around the nightly campfire (or inside of the main tent if the wind was blowing or the air too chilled for his liking.)

Their unique turban, or “talgemust” in their language, was still indigo blue in those days and the dye color would often transfer to their skin, (thus the “Blue People” label). This piece of headwear was often ten to twelve meters (or thirty to forty feet) in length and was worn by every male age sixteen and older. Men who were marrying age, (twenty-five) had to wear their talgemust twenty-four hours a day.

In a curious twist to what we have learned to expect, in the Tuareg culture the men must cover their faces, but the women don’t have to. Women are allowed a lot of freedom and can have relationships before marriage and own possessions. The families are matrilineal, meaning that ancestry is followed through the women. The men are the tribal leaders, which is to be expected in a warrior type of society.

The boys are trained to handle the sword and knife from an early age and by sixteen are as skilled as any soldier in hand to hand combat. They are also expert riders of horse and camel, and can survive in conditions that would kill a desert scorpion. The young girls can handle livestock, skin a goat or camel with such skill and precision as would impress any master butcher, and make a meal out of thin air and sand, or so it seemed to me all those years ago.

There is no one physical description of the Blue People. They have accepted many ethnicities into their camp over their long history, some willingly, some captured. They may have blonde hair, or red, or coal black. Their skin under the suntan may be fair, olive or brown. There is one thing that is always present, and that is the fierce pride and passion of the desert tribes. They value honor and loyalty above all else.

Why I was with them, wearing the robes and sandals of a Sahara citizen is a story that may never be told. I will say that while I was not running away to join the French Foreign Legion, I was in their neighborhood. I am pleased to say that I was accepted and enjoyed full equal status with their men, while enjoying a level of hospitality that does them proud in the laws of the land.

In this part of the world tents and clothes are made from camel skin and/or goat skin, or sometimes things are woven from the hair of these two creatures. They are beasts which support the nomads in many varied ways, from providing milk, cheese, and meat, to carrying people and goods, to finally providing their skins to give shelter. There are horses, sometimes sheep, even cows, but the goats and camels are the real life sustainers of the desert people.

Some of the Tuareg settle down and farm, some are tradesmen, some even try working for others, but it just doesn’t seem to work out for them. They are the caravan operators and warriors of the Sahara, they have to follow the stars and wander the unmarked sands. It is deeply ingrained in who they are.

Many cities and routes in northern Africa are there because of the Tuareg; a case in point is the often mentioned city of Timbuktu. When I was a child this city was thought to be a myth, not to be believed, just a joke place that described the farthest place from anywhere on earth. The truth is, the city does exist in modern day Mali. I have been there. The Tuareg founded the city in the eleventh century at the crossroads where their Sahara caravans met the Niger River trade route. Actually from what I have heard, they backed off from the river a ways because of the hordes of mosquitoes that lived in the backwaters of the river.

This camp was maintained and a Tuareg outpost was established to hold their spot against others who would poach their good location. Over the centuries Timbuktu became much more than just a trading crossroads. It was well known as a bastion of higher learning and cultural exchange. There were more highly educated people in this town, than any place on the African continent for much of its history.

So it was explained to me as I sat on a rug under the most magnificent skies anywhere on earth, drinking the best chai (made with camel milk), listening to a mixture of English, French and Tamashek being spoken. I learned that these were not an ignorant people as some westerners thought. Their abilities with languages, mathematics, celestial navigation and deep knowledge of history humbled me.

I have been asked to recount a story (which I have told to a few people,) of an event which transpired during my time with the Blue People. I shall attempt to put it into print here.

The Sand

As we trekked across the sands of the western Sahara, where everything looks the same for miles and the camels complain at least as much as the young men, I tried to be observant and aware. I watched the older men and followed their lead of when to drink and when to cover my face. Invisibility by sameness was my goal. That and learning as much as possible to survive like a native son.

This particular journey was a “men only” foray and the young men and boys had to take up the duties of the girls and women. Herbivore droppings were gathered as we traveled as there was no firewood and meals had to be prepared for the group. It did do wonders for the appreciation of the very hard working female members and may actually have been part of the education process that was ever ongoing. The Tuareg do nothing without a reason for it, even if the young don’t understand why.

Not everyone rides during a trek, although the horsemen were always mounted. Those of us who rode the camels walked sometimes and rode sometimes, but usually only changed at midday. Just like a railroad train, a camel train (caravan) works best when it moves and takes a lot of time and energy to restart once stopped. Surprise stops made the caravan master cranky as it upset his timetable, which based survival upon how many days it took between waterholes.

So you could well imagine my surprise when the chief called for an unscheduled stop and my own camel dropped without a command from me. I was pretty much in trance from the rhythmic movement and did not expect that to happen.

Camels drop on their front legs first, then their hindquarters, so I was nearly catapulted into the rear end of the camel in front of me. I made a good recovery from my unceremonious unseating, and walked (ran) a few steps like I was stretching my legs, while actually trying to keep from falling on my face.

The young boys near my camel noticed but hid their grins behind their hands, at least until they saw me grinning and they knew it was OK. I think I made a couple of friends by being willing to laugh at myself, and it was funny, no denying that.

The men were all busy pulling rugs off of the loads the camels carried, which was really weird, it was hours until time to make camp and we were not in a suitable spot. Not knowing what to do, or what was going on, I stayed with my camel and watched for some sign from the elders that would help me understand.

A young man named Ben came to me with a rug which he unceremoniously tossed me the end of, and indicated that we should unroll it. Ben doesn’t say a lot, but not because he can’t, the guy was more talented with languages than anyone I knew at the time. I just followed his lead and we unrolled the rug and then pulled it up against the camel.

Since we had stopped working and were just standing there, I finally did ask, “What are we doing?”

Ben just shrugged his shoulders and said “sandstorm”. A shrug of the shoulders in the USA would mean “I don’t know”, but here it just meant that the subject was so unimportant that I should have already known. In a way that was flattering, that he felt that I was such a part of the group that I would already know. But I was too busy trying to figure out what sandstorm to think about the nuances very much.

I looked in all directions and could not see even a dust devil, but I did notice that we all had our rugs on the same side of our camels, and that the precious horses were all on the rug side too. So I knew which direction to look based on that. There was nothing to see or hear that I could discern, but there was no doubting the credibility of the chief and his experience in these matters, so I waited and watched. There were a bunch of men preparing as if for a long wait and like them, I made sure that I had my water bag with me.

Ben seeing my confusion said “Look there” and pointed to the horizon where all I could see was a dark line. I stared at it until my eyes hurt from the glare and I looked away. When I looked back the line was a bit bigger, or taller, and there was a hissing sound.

We were joined by a horseman and his wild-eyed mount and words were exchanged between Ben and the veiled man. I was advised that the man and his horse would be sharing our rug, which was cool, if a little odd. Why were we setting up miniature party groups around rugs, and why was the horse invited?

I looked back at the horizon and the dark line was now a visible dark mass several times the height it had been when I looked last. The hissing noise was now a buzzing like a whole swarm of angry bees.

Ben and the horseman were rolling the rug up from the far side and telling me to pull the opposite edge up to the top of my camel’s hump. Since I was the new guy here, I just did what they said and went around to the opposite side of my camel and leaned over and pulled the rug to me. For my efforts I got bit on the butt by my unhappy beast and laughed at too.

As I rubbed my sore butt and moved back into place with the others, I could hear a much louder sound and glanced towards the horizon. To my amazement the dark line was now a wall of sand, growing taller and more defined as it barreled towards us. The sound was more like the howl of wind during a hurricane and there was indeed some wind, but not of the seventy-five mile per hour variety, at least not yet.

You could easily be mesmerized by the sound and vision of a Sahara Desert sandstorm, and it would be the last entertainment you had, if you were not prepared. The wall of sand was moving a lot faster than I had thought and growing taller at a rate that mimicked a tsunami. This vision was something that was quite overwhelming from a front row seat.

All around us people were scooping out hollows and getting comfortable on the leeward side of the camels and preparing for the sand onslaught. The use of the rug was no longer a mystery to me and I was actively helping to dig out our spot in the sand.

The horseman made his precious animal drop to the ground and then roll onto his side with his back to us. Ben spoke to him and he got the horse back on his feet and moved closer and repeated the procedure. I learned a greater respect for the bond between the little Arab horse and its rider that day.

While the man comforted his horse, Ben and I pulled the rug over them and checked the progress of those near us. It was of no use to try to talk as the roar of the approaching storm was too loud to hear over. It was kind of exciting in a strange way to be the last ones taking cover. Almost like tempting fate.

We were the last that is except for the camels. Of all the life forms in our caravan, the camel was best equipped by nature to deal with sandstorms. They have triple eyelids and nostrils that they can close at will. Their hide is covered with hair that provides a barrier for their very tough hide. I would guess that it still is not pleasant for them, but they just wait it out and do not try to run away.

It took a very loud and long thirty minutes for the storm to pass, which indicates to me that it was miles in depth. When Ben said it was OK we pushed the now sand covered rug up and off of us and continued to pull it away from the complaining camel until the horse and rider were free. They came up out of the sand as one with the rider in the saddle and took off at a gallop. The young man did an awesome job keeping his horse calm and on his side under that rug, especially with all of the noise.

All around us there were people emerging from the sand and they were happy and joking. Nobody complained about the storm, but we did have to make haste to get the rug shook out and re-rolled so it could be loaded onto the camel which carried it. The chief was urging us to hurry so we could make it to a good place to camp. His was the great responsibility of caring for us all and we respected that.

That night as we camped in a nice sheltered valley the songs were more raucous, the music louder and the dancing went on for hours. The Tuareg enjoy life and respect the forces of nature, so when they had faced the great storm and didn’t lose anyone, or any livestock, they felt very fortunate and wanted to rejoice.

I was sad to leave my friends when the time came, but they were turning south into Mali and I needed to exit through Morocco and return to my life in the western world.

It is my hope that these beautiful people whom I lived and traveled with, remember me as fondly as I do them. They were truly unique and amazing hosts and excellent life teachers.