Sanmoa: Traversing the Dangerous Sahara
Sanmoa’s Epic Adventures: For the first time in English with Stories of the Sahara
By Matt Martella
For anyone with an enthusiasm for traveling, writing, or simply getting out of their comfort zone, Sanmoa should be someone to aspire towards.
Born in China in 1943 but raised in Taiwan, Sanmoa traveled to over 55 countries and wrote over twenty books in her life.
Stories of the Sahara is her first book translated into English but considering her legendary status as a travel-writer around the globe, it is shocking that her fantastical stories are only made accessible to English-speakers now.
Sanmoa, born Chen Mao Ping, had an attitude and self-determination that was very much against the conservative social environment she grew up in. Despite the limitations she could have succumbed to, Sanmoa remained steadfast in her desire to travel and for independence.
Sanmoa’s blunt and adventurous personality is quite prevalent in her unabashedly confident writing style, which has captivated the minds of generations of readers throughout the world.
In total, Stories of the Sahara has sold 15 million copies around the world, and Sanmoa’s travel-memoir will enchant even more readers with its translation into English.
Regarding her decision to defy societal expectations and create her own path in life, Sanmoa writes, “I wanted a taste of many different lives, sophisticated or simple… a life plain as porridge would never be an option for me.”
In 1973, she made the bold decision to travel halfway around the world to join her fiancé, José María Quero, in Spain. In a typical romance novel, the couple would live happily ever after in a small, peaceful town in Spain, but this was not the case for Sanmoa and José.
Instead, they lived in the Spanish Sahara, where the sweltering days were just as brutal as the freezing nights. On top of this, they were caught in the middle of a combative relationship between the established Iberian government and the Sahrawi Arab people.
Stories of the Sahara
Stories of the Sahara covers Sanmoa’s adventures as a unique person in a unique (albeit tense) area in Spain. Despite these uncertain living conditions, Sanmoa captures the beauty and mystique of the Spanish Sahara, and the real danger she encounters just adds to the larger than life adventures she writes about.
In the Foreword of the English translation of Stories of the Sahara, Sharlene Teo describes Sanmoa’s attitude towards being an outsider as follows, “She (Sanmoa) describes cross-cultural encounters and the process of adapting to a new community with empathy and respectful observance of a self-described ‘black sheep’ and lifelong outsider.”
Nights in the Wasteland
The chapter in Stories of the Sahara titled Nights in the Wasteland perfectly summarizes Sanmoa’s philosophy on traveling to and living in a foreign land, especially land as volatile both geographically and culturally as the Spanish Sahara. In this chapter, Sanmoa joins José as he travels deep into the desert on a hunt for fossilized turtles and shells.
Sanmoa is trepidatious towards the adventure at first because nighttime was approaching and with the night comes below freezing temperatures. To make matters worse, José lies to the guard about where they are going, so if they needed saving no one would know where to look.
While driving through the desert in their car (which is explicitly not designed for off-road driving), Sanmoa takes the time to appreciate the undeniable beauty and intimidating size of the magnificent Sahara Desert. She writes:
“It was almost six. Even though the sun was low in the sky, it was still piercingly bright all around. The wind was howling up a bit of chill in the air… The smooth plane of desert, all the sand and gravel, stretched out as far as the eye could see.”
Before Sanmoa and José can get the fossilized turtles, they get into what is at first a minor problem. José must get out of the car and direct it from the outside while Sanmoa drives. The real trouble occurs when José inadvertently walks into a quagmire and gets stuck in the mud from the waist down. Sanmoa has no way of pulling him out of the quagmire, and with nightfall approaching fast, things appear to be dire.
Mercifully, another jeep arrives and Sanmoa desperately runs to track them down. She meets three Sahrawi men, but instead of helping her, they attack her. Sanmoa barely escapes with the help of her vehicle, and cleverly thinks to unscrew the seats and tires of her vehicle and use them as stepping-stones to help her freezing husband out of the quagmire.
Sanmoa and Jose are the “black sheep” of the Spanish Sahara Desert. Sanmoa’s respect for the desert emanates in the language she uses to describe it. Unlike her husband, Sanmoa’s “black sheep” philosophy helps her to understand the dangers of the desert and her incredibly strong will allows her to overcome the many obstacles she encounters while on the journey.
Sanmoa’s writing offers more than just travel-memoirs. Yes, she is able to capture the mighty scale of the Spanish Sahara Desert while also giving the reader plenty of insights on the cultures that live there, but Night in the Wasteland in many ways reads like an adventure story with the way she creates an intense atmosphere during her life-or-death car chase with the Saharawi men.
Stories of the Sahara is made available to an English-speaking audience with the help of Bloomsbury Publishing and Mike Fu. Mike Fun is a Brooklyn-based writer, translator, and editor. In addition to translating the first of Sanmoa’s travel-memoirs into English, Fu has worked on several other projects that help bring Chinese and English literature together, including taking on the position of translation editor for The Shanghai Literary Review, a biannual English language publication based in China.
An Excerpt from the Book, Stories of the Sahara: Night in the Wasteland
Below is an excerpt from “Night in the Wasteland,” reprinted from Stories of the Sahara by arrangement with Bloomsbury USA. Copyright © 2020, Sanmao and Mike Fu.
‘Sanmao, you drive and I’ll run ahead. Stop when I give the signal.’
José sprinted ahead as soon as he said this. I turned the engine on and trailed him, maintaining a short distance.
‘You alright?’ he asked. I stuck my head out the window to reply, ‘No problem.’ He got farther and farther from me, then turned around and waved his two arms, telling me to drive on as he ran backward. Suddenly I noticed that the ground behind Jos é was bubbling. Something wasn’t quite right. I slammed the brakes and yelled, ‘Careful, careful! Stop…’
I opened the car door and ran towards him yelling. But José had already stepped into the quagmire. The wet mud was up to his knees in an instant. He was obviously startled. Looking back, he staggered a few more steps. Quickly the mud rose up to his thighs. He struggled a bit more, looking like he was going to fall over. I don’t know how but he got farther and farther away from me the more he fought against it. There was now quite a distance between the two of us.
I stood with my mouth open, unable to speak, frozen in shock. I couldn’t believe this was real, but the image before me was undeniably true! All of this had happened within the span of seconds. José could see that the quagmire was swallowing him up and desperately tried lifting his legs up. Just then I noticed that there was a protruding rock maybe two meters to his right. ‘Go over there!’ I cried urgently. ‘There’s a rock there.’
He also saw the rock and struggled to move towards it. The mud was up to his waist now. I watched helplessly from a distance. I was so anxious that my nerves felt as though they were about to fry. It was like being in a horrible nightmare.
When I saw him clutch on to that rock in the quagmire, it jolted me into action. I ran back to the car to look for something with which to reel him in. But there was nothing in there besides the flask of wine, two empty bottles and some copies of United Daily News. There was a toolbox inside the boot. Nothing else.
I went back to the edge of the quagmire to find José. He didn’t utter a sound, looking at me in stupefaction. I scrambled wildly around the area, hoping to find a piece of rope on the ground, a few planks of wood, anything. But there was nothing in the vicinity except for sand and rocks. Jos é was hugging the rock. His lower half was submerged in mud, but he wasn’t sinking any further for now.
‘José, I can’t find anything to pull you out with,’ I called to him. ‘Hang in there.’ There were about fifteen meters between us.
‘Don’t worry,’ he said to comfort me. ‘Don’t worry.’ Something in his voice had changed though.
All around there was nothing but the sound of the wind, specks of sand flying in the hazy air. A huge quagmire in front, the mountain maze behind. I turned to look at the sun and saw that it was about to set. Spinning back around, I saw that Jos é was also looking towards the sun.
The sky at dusk was usually a beautiful scene, but there was no way I could appreciate it in my current state. The wind came in cold gusts. I glanced at the flimsy clothes I was wearing, then at Jos é stewing in a pit of mud, and then back at the setting sun – it looked like the giant red eye of a cyclops blinking shut. Temperatures here would drop to zero within a few hours. If Jos é couldn’t get out by then, he’d be frozen alive.
‘Sanmao,’ he called to me. ‘Get in the car and fetch help.’
‘I can’t leave you here,’ I said, suddenly becoming emotional. I could certainly figure out directions to drive my way out of the mountain maze. But by the time I got from there to the checkpoint and found help, the night would already have fallen. It would be next to impossible to go back through the mountain maze and find Jos é in the dark of night. We’d have to wait until daybreak. And by then José would certainly be dead. The sun was completely out of view now; temperatures were dropping rapidly. This was an inevitability in the desert night.
‘Sanmao, get in the car,’ José called, sounding angry. ‘You’ll freeze to death.’ I was still squatting at the edge of the quagmire, thinking about how much colder José must have been than me. I was shivering so badly that I couldn’t even speak.
José clung to that rock with half his body. Whenever he stopped moving, I stood up and said to him, ‘José, José.
You have to keep moving. Turn your body a little. Be brave…’ When he heard this, he would stir for a moment. But it was too hard for him to move very much under the circumstances. The sky had already darkened to a pigeon grey. Twilight was beginning to blur my vision, little by little. My mind was in turmoil. If I left him to find help, I’d risk not being able to come back and rescue him. It would be better to keep him company and freeze to death together.
Suddenly I saw headlights on the horizon. Startled, I jumped up. They were definitely headlights! Far, far away, but they were driving towards us.
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