The twentieth day of the crossing – the point of no return

We were halfway through the journey. On that day, everyone in the caravan, particularly the most seasoned travelers, spoke of the “point of no return”. That was a given point in the desert, between the city and the oasis from which, once reached, returning due to an unforeseeable event was no longer possible. It was best to continue, whatever the hardship we had to face. While we continued, I could see a tremendous hubbub among the travelers. They were talking about a legend that involved the point of no return, but I could not hear distinctly the story about that place. The person whose camel was paired to mine on that day was George, a pilgrim like me, who was also traveling to meet the wise dervish, “who knew many secrets between heaven and earth.” George was very nice and talkative. He said he taught at a school of esoterism and had many students. He declared himself to be a master, because he had climbed many steps of the scale of evolution, thanks to the extraordinary knowledge he had acquired over many years devoted to the “mysteries of the world”. He told me of the books he had read, many of which I hadn’t even heard about. Next, he started to demonstrate the keen perception he had, pointing out the emotional, moral and spiritual difficulties each member of the caravan had, just by looking at them. The hours passed. At one point, I had the chance to ask him what he expected from the meeting with the wise dervish. He said he expected to have a serious conversation with the wise man, because, according to George, the philosopher of the oasis once had said that “just like gold and silver, immaterial treasures also get rusty.” That statement, George explained quite self-assuredly, had two conceptual mistakes. The first is that neither gold nor silver rust, as everyone knows; the second is that immaterial achievements never get lost, as the esoteric tradition teaches. His intention was to have a discussion with the wise dervish. He even had a camcorder in his saddlebag, as he intended to film the conversation to use in future lectures and classes, and on social media, where he posted his extensive knowledge. That impressed me, whether because it was unexpected or unkind. I tried to change the subject and told him I had heard there was a legend about the “point of no return”, but that I did not know exactly what it was.  I asked him if he knew it. George told me that, in that morning, he had seen the caravanner tell the legend to some travelers. However, legends were but nonsense from people’s imagination, and the caravanner was but a rustic man of the desert, who knew nothing about the secrets of life outside the narrow, ordinary universe of the caravan. Therefore, he decided not to waste his time with pointless tales. While the professor was talking about this and other subjects, we reached the point of no return. To my surprise, as I believed that was just a fictional point in the middle of the desert, there was an abandoned train marking the spot.

Yes, a huge locomotive on a few yards of rail before and after was lying on the scorching sand. Absurd? If there was something I had learned on that crossing, it was to accept the possibilities of the impossible, to understand the permanence of impermanence and to live with the unforeseeable. The order was given to stop for a brief rest and a fast meal. Before we dismounted the camels, the caravanner warned everyone: “You can take as many pictures you want, but it is forbidden to climb on the train. It is a monument that pays tribute to the wisdom of people of the desert. Therefore, it has embedded in it what is sacred for our people.”

Monument? Sacred? These words stirred even more my curiosity about the legend regarding the train that marked the point of no return. Almost all travelers, particularly those who were making the journey for the first time, like me, took pictures with the locomotive at the back, whether to have it as a souvenir or to prove the unbelievable story we would tell once we got back home. Once everyone had taken all the pictures they wanted and went to have their meal, George approached me with a camera in his hand. He asked me to take some pictures of him. I obliged. While I waited for him to position himself, much to my surprise he stepped on the train for me to take his picture. I reminded him that we weren’t supposed to go up on the train, but George made a dismissive gesture with his hand, as if saying that was nonsense. I insisted that he get off the train and refused to take a picture. From afar, the caravanner watched the scene with his arms crossed and a serious countenance. When George noticed the caravanner watching him, in a challenging behavior he not only refused to get off the train, but sat on the engine, took a date from his pocket and, as if he were at his home, crossed his legs and bit the fruit unhurriedly, as if savoring something pleasant. I became tense.

As if my tension was signaling that something worse was going to happen, during that brief moment of deadlock three Tuaregs appeared, galloping on their camels as fast as they could; they had shotguns in their hands. Tuaregs are a nomadic people that have dwelt in the desert for centuries. In a rage and with their shotguns pointing at George, they shouted for him to get off the train. This time, the professor obeyed. With his hands up, he was targeted with curses and hostile words. They took the camera from my hand and, despite my claims of innocence, under the honest allegation that I refused to take his picture, they placed me next to George, against the locomotive. One of the Tuaregs took a huge whip out from his saddlebag, and it wasn’t difficult to understand, more because of gestures than words, that we would be punished for disobedience and sacrilege. One never knows how he will react in face of the fear caused at a moment like that. While I became mute, unable to utter a single word, the professor could not stop talking. Mind you, he, who conceitedly considered himself so cultivated and wise, claimed lack of knowledge and ignorance at that moment.

Under the aim of the guns of two Tuaregs, the third one came closer with the huge whip in his hand. No one from the caravan got near, not even the security crew. They simply looked, with terrified eyes. Only the caravanner came in our direction. He seemed he was not in a hurry nor afraid; he bore a gaze so stern I had never seen before. I was more afraid of the caravanner than of the Tuaregs. One of them, who seemed to be the leader of the group, said we had violated the code of the desert, and would be punished with ten lashes for that. That was a light sentence, compared to extreme punishments the law of the people of the sand allowed. However, out of consideration and respect for the caravanner, they could waive the punishment, if he so requested. Immediately the jaunty professor got on his knees and, in tears, begged the caravanner, time and again, to plea for him to be forgiven. 

With his grave, almost hoarse voice, the caravanner addressed George: “During the crossing, what is yours I will not let be taken away; what is not yours I will never give you. If you want justice, you can ask me; forgiveness, however, is beyond me.” Next, without saying a word, he motioned to me to get out of there and to join the caravan, as if stating before everyone I was innocent. I rapidly moved away from the train and ran towards the caravan. The professor once again cried for mercy. The caravanner only looked at him.

The Tuareg ordered George to turn around and put his hands against the locomotive. Forthwith, the first lash snapped in the air, mingled with many cries. The shirt of the professor was torn in the back. The Tuareg went closer and, with his hands, finished tearing the shirt, leaving the back of the professor bare, to receive the punishment. For now, there was only a thick scratch. We all knew the worse was to come.

This is when, and don’t ask me how, the beautiful woman with lapis-lazuli eyes emerged from behind the locomotive. She walked as if dancing on the sands of the desert. She had a smile on her face I can’t describe. A smile that was about the beauty of compassion, mercy and forgiveness. It was a smile that revealed the grandness of love and love’s capacity to prevail over evil. Any type of evil; all the evil.

She approached the leader of the Tuaregs, took out from the long sleeve of her dress the most beautiful flower I had ever seen and handed it to him. A flower as blue as the color of her eyes. She repeated the gesture to the other two, as if she had a garden under her sleeve. The Tuareg holding the whip had to take the flower with the other hand. She had offered the blue flower in exchange for the whip. She presented him the dilemma of another possibility. The possibility of light. Her gesture, however simple, spoke loudly about love and tolerance for the intolerant who, out of ignorance, believe themselves wise.

Silence was absolute. Even the wind stopped blowing, so that all creatures of the desert could witness.

The Tuaregs accepted the gift and the unvoiced words by the woman. They gave her a sincere smile of gratitude. Gratitude for the lesson; for the chance of transforming shadows into light. Without a word, they respectfully saluted the caravanner with a slight nod and left. The caravanner bent his body in reverence to the woman with lapis-lazuli eyes. Then, he ordered us to depart immediately.

With his camel paired to mine, in contrast to the morning, George did not say a word for the remainder of the day. It was implicit in the justice rendered on that day that, to be actually fair, a sentence must have an educational component and not be a mere act of revenge. By reflecting on and regretting what had happened, and having had fright as punishment, the professor started a process of reviewing, in his core, his values and ideas. I thought it would make his meeting with the wise dervish much more profitable for him.

At twilight, as usual, the caravan set up camp for the night. There was a different type of silence for the remainder of that day. People almost did not speak, as if they were still processing the events they had witnessed, as if the lesson suited every one of them. I moved away to watch the stars and meditate. Seated on the sand, I was happy when the beautiful woman with blue eyes sat next to me. I told her I was still under the impact of what had happened. New feelings and ideas were searching for a place to settle within me. I asked her to tell me about the legend of the locomotive and the point of no return. She smiled and shook her head, as if saying she was expecting that.

“Long ago, a mighty sultan felt helplessly in love with a stunningly beautiful lady, the most beautiful of the oasis. He proposed to her, offering a fortune in gold and silver to demonstrate his best intentions. The lady said she was dazzled by the sultan and that she accepted him as a husband, as long as he did not let the gold and silver he had in his heart rust. The sultan agreed at once.”

“She also had another request. She would like to live in the desert, where she had been raised in a pure, simple way, close to the people she had always loved. The sultan explained he could not be away from the city for longer periods of time because of his obligations and business, but he would build a railway between the two places, so that they could meet as often as the love that bound them together found necessary. The lady accepted the offer.”

“The sultan made every effort to have the railway ready as promptly as possible, and it did not take long. With the date of the wedding set, he had the train pick up the lady and all those who were dear to her for the religious ceremony, to take place in his palace, one of the most beautiful in town, lavishly decorated for the party. Kings and royalty of the farthest kingdoms were invited. The train, carrying also the sultan who made a point of going himself to pick up his beloved wife-to-be, was packed when it left the oasis towards the city.”

“During the trip, it didn’t take long for the lady to notice how rude and disrespectful the sultan was to his subordinates and to people with whom he had no emotional and business relationship. She then explained to the sultan that everyone had within themselves a tremendous wealth: their good feelings. She said that true nobility was not about money or titles, but a matter of love and good feelings. Like everything else, we need to use our heart in order for it not to rust. The sultan argued that people were not equal; therefore, they should not be treated in the same way. He added she had no reason to be afraid, because he was attentive with those he loved. She explained that virtue was not in treating well those we like, but in the dignity of respecting and caring for each one, regardless of the nature of their differences. Finally, she said that because he was not able to keep his promise, there would be no wedding.”

“From the height of the power he believed he had, the sultan warned that they had passed ‘the point of no return’. He acknowledged he could not force her to marry him, but if she insisted in not marrying him, he would have the train stopped, for she and her friends to get off. He pointed out that walking back to the oasis would be a very harsh, almost impossible task, considering they were in the middle of the desert.”

“The lady was adamant. She replied that ‘there is no point of no return, because it is always possible to have second thoughts on choices one makes, despite the burden caused by previous decisions. The desert embraces all those who love the crossing and are guided by the stars that illuminate its night.’”

Anxious, I wanted to know the outcome of that adventure. The woman smiled and continued the story: “Legend goes that the train stopped for the lady, her friends and relatives to get off. Many of the sultan’s servers had decided to join them; they had learned to appreciate the lady, her attitude and behavior, and had come to realize a different, better life was possible. On the train remained the engine machinist and sultan’s more loyal employees. The sultan, from the window, watched those people walking away until they could no longer be seen. When he gave the order to depart, for some reason the engine of the train stuck. Once it became clear that fixing it was not possible, the sultan had one of his servers go to town, to bring horses and camels necessary for their rescue. They had enough supplies in the train to wait. However, on the following day, a sandstorm buried them all and ended the railroad before the train completed its first travel. Precisely on the site we know as ‘point of no return’.”

I asked if the lady and her people had managed to return home. The woman of blue eyes concluded: “They did not have to walk much. Shortly after, they ran into a camel trader who was taking animals to trade in the oasis. Pitying them and being generous, he offered the camels to take them. It is said a huge celebration occurred when they arrived.” She paused, and then quoted the lady: “The desert embraces all those who love the crossing and are guided by the stars that illuminate its night.”

Amazed, I could only think about the strange synchronicity between the legend and the conversation the professor had said, earlier in the morning, he would have with the wise dervish. The legend explained the conversation and could even make it pointless. I said it was a pity that George had not become interested in the legend. Perhaps that could avoid the disappointment he had felt. The woman explained: “He was still going on his journey without love, without knowing what direction he should take. According to the tradition, the desert always corrects the course of those who wander aimlessly, being as strict as necessary in each case. It does so out of love.” She paused and recalled the legend: “In order to cross the desert, one cannot let the gold and silver one carries in his heart rust.” I said that according to esoteric teachings, moral and spiritual achievements are never lost, in contrast to material gains. She agreed, but with a caveat: “Moral and spiritual achievements are not lost, but they must be always put into practice. Otherwise, in fact, we do not have them.” She opened her arms as if stating the obvious and added: “No one can lose what they don’t have.”  She looked at the stars and said: “Everyone knows about love.” She shrugged and left to the wind a simple, rhetorical question: “What good it is to know what love is if you don’t love?”

I closed my eyes for a moment, to connect all the ideas enclosed in those words. When I opened my eyes again the beautiful woman with lapis-lazuli eyes wasn’t there any longer.

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