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June 2003

The Seven Deadly Sins (And Why We Love Them)

This classic roundup appeared in the June 2003 issue of BACKPACKER
seven deadly sins"The Seven Deadly Sins" from the June 2003 issue of Backpacker.

By Kira Salak

Two things about me. The first is that I believe in the Perfect Camping Spot. I know I’ve found it, that the universe has brought us together when I say, "I must camp here." The second thing is that I’m incorrigibly stubborn about my infatuations. If I see an ideal place to camp, I can’t get that spot out of my mind. It’s a desire that can’t be bridled: I simply need to get there.

I was on the lookout for such a place as I traveled through south-central Madagascar, crammed into an ancient minibus next to a boy who had twice vomited on my hiking boots. I had been in this vehicle for nearly 36 hours and was convinced I would find no spot at all, the road fast degenerating into a boulder-strewn mud track. So far: two flat tires, an overheated engine, and a near-collision with a herd of zebu.

Then I saw it–the most perfect spot ever. It was a beautiful little ledge high up on a plateau above the scrub brush plains. It faced west, perfect for sunsets, reveling in rare, unobstructed view of the world. As our bus stopped at a small village, I squeezed out and put on my backpack. Locals crowded around, asking where I was going. When I pointed to the ledge, this seemed to displease them; they scoffed and waved their hands, acting like jealous lovers. But I rushed past them into the savanna, too enamored of my goal to stop and translate their cries.

It wasn’t easy going. The plateau stood before me like an ancient rampart, with no apparent way up. I spent an hour scrambling along its base, finally finding a narrow cleft with handholds carved into the rock. I climbed carefully, topping out just after the sun had set. And there it was: my spot. All mine. I could barely see anything in the dim except some boulders, but I was still heady and love-struck by the place. Spreading out my sleeping bag, I lay down to enjoy the enormity of the sky, the hazy landscape unfurling on all sides. I started to drift to sleep.

That’s when the stick-banging began. And the chanting. Panicky, I crept to the edge. Below, several Mahafaly tribesmen were engaged in frenetic dance, their bodies writhing like shadows in the torch light. At time, individuals came close to the cleft, and I was convinced they would come up. I spent the night in terrified anticipation, the hours creeping by like centuries. As dawn came, I expected the men to climb after me, but they simply put out their torches and went home.

It was then, in the light of morning, that I looked around and saw that nearby boulders were graves. My perfect spot revealed itself as a cemetery; the dancers, no doubt, had been trying to appease the ancestors’ spirits. Hard to say what was worse that moment–the betrayal I felt, or the rejection. I sunk down on my cold, dusty ledge, sick with heartache, yet knowing all the while I’d go after the perfect spot again. Some of us never find enough love.

Kira Salak is the author of Four Courners, an account of her wayward, solo crossing of Papua New Guinea.

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