"Anybody can visit an exotic place, but to really change it for the better—now that was an adventure. As it turned out, it was a project that would come to dominate my life, but in the beginning I just fell into it."

Ernst Aebi is a world traveler who transplanted himself from his native Switzerland, obtained two college degrees, became a noted artist and renovator in New York’s Soho district, crossed the Atlantic in a sailboat multiple times, and walked from Siberia to the Arctic, among many other accomplishments. In 1988 he joined a camel train journeying from Timbuktu, the dirty, desperate capital of Mali, to the remote village of Araouane, an all-but-abandoned settlement that had once been a thriving oasis. Something about the place attracted and challenged Aebi, who, helped by a few villagers and under the watchful eye of all, revamped the town’s wells and started a communal garden to make Araouane self-sustaining. After his first year there, he returned to the US and persuaded a photographer, Emilie, to join in the project. They married and toiled together in Araouane. The experiment was successful for a time. Aebi served as town planner, agricultural adviser, unofficial doctor, and source of amusement to hordes of children. Then the region fell prey to warring rebel factions, and the couple had to flee. Subsequent visits to Araouane showed the incremental degradation of the Aebis’ work though a few remnants of progress have survived.

Aebi writes with the same flourish, humor, and joie de vivre that have characterized his remarkable life. Even those who have never experienced the precise conditions he describes can identify with the author as he skillfully recounts his naïve hopefulness and the sense of sadness as he watches his efforts slip away in the sand. World trekkers will identify with his exploits because he makes the settings come alive: the wretchedness of the region, the corruptibility of officialdom, the discomforts of travel, and the laudable spirit of poor people trapped in a seemingly hopeless existence. Seasons of Sand Sahara chronicles a modern-day adventurer’s quixotic efforts to revitalize a forsaken desert outpost.

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