Tangier: Is This The End?

The last lap to Tangier nearly broke me. In fact, it could have broken us. I don’t usually go into detail about our marital situation because a) it’s none of your business and b) petty rows seem even pettier written up. Likewise I don’t include all the torrid in and outs of dealing with a teenager (or two), but sometimes the facts so impinge on the plot, I can’t avoid mentioning them.

Stormy skies on the road into northern Morocco

Hub and I had been having our usual ups and downs, but somehow this last week things came to a head. Perhaps precisely because we were so nearly at the end – of making it halfway round Africa clockwise that is. More likely (she said, editing in retrospect a year later) because menopausal madness was kicking in with a vengeance. Either way, this fall-out felt like one too far.

(Red flags everywhere)

It boiled down to this: I was worried about my Mom and anxious to get to my folks, whom I hadn’t seen since April 2015. My brother had already arrived at their place in southern Spain and they were all waiting for us. Sampson seemed (willfully) oblivious to this, with his mind always – and only – on the next surf.

Now I’ve lived with him for 20 years and I understand the passions of the surfer. Luckily I love the beach, and have never argued against the main imperative of this trip being to follow the swell. All the way up the west coast, I had been patient, understanding the necessity of checking out all the breaks. I accept the universal principle of give and take, am adept at going with the flow.

The endless quest…

for a wave slightly bigger than this

But here on this last lap, it began to seem cruel to be stopping at Every. Single. Possible. Spot. Morocco is not particularly famous for surf, and especially not at this time of year. Of course waves in southern Europe were even less likely, so this was Hub’s last chance to seize some for a while. Still, it felt like the more I was giving, the more my giving was being taken for granted.

We’ve all been there.

Inching our way along the path less travelled

Driving along the lonely coast sometimes felt like driving from Cape Town through fertile fields up to Ceres, though the cliffs were quite Cornish in places.

Mirleft reminded me of Holywell, or maybe Hole-in-the-Wall, Transkei

Doesn’t this look like fynbos?

The main difference was the preponderance of weather-beaten peasants with lined faces and big ears looking like Van Gogh portraits, pottering along on donkeys.

As well as encompassing the climates of both the Sahel and the Mediterranean…

Morocco seems to straddle the ancient and the modern…

the East and the West, as well as all roaming in between…

despite being firmly rooted in North Africa

There was still the occasional dune; the kids could never resist climbing one!

Sampson took Big Reg on a wild goose chase off the main road trying to find a promising point at Tifnit. When we finally got there, it turned out to be a picturesque fishing village with ‘No Camping’ signs, so we told the carguard we had a little problem with the airbrake (which is never a lie) and parked off. I jazzed up our veggie supper soup by adding tuna, chopped black olives and salted lemons.

Welcome to Tifnit

a humble place off the beaten track

where we weaved our way down through the fishing boats…

to walk across the beautiful beach…

picking up some sardines for the cats on the way back

That night I dreamt of all the people we’d lost along the way. When I woke up I realised it was 1st July 2016 – 3 years since we’d left Cape Town. It felt like Joy, Emmanuel and Harry were cheering us on through the final hurdles.

In the morning Sampson was up and out early to check the surf, and came back disappointed. He was grumpy and impatient with the kids, hassling them to get up right now and do some exercise – so we could hurry up and move on down the coast to look for a better wave.

I breathed very deeply, got down out the truck to where he was stretching and said “For the last time: 1) I have worked hard and sacrificed a lot to get to this point where I DON’T have to be stressed in the mornings; if I have a rough night I can spend an hour coming round with hot water and lemon if I wish. Stop ruining my day before it starts with your FoMO on surf!” and “2) STOP telling teenagers what to do: it is guaranteed to produce the opposite effect to the one you want.” When he nagged them, Zola had immediately picked up a book and started reading – I didn’t want him to feel bad about that choice!

Abdullah the philosophical car guard

Sampson gave the carguard 20 dirham for keeping us safe overnight. Abdullah told me he’d read the novel Mine Boy and hoped people in SA were getting on better now? He speaks excellent English, French and German just from his interactions with tourists. I witnessed one old French geezer being horribly patronising to him and admired his stoicism.

Big Reg inched his way up the coast.

Agadir was suddenly surprisingly modern, full of big white hotels with palm tree-lined highways and endless roundabouts. After the fully wrapped fishwives of yesterday, it was a big shock to see European tourists in shorts and mini-dresses.

Agadir thrust us back into the 21st century…

with its bustling taxis…

a plethora of banks…

hundreds of holiday apartments…

and all that goes with them

I was happiest on the road out of town

My main memory, however, is of surpassing myself on the exposition of algebra-trinomials-with-surds front as we passed through…

Now you understand why Ruby has to go back to school – I’ve just about reached my maths zenith!

(They really do love their flags)

Taghazout, a place where Sampson had holidayed with school mates in 1989, was now full of shops called Tuareg Surf despite presently boasting the flattest sea ever.

Taghazout has built a reputation…

as the ‘surf mecca’ of Africa…

but in the summer…

the waves are few and far between.

Further along…

up a Chapman’s Peak-y type road…

we turned a corner into the most hectic wind whipping the top of the sea up and round in misty swirls…

Sampson could see potential breaks everywhere

Around every corner…

there was another possible spot…

just begging him…

to take a closer look.

He wasn’t the only one.

We spent the night at Imsouane

where, like many places in Morocco,

a pack of snapping dogs followed us on our morning walk

Some of us chose to stay inside

The road north continued to be narrow…

but not quite as terrifying as the day before

the views just as spectacular

Shoo

We finally rejoined the main road into Essaouira.

I’d been looking forward to it after reading the Lonely Planet Africa guide…

but it was far more built up and touristy than I’d expected…

with another huge esplanade suffering the wind (did I mention the flags yet?)

though the horse-drawn carriages did take us by surprise

On 3rd July Sampson took a random left to get down to the sea and ended up in the village of Moulay Bouzerktoun.

Moulay Bouzerktoun…

may have been tucked away on side road…

but turned out to be…

a world class windsurfing spot, according to

Russian champion Igor Yudakov

We parked next to a young Czech family in a camper van. While Sampson and Zola scrambled to get their longboards, I had a chat with professional windsurfer Igor Yudakov from Russia. Check out this video of the waves there he made this summer.

The coastline was unlike any other I’d seen before…

with moonlike craters…

and holes like in giant slabs of Emmenthal – say cheese!

Spot the guys riding the giant seagulls

We made love that night. It was so good, Sampson made the kids laugh this morning by saying “I was expecting a round of applause at the end”. Thankfully they still both sleep like the dead.

For a couple of lovely peaceful days, we carried on with school while Sampson caught up with some odd jobs in between hours in the surf:

Sewing this…

replacing this…

extending this…

while artist Zola

was hard at work

sketching Big Reg in detail

and I did what I hoped would be the last handwash for a while…

It was a stunningly peaceful spot

and I wondered

if it might be

the last time

we had for such quiet contemplation

of the world around us

all together

I was cheered by a handsome local in a surf shop who told me he’d crossed the border into Spain with his dog twice without being asked for papers. Hmmmmm….

Moulay Bouzerktoun sports

a full range of services for the surf tourist

It’s a glorious spot

for the guys and gals in wetsuits

as long as their boards are big enough!

The rest of us chilled out

enjoying the laid back vibes

M. Sahid’s grilled fish…

and the wide open spaces

I’ll remember Moulay Bouzerktoun for the kids loving the last episodes of Gavin and Stacy, Dad loving his post-surf massages by Ruby and me loving Zola’s goodnight cuddles. Precious peaceful times.

On 6th  July I woke to the sound of a dozen local kids, many in new clothes, running excitedly up and down street screaming happily “Eid Mubarak!” When Big Reg set off that day after school, it was lovely to see a few cafes finally open, with groups of men chatting over drinks.

Back on the road…

(Back to the flags)

Later that day, we came into industrial Safi. While Sampson loaded water at the petrol station, I took kids to the little funfair next door.

While Sampson filled the tanks…

the kids jumped on a couple of rides…

It was lovely to see loud, jolly Moroccan families out having fun together

I whipped ‘em on the dodgems.

Oh, yes, and we were briefly joined by Alfie the tortoise

It was quite something to reflect on how houses had changed:

from those temporary looking shelters of Western Sahara

to those cut into the hills at the foot of the Atlas Mountains…

to the increasingly fancy apartments…

and houses

we saw around us in the north of the country

We began to struggle to find places to pull off and park for the night.

Sometimes we just found a lonely spot…

and stayed there overnight…

No one seemed bothered although my morning T’ai Chi elicited giggles from passing grown men

This couple were grateful for the bidons Sampson gave them

We took the scenic road from Beddouza to El Jadida, and the colours of the countryside expanded from fynbos-like hardy little yellow flowers and pink thistles to greener, taller trees, more hot pink bougainvillea and violent orange pumpkins piled by the side of road.

This doesn’t do them justice

Increasingly, the long arable fields stretched right to the cliff edge…

Corn, cabbages, tomatoes or vines – all enclosed with bamboo against the wind

I was feeling wiped out with a sore throat and painful glands; my supply of Vitamin C had run out and I couldn’t find any pills sans sucre or artificial sweeteners in local pharmacies.

I’d had enough of Ruby being vile to me every morning but loving me so much every night she always wanted to chat and cuddle and not let me go to sleep. When she ruined our morning with her grumpiness AGAIN I snapped. Then my period started, just 2 weeks 3 days since the last one; it explained why I was feeling so drained. Teen sulks meeting menopausal mood swings is a recipe for disaster in a 3m squared space.

Azemmour had an impressive old fort

At charming Azemmour, Sampson bought cumin from stall decked with colourful piles of spices and the best dates yet, nearly as large and moist as security guard at Tarfaya’s. But we were most delighted by the novel sight of a man selling giant paper conefuls of enormous freshly made crisps!

Giant potatoes go directly in here…

to be sliced super thinly into the bubbling oil below…

Wait a minute for the delicious aromas to arise…

and just add a sprinkle of salt – et voilà!

Mmmm, smells sooo good…

We’d never tasted anything so utterly delicious. Warm and somehow chewy and crispy at the same time, irresistible!

The weather was changeable and I was struggling with low blood pressure dizziness so we took a day off in 30˚C heat. Sampson transferred the last of the filtered oil off the roof into the tanks – there was enough left for another 1000km and it was only 450km to Malaga!

We were lucky to find a place to park off at the end of this narrow thorny drive…

Hooray…

to be this close to the sea for our morning walk…

a morning talk…

and some throwing ourselves off dunes before settling to school…

or to work filtering oil from the roof, in between Travolta moves

We threaded our way through miles of ‘luxury apartments’ to find a berth next to the sea in order to surf ‘La Bobine’ at Dar Bouazza. It was such hard work to get out the back, the boys christened it Paddle Point.

La Bobine at Dar Bouazza

Even harder work on day 2

for the boys in the distance

The next morning the wave was bigger, and more difficult. Sitting sweating in the waiting truck, Ruby said, “If he comes in again and complains, I might have to kill him”. I was busy researching ferry options and praying we could cross the Mediterranean this week.

The dozens and dozens of ‘luxury apartments’…

being built everywhere…

hundreds and hundreds of them…

thousands…

promising escape from ‘le stress de Casablanca’ were making me feel claustrophobic

That afternoon, we finally hit motorways, and did 200km past Casablanca, Mohammedia and Rabat; it was a bit like driving from Jo’b to Pretoria through Midrand, past thousands of boxy apartments, with Big Reg hitting 70kmh at times! It was a criminal waste not to be visiting these historical cities, but the timing made it impossible; we’d spent too much time in the surf and had to get a move on now.

The end of the continent is in sight!

We came off the highway looking for a quiet spot to overnight, drove down an empty road through a wooded area by a dry river bed, and turned a corner to find a monster sea with crashing 8ft waves and literally thousands of people thronging the enormous stretch of beach as far as eye could see.

We really didn’t expect this road…

to lead to this…

or this!

This was Mehdia Plage, Morocco’s high season Torquay. Big Reg drove right down the corniche away from people and parked next to the old fort in the river mouth.

Much quieter

Early next morning, we drove back to the beach. As usual, all the fun was being had by men and boys who were running around freely. The vast majority of women were fully covered, in headscarves and wraps to the ankle. Some were in tunics with leggings and a very few youngsters were in denim shorts and bikini tops. But most women were wearing at least four more garments than the nearest man. Most were stationary, or restricted to paddling, watching their menfolk frolic in the water. No wonder most of the over 30s are pudgy and miserable-looking. Only one woman defiantly played with a ball in the sea with her 10 year old son, gamely trying to run through the water despite her wet robes and cardigan dragging her down.

Mehdia Plage

loads of fun for everyone…

though it seemed to me, some were having more fun than others

The only time the genders appeared similarly dressed were as toddlers, but even then the tiny girls had headscarves on. Now I’m a staunch supporter of respecting people’s rights to wear whatever they want and, for example, don’t believe France should have banned the niqab. This was the first time the wearing of traditional dress really upset me because the incongruity of heavy layers on hot beaches, the lack of freedom for girl children to run about and play, just seemed so blatantly unfair.

(The burkini seems a brilliant solution; how on earth do the French manage to get offended by that as well?)

There were several camels and mini Shetland ponies available for beach rides – donkeys were obviously not a draw at this seaside!

However, we couldn’t argue with the superbly clean beach. Ruby and I walked the whole length and found it spotless, with not even a hint of camel poo.

While the boys were surfing, I was busy doing fruitless research to obtain truck insurance in Europe. After scouring overland sites, I sent enquiries to Denmark, Germany and the UK Caravan Club but the online form didn’t give options for engines above 4L (Big Reg is 6L). It’s illegal to travel without third party insurance in Europe, but it seemed almost impossible to get!

That afternoon Zola got his long overdue birthday outing when we bought the kids tickets to the AquaPirate waterpark. Sampson and I walked back to the truck, content they would be safe and happy for several hours, conscious we were alone for first time in months.

With the zoom on my camera I could just see the kids at the top of the highest water slide…

So did Hub seize the opportunity to cherish me? In fairness, he did put the kettle on, but when he started telling me about the surf tomorrow I said quietly but definitively
“No”:

“Remember when I said to you, in the middle of the desert, that there would eventually come a time when looking for another wave (and another, and the next) would have to stop because I don’t want to be late for my parents’ birthdays? And please NOT to argue with me about it then? Well that time is NOW. We have to go – I’m not staying here 3 nights”.

Did he pause to reflect on how patient Ruby and I have been, dithering along the coast for weeks, moving only 20km along at a time? Did he weigh how many hours we have sat sweating in ugly places, waiting for them to get out of the (mediocre) surf? Did he consider how long my aged parents haven’t seen me?

Did he ****.

He let rip. On and on he raged, about how he’d promised Zola ‘a final surf’. He threatened to go back to AquaPirate now and fetch him out, or go in again at 5pm when they got back… As he ranted, something inside me broke. I didn’t argue because I was already exhausted from the upset, crying and sheer indignation and knew he was way too tired for a second shitty surf. In my hormonally compromised state, his crashing thoughtlessness had already ruined everything: that evening’s ‘meal out’ treat we’d planned, the last few days of the trip, the very last leg of the journey.

The sudden death of his Mum a month after we’d set off in 2013 had been such a shock to us and a sharp lesson about not taking time with loved ones for granted; I couldn’t believe he was risking putting me in the same situation with my Mom now. It was too much. I felt betrayed, sick at heart and very shaken. The last bit of my self-delusion had just crumbled. I felt such a fool for believing my husband was any more sensitive than any other. Is there a man out there who doesn’t behave like a child when he doesn’t get his own way, for the sake of others?

Perhaps this was why the sight of the determined woman vainly trying to run in the sea with wet clothes flapping round her legs, weighing her down, so upset me today.

We ended up eating chips on the street that night, before wandering round the funfair and tasting some of the best nougat ever. At 200D a kilo it was very expensive but, as it’s my Dad’s favourite, we splashed out on a lump for his birthday present with our last note (there were no banks or ATMs in Mehdia). I wish I’d had more cash to do another bumper car ride with Zola; he couldn’t believe I was still nailing him.

All the fun of the fair at Mehdia Plage

With very little cash left, the Sampsons chose to spend it on 3D of spun sugar…

rather than little pots of snails, which seemed very popular with locals

So far, our memories of Morocco mostly featured lots of shouty men, being moved on and feeling unwelcome in tourist areas and boys throwing stones. But the next day, in Kenitra, a rather pretty town with outdoor cafes lining the streets, M. Saïd changed all that. While Sampson was filling up with water at the second garage we asked at, I went to the boulangerie for bread and debated whether to splash out on the rotisserie chickens with the most-delicious-ever odours wafting from Les Quatres Saisons next door.

Grateful children with kind M. Saïd of Les Quatres Saisons, Kenitra

I never got my long-promised tagine last night, so I asked for a poulet complet without extras for 70D – but when M. Saïd heard details of our trip he gave me a 20D discount and insisted on adding chips as well. I came back with overjoyed children to say thank you and take a photo before feasting in the picnic area down the road. I saved a portion of the chicken and the chunk of fresh herbs and chilli paste stuffed inside to make tonight’s soup – YUM. Thank you for your kindness M. Saïd, it was a balm to the day.

We then drove another 200km along the relentless motorway. I hate there being no fellow humanity by the side of the road. It felt unutterably sad not to feel a sense of triumphant togetherness as the kilometres to the end of the continent ticked down. For the first time in my life I felt I could not speak to my husband. I tried to think of the future, consider options, some sort of separation, but mostly I felt numb.

150km to go…

100km to go

50km to go

It was a soul-destroying way to realise that no matter how wonderful the journey, how amazing the sights, how much of a great adventure for our family, it all meant nothing to me if we were not doing it together, as a team, with a sense of common purpose. If our priorities were not mutually understood and reciprocated, the whole thing became a sham, a pointless backdrop to my sudden acute awareness of miserable loneliness.

As we reached the end of the motorway, the ginormous port of Tangier Med loomed up on the horizon. We drove past it and parked on top of a hill looking down on a packed beach off La Village de Peche Dalia.

Down the hill to the port of Tangier

couldn’t believe we were finally here

swinging past Dalia

to the carpark…

at the end of the continent

That night 13th July was possibly the worst of the entire trip. Sampson had overruled my suggestion to drive down into the village because he missed the turn off and instead pulled over in a truckers’ carpark. In between juggernauts swopping in and out and the thumping sound systems of drug dealers cruising up and down outside, our sleep was so disturbed, he had to move the truck to a far corner after midnight. About 2am I felt horribly wide awake, still reeling with feelings of hurt and irreparable damage, and a sense things were definitely OVER.

Sampson went from “What?” to “What’s going on?” to “Let’s talk” two days too late. I was desperate NOT to get more upset and drained ahead of this big day/week – I needed to save spoons (energy and strength) for the crossing and reunion with my family and it was pointlessly tiring to reiterate stuff he knows full well already. He was totally freaked out that I wasn’t talking – so unlike me – but I just couldn’t.

The way he’d (over)reacted at Mehdia had been the last straw. I began to wonder whether I could cope with travelling back down the east coast. There’s far less surf that side, so what will carry him through if he can’t begin to motivate himself for the joy of others?

For the first time I felt I was finished, I couldn’t go on any further. It was crushing because I suddenly felt there could be no celebration of the completion of the west coast half of the journey if this achievement was to be crowned with divorce. Writing a book about the trip seemed a hollow ambition now.

I was thinking: I’ll go back to Dakar alone, apply for a job, let him take the truck – try that separation and take it from there. Keep the house rented until the kids get through the Baccalaureate in Senegal. Let him go back to surf in Liberia like he wants, see how we both go. But I was not pushing for continuation Clockwise, as I always have done. For the first time ever, I was thinking perhaps it’s not too late, maybe there’s someone out there who could love me a little more tenderly.

Thursday 14th July was a day of extremes. After a subdued morning walk on the beautiful beach next to the clear aquamarine and blue sea next to the village, Sampson and I agreed to head to the port and sort out a booking, perhaps for the next day, and then go park off somewhere and spend our last dirhams stocking up on Moroccan olives, dates and Camel Balls before leaving.

I’m not making this up: Camel Balls…

sour bubblegum that looks like my song

My brother called from Spain in a state: our Dad was driving him up the wall and he needed my back-up, when were we arriving? This unleashed a whole slew of conflicting emotions within me, culminating in a useful acknowledgement of how very difficult the Pearces are to live with. It wasn’t really surprising Sampson was pushing to make the most of his last days of freedom. I took another deep breath and decided to be more forgiving of my long-suffering, (maddeningly but perhaps blessedly) forgetful, clodhopper husband.

Soon, we were going to be on one of those boats in the distance…

Giddy with exhaustion as we drove back down, I was thinking it was most unlikely we’d be able to get on a ferry today, without a booking in advance. But the immaculate port was superbly efficient. Apart from having to studiously avoid another shouty man who looked like a cartoon version of Alexei Sayle, the whole experience was almost surreally easy. We went straight in and took advantage of a Trasmediterranea promotion that gave us a discount to €220, and the lovely curly clerk said he could book us on the 4pm boat but if we hurried we could make the 1.05!

Come on in…

While Ruby fed the cats again to make them sleepy, we drove through miles of empty lanes, then whizzed through passport control and customs. Big Reg went through the huge scanner while we sat outside on a sunny bench, smiling as if completely relaxed, wondering if their little bodies were showing up… We didn’t have any cat passports; Tigger and Cleo were still too young for inoculations, so if we got caught, we’d have to leave them behind.

Eeek

We were waved on down to the quays as the lorries were backing into the ship’s hold. Big Reg was the last one on. We couldn’t believe we made it.

Welcome on board!

Saying goodbye to African soil…

Africa Clockwise had finally reached high noon!

It was 3 years and 2 weeks since we’d set off from Cape Town. We’d spent 2 years on the road (around the delay due to the Ebola pandemic) crossed 20 countries and covered 23000km in the Big Green Truck travelling on waste vegetable oil.

POSTSCRIPT

Last on, first off. After so many border crossings, I found myself bizarrely nervous about entering Europe, but of course our privileged British passports were routinely scanned, with no questions. At customs, the guardia asked us to open the side door and asked “Are you an NGO?” “No, a family” “Oh…OK”. They didn’t even come in. I speak zero Spanish and felt so disempowered; I couldn’t offer the usual distraction of the story of the trip.

Meanwhile, out the driver’s window, Sampson was doing an interview for a Discovery Channel programme! We’d officially made it through all frontier procedures, but Big Reg pulled over 5m in front of the barriers so the cameraman could come and film the inside of the truck – when suddenly Cleo jumped out! Sampson panicked as he saw a line of police coming towards us but it just so happened that six of them were getting into a van together… Phew.

Sampson with David Monteros (r) and Ignacio aka Nacho the cameraman from Discovery Channel, just before Cleo leapt out the truck

Sampson started up the engine and as he pulled away, while looking in his newly extended rear view mirror, saw Cleo leap from beneath the truck . He braked hard as Ruby (in one smooth movement) opened the side door, rattled the cat food tin and scooped up Cleo as she scampered up the tyre. Sampson put his foot down and Big Reg screeched away before anyone noticed. The whooping was probably heard back in Tangier. Cat-astrophe averted.

‘Well I think it’s just a big fuss about nothing…’

‘Mmmmmmm…’

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Dates and Olives

In retrospect, I didn’t give Morocco the chance it deserved. Like Namibia, it suffered from being a bookend to the first leg of the journey. In both places we were stressing to get somewhere else. In Namibia, our main focus was on getting to Angola before our visas expired. In Morocco, I wanted to get to my parents in time to celebrate their birthdays in July, before any more catastrophes befell us. As a result we didn’t do either place justice.

After all this time crawling across West Africa, we’d finally made it to the North side of the map

We had turned the final fold of the North West Africa map (the map we’d been warned we couldn’t have out on display because it had Western Sahara written on it, in case Moroccan officials got offended). I was beginning to get seriously excited about being within reach of Spain and started dreaming about seeing my family.

I became irrationally scared about having an accident. Moroccan roads were far better than several countries before them, yet I was battling a daily fear, the ‘so near and yet so far’ terror of smashing the truck (and us) up at the 11th hour.

My paranoia wasn’t completely without foundation. There were always two lanes but barely; surfaces were very irregular and edges crumbly. Worse than that were the terrible drivers happily hurtling along the other way, apparently leaving all ‘inshallah’ in the hands of God. Trucks thundered past, buffeting us in a terrifying down draft. Big Reg would bounce off the steep camber and threaten to career out of control on a broken edge… And the risky overtaking! More than once we thought we’d had it as we’d come round a corner or over a rise to see two trucks bearing down on us and seemingly no way to get by.

As we drove further north, the main problem on the road ceased to be this…

or this

(as pointed out here)

or even this…

but an increasingly heavy number of these (check the mud guard)

along roads like this

getting windier like this

(leading to warnings like this)

They were often massively overloaded

bearing down on us at great speed, on my side of the cab!

As a result, I didn’t feel I was enjoying Maroc like I should be, had it been situated between, say, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Now it just seemed like an obstacle course of winding roads and roadblocks in the way of getting to our loved ones, waiting to catch us out at the last minute.

At the time I wrote this:

“We couldn’t get online for nearly 2 weeks in Morocco. At first, I wasn’t trying very hard to get connected, enjoying the break, but then we began to get desperate for news of the upcoming Brexit referendum, due to happen on 23rd June, the day after Zola’s birthday. For some reason, the JCBs that had served us faithfully through 18 different phone number changes wouldn’t work with Moroccan SIM cards, so it took awhile.

We were sat in the middle of the desert when we finally got online 20 minutes after Cameron resigned on 24th. The children found it hard to understand why Sampson and I were dazed with shock. I’d had grave concerns, but thought the UK would probably pull through for the ‘sensible’ option, like the Scots had in their referendum.

The horror, the horror of realising that Dave was not far right enough for England, that the fear-mongers and doom-merchants had won. It was appalling to have to explain to my children that, in a couple of years’  time, their British passports would no longer entitle them to move visa-free across Europe; that the UK was voluntarily giving up the freedom to move across borders that the African Union is dreaming of.

So much for Farrage and his barrage of bollocks. I feel pretty sure that his hero Churchill, one of the founders of modern Europe, is turning in his grave. He knows what it is to be stuck between a rock and a hard place – Hitler and Stalin – and when I look to the future, between Putin and Trump, my heart quails for my children.”

I began reading about how the referendum promised by the UN in 1991 to the thousands of Sahrawi refugees stranded in the Algerian desert since 1975  had been denied for decades. It seemed horribly unfair that Britain got one about the EU when so many of the electorate seemed apathetic or barely qualified to comment…

On 27th June, the day we visited the Saint Expéry Museum, the wind finally dropped to normal Fish Hoek summer levels. Zola scampered after me as I set off to walk and we ended up going all the way down to Cap Juby.

Zola and I on a blustery walk

down the shoreline at Cap Juby

He asked me where we were going to be at Christmas and I said “I don’t know, love. It depends on where Ruby can go back to school. Spain maybe, or Dakar even” and asked him if that bothered him? I said it was important for him to let us know his wishes so they could be taken into consideration. Zola thought for a minute and said “I want to go down the East Coast” and I said “Do you?!” and was really happy, ‘cos that’s what I want most too 🙂

Still young enough to delight in flotsam and jetsam

After visiting the Museum we set off and I was helping Ruby who was struggling with her algebra. She had period pains, so I tried to cheer her up with by telling her about the conversation her Dad and I had had about the pressing need for her to return to formal education and peers now. This past year it had become obvious that she is far more interested in maths and science than the humanities. Quite apart from my obvious limitations in teaching higher grade algebra, there ain’t no lab in the truck…

Ruby in studious mode, looking deceptively quiet

In between debating the merits of schooling in SA or UK, Spain or Senegal, we had decided that she needed to be around horses for her health and happiness and that this should perhaps be a higher priority than gaining a top notch education. As a result we were even considering abandoning the whole trip and spending a year in Costa Rica, where we have good friends who run a Freedom Horse stable. Being a teenager, instead of being thrilled that we were seriously considering sacrificing our dreams to facilitate hers, she took against the idea, and went upstairs to sulk and read for rest of day. (She read Lauren Hillenbrand’s Unbroken in 3 days.)

Hmmmmmmm

That night I dreamt that I was driving a heavily overweight vehicle loaded Seuss-like with toppling books, as it was breaking apart. I was gripping the steering wheel, hanging on for grim death as it hurtled down an impossibly narrow and challenging path, almost vertical like a chimney. I called on verging-on-superpower capacities to escape by leaping upwards by means of mere toe and finger holds, yet was just-not-quite nimble enough to pull it off. There was a couple of old geezers in the way, having to be charmed to help, and though I was always on the verge of managing, deep down I knew the supreme effort was killing me.

When I woke up feeling beaten and exhausted at 4am, I realised it wasn’t the first time I’d dreamt this. It was so disturbing, I kept my light on for a bit.

Later I dreamt about singing ‘Dirk Wears White Sox’ with an aged Adam Ant. Probably not so metaphorically loaded.

The starting point of Morocco’s occupying Green March of 1975…

is currently commemorated, with much pomp, and giant billboards…

at the site of the old frontier between Maroc and Western Sahara…

The original border between Morocco and Western Sahara is an arbitrary straight line, but Salek the Sahrawi fisherman had told us his wife had gone to spend Ramadan with family in Tan-Tan. A more natural division seems to be offered by crossing the lower range of the Atlas Mountains where the countryside changes dramatically.

Back on the road…

we were approaching the mountains…

We were passing tiny but peeling right-handers all morning and Sampson was constantly stopping and making me enter potential surf spots into the Garmin GPS. We had discussed the possibility that if Ruby was accepted into W.A.C.A. (the bilingual school in Dakar we had applied to), she and I would fly back to Senegal at the start of their school year in September, and he and Zola could drive Big Reg back over a couple of months as more favourable winter surf conditions settled in.

A couple of people were very excited…

at the prospect of that option coming together

Scenery changed rapidly as we ‘rounded the corner’ and came in view of the mountains.

The sparse flora…

we had seen…

deep in the desert…

and along the shoreline

battling the wind to survive…

began to expand…

their reach from the more hardy succulent types…

to more colourful bijou blooms

and increasingly eye popping spreads

Tiny blossoms began to look like bowlfuls of orange, red and purple berries strewn by the side of the road.

This new abundance of greenery alternated with:

occasional river mouths

sudden rocky ascents

and the odd dune.

It felt like we went from the Sahel in the morning to the Mediterranean in the mid-afternoon: from the desert just before Tan-Tan to the plage at Sidi Ifni. The countryside got hillier and hillier, and the roads got more and more winding. There were prickly pear bushes everywhere and gnarled olive trees as well as thorn.

The scenery went from this…

to this…

and suddenly this!

There were prickly pear bushes everywhere

red earth hillsides reminiscent of Angola

and picturesque villages

dotting the landscape – and the first drops of rain in forever!

So very Mediterranean!

It was suddenly stupendously beautiful, but with the memory of the invasive military presence so fresh in my mind, I still couldn’t feel at ease in Morocco.

The beauty sat uncomfortably next to the celebration of Morocco’s occupation…

of its neighbour Western Sahara

despite the appearance of peace

Several days ago, we’d loaded up with some slightly brackish water which was affecting me badly now, like when we had poisoned water in Sierra Leone, giving me limbs too heavy to lift for T’ai Chi. I was very glad when we finally found a Shell petrol station in Tan-Tan where the patron M. Jamal Mbark agreed to let us fill up with potable water.

Moroccan murals

As we were busy filling up, two Australians cruised in on motorbikes. Tanya Nayda and Michael Eckert had done 60 000km from Cape Town on the first leg of their ‘Earth’s Ends‘ round the world trip. They came up the east coast first to avoid Ebola, then drove across the DRC (see the blog about their hectic ride from Lubumbashi to Kinshasa here – very comforting to see Mick is as behind in writing up their journey as I am!). Tanya had only come off the bike once when she hit a donkey. But Mick had broken his leg so badly he’d had to be Medivac’d home for 4 months.

Michael and Tanya, making us truckers look like wimps

Despite the brevity of our conversation, they struck me as a super-dynamic couple in more ways than one: Michael said when they also got massively ripped off bigtime in Rosso, he nearly came to blows with the Chef de Poste; Tanya speaks Mandarin and Portuguese and was somehow managing to study for a second degree en route!

Styling

Like us, they were battling against the headwind and it was costing them fuelwise. Unlike us, they were finding it so tiring, Tanya said she had taken to leaning her left elbow on the handlebar and resting her head on her hand while riding along! They were also struggling to find places to park off and eat or rest during the day during Ramadan as there were no restaurants open.

Go Aussies!! They’ve gone halfway round the world in the meantime and are now in South America.

We felt so sorry for them, missing out on Moroccan truck lunches.

Delicious Moroccan bread! Torture for the coeliac!

Sampson was so in love with the bread, he did this little photo-essay on the bread they call khobz pronounced ‘hobbs’:

Sampson chatted up this baker, M. Omar Akla

and asked if he could document the process from dough…

to hand-slapped patty…

into the oven, traditionally made of clay

Omar was cool with it

Sampson was thrilled

especially when he can eat them warm from the oven

Oh YUMMY

Olives and cream cheese and preserved lemons make a simple sardine pate sarnie a feast fit for a king. Olives do that to any meal. And in even the meanest corner café in Maroc there were always at least two types of olives and three types of dates.

The wondrous natural bounty of Morocco

not to mention the marvellous manufactured goodies

Not surprising they big themselves up

When we arrived in Sidi Ifni, it felt like we’d arrived back in touristville. We sneaked round a side road towards the mosque to avoid the main camping sites next to the hotels.

Sidi Ifni, chocolate box pretty tourist town

of organised leisure activities

and impressive views

with a very Moroccan line in well-maintained borders

and a few too many hotels for our comfort

not to mention the camping car ‘pen’

so we scooted out of town…

to where it was quieter….ah…

Sampson hardly slept because he was so predictably overhyped at the prospect of surf. In the morning, the waves were a bit disappointing but they still went in.

Doable?

Man on a mission

while I went for a walk across the beach

Mission accomplished

Ruby playing at hairdresser plaited Zola’s post-surf wet dreads

while others chilled out in the heat of the day

Beautiful spot for it

While Ruby was handwashing I listened to the English and French language news on 91.5FM. Whatever the King was doing that day was always the main story, followed by the latest international bombings, news of the EU referendum or whatever. On 29th June the King had shared Iftar with Michelle Obama and Meryl Streep, so that was fair enough, but often the headline was about him attending a military graduation or something equally sublunary.

Can’t fault the Moroccans for their commitment to renewables though

The morning news was followed by a hideous 50s style chat show, where two young women took it in turns to exclaim about the difficulty of satisfying competing needs of work, family and husband. It was like a parody of Harry Enfield’s Women: Know Your Limits! sketches. After 30 excruciating minutes, it was back to 1980s MOR guitar bands and power ballads. It’s possible that Phil Collins could support the population of a small African nation like Western Sahara on his Moroccan royalties alone…

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“God Makes Friends”

Did I mention the Sahara was a bit windy?

The constant howling gale might be great for drying washing, but it made it impossible to wash washing – for the first time we had to do it indoors, in our tiny sink, one garment at a time. It took 4 hours.

Windy day no.7. Good for washing at least.

Meanwhile Sampson was fixing the stuck fridge sliders, again. Zola did his washing for him as penance for pulling it out too far; he doesn’t know his own strength these days. When the washing was finally all dried, we turned the truck’s rear end back into the wind, so it was safe to open the door – a near lethal bang had almost broken Cleo’s back that morning.

We don’t feel too big in the desert.

It was our coldest night yet in the desert, 19˚ inside, 16˚ outside and 17˚ in the fuel tank when Sampson checked, so he swapped the feed out of recycled palm oil (which hardens at sub-17˚C temperatures) into the sunflower oil tank to be safe. On the bright side, it was also our first night without a mosquito net.

Brrrr.

As well as relentless wind, the relentless flies were driving me mad. How, with the whole of the Sahara to play in, do they consistently manage to land on my lips and march along my hat brim while doing T’ai Chi? Now we know why the nomads dress as they do.

Morning walk anyone?

The kids went exploring

Zola found wedges of quartz

which would make great paperweights

there were slabs of it all around

Ruby found more chalky lime lumps, and a chunk of china clay like the bottom of a cup

We’d finished term 2 work and were waiting for exams to be sent from school. On Saturday morning Zola was obsessively reading the Edge chronicles while Ruby was driving me mad arguing that reading books didn’t make you any more intelligent. I was desperate to escape the debate, get out of the truck and walk while the wind still relatively light, so was rushing to clean my teeth. Somehow I managed to stumble, jackknife and jab my eye into the spray top of a water bottle Ruby had made to discourage the cats from climbing on the table. I screamed: for a split second I thought I’d punctured my left eyeball.

Uh-oh

As I staggered backwards and fell on the bed, Sampson and Ruby were horrified to see my lower eyelid twisted inside out. All my eyelashes were stuck on the inside. Luckily it watered so much I was able to massage it back the right way round. The relief when I realised I could see again was huge; my eye was just massively bruised. In the absence of a gel pack, we improvised with a bottle of cold water from the fridge, then Sampson bandaged me up like Pudsy to give it a rest.

Whoops.

While he was busy figuring out why the solenoid was returning bio-diesel to the veg oil tank, the kids escorted me on a walk; I had to hold their arms, because I had no depth of field. We didn’t see snakes in the dunes that M. Hassan had warned us about, but just before we left we did see a lone wolf in the distance.

We suspected it was injured and alone.

The windswept road ahead

As we set off, Sampson was bemoaning the state of the front tyres – the crumbly edges of this tar road had resulted in more wear in these last couple of weeks in the Sahara than the previous six months through West Africa. The fact there wasn’t anywhere to do wheel alignment in Dakar had made it worse: if Big Reg went faster than 55kph, he started shaking.

The crumbling edges of the road were taking their toll on Big Reg’s tyres…

and Sampson was exhausted from fighting the steep camber all day

I had very blurry vision for more than 24 hours. The throbbing was worse when sitting up, so I had to lie down in the back. At lunchtime, Sampson rigged up a bag of iced water to hang from my bedside light to relieve the inflammation.

Bless him – this helped a lot.

So I wasn’t much help half an hour later when Sampson pulled over to assist Assange Diagne from Dakar, who’d just had his back wheel blow out on his very low clearance Ivesco panel van.

Whoops 2

Back wheel blowout.

Assane and his partner have a goods transportation business and he spends his life ploughing up and down the highway between Morocco and Senegal. His van looked like it was carrying more than its own weight of stuff on the roof. One tyre was flat and the other was in ribbons, the whole thing threatening to tip over.

First Sampson got a proper metal shovel down off the roof – Assane was trying to dig himself out with jack handle – and I was proud how both the kids set to help with a will.

While bad-back-Sampson plays foreman, the kids dig in…

It’s at times like this that I love them most – when they don’t even wait to be asked to help

After an hour Sampson tried to drag Assane out backwards but only dug the van in further. After another hour, Big Reg managed to pull him out forwards, burning the clutch and irreparably scarring the tar with the hub, but at least he was back on the road. It took another hour to change the tricky second back wheel. Assane was really stressing about delivery deadlines, periodically sitting back on his heels in dismay. When I found out he wasn’t fasting, we gave him some water and a few sweets to keep him going.

Big Reg to the rescue

Never mind the hub scraping the tarmac…

Whoops 3…

Now Assane just had to get the spare on

Enfin

We were swapping cards when another car full of Senegalese stopped to check he if he needed help. “No worries,” said Assane, gesturing at Sampson, “we’re already sorted”. He explained we’d been there three hours already and the worst was over. They thanked us and I grinned and said “On est ensemble!”. It was good to feel we’d paid back Mamadou’s act of kindness to one of his countrymen. We asked Assane to phone him when he got back to Dakar and pass on our love – what goes around…

A very relieved M. Assange Diagne ready to get back on the road

We drove on, past El Argoub, another empty toy town next to a military base full of unsmiling blokes.

El Argoub

To pass the time, we were reduced to inventing games like Douglas and Martin do in Cabin Pressure. ‘Things That Are Beige” didn’t last long. A lot more fun was “People Who Should Have Been in Lawrence of Arabia”: Sandy Toksvig, Camelron Diaz, Dust-in Hoffman… and “Alphabetcha-can’t-carry-on”: Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington, Frene Ginwala – off you go!

It got too hot to do anything but sleep…

really really hot…

and endless…

The monotony was briefly broken by this:

Bit windier than when we crossed Capricorn back in Namibia, about 3 years ago…

Nearly got blown off the road trying to take this one!

After driving through miles and miles and MILES of absolutely sod all but sand, like this:

Desert view from the truck 1

Desert view from the truck 2

it was a real shock to drive around a corner onto the Dakhla peninsula and suddenly be confronted with a hundred holiday-makers doing this:

Er…is that what we think it is?

No way!

Yes way!

Apparently Dakhla’s a top spot on the World Championship kite surfing calendar. So it seems even constant relentless wind has some perks…

Welcome to Dakhla

Check out the tourist development

An aspiring top holiday destination

for kite-surfers

and other thrill-seekers…

who can overlook the facts of the occupation

It looks like Morocco has been pouring cash into developing Dakhla for the tourist market. There was brand new infrastructure everywhere: hospital, power station, docks…

not to mention the welcome arch featuring His Majesty saluting

– all liberally spread out because space is never the problem in Western Sahara. It could almost be called impressive, if one could forget it was in occupied territory.

Theatre? Municipal building? Bit of both?

I was wary of taking close-up photos of military installations, even though the main barracks looked exactly like a Legoland castle with crenellated walls and turrets, and the naval HQ like a toy ship, with a giant blue anchor leaned against it and everything…

OK, so I did manage to snap this

The atmosphere seemed subdued but the main reason for that might be because amenities such as the public swimming pool and restaurants were all closed because it was Ramadan.

Big Reg took a drive around the rest of peninsula until Sampson found a potential surf spot down by the fishing village of Lassaraga.

At the very end of the Dakhla peninsula, beyond Garmin’s frontiers…

we found the village of Lassaraga

contender for the most miserable place in the world to live…

a lean-to of shacks…

slowly being blown to shreds by the wind

Grinning toothless fishermen gamely traded wave-mimes with Sampson while I sat in the truck imagining the lives of their women. It broke my heart.

The wind was officially driving us nuts by now. Trapped inside the truck without exercise, Ruby was becoming unbearable. Her typical obnoxious teen mood swings were being slowly pressure cookered until she finally exploded into a tantrum where she swore at her Dad.

This was a wonderful spot to park off

with a glorious view, but very very windy

Zola taking his mind off things indoors…

On top of that, we had to back Big Reg up in between buildings to stop the truck rocking in the gusts and get some sleep. A pack of bratty boys were throwing stones at supper time and, we suspect, cut the tarp around the bikes in the night. We were glad to leave.

Moroccan men appeared squat. The older ones we saw in Western Sahara were generally miserable. The younger ones showed more bravura, with mini-Mohican shaved heads, skinny jeans and attitude. Where were all the girls? I never saw one between the ages of 4 and 30.

On the tenth day of wind, we were heading north to Boujdour, and Hub and I were discussing options for our future. Sampson wanted to quit driving at 4pm but at 4.45 was still looking for somewhere. When he finally saw a safe spot, he pulled over, then started reversing into it…CRRRRRRUNCH. Bloody hell. How did he not see the two hapless blokes in a Golf Passat behind Big Reg? And why on earth had they pulled up behind but not overtaken? Thank goodness no one got hurt.

M. Hassan having a bad day. His friend Farid had just pressed the dent out of the squashed bonnet but you can still see where Big Reg backed into him on the left side.

The driver was in shock, and did very well not to lose it with us. He was a military guy at the Boujdour base who’d gone to Dakhla for his day off, all jaunty in his shorts, and we’d ruined it for him. I patiently waited for him to calm, took all responsibility for the damage and asked him if he wanted tea if he was not fasting. In the end he was reassured enough not to call the gendarmes, which was a huge relief as we had no Moroccan insurance. We promised to pay for the panel beaters when he got a quotation, swapped numbers and gave him $100 deposit. We duly paid the balance into his post office account a few days later. Thanks for your trust M. Hassan.

The next day was Zola’s birthday and I woke very early. If I hadn’t been looking outside at the dawn, I would not have noticed the police van crawling very very quietly up to Big Reg. They checked us out then backed away again, almost silently. It was a very impressive, a skill hard learned. I think we were tracked every step of the way across Western Sahara.

Birthday boy’s pressies

We got up at 6.30 and Sampson pulled out his secret stash: slabs of Aero and Galaxy chocolate from the Gambia, big bags of biltong and droewors bought at the Protea SA food shop in Dakar. I have never been so glad of his sneaky hoarding. That lot plus a Billabong mini-Leatherman tool kit, a little black book and a tube of Pringles meant the birthday boy got a half decent haul of presents after all. I wrapped them all up in colourful scarves in ten minutes. I love how truck birthdays are so low stress.

Happy 12th Birthday!

Zola thrilled to get a big bag of biltong

a slab of his favourite mint chocolate

and a mini-Leatherman.

I can’t believe Sampson even brought out Mrs Balls…

The chocolate was a bit the worse for wear after its trek across the Sahara

On Day 14 of the wind, we stopped at the Sea Point promenade-ish end of Tarfaya next to a tiny statue of a biplane painted green. I had seen a sign to the Musèe de Saint Exupéry on the way through town, and remembered Antoine de Saint Exupéry as author of Le Petit Prince (allegedly the fourth best-selling book of all time). When I looked him up on Wikipedia, I found out that he’d been a pioneer of international postal flight, flying the route between Toulouse and Dakar and working for a couple of years as airline stopover manager here at the Cap Juby airfield. He earned his first Légion d’Honneur from the French government for “negotiating the safe release of downed pilots taken hostage by hostile Moors”.

Big Reg in the background at Cap Juby

parked on the promenade in the town of Tarfaya

facing the windy beach

I also learned about Wind, Sand & Stars, Saint Exupéry’s seminal account of the experiences of the first airmail pilots to ply the routes between France and West Africa written in 1939 – months later I ordered it from the City of Cape Town central library and read it over Christmas. His evocative prose about the Sahara echoed the simplicity of trucklife for me:

“In the desert, as on shipboard, one is sensible of the passage of time. In that parching heat a man feels that the day is a voyage towards the goal of evening, towards the promise of a cool breeze that will bathe the limbs and wash away the sweat. Under the heat of the day beasts and men plod towards the sweet well of night as confidently as towards death. Thus, idleness here is never vain; and each day seems as comforting as the roads that lead to the sea.”

The chapter entitled Prisoner of the Sand is a grueling account of his surviving a plane crash and subsequent four days of dehydration in the Libyan desert in 1935. I felt his words should be heeded by the citizens of drought-stricken Cape Town in 2017:

“Farewell, eyes that I loved! Do not blame me if the human body cannot go three days without water. I should never have believed that man was so truly the prisoner of the springs and freshets. I had no notion that our self-sufficiency was so circumscribed. We take it for granted that a man is able to stride straight out into the world. We believe that man is free. We never see the cord that binds him to wells and fountains, that umbilical cord by which he is tied to the womb of the world. Let man take but one step too many… and the cord snaps.”

This experience is said to have caused him to hallucinate the character of the Little Prince, who came to comfort him as he lay near death, reflecting: “I have nothing to complain of. For three days I have tramped the desert, have known the pangs of thirst, have followed false scents in the sand, have pinned my faith on the dew. I have struggled to rejoin my kind, whose very existence on earth I had forgotten. These are the cares of men alive in every fibre, and I cannot help thinking them more important than the fretful choosing of a night-club in which to spend the evening. Compare the one life with the other, and all things considered this is luxury! I have no regrets.”

On reading about it, I reflected there is indeed much to be said for extreme experiences which allow the priorities of your life to be brought into sharp relief. I was not surprised there have been several movies made about the inspiring Antoine Saint Exupéry.

“I am not talking about living dangerously. Such words are meaningless to me. The toreador does not stir me to enthusiasm. It is not danger I love. I know what I love. It is life.”

The Sampsons had fun in Tarfaya:

We went to explore this building…

before it was surrounded by sea at high tide…

It must have once been a trading station…

for some colonial era buccaneers I haven’t been able to find anything out about…

it was a complete ruin inside…

but must have been a sturdy several storeys in its day…

though the steel girders had been worn away by the elements…

there were heaps of multicoloured pebbles around…

Ruby and I kept our favourites…

they’d changed colour by the time we got home

It was a lovely day

“No man can draw a free breath who does not share with other men a common and disinterested ideal. Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward together in the same direction.”

This man, the guardian of the building next door, insisted on leaping up to make the photo more interesting. He also gave us the softest, most delicious dates we have ever tasted.

Zola takes up the challenge…

Ruby rises to the occasion

Somersaulting Z takes it to the next level, to the amazement of locals

After filtering some oil…

Zola, still not tired, decides to skateboard…

into a sand dune to see how far he can throw himself

That afternoon, we were visited by Salek the fisherman, who had popped down to the beach on his bike and stopped to chat. He was greatly enamoured of our whole adventure.

Salek speaks quite brilliant English for a man who has learned solely from interaction with tourists, who must be fairly few and far between. He also knows Spanish and gets by in German. He quite obviously understood French but was reluctant to speak it – this was evident in several Sahrawis we spoke to. They seem to prefer to use the language of their original colonists, rather than the present ones. “You can’t trust the Moroccan,” said Salek grimly, “His heart is black, put him behind you.”

We spoke of Saint Exupéry and he gave me directions to the Museum, while trying to remember “that sentence” the famous author wrote “meaning when you look at someone and you know you can talk to them”? He said he was so happy that “today I decided I just had to come to the beach” to allow him to meet us – proof, he thought, that “God makes friends”. It was only later I realised that the much-quoted line from Le Petit Prince he was searching for was not about trust or confidence but instinct:

“On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.”
“One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Our friend Salek

The museum display was impressive, detailed and very moving. Saint Exupéry and his peers such as Jean Mermoz and Henri Guillaumet are revered across the Francophonie for their bravery. Of course, the great irony of this aviator-author being fêted in this part of the world is that he wrote his most famous story in exile while deeply depressed about the occupation of his country by the Nazis.

Saint Exupéry escaped to North America and appealed for US assistance to overthrow the Vichy regime while writing Le Petit Prince, as well as Letter to a Hostage dedicated to the 40 million French living under Nazi oppression. France had been occupied for a couple of years at that point; Western Sahara has been occupied since 1975.

I wondered if the Friends of Tarfaya who maintain the Museum are supremely aware of the irony and subtlely putting one over on the authorities..?

The Musée de Saint Exupéry in Tarfaya

In 1943, aged 43, 8 years over the limit, Saint Exupéry returned to active duty with the Free French Air Force to fight with the Allies. He had repeatedly petitioned General Dwight Eisenhower for an exemption despite limited mobility due to his previous crash injuries. He was reinstated to his old squadron, on provision that he was to fly only five missions, but it was during his ninth reconnaissance of German troop movements in the Rhone valley on 31 July 1944 that his unarmed plane vanished off the coast, south of Marseille (almost exactly where we are now as I’m finally writing this up).

“It is only when we become conscious of our part in life, however modest, that we shall be happy. Only then will we be able to live in peace and die in peace, for only this lends meaning to life and to death.”

Saint Exupéry disappeared just three weeks before the Liberation of Paris. Like his timeless hero Le Petit Prince, France remembers them as “innocents who fell from the sky”.

“Enjoy yourself…

it’s later than you think…”

Bonne nuit

Posted in 19 Western Sahara | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

“We Are Sahrawi”

On 16th June 2016, we made our 20th border crossing (thanks to entering Senegal twice around The Gambia) into our 19th and 20th countries. Officially, we were moving from Mauritania into Morocco. But as far as South Africa is concerned, we’d just entered the occupied territory of Western Sahara.

That day was the 40th anniversary of the Soweto riots of 1976, a lifetime ago for most of us. It’s almost impossible to comprehend that Western Sahara has been a disputed territory since 1975, with the majority of its population living in the Tindouf refugee camps just over the border in southern Algeria, stranded on some of the most inhospitable land on earth.

South Africa is one of a handful of countries in the world to stand firmly in solidarity with the Sahrawi people and recognise their right to self-determination; as a result SA citizens are often given a hard time on entry into Morocco. If you recall, our SA passports were full by Senegal, so thank God for our dual citizenship: we were now travelling on our British passports.

After the Berlin Conference of 1884, Spain seized control of the desert area it had been using as a slave trading and commercial fishing port for the last couple of hundred years to establish a colony, which endured for another nine decades. In 1970s, when calls for decolonisation became too loud to ignore, Morocco and Mauritania argued claims to sovereignty of Western Sahara, but Algeria supported the Polisario Front’s demand for full independence.

The border post on the other side of No Man’s Land was monolithically massive with concrete boulevards, a huge hangar and floodlights, very much setting the tone for the display of Moroccan military domination to follow. (I definitely wasn’t risking taking any photos.) It was due to open at 8.30am by which time 10 or so lorries were jockeying for position in a queue outside. We were bracing ourselves for a long day.

On 6th November 1975, King Hassan II encouraged 350 000 Moroccans to converge on the southern city of Tarfaya to await his signal for the ‘Green March’ to cross the border in a symbolic show of hegemony. Moroccan Army troops had moved in the week before. But the Polisario Front resisted annexation and in 1979 Mauritania withdrew their claims to the land due to guerilla attacks on their capital. Morocco on the other hand retaliated by bombing refugee camps in Western Sahara, forcing the population to flee to Algeria.

First we were told to get out and ‘register’. There was a shouty man outside in a high vis vest throwing his weight around the gathering throng. Toxic Masculinity Walking. I warned the kids to keep their heads down and NOT to catch his eye while he bawled some poor sod out in front of the queue.

As Shouty Man barked orders, a nicer fellow motioned me to follow other ladies to where they were sitting on the high kerb. I wasn’t sure whether it was a ‘ladies and children this side’ or ‘foreigners this side’ situation. (My companions were American-accented white Mauritanians in full traditional dress with two little boys with crew cuts who looked like their Dad, who looked like his Dad, who looked like a missionary. I would have loved to know their story, but they had the demeanour of women from a different century and didn’t seem keen to chat to me.) Either way, Shouty Man eventually took our passports in the back door and we got to jump the queue. I kept my eyes averted and just bobbed a little thank you when he returned them, glad to move on.

From 1981- 7, Morocco extended its control by building a 3m high, 2700km long sand-berm in the desert to exclude Polisario’s guerillas and annex 259 000km² of resource-rich land. The belt that runs along this structure is thought to be the longest continual minefield in the world. The bulk of the land on the north and west sides of the wall are now referred to as Morocco’s ‘Southern Provinces’; the east side is the remaining ‘Free Zone’ of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), with an estimated population of 30 000 nomads.

Next stop was the Passport Office where a man sat outside on a tiny table in the howling wind filling in Embarcation fiches with a scrum of truck-drivers around him. I realised later this wasn’t an official thing but a professional service for the bulk of drivers who are functionally illiterate so pay 5 dirhams each (R7.50) for him to fill in the form for them.

Not much thought had been given during the design of this enormous place to accommodate either the brutal wind, beating sun or queues of exposed people. There was zero shade, sheltered areas or seats, just intimidatingly high marble countertops and dark glass.

The bloke inside asked how we got to Mauritania – it was the only stamp in my renewed British passport – and without thinking I replied, “We drove from South Africa…ah”. My heart sank as I prepared to drag out our SA passports to demonstrate, but although someone out of sight next to him was checking the Congolese visas in the kids’ UK passports with a magnifying glass, I wasn’t asked any more questions. The Arabic translation of our Letter of Introduction was proving invaluable. There were no exclamations or enthusiastic curiosity, but no further interrogation either, as all our details were painstakingly entered into the system. We weren’t given a visa stamp, just an entry number, but finally the family was in; now we just had to clear the Big Green Truck.

The UN oversaw a cease-fire in Western Sahara in 1991 and ordered a referendum giving the local population the choice between independence or affirming integration with Morocco. This referendum, scheduled for 1992, has yet to take place. Despite determined efforts to negotiate a way through the deadlock made by former US Secretary of State James Baker between 1997-2004, ongoing disputes about who qualifies to participate have left the process permanently stalled.

I took a deep breath and trotted three doors down to the tiny customs room. A man with sparkly dark eyes, a grey beard and a white turban, whom I immediately recognized as lovely, kindly explained to me each step of the procedure I had to follow: take the green slip, fill it in, get a customs official to check it and the vehicle, come back to him, take it to the inspector, then the truck gets le scanneur and you’re done. Phew.

Ruby fed the cats an extra meal to get them sleepy, and got them cosy up in the net. I then went and invited the customs official to look round and help me fill in the form. He declined to get in truck, possibly because he felt too tubby to get up the ladder. A couple of other uniforms came along and asked what “all this” was hanging off the back? I explained the containers were to collect waste veg oil, waved the explanation, and he signed it off. There was no scouring of inside as expected, despite a dog handler taking the most gorgeous Alsatian through his circling paces outside just beforehand. It seemed like drug trafficking was their main priority and we didn’t look the type? On the other hand, we were asked if we had any hunting weapons or spray can cream…

In the absence of political will to solve the impasse, the 90 000 Sahrawi inhabitants of the Tindour refugee camps continue to be almost entirely dependent on Algerian and foreign aid, with all food, water, clothing and building materials having to be transported in. Ironically Spain may be the only other country to regularly feature their struggle in its media or offer sympathetic support. Next to the West Bank and Gaza, Jammu and Kashmir, the Crimea and even Tibet, there seems to be an egregious lack of global consciousness of the fate of this occupied territory and its abandoned people.

Back at the customs office, the door was now locked and I got chatting to a Malian truck-driver outside who does this regularly and had great line in eye-rolling. When Lovely Greybeard came back trailing a posse, a huge argument ensued about who was first and my Malian guy solved it by calling for “la dame, la dame”. Though I demurred, I was sent to the front and everyone else had to wait ages because it was Big Reg’s first time in Maroc and he also had to be comprehensively entered on the system. I tried to be as entertaining as possible to make up for the interminable delay; as Lovely Greybeard translated my patter from French into Arabic for the crowd he added a few bits on himself: “I just told them you have a goal – you are realising your dream.”

After working the room, it seems I’d been sufficiently charming to ensure that when, 20 minutes later, our South African VIN number had one digit too many for their chassis number spacing, he entered it anyway. I walked miles up and down to find the inspector in another random poky Kafkaesque office – there was no signage, no clarity, no logic – but he signed off our green card with a smile.

Back in the truck, Sampson drove into the vast hangar he’d been worried was hiding a weighbridge, but turned out to be a massive X-ray machine, a giant version of the one that scans your bags in the airport. This one scans lorries. The scanning vehicle was driven by computer, so we couldn’t read any faces as Big Reg was programmed in, and passed through. We held our breath…. and nothing happened. No sirens triggered, no eruption of blustery officials looking incensed, no fines issued on the spot. Bombs and guns were their main concern, and not, apparently, little warm cat bodies.

Phew!

Huh?

Mohamed Abdelaziz, 3rd Secretary General of the Polisario Front from 1976 and first President of the SADR died on 31st May 2016, just before we entered Western Sahara. He spent his entire life campaigning for the freedom of his people. He abandoned the guerrilla war in favour of diplomacy, condemning terrorism, insisting the Polisario fight a “clean struggle” and refusing to target private citizens’ safety or property. The OAU seated Western Sahara for the first time in 1982, the year he became President. Morocco withdrew two years later. When the OAU became the AU in 2001, Abdelaziz was elected vice-president at its first summit, and he received the Spanish Human Rights Association’s prize in 2005.

We pulled out of the scanner into an adjoining parking bay at noon and decided we deserved lunch. After noshing egg fried rice and salad, we were just about to drive out when I realised I’d forgotten to get our green slip back from the scanning office. As Sampson got down to let me jump out of his door, the three policeman at the gate looked up simultaneously and saw Tiger’s sleeping face in the net. “Is that a cat?” “Is he DEAD?!!” Sampson just shrugged. The first guy asked “Do you have his passport?” then grinned and slapped him on the shoulder. They were pulling our leg. PHEW.

Time to celebrate

Big Reg pulled away, past a very long queue of articulated lorries waiting to get in before closing time at 3pm. With all due respect to Morocco, there hadn’t been a single suggestion of bribery the entire day. As our AA carnet was not valid in Maroc, we’d been certain we were going to get clobbered for ‘insurance’ if not for cats. We were so elated as we drove out, high fiving each other, into an abundance of nothingness, I neglected to pay close attention to the road signs. I was very cross with myself later for not insisting Sampson stop and go back so I could take a photo of what turned out to be the only one we saw with a skull and crossbones stark on a red triangle saying “DANGER: LANDMINES”. It was the only time we were near the berm.

The Garmin was also warning us to stay on the road…

Not looking friendly out there

But what’s this?

And this?

And this?

And these?

There were dozens of them, hundreds…

Was this how the Polisario marked safe spots to snipe from, we wondered?

Even though the terrain was undoubtedly harsher and looking increasingly like the surface of the moon, we began to feel silly about being worried about getting stranded without water or food. Here in the occupied territory of ‘Southern Morocco’ there were radar points and police posts every 50km as well as petrol stations with taps every 100km.

Nie worry nie – Big Brother is keeping an eye on you

from military police posts like this

We stopped at the first (indeed only) town that day. C. Bir Gandouz had a very spooky vibe and seemed to have been constructed to test the theory “If you build it, they will come”. The Moroccan government offers their citizens tax breaks and cheap gasoline to live in Western Sahara, but we weren’t surprised that not many had been tempted.

Would you be?

Its pristine terracotta squares and streets were very much in the style of the toy town city of Duloc in the movie Shrek, if King Farquaad had pretensions to Stalinesque architecture, with a tense dash of High Noon. Only the tumbleweeds were missing. It looked eerily brand new and completely empty.

C. Bir Gandouz – Duloc on steroids

Look at all the happy inhabitants… oh

King Farquaad

King Mohammed VI of Morocco

There was a very despondent young man in the first grocery shop we stopped at, stocked to the rafters with consolatory sweets. When three SIM cards failed to work, he allowed me to call my Mom on his phone to tell her we were safe and refused to take payment for it, bless him. You got the feeling that everyone stuck down here was missing their Mom.

I was so looking forward to a shower, we took the first possible turn off as soon as we saw the sea, and drove down to a tent inhabited by two fishermen. We went to greet them, but they seemed bemused by us – they spoke no French and were unable to read my Arabic translation.

Finally, the sea: left turn Clyde

Ahhhhhhhh, that’ll do Donkey, that’ll do.

Big Reg, parking off in Western Sahara

with an uninterrupted view to the right…

and the left

Finally, we can let the caged beasties out…

for a run around…

and round…

and round…

By the time we’d walked 100m back to the truck, the cavalry had arrived: it seems that the minute he’d seen us pull up, soldier M. Hassan had set out to walk half an hour from the next military checkpoint along the coast. He was taking our passport details when a van full of crayfish suddenly pulled up outside and a cheery man stepped out offering to give us some.

Ndour Moual Ali, the best ambassador ever for the SADR

Ndour Moual Ali refused to consider payment. It seems almost everywhere on this continent, apart from South Africa, even in the very middle of the biggest desert in the world, to lavish hospitality on strangers is the norm. When I tried to remonstrate that his gift was far too generous, he shrugged my nonsense away: “We are Sahrawi” he declared in French, as if this was more than sufficient explanation.

What with the big bunch of fresh coriander which M.Hassan insisted on sharing with me, and another 3 crayfish the fishermen brought us, we ended up with a feast of 8 in all!

Even the cats ate like kings

Crayfish and coriander, with side helping of dahl, followed by Nouakchott Pudding. A feast fit for a desert prince.

Ahhhhh….

What a spot to contemplate life, the universe…

and one’s insignificant place in it…

Postscript

On Jan 30th 2017, the AU voted to readmit Morocco after 33 years’ absence. King Mohammed VI had spent a year touring Africa signing trade agreements to leverage support for readmission to counter heavyweights such as SA and Algeria standing firm against it. Nigeria and Ethiopia were persuaded by big deals involving gas pipelines and fertilizer (Morocco’s Saharan phosphate reserves are the largest in the world) and in the end 39 of 54 members voted with Morocco. The King’s intents as to the future of the territory are debatable, but, as he had been forced to sit down with them after a lifetime of refusing to do so, the SADR diplomatically welcomed the opportunity to reopen the debate around the long promised referendum.

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Mauritania Curveballs

The edge of the Sahara in midsummer feels a bit like Jo’burg in midwinter: it’s really dry, cold at night and you start the day by piling on layers which you then have to strip off in the hot mid-afternoon. We got chapped lips.

Sahara mornings – brrrr!

The guys in the distance brewing tea did not approach us. They were sievers – working in holes across the landscape towards the sea chucking spadefuls of sand against upright rectangular sieves creating piles of fine shells for building.

Can you see them, next to the piles of shells across the landscape?

Need a more powerful zoom, but you can still see this has got to be amongst top ten worst jobs in the world.

As we trundled through the open desert that first day, I reflected that there was something seductive about the endlessly receding empty horizon. It was so hypnotic, so calming. They should hold mindfulness courses out here, because it’s so much easier to empty your mind and just be.

Driving through the Sahara 1: Calm…

Driving through the Sahara 2: Calmer…

Driving through the Sahara 3: Ommmmm…zzzzzz

We found it hilarious how triangular Saharan road signs warn you of gradients less than flat and curves in the road that are anything less straight than a ruler. For example:

BEWARE: AN ACTUAL CURVE AHEAD!

EEEK: A GRADIENT!!

WATCH OUT!!! ROAD… DIPS A BIT…

Scared

Wikipedia says “Approximately three quarters of Mauritania is desert or semi-desert. As a result of extended, severe drought, the desert has been expanding since the mid-1960s. To the west, between the ocean and the plateaus, are alternating areas of clayey plains (regs) and sand dunes (ergs), some of which shift from place to place, gradually moved by high winds. The dunes generally increase in size and mobility toward the north.”

Regs

Erg

Regs

Erg

Regs

Ergs

Reg

On the second day, the wind started. It blew constantly for the next 15 days. By the time we reached the capital Nouakchott on third, I had already decided I could never live in Mauritania. Despite the straightness of the road, I felt I was slowly going completely round the bend.

Going round the windswept bend

I’m not built for the desert; without camel eyelashes, I get the hump

“There there” Cleo comforts me with a pat on the head from her berth in the net

No wonder the majority of desert-dwellers are nomads. I reckon they just keep moving to take their mind off the wind. Forget the Cape Doctor. This was the Saharan Sociopath. Guaranteed to blow your mind. By day ten I was reduced to stabbing myself in the eye with a… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Outta here

The howling wind overnight made it difficult to sleep soundly because the truck rocking kept making me think someone was climbing up on the roof. There was no respite on waking either.

Morning walk anyone?

On 14th June, the kids celebrated their grandparents’ wedding anniversary with some chaotic sand dune sledging. I think Reg would’ve been proud.

Zola valiantly setting out against the wind with a seat cushion…

Which didn’t prove so successful…

Surfboards worked better…

You can check some video of their attempts here. I shall never forgive myself for missing Zola’s very fast first descent on his surfboard – he was even carving! After surfing down a dune on it, Ruby sat on the bench seat behind us in the cab pursuing the ongoing debate about her future – we all knew it was time for her to go back to school, but where?

This is genuinely a camel in the back of a bakkie on the road into Nouadhibou

and this looked very much like a Bond villain’s lair perched on the side of a cliff as we drove onto the peninsula

There is nothing quite so beautiful as empty acres of sand and sea

Garmin’s info on Mauritania was equally empty

Early sun made Mauritania’s northernmost city of Nouadhibou look as bleak as Nouakchott. We’d been through so many road blocks, we were on our last set of fiches, so we trawled the main street searching for a papileteria to do photocopies. An old man in a grocery store really didn’t want to talk to this lone woman, and waved me out peremptorily, but a younger guy on the street gave me directions. Further down the road, another bloke was not at all keen on us parking outside his garage – Mauritania certainly seemed far less friendly than Senegal. Inside the shop, three young women sat on the floor giggling. They were strangely incurious – or at least showing a distinct lack of curiosity about me. The darkest complexioned one sat slightly apart from the other two. Was she the family slave, I wondered?

The prettiest bit of Nouadhibou

still didn’t win me over to Mauritania

Women were looking dramatically different from their elegant sisters in Senegal. We had been told that Mauritanian girls are praised for their girth and fattened for marriage but it still came as a shock to see paleskinned, lumpy ladies in wedgy black clogs, swaddled in layers of clothing topped with a flappy nylon wrap which was constantly having to be rearranged because of the howling wind. It was so impractical; I couldn’t understand why the heavy duty cottons of West Africa had been superseded, when they would be less at the mercy of the elements. Many of these dumpy women also sported woolly gloves in a clashing colour (e.g. pink with a lime green wrap). Their lack of style, indeed their apparent pride in deliberately making no attempt to be ‘fashionable’, reminded me of ultra-Orthodox Jewish women I used to see in north London years ago.

Outside Sampson was doing a magic trick for a sad-looking dark skinned boy in a doorway. I couldn’t stop looking around thinking that perhaps 1 in 5 of these people are enslaved.

Nouadhibou is connected by railway to the iron mines in Zouérat, 670 km to the east.

The freight trains can be as long as 3km, reputedly the longest in the world.

We drove right to the end of the peninsula looking for somewhere to park off for the night and became concerned about the terrible crunchy noises that started happening when Big Reg turned off the road.

Alain, the owner of the lot we parked outside, promised to get his mechanic to come in the morning. Philosophically, we put off worrying till then, ate supper and indulged in an Elementary marathon.

This didn’t officially count as a breakdown, as luckily it didn’t hold us up

Not quite sure what Alain kept in his lot, though it looked like missile launchers…

It was quite a surreal spot

with a charming view of the city…

Mechanic M. Samba arrived promptly at 9am, a lovely gentle man with a bobbing head, who reminded me of a certain Mr Fatti. We went for drive to show him the crunchy noise, which of course had now stopped. But he set to checking all the screws and found one that connected the motor could be turned by hand and the part that young Nigerian mechanic had fixed for us in Lagos had got very loose. So, 5000Um (R200) well spent.

Thanks a million M. Samba!

Ruby had seized the opportunity to wash some pants… Resourceful truck kids 🙂

When the bank told me they only changed dollars and euros, lovely manager M. Barakali offered to take me in his car to a money changer at the other end of town. I did wonder if I was mad to get into a car with two unknown men (M. Barakali and his friend M. Said), but he swapped me 1000 Md (Moroccan dirhams) for 36000Um before I even gave him any money, bless him. So it seemed my instincts were back on track…

We set out cheerfully for the border, which M. Barakali had warned me was “the worst road you’ll ever see in your entire life”. After dropping a couple of sets of fiches we finally took the left turn towards Dahkla and passed a long queue of lorries. Leaving Mauritania was a cinch: passport details were entered and our biometric details checked off, officials expressed great respect for the project, loved Sampson’s magic and shook hands…

Customs stamped our carnet, then at the last gendarmerie poste, there was an eager posse of six officials. While the big feller was eulogising Winnie Mandela, another guy was ogling Zola (looking cute in his cap) and finally offered to take him. “Jamais” I said firmly, “Never”. Then the first bloke asked if Ruby was available…? Sampson broke the tension with “What about me? No one wants me??” The guy hugged him and it was funny despite the underlying horror. I tried not to show the kids how freaked out I was.

We hopped back into Big Reg and set off across No Man’s Land, the section M. Barakali had warned us about. He’d never seen the Road to Foulamori, but we take his point. He’d told us to beware of getting stuck in soft sand but worse was the hard hard rock and lack of any clear track. There were huge lorries lurching all over the place, always in a hurry to get on, looping between piles of tyres and scrap cars and dead computers.

Crossing No Man’s Land…

between the tyres…

the hundreds of scrap cars on the ridge…

and the 1980’s computer consoles…

it was a surreal trip

There was great camaraderie with fellow truck drivers as we waved and bounced and rocked across – one gave us a strong arm salute! It took Big Reg half an hour to cover the 2-3km. We arrived just before 4pm which was when the border was supposed to shut but another driver told us it had shut at 3.30. We were now stuck overnight outside the gate – good job we have a house in tow!

On 16th June, thanks to entering Senegal twice around The Gambia, we made our 20th border crossing into our 19th and 20th countries. Officially we were moving from Mauritania into Morocco. But as far as South Africa is concerned, we’d just entered the occupied territory of Western Sahara.

(Yes, loyal readers, I am nearly a whole year behind with the story at this point – life and M.E. can do that to you.  But fear not, I have a cunning plan to bounce back up to date very soon… wish me luck.)

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Sahara Routine

The Sahara was a big surprise.

Before we left Dakar, we were bracing ourselves for two solid months crawling across the desert. We had packed in more food than at any time since we left South Africa in 2013. These days we don’t carry more than about 10 tins at a time for emergencies. Now the food box was crammed with +/- 50. We also had 20 packets of milk powder, 4 bags of lentils and 10kgs of rice. If we got stranded somewhere remote waiting for parts, we weren’t going to go hungry.

Bring it on, the troops are ready for the desert: Zola has his aviator shades…

…and Ruby her biscuits. For real, these were the ones she bought at the border.

We were also carrying more water than usual. Not only were our two 250L reservoirs full, Zola also cleaned out the Jojo tank on the back, normally used for the first filtering of waste vegetable oil. Now it was filled with emergency water for showers and clothes washing. We had visions of eking out our last drops on a parched plain while broken down somewhere in the middle of the Sahara.

Before we left Dakar, Zola had scrubbed dirty oil out the Jojo tank from inside so we could fill it with emergency water

But as soon as we crossed the River Senegal, Big Reg was whipping along perfect tar averaging 50kmph despite the head wind. We couldn’t believe the progress we were making, even when the road deteriorated with an occasional pothole. It only took us a week to cross the whole of Mauritania.

Welcome to Mauritania – perfect tar!

We were driving so much faster than usual…

it proved difficult to snap a decent pic…

of passing scenery

We also couldn’t believe the temperature. For two months in Senegal I had been berating us for being ‘late’. Every single book I’ve ever read about travelling the Sahara recommends going between November and March, as from April it’s just “too hot” to travel. But why didn’t I realise that a) inland temperatures are very different from the coast and b) all of those books were written by Europeans, coming down from the frozen north?! Let me tell you now (South)Africans, if you’re travelling up from the equator, you’re going to freeze your ass off if you cross before March!

Far from the 45˚-50˚C hell I was expecting, the Sahara’s dry heat was nowhere near as bad as the sapping humidity of Nigeria or Liberia at 30˚C. I was so relieved we hadn’t left Dakar any earlier than June. To dip below 20˚C at night is quite cold enough for me. Averaging 30something˚C of an afternoon was ample pay off and quite managable.

We’d stocked up on tonic for our 2pm pick-me-up, but we only really needed it once. That day, the coast road curved about 100km inland, and it reached 40˚C. Then we broke out the fizzy lemon from the Dometic freezer mid-afternoon and sucked on boiled sweets to give us a little lift.

This side of the river, there was an immediate change of scenery: scrub, thorn trees and suddenly dunes by the road. The white glare of rocky rubble varied with red sand. People appeared shorter and stubbier like the trees and the horses shrank to donkeys, sometimes miniature ones. There was an increasing incidence of camels.

Camel 1

Camels 2

Camels 3: wind powered

Every now and then, the squat houses would surprise us,…

their ice cream colours…

belying the heat.

Mosques are usually painted…

in variations of green, the holy colour of Islam.

The first day we were assailed by the smell of burning rubber and the air pressure gauge dropped to red. When we pulled over, we could hear the escaping hiss coming from under the passenger seat. The leak was in the same place Aman had tackled in Liberia. Sampson impressively fixed it in 5 minutes.

But a leak kept blowing continuously in the same place for the next month till eventually he had to replace the whole pipe.

People who live amongst sand don’t seem that bothered about going to the beach. That whole week there were hardly any roads off the highway down to the sea.

That first night, Big Reg pulled off on a rare side road and parked amidst a scattering of small square concrete houses with tiny rectangular windows or just a metal door, some painted in pastel colours of blue, green, yellow or mauve.

Our first overnight stop

amidst a deserted village

of houses like these

Next to them were ‘shade huts’ for sitting out the midday heat in – rectangular or circular structures with a roof and struts like a bandstand, covered in chicken wire with cloth sides you could drop to protect against wind, sun, sand and dust.

Cooooooool

Not a single person emerged. The peace was blissful if a little eerie. We indulged in simple food, Friday Night Treats, cat cuddling and reminiscing with Ruby about her toddlerhood. It was so silent and cool and dark, like a ghost town. Were these nomads’ homes? Had the whole village gone for a walk? Or had the water dried up so everyone had left?

That’s how deserted it was…

Sampsons: serious about conserving indoor tank water!

It was so lovely and quiet, I was so happy when I got up, excited about the empty day ahead. It was cold enough for trainers and a hoodie against the wind.

Time to take Huggy Bear for a walk

The lack of a beach wasn’t helping me deal with the challenge of teenagers on the road. At home, when they wake up grumpy, you can avoid them till they leave for school; on the road, their bad mood can sour the whole day for everyone if you don’t manage to coax them out of it with a bit of exercise. With Ruby it can take a whole walk…

In the morning, in the absence of a beach, we just set off into the desert…

The shells on the ground show the sea used to be a lot nearer

Evidence of an abandoned settlement: mossie net, old torches and batteries…

plus an arty line of sardine tins.

I try to be non-contentious with a quiz on French irregular verbs (we used to do times tables but Zola knows them all better than me now). Ruby is reluctant to get involved, but doesn’t like to be beaten by her brother, who is increasingly and annoyingly competent! I leave her to her sulky thoughts for a bit and pursue a cosy chat with Zola. Finally when she asks me a question, I beam the full light of my warm attention on her and she bathes in it – talking about herself and her future, comes to link arms and chats away merrily. Shoo, but it’s a trial of patience. I have to get her on an even keel before we get back to the truck where her father’s lack of tact can bomb a whole hour’s work in mere seconds…

Climbing dunes like they used to do…

on Noordhoek beach when they were little…

the joy of bashing and jumping never palls…

Now Zola’s tween temper is beginning to flare up too, it can be like a mood juggling act, balancing the needs of both of them.

My big babbies

It was while crossing the Sahara that I noticed Zola’s chin had turned from round and boyish to square and manly. This same week we found some old footage of him in St Newlyn East 18 months ago, with a piping voice and shock of 300 dreads (before Brian streamlined them back in Cape Town on his 11th birthday). This month before he turned 12, I realised that, in the interim, his voice has dropped to a tone as gravelly as the floor of the desert around us.

We were spending far more hours driving than during our usual routine, so some physical exertion at dawn and dusk became vital. I don’t know who felt more caged in the truck, Zola or the cats. Tiger and Cleo surprised us by loving exploring the sand, jousting and chasing and sprinting…

Escape from the truck!

There’s a whole world out there…

until the sudden scamper back home!

Chilling.

While Dad did his daily stretching to keep his back flexible enough to drive…

we would walk…

and walk…

reflecting on the changing scenery of the land…

the rocks

and the sky…

Very album cover

Ruby doing gym, Sahara-style…

with Zola on plastic bottle weightlifting

On our wanderings, I drove the kids mad with a catchy self-penned ditty which I will set down here for posterity (you’ll have to imagine the Paint Your Wagonesque melody):

“Little round balls, little round balls, must be goat poooooooooo
Little round balls, little round balls, must be goat poooooooooo
Big round balls….. big round balls…….
Camel camel…..
Arrrrrrr-ooooooooohhhh”

“Oh, Mom, really…?”

I only knew two things about Mauritania before I got here. The first was this bizarre story about President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (who seized the helm of state in a military coup in 2008) getting bored during a soccer cup final and ordering the game to move to penalties – in the 63rd minute. That’s the kind of absolute power he wields.

Sadly, I failed to get a non-blurry snap of a poster for a national fishing competition, featuring the President dressed up in tweeds and waders looking like something out of PG Wodehouse. It was quite surreal.

The second was Mauritania’s reputation as the last country in the world to abolish slavery. Although it was only officially outlawed in 1981, it was not illegal to own slaves until 2007 and only one person has ever been prosecuted. Mauritania has the world’s highest prevalence of slaves, estimated at 4% of the population, but possibly as high as 20%.

Thankfully, Mauritania’s foremost anti-slavery campaigner already has a reputation up there with Malcolm X and Mandela when it comes to bravery –Biram Dah Abeid received the UN’s Human Rights Prize in 2013. Abeid, son of a slave (and whose last name means ‘slave’ in Arabic), was released from his third stint in prison in May 2016, the month before we arrived, for protesting the dropping of charges against a master who raped his 15 year old slave girl. He had received a two year sentence.

Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid

In 2012 activists from his anti-slavery organization L’Initiative pour le Résurgence du Mouvement Abolitionniste (IRA) were imprisoned for staging a sensational demonstration outside a mosque on a Friday. Dah Abeid symbolically burned a copy of sharia law that keeps Haratin people enslaved, after first removing pages referring to the Quran and the Prophet; Dah Abeid states that sharia is not divine law but a set of outdated codes drawn up in the middle ages which shouldn’t be used to oppress so many black Africans in Mauritania.

The month after we left, the IRA was awarded the prestigious James Lawson Award for the Achievement in the Practice of Non-Violent Conflict in Washington as 13 more activists were arrested and sentenced to between 3 and 15 years, allegedly for inciting riots in Nouakchott. Freedom-fighter ‘Biram’ also announced that he would be standing against Aziz in Presidential elections for the second time in 2019.

May the grace of Allah go with him

We felt a definite sense of being in a more authoritarian state. There were marine police postes every 50km along the coast. However, officials at regular roadblocks were bored rather than threatening, asking only for passport numbers and vehicle registration.

Eventually, it became easier just to hand over 4 passport photocopies at each request for “fiches”. It was noticeable how often a darker junior officer was superseded by a more Arab-looking superior officer pushing in to deal with us. I won the first one over by asking him if Google had done a decent job of translating our letter of introduction from French into Arabic – and was rewarded with the briefest possible nod of approval.

The road deteriorated further on the way to the capital, Nouakchott.

From this…

to this…

to sometimes this.

The CBD lacked charm…

to the same degree it lacked women.

There were no women on the streets but men everywhere. I don’t know if this was the norm in Nouakchott or an effect of Ramadan.

I wonder if anyone has done research on the aesthetics of towns in a massively male-dominated society? Nouakchott was marked by an array of ugly thoughtless grey bunkers plonked anywhere, anyhow.

The Mauritanian boubou likewise prioritises function over fashion. The voluminous loose blue or white robes have built in kangaroo pouches to hold money or cell phones. Big armholes presumably allow you to sweat without staining which is practical, though Mauritanian men spend a lot of time hoiking their sleeves up over their shoulders. Most interestingly, the Mauritanian boubou seems to be something you can bung over anything to make your outfit acceptably smart to wear out in public – even pyjamas.

Sights of Nouakchott 1

Sights of Nouakchott 2

The hotel we approached couldn’t give us water without the permission of an absent director. We were saved yet again by the grace of our Senegalese friend Mamadou – his niece Khady Sarr married a Mauritanian, and this beautiful quiet lady came to find us when Big Reg got lost going up and down the main drag. We had a lovely chat in the parlour with her sisters-in-law before filling up our water tanks from their tap.

Many thanks to Mamadou’s niece Khady, sitting centre, with her husband (standing r. with their 5 month old son) and daughter 3 and visiting cousins, who were terrified by cats!

After so many sandy days, it was worth the struggle of finding our way across town to the port just to get to the sea, which was calm and warm to paddle in.

Big Reg parking off outside the port at Nouakchott

Inviting.

We took a rest afternoon: Zola played keyboard in the cab, while Ruby played guitar with Dad and I got stuck into writing up Dakar…

Zola reading in the nose cone

while Ruby cooked up some gluten-free treats for her ma…

YUM!

That night Ruby invented Nouakchott Pudding: the drop scones she’d made in a pan from pear, mango, raisins, rice flour and two eggs, were crumbled and drenched with ‘vanilla cream’ (extra thick powdered milk drizzled with essence) perfected by Sampson.

YUMMIER!!

It was a fitting celebration of the relief that comes with knowing you have an abundance of water at your disposal despite being in the middle of the desert.

Posted in 18 Mauritania | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Ripped Off in Rosso

This blog tells the story of the one time we got thoroughly ripped off at a border. After travelling through 18 African countries back to back, I thought I was pretty good at sussing out con artists by now, but entering Mauritania I got well and truly taken for a ride.

The night before we crossed the border was the first cold one: I snuggled under a blanket, Sampson got in his sleeping bag and Ruby slept in a hooded fleece! I thought my cosy sleep had bolstered me sufficiently for this big day, but how wrong I was.

It started well. After spending an hour refamiliarising myself with all the documents and signing new Arabic versions of our Letter of Introduction, I felt thoroughly equipped. For me, preparing to cross a border is a bit like getting ready to go onstage. I get my Mandela skirt on, I run my opening lines in French, I calm myself to complete focus.

Sampson was checking the swell online. There was a heatwave forecast with 40˚C max for the Mauritanian coastal capital Nouakchott that day; border town Rosso was inland and lacking the sea breeze. It would definitely hit 38˚ and  30˚C overnight. We were already washing in our tiny plastic sink rather than showering to conserve water.

Getting my border-crossing head together

Getting my border-crossing head together, with no help from Tiger and Cleo

Setting off in high spirits. Today was the day that headscarves became standard wear for Ruby and I as we officially moved into North Africa.

Setting off in high spirits. Today was the day that headscarves became standard wear for Ruby and I as we officially moved into North Africa.

In the morning, Big Reg was stopped on the road by a Water and Forests official, who was fascinated to hear about our cooking oil conversion. During the explanation, some boys approached with a couple of scabby donkeys pulling a cart with a flat tyre. While Sampson helped them pump it back up, the Water and Forests feller asked me cautiously if we’d been to Mauritania before.
“No” I said, “Why?”
He looked at me pityingly, gave the Senegalese equivalent of “Shoo” and shook his head. “They’re going to nail you that side. That’s how it is, Mauritania.” Sampson showed him the disappearing cloth trick and explained how we’d never yet paid a bribe. But our hubris was about to be severely punished…

Sampson's good deed for the day number 1

Sampson’s good deed for the day number 1

Half an hour later, a policeman at a roundabout pointed out Big Reg’s right brake light wasn’t working. He was easily won over and didn’t fine us, but Sampson pulled off a little way along the road and turned the truck into the shade to fix it. At 11am it was already 32˚C. While Ruby and I were chopping greens and onions for lunch, a youth appeared from the paddy fields to the left covered in blood. He was in shock and the tip of his finger was missing: he’d just sliced it off with a machete.

While Sampson helped Gambian Musa to sit down in the shade, Ruby ran to bring him a slab of bread and butter and two cups of water so he could stomach a couple of Ibuprofen. Sampson dressed his wound with Betadine and made him hold it above his head to stop the bleeding.

Sampson and Musa so ridiculously thankful to find medical assistance in the middle of nowhere

Good deed number 2: Muss Baldeh was ridiculously thankful to have found medical assistance in the middle of nowhere

We hoped this good Samaritan act would counteract any bad karma coming our way; the jury’s still out on that…

An hour later, we arrived in Rosso. It was hot to the point of sweat running down the back of my legs under my Mandela skirt, which reminded me of the Nigerian border post. I had a similar sense of being about to run the gauntlet.

As the Big Green Truck pulled onto the main drag, men began running down the road ahead of us vying to be our guides. We studiously ignored everyone waving frantically at us except those in uniform, and I took my time to exit the vehicle wrapped in a big scarf and carrying an umbrella against the fierce midday sun. Head down, I walked determinedly through the haggle of hustlers to the police post and got exit stamps in our SA passports for the last time.

However, the delay with Musa meant that we had arrived later than anticipated. I was told that Customs were closing now and would only reopen at 3pm, so we couldn’t stamp the truck out on the carnet. Amidst a scrum of hustlers, I was told to go round the back and upstairs to an office, where I was met by a calm young man dressed all in white with a dark blue scarf wrapped in a turban around his head who shooed the others away, reassured me that this was indeed the Customs office and that there was nothing to pay.

His name was David and I immediately trusted him. Why? He was not a uniformed official, but I assumed, as he was sitting inside the office rather than outside with the hustlers, that he had an official role. The uniformed Custom officers didn’t shoo him out as they were leaving for their break, so I presumed he was employed as a runner, of the sort we had encountered many times before.

David suggested that in the meantime we could sort out the compulsory carte grise. He escorted me to an official who asked to see our international drivers licences and truck registration documents and said the carnet didn’t cover Mauritania so we had to buy car insurance, which was the same price for between 4-10 days 21000 Ouguiya (Um), about R800 (1FCA= 0.62Um according to Google the day before, but we were only getting 0.5Um here).

The official didn’t seem to speak French, so I sought David out to ask if we could pay in FCA and he said no, it was all in Ouguiya that side (though still in Senegal!), but only change the minimum because he could get us a better rate across the river. He deigned to come up into the truck and took me through a list of charges we’d have to pay the other side: first the ferry – he was going to try and get us the discount rate – then douanes, (customs) commun (municipality) and the biggest, the “frais de l’escort” – a charge for the first time entry of vehicle into Mauritania (we wouldn’t need to pay it again if we were returning). Oh and a “bon de sortie” (‘good to go’ exit fee).

Can you believe I didn’t question any of this?

I think I was just too glad to have found someone to help me navigate the shark-infested waters of this notorious border post. I called one of the scrapping moneychangers in and David oversaw me convert 350 000FCA to €500 to pay for visas the other side. €1 = 700FCA wasn’t an appalling rate, as the internet was quoting 655.86. It cost us 22000FCA to change (R440) and 50000FCA for the vehicle insurance.

It was the hottest part of day, between 2 and 3pm when only mad dogs and European travellers move about, so it seemed natural to let David park off with us in the truck under the fans. It was the fourth day of the fast, and he was suffering from toothache and spitting often. Sampson offered him painkillers, but he said he couldn’t take them before this evening. The kids went off to spend the last of our FCA on biscuits (Ruby) and aviator shades (Zola).

David was very interested in how Zola came to be with us so I told him the history of his adoption. He graciously invited us to his house, offering us access to showers and TV: “Come as my guests, don’t pay”. It seemed a genuine offer, as he appeared to be one of those guys who liked to collect foreign friends he kept photos of and received postcards from.

At 3pm David sent us back inside with another non-uniformed minion holding our carte grise and carnet for me to present to the young customs officer, who queried the list on the back. I had to find Senegal in the alphabeticised register of covered countries for him. “No charge” he announced, like he was doing us a great favour. Sampson did the trick for him anyway, just to be on the safe side.

Outside, David warned me just before the hordes descended “Right, they’re going to ask you for R10 000FCA for the ferry now, but only pay R5000”. Minion no. 1 seemed so genuinely distraught at this lack of what was ‘usually’ given, I gave him another 1000Um when Big Reg finally drove on to the ferry with four other vehicles.

This is the only photo of us crossing the River Senegal; I was too wary of offending someone.

This is the only photo of us crossing the River Senegal; I was too wary of offending someone.

On the other side, David took our passports, carnet and truck registration papers in his hand and led us out. It seemed I’d handed over authority. First stop was the biometric visa process, very impressive in a small room at a dusty border post, with electronic fingerprinting and photo capturing right there on the spot. The big relief was that there were no questions at all about the lack of a Senegalese stamp in the British passports we had just transferred to using now our SA ones were full.

Meanwhile David was hurrying me along, pushing me to leave Sampson and the kids in the passport office and come with him to sort the carnet out – he got me to change 130000FCA (R2600) into Ouguiya on the stairs with his mate – but it wasn’t a better rate as promised. I began to listen to the uneasy feeling that had been twingeing in my gut since David dropped his attempts to be charming and made himself at home in the truck.

I returned to the others to pay the €120 each visa charges. The guy registering was grumpy but there was lots of admiration in the queue for my Madiba skirt. David was still rushing, seeming suddenly to be in a hurry to get home. He told me to give him 35000Um (R1300) for the escort charge and 4000Um (R150) for douanes so he could go upstairs to sort them out, while he sent me with another minion to pay the 7500Um (R270) ferry charge and 3000Um (R100) commun charge – we queued for both and got official receipts.

As I followed him across the yard, I heard Minion no. 2 say, in response to a query from a passer-by, “Cent mille” but was feeling too dazed with the heat and exhaustion by now to interrogate this. We were just wanting to be gone, but then David had a massive row with an official who insisted the truck needed to pay a 13000Um (R500) ferry charge not the 7500Um charged for a car. I really couldn’t be bothered to fight about R200 at this stage, and demurely coughed up another 5500Um while David raged that he was an “imbecile“.

We then drove out the border post to a random spot off the town square, where he disappeared to pay the ‘bon de sortie”. Suddenly the charge was double the 4000Um he’d quoted earlier. “Why?” “Because you paid double for the bac” seemed too glib and quick an answer. But I still dumbly paid up another R300. When I protested his friend had only given us a 0.5 not 0.6 exchange he got haughty for a second and said “Wait till a bank then, but there’s none till Nouakchott”.

I was so tired and desperately needing to lie down, I was beginning to regret agreeing to go back to his house, but Ruby was extremely keen to wash her hair in running water. First we were subjected to a bizarre interlude where we were paraded in a square in front of a group of limp pre-Iftar men lying down playing drafts and a couple of women selling bread and bottles of fizzy drinks that David picked up for supper. Sampson was forced to perform the disappearing cloth trick like a dancing monkey.

David disappeared again, and we only realised after 10 more minutes that he was on the ground in the middle of the scrum playing drafts. I was fading fast and leaning against the wall by now. Two games later, he finally led us off like sheep. I was increasingly disconcerted by David’s fondness for Zola, which was now being expressed in headlock-type hugs. Zola was dealing with it better than I was; I’d begun to suspect manipulative narcissism not to mention nefarious intent. David was after all one of the very few border officials not to express open admiration of Ruby.

He directed us through dusty streets to his house, a compound around a courtyard. It was stiflingly hot in the confines of the narrow sandy lanes between the buildings. We were introduced to his 60 year old father, his mother (more my age), his younger brother’s wife (aged about 20, with two daughters) two younger brothers and small sons of other siblings. Oh, and two baby goats. We were objects of interest but not fascination, so had a definite sense that this must happen often, David bringing foreigners home to visit. The women kept their distance.

He proudly showed off ‘his’ side of the house: an enormous shower room with huge marble tiles, and a plasma TV room blasting freezing aircon with a stack of mattresses. While the Sampsons took their stuff in to shower, I chose PEACE and solitude and a flannel wash in the truck before phoning my Mom to say we were safely over the border at least.

I dressed quickly and reentered the compound as dusk was settling. The family broke the fast with dates and a gluten-y porridgey drink I didn’t dare try and a syrupy sweet bissap brew which I gratefully did as I was feeling dizzy with low blood sugar. I just said a little prayer hoping the water had been boiled long enough to be safe for us.

Sampson was uncomfortable sitting cross legged so I asked him to please go and heat a bowl of leftovers for me. Ruby tucked away two cups of coffee and a mint tea before the big platters of goat meat, maggi and onions were served – the first one to the father and the little boys, the rest shared our plate.

Little 2 year old Fatima was desperately adoring of David, clinging to his knees while he was praying. She turned out to be the daughter of his divorce. That explains why he described himself as ‘unmarried’ in vaguely bitter tones. I speculated in what dire straits a woman would have to be, with no choice but to leave her baby girl behind.

On the one hand, it was amazing to be sat sharing such a meal on our first night in the country, breaking the fast with a Mauritanian family, with holy music playing on the radio and a clutch of toddlers rolling around on a mat with their dozing grandma. On the other hand, it was a bit galling to suspect you’re probably paying for all of it.

After supper, David took us to his room to watch TV. It felt surreal to be watching an American celebrity fashion piece on Kate Winslett and Emily Blunt dubbed into French, though Ruby was enjoying it. I was reeling from exhaustion by now, and called it a night as soon as we could get away, feeling very glad that Zola, with a headache, was keen to come too. When we came in at around 9pm the temperature gauge was still showing 28˚C and it didn’t seem to drop all night. It took four episodes of the News Quiz to fall asleep.

David with his daughter in his TV room

David Diallo with his daughter in his TV room

I woke with a start after midnight and found myself in a sweat, assailed by the sickening conviction I’d been royally HAD. Outside there was a raucous group of lads on a mat eating their main meal of the night, giggling like hyenas. After half an hour, I put my reading light on and started writing out exactly what had happened to work out how much money today had cost us.

It took me three hours to write my diary, recalling each step, each calculation. Little by little I started putting it together:

  • How the hassle of the hustlers was excessive – staged to make me feel under such a state of siege that I gratefully accepted David’s protection.
  • How the hustlers melted away once I’d been delivered to him and were significantly absent afterwards.
  • How David had walked away, in the Mauritanian insurance office. This, I realised, had been his masterstroke: to leave, having charitably ‘helped’ us, without putting any more pressure on. This persuaded me into thinking he wasn’t in it for the dough.
  • How he’d stoked our confidence by arranging for us to pay “only” 5000FCA not 10000FCA for the ferry, and by making us a generous offer to stay at his house just before hitting us with the big payouts on the other side.
  • How he’d interspersed utterly fraudulent payments with ‘official’ ones, thoroughly receipted (even though we’d never had to pay anything like them before). Only looking closely later I realised the largest receipt he’d given me was ripped in half so couldn’t be read properly.
  • How fake the row was about whether the truck ferry charge should be 7500Um or 13500Um, where David threw his toys ‘on our behalf’, just to salve any doubts I might be having at that point about suddenly having a much lighter wallet.

It dawned on me that the whole Mauritania border crossing was like The Sting and I’d been the mark. Looking back it was obvious that absolutely everyone at the border post was in on it. It was quite magnificent really. The difference between the Mauritanian and Nigerian borders is that, at the latter, the coercion was in your face and the hustlers were trying to outdo each other, not working together to fleece the foreigner.

I remembered wondering vaguely how David was getting away with dozing on a bench in the truck and not ‘working’ – derrrrrr, he was working. On us. Why didn’t I ask why he was crossing with us and escorting us through to Mauritania, if he worked in the customs office on the Senegalese side? David’s aura of authority belied the lowly role of minion I had assigned to him. If he wasn’t the mastermind, he was at the very least the paymaster: all the minions and uniformed officials who aided and abetted got their cut.

Is this state-sanctioned fraud on a massive scale? I thought at the time I was being paranoid when I overheard the figure of “cent mille” i.e. 100 000FCA but it proved to be quite true: we paid 130 000FCA more than we were legally obliged to do (visa and ferry only) presumably with David taking 30 000FCA for himself. The total cost for us to get in to Mauritania was +/- R10 600 (that’s 530 000FCA) of which the visas cost +/- R7000 (350 000FCA); with the validity of the insurance debatable, it was at least R2600 over the odds.

An expensive day.

***

So, is the moral of the story that you should only trust a guy in uniform and never allow yourself to be escorted up the backstairs? But the Ghanaian guy who waylaid me in the immigration office in Accra and tried to pocket our visa extension fees for himself was in uniform. It seems there are no hard and fast rules except: 1) don’t be rushed and 2) handle all transactions yourself.

Are we obliged to drop the line “They have never paid a bribe” from our PR now? I wondered out loud to my husband if what we paid out wasn’t rather a ‘facilitation fee’? “Isn’t that the definition of a bribe?” he pointed out derisively. I pondered.

No, I decided later. Bribery lies in intent. If I was meaning to pay David off to cut corners for us, that’s a bribe. If I got conned into thinking that those extra charges were genuine fees issued by the Mauritanian state, then that’s just a embarrassing indictment of my intelligence.

***

I didn’t look at my diary’s account of this day for many months, it was too painful. But I wrote this on the following:

“This morning I woke up in absolute silence, and golden light. The peace of first thing cannot be matched. Cats hear me moving, Tiger mews plaintively and I make up milk. I move the buffer tray and they jump down. I massage Hub’s hand, hanging out of his net. The kids are fast asleep, a cool breeze blowing through from the sea we can’t yet see. It is so peaceful. We are all together. And they are enjoying it as much as me.

Tiger tries to jump back up on to the book box so he can go back and cuddle on Ruby. He lands on a teatowel, which gives way under him, ends up sliding down Mark’s mosquito net, falls on his back then jumps like lightening into the cab scared to death. I laugh.

I go back and start taking my net down. I have everything to look forward to. No meetings, no deadlines, no routine. Just a new capital city, a new beach. I think I may never be happier. I feel completely at peace.”

As Sampson got out to stretch I grinned at him, “Not boring though, is it?” Seems I’d rather be ripped off than mired in routine.

The quiet of their courtyard on a Ramadan early morning

The quiet of their courtyard on a Ramadan early morning, where we ate the night before

David's father, brothers and nieces

M.Haroun, David’s father, brothers and nieces

While doing T’ai Chi, I reflected that if our money went to David’s mother and paid for a month’s groceries for this family, it was not so bad. It was an expensive cultural evening, but a good lesson in humility.

Posted in 18 Mauritania | Tagged , , | 2 Comments