Canary in a Coal Mine

(Forgive me – just one more detour before we resolve the cliffhanger…)

A week after we arrived back in Spain, I woke up at 1am in the morning and couldn’t work out what was happening. My head seemed to be on fire. The pain was like Dr Frankenstein had sawn around from the nape of my neck to my crown and tried to wrench off the back of my skull. I crawled off the bed on to the toilet and had to concentrate quite hard not to throw up. Was it a migraine? I couldn’t stand and I couldn’t think. I had to wake Sampson. When I told him it felt like my burning brain was pressing up against the back of my head he figured it out and threw the door open: it was the glue fumes.

Early the previous day, we had gone to the garage to get the worn down accelerator pedal fixed. Genius Fernando of Fali Molina e Hijos had popped round the corner to buy a giant hinge, sawn the sides off, screwed it to the floor and refixed the pedal to that. Sampson dropped Zola and me at my folks’ flat so we could finish school while he re-glued the soundproofing he’d cut out of the floor around the pedal. We both know that fumes affect me badly at the best of times –I once started choking in my office, upstairs on the other side of the house from the kitchen where he’d just sprayed oven cleaner – but in my weakened post-relapse state it needed to air off for a couple of hours at least before I ventured to return.

By 6pm you could hardly smell glue at all and I thought no more about it while cooking. After supper, we closed the door and snuggled down to watch an episode of Modern Family on our laptop truck cinema system. I dismissed the little headache that had come on by bedtime as due to the golden European evening light beaming in the back window at a low angle.

Four hours later I woke to find that the toxins in the air had clobbered me good and proper. I forced down a dry ricecake to line my stomach, swallowed an Ibuprofen and began to breathe more easily as it reduced the inflamation of my brainstem. We left the door open till dawn. Zola – lying directly above the gluey area of the cab – slept solidly through it all like the true teenager he was about to become.

The next day I wrote: “Sometimes even I wonder whether all this M.E. stuff is real, whether it’s all in my head, whether I’m not really any more sensitive than anyone else and I’m just being weedy and should really pull myself together. So strangely maybe it’s good to have days like today when the facts stand up and whack you soundly up side yer head…”

A month later I had a frighteningly similar reaction when, having been steadily moved along down the Côte Bleue by various municipal officials during the first week of Ruby’s holiday, we spent the night at the only police-approved camping spot: a patch of waste land between the power station and the refinery outside Martigues, the centre of France’s petrochemical industry.

Camping at Martigues

next to the power station and petrochemical factories at Lavera

I woke at 2am feeling very unwell and unable to breathe. The bitumen smell in the air was overpowering. I staggered to the window desperate for some fresh air but when the wind gusted through it was warm and muggy with no oxygen in it. Fighting for breath, I had that feeling of carbon monoxide poisioning: a thick head, muzzyness, the lethal throb of fingers and toes. The others slept peacefully on, oblivious.

Killing me softly

I am the canary in the coal mine. I am slowly dying of these fumes and you will too, only later. You may not believe me but when I’m long gone and you start to choke, you’ll realise I wasn’t such a dippy hippy after all.

Thankfully the worst emissions stopped by 4am and I was able to breathe again, sleep and recover a little before it was time to rise. We worked out the factory towers tended to eject the worst waste in the middle of the night so it would mostly clear by morning.

N.B. If you don’t believe in M.E., or want to understand more about it, I beg you to see the film Unrest, originally called Canary in a Coalmine – which I wrote about during my relapse in UK in 2015 – coming to cinemas in the US and UK this October. I’m hoping it’s going to do for invisible illness what An Inconvenient Truth did for climate change. Here’s the trailer.

We spent the next few weeks shifting around Sausset les Pins trying to avoid both the gaze of the police and being caught downwind of the fumes. The day Ruby went back to school, I woke just before dawn in Sainte-Croix, the safest place we’d found so far, feeling sick again. The way I get when I’m trapped in a room with a gas fire and no ventilation: headache, painful nape of neck, druggy doze – the feeling of slowly suffocating. That warm fuggy smell was once again on the breeze through my window.

Sainte-Croix: It seemed cruel that anywhere so beautiful could be so lethal

I couldn’t believe that beachgoers round the corner at the Anse de Bonnieu…

weren’t bothered by the smog coming from the refinery…

and weren’t as oppressed as me by the black cloud on the horizon

My tried and tested means to get back off to sleep in the early hours is to set some podcasts murmuring in my ear. Unfortunately the back-to-back TED talks didn’t soothe me into slumber like they usually do. The overlap between the messages of Sisonke Msimang‘s If a story moves you, act on it and Emily Parsons-Lord‘s Art made of the air we breathe seemed so startling, I had to get up and write it down while it was still clear to me:

Emily creates samples of past air and future air which allow people to vicerally experience environmental degradation. She underlines the insidious quality of air, which is invisible but intimately present, around us, within us, penetrating. Her art proves that, while theoretical pollution might be easy to ignore, the very real heavy effects are not – show your kids what happens when she breathes it in, it’s both horrific and hilarious.

Sisonke speaks entertainingly, acknowledging the power of a story to light the way, but also the pressing need for us to seize that beacon and run with it (#MeToo). She applauds the internet for amplifying a multitude of previously silenced voices, but simultaneously bemoans the ballooning amount of fake news. The present generation don’t trust the media, she says, with good reason.

I reflected how I have changed since we started out on this journey. How I no longer trust the priorities of the headlines on the BBC World Service (never mind CNN or Fox News) or mourn the lack of being able to hear it here in Europe because the bias is so much more obvious to me now I have travelled across the half of the world invisible to it.

The poison of prejudiced news, like the increasingly polluted air, is everywhere around us, invading us, inflaming us, but most of us are oblivious to it (manipulated by propaganda in US, UK, South Africa). Will we not realise until we are on the point of choking to death on it?

Written in August in response to Charlottesville.

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Tsk… #This Is Europe!

You know the way some white South Africans telling travel stories tend to roll their eyes/shrug their shoulders/throw up their hands, sigh theatrically and say “Well, this is Africa!” – meaning “Well what do you expect other than incompetence/delay/corruption?”

They constantly look for the negative, magnify it and amplify it, thus consistently fulfilling their most dire expectations. These same people look to Europe as I looked to Narnia as a kid: as an idyllic place of order, beauty, abundance, sophistication and justice.

I loathe how this centuries-old Heart of Darkness shit is constantly rehashed. Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina pointed out the intellectual laziness of Western writers in his satirical essay How to Write About Africa in 2005 and its 2012 update (and his commentary) #This Is Europe is my attempt to point out a few home truths and counter the Darkest Africa narrative, first perpetuated by imperialist-era writers such as Stanley and Conrad, that assumes all whities share such assumptions.

NB This is not an anti-Europe rant in the Brexit mould. I count Britain as part of Europe for the purpose of this blog, at least until the Union collapses or until we can tell the difference by looking at you. (You all look the same to us Africans: over-privileged.)

So let’s explore #This Is Europe!

  1. MANNERS

No one greets. Coming directly from West Africa, this seemed so rude. On our first day in Spain, at the Customer Service desk of a huge supermarket, Sampson was completely ignored for half an hour. Although queuing smiling at the counter, he was not acknowledged or told he needed to take a ticket to get service. It seemed so bizarre to us not to acknowledge the presence of another human. Europeans, it seems, have successfully trained themselves to block each other out with their insulating belief that ‘it’s not my problem’. They don’t see you or your suffering.

(The first friendly people we met in Europe were Africans: a Moroccan street cleaner in southern Spain, an effusive Ghanaian carguard outside the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia and an Algerian outside a restaurant in Marseille, who was so thrilled to see us there he went back to his house to fetch us iced water and dates.)

I was equally baffled early one day when I was doing T’ai Chi in T-shirt and shorts on the empty nudist beach in Almayate. An older gay couple were unfazed enough to come and stand right beside me stark naked – one oke sporting a silver ring around his straining red balls – but yet weren’t comfortable enough to say good morning? #This Is Europe!

  1. NARCISSISM

The first four Euro/English speakers we bumped into by the beach acted like overgrown children despite being over 40. Whatever the topic, it all came back to me me me. We’d just arrived after crossing Africa in a truck that runs on waste vegetable oil, but they didn’t ask us a single question. Their consuming interest was only ever their own dramas, achievements and needs. Classic lines included “Have you got a spare tent?” “I’ve got a violin” “My father’s a millionaire-type person. He was very tough on my brother and me. My life is so terrible…” #This Is Europe!

  1. ACCESS

I thought getting online in Europe was bound to be loads easier than the schlep we’ve had to get connected in each of the African countries we’ve passed through. If I’m honest, I assumed there would be free wifi pretty much everywhere by now. HA!

Seems the capitalists have still got the iknowledge commons on lockdown. France blocks cell tethering: we couldn’t use the SIMs in our phones as mobile hotspots but were forced to buy a separate modem. Data was cripplingly expensive: 10€ (R157) for 1GB which seemed to disappear a lot faster than 1GB at home. What’s more, Orange charges for access by the day, not only the quantity, so even if you don’t make any calls or go online, in 10 days your credit expires. As a result, we just spent the most money and the longest time isolated offline of this whole trip… #This Is Europe!

  1. FOOD

The olives of Spain look the same as Maroc’s but are pumped full of E numbers that give me stomach ache, it’s so sad. Fruit in Europe appears bigger, brighter and better looking at first. But though it may look juicier on the outside, once you take a bite, you find the taste is surprisingly bland. A bit like Europe itself!

Shockingly, it’s been more of a challenge to find water in southern Europe than in the Sahara. Service stations are anything but – there are no taps in garages here. If you want water, you have to pay for it e.g. 4€ for 7 minutes in a municipal car park in France. #This Is Europe!

  1. WASTE

Food packaging is still ridiculously excessive. I thought Europe would be streets ahead of SA in terms of reusable/refillable solutions in supermarkets but I’ve seen little evidence for that so far beyond biodegradable plastic fruit and veg bags.

Mechanics here also never learn how to make a plan and recycle or repair anything – they just buy a new part. They don’t need to because there are no old trucks in Europe. In France, a car is officially classed as ‘vintage’ if it is more than 30 years old. It’s almost impossible to get hold of second hand parts for our 1978 Mercedes. #This Is Europe!

  1. POLLUTION

I’ve been shocked at the effect on my body of the assault of European pollution. On the Côte Bleue, when the wind blows hard, the breeze coming off the sea smells nothing like fresh air. At best it’s neutral, like in air-conditioned hotel corridors; more often it’s loaded with factory effluents or heady fumes from a refinery. It’s a slow but deadly suffocation.

The continuing unchallenged hegemony of fossil fuelled vehicles seems beyond crazy – thousands upon thousands of lorries ply up and down the autoroutes transporting similar products to each other’s countries. #This Is Europe!

  1. EXPENSE

Cheese, I grant you, is cheap. Everything else? Aaaaaarrrrrrgggghhhhh. I’m just thankful we’re not having to buy diesel as well. Gauteng may think E-tolls are a cheek, but try getting anywhere quickly along the Mediterranean coast without hitting péages. An hour’s travel in a truck can cost you 10€. #This Is Europe!

  1. RESTRICTIONS

Oh take me back to the wide open spaces and freedom of Africa! There’s bloody NOWHERE to park. We’re so Not Allowed. Sampson wonders why France doesn’t make souvenir T-shirts bearing the ubiquitous slogan ‘INTERDIT’. There are height restriction bars under 2m in every car park down every single inch of the French south coast.

Other potential spaces are fenced off, with bollards or railings, to keep ‘camping cars’ out. Apps such as park4night have been a great help, but too often when we arrive at those rare places they’re locked up or full of ‘fridges’ as Sampson calls these vans, packed in like sardines. Overcrowding down the Mediterranean coast is endemic: cities, autoroutes, beaches, waves… #This Is Europe!

Big Reg, a giant amongst camping cars

Of course, when we set off in 2013, we didn’t know Libya was going to remain without a government indefinitely and we hoped to avoid going the long way round the Med. Our dimensions, like our budget, were never designed for Europe. In hindsight, a sleeker version of the Big Green Truck would’ve been wiser…

Historic towns that grew into modern cities are full of ancient stone bridges of random heights and strengths. Big Reg is just under 10T and 4m high and we’ve spent many hours on merry detours to avoid some suddenly announced bridge: “Turn! Turn! It’s 3.5m!” or “5T – Get off, get off!” Not to mention old village roads so narrow you hold your breath going through them. #This Is Europe!

  1. SECURITY

In the wake of the latest terrorist attacks, there are armed guards patrolling up and down bearing automatic weapons at tourist sites across Spain, France and Italy. Europe is beginning to look uncomfortably like a police state. The bombings are not the direct fault of the European population, but Africans can certainly feel more assured that the besieged folk of the Middle East are less likely to be inflicting revenge on our cities for the violence inflicted on them in the ‘War on Terror’ by Western governments.

Did you see the way the police treated voters in the Catalunya Referendum? #This Is Europe.

  1. CRIME

Especially for all those white South Africans who are convinced The Crime is an exclusive product of townships, so far we’ve had: in Spain, a man with a knife rifling through Ruby’s tent at 2.30am, when, luckily, disturbed cats woke her; in France, two guys who tried to rock our bike rack off at 10pm, not realising we were inside, fast asleep.

On our first night in Marseille, Euromaster staff had warned us to stay inside behind the high walls of their parking lot and not venture out. It was stiflingly hot, so we ate late, watched some TV with Friday Night Treats and were getting ready for bed around 11pm when the first bangs sounded out.
“Did you hear that?” I asked Sampson cautiously.
“Mmmm” he said and we exchanged looks.

It sounded exactly like the gunshots we were used to hearing at weekends earlier this year when we lived in the LoveShack on the Capri hillside opposite Masiphumelele. Except these just kept coming, so many of them, they were sounding like firecrackers. Zola sidled up for a goodnight cuddle on my bed, admitting he was a bit frightened.
“Oh no, it must be fireworks” I bluffed confidently, googling, “Look, there’s a big music festival happening in the city this weekend, Die Antwoord are on the line-up tomorrow, I bet it’s the opening for that…”

He went to sleep as Sampson and I lay listening to the bursts of automatic gunfire spraying round the neighbourhood outside. Shoo, seems the main difference between gangsters in Ocean View and les quartiers nords is the amount of money they’re prepared to splash out on bullets. #This is Europe!

PS For any French people who are about to jump in and remonstrate “Ah yes, but the crime in Marseille is due to the huge amount of North African immigrants there”, we’d just like to say a) bollocks, Marseille has had a reputation as a port city of smugglers and thieves for centuries and b) that driving through the ‘dangerous’ suburbs of downtown Marseille (by accident, to avoid a bridge) was the friendliest experience we’ve had so far – people were shouting and waving and smiling to see us. It felt like home 🙂

PPS If you are offended by the concertina-ing of all European countries into one amorphous mass and the lack of any attempt to differentiate between the hugely different cultures, traditions and atmospheres of each, well – hah, wake up and smell the irony!

Look, of course a great deal of our experience of Europe so far has been “WOW it’s so tidy/efficient/full of cheese” but there is a whole other side that tends to be overlooked. It’s not my style to focus on the negative, but, as a dual passport holder, I’m just throwing in a little realism to redress the balance.

The main challenge while travelling Africa is the constant battle to contend with Mother Nature and geography (weather, distances, roads); for us, travelling Europe so far, it’s mostly about striving to stay one step ahead of The Man…

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Fast Forward

Of course summer in Spain was wonderful. It was one long celebration, through all the birthdays in July and (as insurance for Big Reg continued to be impossible to source) my folks’ Golden Wedding Anniversary in August.

Though the coast of Spain is somewhat busier than we’re used to on the west coast of Africa…

Torre del Mar has its peaceful places…

and we had a wonderful time celebrating my Dad’s birthday…

Ruby’s birthday…

and my Mom’s birthday, all together at last.

On Mom and Dad’s Golden Wedding Anniversary…

we celebrated in true Spanish style…

thanks to the phenomenal flamenco dancer Ángela Márquez, accompanied by classical guitarist Sevillita…

Her shawl dance was exquisite but her solo finale, with jazz percussion footwork, was a masterpiece.

A wonderful night shared with my brother and our Spanish sisters Kathy and Linda

The main reason for our happiness was that Ruby was in heaven: Mom and Dad had managed to find a parking spot for Big Reg next to a stable of 15 horses, 10 of which were stallions. (It was also next to the nudist beach, but that’s another blog.) For six weeks, Ruby was up before any of us and over to the stables to water all the horses and muck out. After school, she’d go back to help tacking up for lessons and maybe get a ride herself. When we moved to the carpark next door, she biked over there twice a day. I’ve never seen her so fit, or so happy.

Teenager suddenly able to leap out of bed at dawn?

Must be horses involved… Ruby glowing.

Thanks to Señor Lumi, Big Reg was able to park off outside Club Hipico, Almayate

a magnificent stable of stallions

that Ruby learned to groom and gallop as well as adore

An unforgettable time in her life

Check the 15th birthday riding boots from Decathlon – thanks Nana!

Eternal thanks to Señor Lumi

seen here on his stallion Magnifico

for all that he taught her

and also to his assistant Onl, from the Dominican Republic

Ruby’s friend and our patient translator

for giving her this life-changing opportunity

to learn that hard work isn’t hard if you love it

Many thanks to Angela Taylor from Buy A Home Spain who first put Mom and Dad in touch with Señor Lumi, and to Chiringuito Playa Fenicia for generously providing us with water.

Thanks also to the irrepressible Joy Smith…

and her son Marcel

our kind neighbours Miguel and Antonio…

and our carpark friends, Pedro and Anna

Javier, Eloy and Ibai

Pura Vida indeed.

On Sat 23rd July, the third anniversary of Joy’s passing, we sat at the table in the truck and had a Family Chat. There remained six weeks of warm before I would have to vacate Europe to avoid relapse, so we had to decide now if we were re-equipping the truck to carry on down the East Coast. I had been doing some intensive internet research on schools from Spain to South Africa, and laid out the options. A long discussion ensued. Opinions were so varied, it was clear no-one was going to get 100% what they wanted, so we gave everyone a few days to think about it.

No one in Spain hits the beach till 12, so it’s always empty at sunrise

In the first week of August we took a vote on what we most wanted to do next: go back to SA, go live in UK, go back to Senegal, or carry on homeschooling down the East Coast? Everyone had to give each option marks out of ten, and then we added up the results. As I’d given ‘go live in UK’ 2 out of 10 and Ruby had given ‘carry on homeschooling’ 2 out of 10, Dakar won out over Cape Town by a combined 29.5 votes to 23.

Sampson and I were pleased: continuing our trek down the East Coast wasn’t possible without leaving Ruby (not feasible or desirable) and the prospect of going back to our old lives in Cape Town was making us both feel queasy. So returning to Senegal for the kids to do the Baccalaureate seemed a good compromise between doing our duty as responsible parents and not feeling like we were relinquishing the adventure. We were looking forward to joining the community of Mamadou and Nicole, Nathan and Mina and conjuring up some comedy/carnival work in collaboration with the Petits Pierres artistic extended family. Sampson was also relishing the idea of driving Big Reg back through Morocco with Zola and catching all those winter waves he’d plotted on the Garmin…

That ship has sailed…

But on 1st September, confirmation came from the W.A.C.A. bilingual school in Dakar that there was no space for Ruby in their Grade 10. Suddenly, we had to switch to plan B: within three working days we booked flights, found somewhere to store the truck and a home for the cats 😦 (thanks to Joy and Marcel). On 6th Sept 2016, we flew back to South Africa.

Gulp.

Around the same time we received an email from a Dutch insurer – “our application had gone into her junk folder and she’d been on holiday so sorry for the delay but yes, she could cover the truck for travel across Europe”. Ah…. Maybe it was all meant to be.

So, let’s fast forward a year:

Back in Cape Town, I spent most of September applying to boarding schools, and from October to December Ruby and Zola went back to Fish Hoek High and Primary Schools respectively. In January 2017 Ruby started at Wynberg Girls High School. She was delighted to be given her own room in the hostel – other boarders may find them small, but she was thrilled that she had a 2m squared space all to herself! We planned to stay a term to ensure she was happily settled in, but ended up postponing our return flights as she had to have some emergency dental surgery during the Easter holidays.

Our dear friends Candi and Sidney run an international volunteer project Projekt Ubuntu

and very kindly let us stay in their beautiful double garage…

a.k.a. the Palace Flophouse…

At Xmas time, when volunteer numbers swelled…

to more than 40 in the big house…

we moved into the ‘LoveShack’ in the garden…

no hardship in summer – four times as big as the truck…

and with access to a washing machine – luxury!

Not to mention the stupendous views…

of the valley I love most in the world…

from the hillside behind the house.

How can I not have a pic of them together?? Here’s Sid with Oncle Pierrot…

and here’s Candi looking like Alice in Wonderland with our Justin

A thousand thanks to the Yogashala angels, without whom we’d never have been able to afford Ruby’s school fees

Thanks also to Uncle Paul Sampson and Auntie Fran, whose heroic efforts to get Joy’s house ready for rental ensured enough extra to cover Ruby’s hostel fees this year. Bless you both xxxx

So in one year, the kids have gone from this…

through this…

to this. She is wearing heels but still… I’m now officially the smallest in the family.

O mi goodness, it was hard to say goodbye…

So grateful she’s getting such a great education in the company of this lot in the meantime – Wynberg girls with visiting eMzantsi boys at Out The Box diversity discussion group

The six week delay into the Cape autumn, combined with having to move 4 times in 9 months and overcommitting myself generally, resulted in an M.E. relapse that has taken me three months to recover from.

The bad news avalanche that had started with Brexit and got rolling with Trump threatened to crush me as President Zuma started to go full Mugabe on us. The ripples from the ‘State of Capture‘ report (exposing the nefarious influence of the Gupta family) published by Thuli Madonsela, the first and last Public Protector with integrity, in October continue to rock the headlines. When our President sacked the Minister of Finance for standing up to corruption (the second time in 2 years) in March, our currency nosedived, with terrible financial consequences for the whole country. The governing party’s focus on looting rather than upholding the law ahead of the 2019 elections is making desperate communities feel even more forsaken. We miss your principled leadership, Uncle Kathy.

The onset of Trump had catastrophic implications for climate change. More than ever I felt glad that I’ve been preparing my kids for a very challenging environmental future for a few years now. As Cape Town’s worst drought in a century took hold, and water restrictions were tightened to 100L per person per day, I was comforted that they know how to cope on 100L a fortnight.

Sampson, Zola and I finally made it back to the truck in Torre del Mar at the end of May. Thanks to Maria of Assurantiekantoor Alessie we got truck insurance paid up for three months and were on the road out of Spain in June, trogging up the coast through Valencia and Barcelona just ahead of the terrorist attacks there.

After improvising a couple of minor truck repairs…

and a spot of sewing, we set off…

Valencia was stunningly space-agey…

we had an amazing day in the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias

Barcelona was fun, we managed to get parking near the Sagrada Família…

but gave up on getting to the Picasso Museum on the third attempt, after Big Reg had to pull unexpectedly across a pedestrian square past gobsmacked Sunday café patrons…

Big Reg wasn’t running so well. Graciès to the gracious Catalunyans who helped us limp through Mataro:

Snr. José Tuxans and his genius son Marc who fixed the fuel pump leak for no charge…

and these lovely ladies who want to remain nameless but gave us a discount price on two new batteries…

to replace these about-to-explode ones

We made it to Marseille in France just in time to pick up a brand new set of tyres. Continental S.A. had sponsored the ones we left South Africa with and promised a set of replacements, but in the interim had ceased to manufacture this size. Thanks to a partnership with our longterm supporter Tractafric, Michelin stepped in with an eleventh hour save.

You know what a state our tyres were in, after 23000km across Africa…

and especially the last 3000km across the Sahara, hardly any tread left at all

These brand new babies cost €1000 each and Michelin and Tractafric have given us FIVE!!!!!

Thanks to Mme Pala of Bureau Transit Marseille for getting them from Michelin Italy to France…

Thanks to M. Pascal Larue ‘the tyre whisperer’ for his expert knowledge and advice…

Thanks to manager Rémi Baptiste (far left) and the whole Euromaster team for doing the installation and alignment…

Most of all, thanks to MICHELIN –

we seriously couldn’t be doing this without you, merci mille fois

We are eternally grateful; I still wake up in the middle of the night and marvel at the wonder of it. Without Michelin and Tractafric, we wouldn’t have a hope of making it back home.

The tyres were installed the Friday before the weekend Ruby flew in to Marseille for her winter school holiday. We had to stick around the Côte Bleue to take her back to the airport three weeks later, so thanks to the municipal police of Sausset-les-Pins, Sainte-Croix and Carry-le-Rouet for being so patient with us.

Sampson family at Sainte-Croix July 2017, thanks to photographer E. Ryland

The plan was to spend the rest of the brief northern hemisphere summer meandering across southern Europe through France, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia and down the Adriatic coast to Greece before putting Big Reg on a ship across to Egypt in early September.

But ‘the gods of travel’, as Kingsley Holgate says, had other plans for us…

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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. You’d think the AU might doubt itself when the decision was chastised for its lack of principle by Robert Mugabe. 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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