Fashion Week

The day we arrived in Milan, we drove straight in to the NW area of Padova and found our friend Luca’s street quite easily, but identifying his apartment was another matter. After I’d walked up and down a few times and figured out it had to be somewhere between the clearly labelled smart block no 15 and no 10 marked on the other side, I asked a young ambulance driver who was parked on the pavement if he spoke English and if this building was indeed number 11?
“Ah yes” he said “But it’s not a good place.”
“You don’t think so?” I replied quizzically.
“No,” he said, thoughtfully, shaking his head, “Noooooo”.

Certainly, the block had certainly seen better days maintenance-wise. It was crumbling, mouldy and couldn’t remember when it had last seen a lick of paint. Five stories of flats were stacked high round a courtyard like a pile of old magazines with torn bits sticking out: bicycles on every level, blankets and washing hung airing from every balcony, toddlers’ heads poking from in between. But as I walked in, a shaft of golden afternoon light glittered down across the bins and I felt there was something magical about it. Something Dickensian. It felt like a treasure trove of stories.

Luca’s Milano apartment block

I approached two young men sitting in one corner and smiled hopefully, knowing what I was about to say sounded ridiculously ignorant: “Sorry I don’t speak Italian… I’m looking for Luca?” They called a 9 year old girl who seemed to be the oracle when it came to knowledge of the block. “Luca the Italian?” she asked “Er… yes” I responded, confused – was this not Italy? “Oh, over there then” she pointed to the opposite corner… It was only later that I realised that, of course, Luca was probably the only person of Italian parentage in the whole block – and even he wasn’t born here, he was born in Liberia.

According to Wikipedia, Milan is the most cosmopolitan and multicultural city in Italy. The number of immigrants have doubled in the last 15 years and now make up 20% of the population. Luca’s building reflected a predominance of Egyptians, Romanians, Chinese and Peruvians whose paths had all led to them being here together. Their presence made the ambulance driver feel as uncomfortable as Nigel Farage on a London train, but I found the kaleidoscope of intwined origins fascinating. I think Luca feels the same, which is why he has remained when many other Italians have moved out.

Luca’s gate slides on recycled rollerblades. Doncha just love him already?

We met Luca Bai Varaschini that fabulous Christmas we spent in Liberia back in 2015. Within 5 minutes of chatting to him on the beach, we recognised a kindred spirit. Luca’s father was the local doctor in Robertsport back in the 60’s and Luca spent his childhood there. He is proudly Liberian and unhappy that, as a ‘non-negro’ person, he is denied citizenship under the constitution even though he was born there. Perhaps this is why he finds it easier to empathise with his neighbours.

Despite the fact he is forbidden from owning land or property in Liberia, graphic designer Luca committed to spending time there annually since 2009. The year we met him, he was delighted to be rediscovering the people and places of his childhood. He was entranced with the environment, the scenery of wild Liberia, the red earth, the soft black rocks, the forest, the birds and the sea. All these are reflected in his most recent labour of love:

Luca has designed and illustrated a new version of Peter Pinney’s collected Legends of Liberia first published in 1954.

It is possibly the most beautiful book I’ve ever seen.

I haven’t been able to read much of it yet, because it’s too heavy for me to hold up in my present condition…

but I’m loving it when I can.

Luca’s book would make an awesome Xmas present for anyone who loves Africa or loves stories. If you’d like to order one, send me your details in the comments and I’ll hook you up.

On September 1st when the weather turned cold in France, I warned Mark that, as soon as the tank was fixed, we had to get moving as quickly as possible. I didn’t want a repeat of 2014 when my health deteriorated so fast as autumn came on in UK – from functional at the beginning of September to housebound by the end of November and mostly bedbound by January.

We had left the garage on Sept 11th, and motored steadily along south coast, chasing the tail of summer across Europe, with winter nipping at our heels. The roads around Nice and Cannes were still so crowded, it was probably a good job that we didn’t try driving through the Riviera in peak season. We entered Italy too late to do anything but drive straight across it – Luca had been expecting us since August and now there were only a few days left before he left again for Liberia. We are grateful that Papi had given us his maps of Italy and Europe to help us navigate.

Italy at last

I felt a little cheated that I was unable to show my son the baroque splendours of Rome, Florence and Venice but was recompensed with the unexpected joys of Luca’s tiny flat which was a work of art in itself. Every single inch was covered with enchanting images from his abundantly fertile mind, the vast majority made from recycled materials. Move over Michelangelo.

Welcome to Luca’s world, full of imaginative magic and sparkly mandarin cocktails

Every drawer and every shelf is teeming with treasures,

every nook and cranny of his flat…

is crammed with things to delight the heart and amuse the eye…

rewarding close attention…

and expressing his sheer love of life.

His kitchen particularly…

nourishes both body and soul…

and reflects his genius for recycling…

in endlessly creative ways

From keyrings…

to mobiles…

and more mobiles…

to models…

and the plane streaking across the ceiling!

I felt truly honoured to be offered a glimpse of this bijou gallery. I can honestly say I got as much pleasure from it as I did from spending an afternoon at the gorgeous Galleria d’Italia       perusing the great 19th century portraits of the city.

Even the reading material next to his toilet is collectible:

Even Luca’s loo is a delight:

Check the Sears catalogue from the year of my birth 1970

I’m sorry but I can’t resist showcasing some of my favourite pages:

“His ‘n’ Hers” coordinated knits…

Matching pyjamas for the Whole Family *shriek*

“Today: the Dynamic Look of BROWN” *snigger*

“ANYTIME’S the RIGHT TIME for… PANTS” *falls off chair*

With Big Reg ensconced in the carpark behind the IN’s supermarket on the opposite side of the road, we took the Metro to see the sights of Milano:

We set out from our cosy berth in the supermarket carpark…

complete with astonishingly good gluten-free snacks on tap…

past the apartment blocks

and philosophical graffiti of this bohemian quarter…

and took the underground to see Sforza Castle

then wandered through the city…

admiring sights both ancient…

and modern…

Milano is everything you might expect…

with added attention to gorgeous detail…

The Milanese are impeccably stylish, whether riding limousines…

or the ubiquitous scooters…

Even their smart cars seem smarter

It was exhilarating…

to finally be here drinking up the culture after our garage drought.

In France I had started sending Ruby postcards of everywhere we visited without her, and from Milan I sent one of Italy’s oldest shopping mall, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, which opened in 1877. The extraordinary iron and glass-domed arcade and its décor are as extravagant as the range of luxury retailers arrayed within.

The Victor Emmanuel II Galleria

celebrating the richest spoils of Africa above…

and displaying the most expensive brands of Europe below.

Sampson stood and scoffed for a full minute in front of this window at the prospect of anyone actually wanting to wear Prada carwash coats

When we reached the Duomo it was still hot in the full sun on the piazza though ominously chilly in the shade. The superlative Gothic grandeur of the third largest church in the world, decorated with 3400 statues, was somewhat dwarfed by a giant billboard, bigger than its famous bronze doors, and an LED screen suspended on the side. These ads apparently help pay for restoration, but still there seemed something egregious in this blatant slap-branding over something crafted so painstakingly over six hundred years by generations of artisans for the glory of their Creator. *Sigh*. Shamelessness seems to be the fashion just now.

Er… Wow

Glorying in a moment of being here at last

Sampson insists I include pics of the bronze doors carved with floral Gothic reliefs in 1906 by Ludovico Pogliaghi…

Looks like people rub these legs for luck

But what was all this about?

Do DKNY really think this is going to help them sell more bags and jeans?

Milan sees itself as the fashion and design capital of Europe, and residents certainly show their commitment to upholding that reputation. Within our first couple of hours walking the streets of central Milan I swear I saw all of the following fabulous folk: a young man in a skirt having a picnic with his girlfriend in the park behind Castello Sforzesco; a Japanese Carrie Bradshaw carrying a clutch of upmarket label shopping bags dressed in a severe monochrome palette complete with giant fluffy white slippers; two women older than me striding along in red geometric stiletto-heeled boots; a girl flying past on a Vespa wearing suede boots over long diamond plaid socks; a woman in the most enviable deep cerise satin boots which glowed along the pavement; and finally a model-looking girl on an Underground platform in black suede knee high boots and a black mini skirt, her dark hair slicked back in the sleekest imaginable ponytail, rocking a sunshine yellow bolero leather jacket. Ciao!

It was the biannual Milan Fashion Week when we were there, so perhaps the quotient of cool was higher than usual, but so few heads turned, it felt like the norm.

Karl Lagerfeld balloons in front of San Carlo

Elle magazine’s red carpet installation in Brera

If only Nigel could be transformed into something so appealing

Wils will be horrified to learn that on this post-M.E. trip to Italy I didn’t have a single gelato. While interailing in 1990 we had minimum one every day. Sigh.

I wish I’d had the energy to see more, or at least sit and chat with Luca’s neighbours, but my energy was being consumed by a mountain of admin. While Zola was busy doing end of term tests, I was making arrangements to get the truck’s renewed carnet issued by the AA and safely posted to the SA Embassy in Athens, booking Big Reg on a RORO (roll-on roll-off) ferry from Greece, researching the costs of flights we were going to have to take to Alexandria and agonising over whether we should risk buying Ruby’s Xmas holiday flights to Egypt now when it was cheaper, or later when we were sure we were going to make it to Cairo on time to meet her…

Unlike any other country, Egypt requires you to lodge twice the value of your vehicle before entering as a guarantee against you selling it and avoiding import duties; as a result, even though we had wangled a sympathetic valuation from the AA assessor before we left in 2013, we were still walloped by having to deposit a whack of cash, taking us right down to the wire. I was terrified that if we broke down on the way to Greece and couldn’t get to the ferry on time, we wouldn’t be able to afford to book Ruby another set of tickets to meet us somewhere else. This wasn’t helping my insomnia.

Zola’s term 3 technology project

All this wasn’t made any easier by the epic battle I had to engage in with ABSA to get my internet banking working again. Despite spending over an hour at our branch before we left to make doubly sure they knew our itinerary so our account wouldn’t be blocked like last time, I’d been complaining to them since 1st August that I wasn’t able to load any new beneficiaries. Now their entire RVN system stopped issuing confirmations to me it became impossible to make the payments for Ruby’s flights even when I’d worked up the courage to book them – this delayed us by 5 days trying in vain to get it sorted out over a weekend.

I am eternally grateful to Luca for giving us access to free wifi in his flat, as we’d never have sorted it out otherwise. But you can blame ABSA for how very very cold I got sitting waiting for hours and days for them to call me back – it’s one of the reasons I relapsed again and am so behind in the blog.

The night before Luca left, we went to his favourite place for pizza with his daughter Ada, a handmade doll designer who has inherited his exquisitely quirky sense of style. How we wish we’d had more time with these fascinating darlings. Sampson’s dream is to go back and hang out for a decent interval with Luca and Hugo in Liberia.

Pizza with Luca and Ada

with a visit to Lucky in the truck afterwards

Ada was smitten…

though Lucky was mostly into her last bottle – time to wean now Dad!

Ada cooed over Lucky as much as Ruby would have. It made me miss her more than ever.

Ada’s dolls are as beguiling a combination of delicate and funky as she is

Ada was about to leave to join her brother in London. I would recommend anyone wanting to visit Milan to stay in the flat Luca built next door for his kids that he’s about to rent out on Air B’n’B.

It’s beautifully designed – of course –

combining cleverly constructed light wood panelling…

with the satisfyingly tactile finish of original walls…

and witty touches in every room which bring a smile to your face…

as well as being the perfect base from which to explore the city

Luca took the sun with him to Liberia. He picked exactly the right time to go: the last week in September, the blue went out of the sky. European skies can be so relentlessly grim. How are they somehow so gloomy and glarey at the same time? You think you need your sunglasses, but when you put them on you can’t see a thing. #This Is Europe!

‘White with a hint of grey’. The sky above the Basilica of Sant’ Ambrogio when Zola and I went to visit

Ornately gorgeous inside…

with parts of the building dating from the 4th century and the Christ Pantokrator mosaic ceiling from the 12th …

The altar, made in 835, depicts the life of Christ in gold leaf on the front and the life of St Ambrose in gilded silver on the back

The Honeymoon Suites’ style of love radiating from the heart of this statue. Feeling Bood with us every day.

Zola was so shocked when we stumbled upon the glazed skeletons of the three saints Ambrose, Gervasus and Protasus displayed in episcopal finery, satin robes and slippers in the crypt behind the golden altar. I baulked from taking a photo of human remains, even from the 3rd and 4th centuries, and quickly whisked him away. But on reflection, I feel obligated to include some downloads here.

Only glass lies between you and the mortal remains of the saints…

exposed from their crowned skulls…

to their slippered feet.

If this was Africa, wouldn’t the words ‘primitive’ ‘gory’ and ‘exotic’ be attached to the veneration of such relics? #This Is Europe!

The grim weather continued. Not surprisingly, after his recent travails in Le Rove, Sampson got sick with a virus and wasn’t well enough to drive for a week. Zola and I both went down with it afterwards; it wasn’t the best way to spend our holiday week off school. 1st October was the first day the solar system stopped working because there hadn’t been enough sun the last few days to charge the batteries. #This Is Europe!

We’d like to offer sincere thanks to the lovely people of IN’S Mercato who patiently put up with us in their carpark for a fortnight:

Especially Fabio Palumbo

Sabrina Defanis and Marco Marino

Sabrina saved us with her excellent English and spoiled us rotten with treats:

This is just what she bought for the humans. You should’ve seen the spread the kitten got – she likes cats more 😉

We didn’t get invited to any Fashion Week shows, but I did manage to pick up my own little piece of joy in the neighbourhood ‘antique and retro’ market:

We walked from Luca’s to this neighbourhood goods market…

tucked in a narrow street between geranium boxed balconies…

and perused the vintage clothes and furniture…

between the art, accessories and cupcakes…

But the very first thing I saw was this!

This garment spoke to me. It said “I am soft sunset orange faux leather and completely impractical for African travel but you want me, I fit you perfectly and I’m only €5!” Ruby loathes it but I love it because it reminds me of that last sunny day in Italy. Forever after I shall tell people “Oh this old thing… yes, I picked it up in Milan during Fashion Week…”

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Punk à Chat

Back to the plot.

So… instead of our planned Grand Tour of the ancient capitals of Europe, meandering at leisure through the Mediterranean summer, we spent six weeks in a garage. A garage in an industrial area about half an hour from Marseille, on the outskirts of France’s petrochemical capital Martigues.

Welcome to Le Rove

We didn’t get to visit Tractafric in Paris, Mercedes in Stuttgart or Salsa in Switzerland as we’d hoped. I didn’t get to see Amsterdam at last, or show Zola Prague or Rome. But shoo, did Sampson get an in-depth refresher course in diesel mechanics…

Big Reg was struggling. When we got back from South Africa, he’d started up first time after being stationery for nine months, but now was choking up so often it was obvious the fuel tanks needed cleaning. Sampson had to change the diesel filters four times en route between Spain and France.

More urgently, the exhaust brake needed seeing to. It had been dodgy ever since we set off from SA (it first got stuck on in Springbok), but suddenly it was worse than ever. It had gone from gasping to a whistling which was getting more and more piercing as the bodge job gaskets they’d installed in Senegal got more and more worn out.

Bodge job gaskets from Dakar had done well to last this long

When we first went to Euromaster at the end of June, we asked the workshop manager if he knew where we could get a replacement joint; in response Fred did a classic Gallic shrug. He phoned a friend who dealt with scrap parts but didn’t hold out much hope. “Worse” he announced, “we can’t do the alignment on these new tyres until you replace the barre de direction and barre de trajectoire (steering rods). If you hit a heavy road on these, the wheel might come off…” 😦

We continued to ask around Marseille and Viterolles throughout the July school holiday with no joy. But, as our priority was to give our girl a good time in those precious few weeks, we only seriously embarked on looking for parts once Ruby had left. This was a mistake. In August, all factories in France shut down. It’s the equivalent of trying to get anything done in SA between 16th December and 16th Jan. You can whistle for it.

The outlook seemed bleak until the universe sent us Aurelien. The sweetest, kindest spirit north of Africa, Aurelien spotted Big Reg in the municipal camping car stop in Sausset les Pins and stopped to speak to us. He surveyed Big Reg with shining eyes and couldn’t stop asking questions. He so adores old trucks, he not only lives in one, but he has a job providing parts for all different brands of them. Luckily for us! Thanks to Aurelien, and his company Norca’s comprehensive parts catalogue, he was finally able to sourced us the barre de direction and a replacement ball joint for the other. But despite many hours scouring southern France, he had no luck with le joint. Three times he came back with wrong sizes. They just didn’t seem to make them anymore.

We are indebted to Aurelien Berrocal

of truck parts company Norca

We were invited to visit his truck and spent a wonderful evening chatting with his French-Italian girlfriend Claudia and his friend Joachim (both university students) while hyperactive Aurelien and Zola ran about the orchard like puppies trying to catch cicadas.

Aurelien’s Mercedes home

His DIY conversion is very cosy…

with a hilariously high built-on bedroom

Joachim gave Zola some tips…

on mastering the slack wire

It was sobering to realise Zola is far nearer their age than we are

Aurelien and Claudia were thrilled to have recently been allowed to rent this land, having spent months being constantly moved along by the authorities. Aurelien explained that most French people, when they see you living in a truck, assume you’re some sort of dirty traveller/gypsy/scum, probably with a ratty dog on a string – referred to locally as a ‘punk à chien’ (punk with a dog).

His words underlined my sense of how our status had shifted. In Africa, people travelling in a truck are (mostly) regarded with wide-eyed admiration; in Europe they are more often viewed with narrow-eyed suspicion. Of course in Africa, most travellers are privileged whites and seen as brave adventurers. Here, truck-dwellers are seen as wastrels at best and drug-dealers at worst. You’re made to feel like a criminal for daring to opt out of the system. #This Is Europe!

This partially explained our feeling that there were three types of people in France. The first type would turn their noses up and walk past the truck without looking at us directly for fear of dirtying their auras.

The second type would beam at the sight of us, delight in hearing the bizarre details of our story and always wish us “Bon courage”. Quite often they’d throw in a “Chapeau!” which literally means “Hats off to you”. They tended to be older folk, who had travelled a bit and envied our escape from the “Metro-boulot-dodo” grind (French slang for “Tube–graft–kip”, encapsulating the relentlessness of the modern Groundhog Day existence) but without the foolhardy drive to embark on it fulltime themselves.

(We mostly encountered the latter while stranded at our favourite camping spot: the carpark outside Lidl at Sausset les Pins. The super cheap supermarket chain Lidl seems to have a policy of employing almost exclusively female staff under thirty. This brilliant strategy produces a wonderfully efficient workforce, dynamic management and a lovely relaxed atmosphere. Thanks to their kindness, it was the only place we could stay unhassled by police. Apologies for getting stranded there over two consecutive weekends…)

We love Lidl!

The third type were those who joyfully approached us as fellow members of a persecuted tribe:

Thanks to Germans Silvie and Kalle who tipped us off that under French law you can park anywhere for one night and up to 3 without prosecution…

Olivier and Anaïs, who welcomed us to France with freshly caught sardines…

French couple Manthoune and Alex we met last year in Spain, who told us about park4night, with their truck Neuchaco

Spaniard Luis Carmona Horta (Duncan Dragon doppelgänger) whose wonderful blog promotes his ideal that ‘Love heals everything’

and finally, Stèphane.

Fellow renegade Stèphane Mariani found us in the park4night site at Ensuès le Redonne. Even though it was clearly marked as an overnight stop for camping cars, with a waste disposal facility, the municipal police came by to tell us we couldn’t stay there. Stèphane had travelled in a truck across 70 countries in his time, but is now battling stomach cancer. He came back to drop off things languishing in his garage he thought we might find useful: a reflective jacket, an electronic triangle, a wing mirror, a 24V lamp. Most valuable of all though, he found us a mechanic who knew about old trucks.

Sampson, Maurice and Stèphane

Maurice Bechelli, aged 74, is known universally as Papi Maurice, with the French word for grandfather being used somewhat as the isiXhosa Tata is used, as a mark of respect. Maurice’s grandparents’ transport business employed horses; after the war his generation moved on to lorries and he drove longdistance all over Europe. It’s illegal to do that over the age of 70 – having got caught and fined on a trip to Austria, he now confines himself to short journeys like nipping to the port and back. And he fixes trucks.

Our dear Papi Maurice. Where would we be without him?

On 1st August, I slept through the night. I couldn’t remember the last time it happened, a whole night of uninterrupted sleep. It felt like a miracle. To have been blessed with true, restorative, healing sleep. I felt groggy not foggy. Groggy like a teenager woken from the depths of slumber, not foggy like the longterm sleep-deprived parent of a newborn. Joy, joy, joy!!! It was such a gift to be briefly without any pain, without tiredness even, properly rested. Finally, I felt I had clawed my way back from my winter relapse in SA. T’ai Chi was so easy, my balance was perfect, I felt so powerful! Full of happiness to share, laughing with my son, kissing my husband. The light!

If only we could have moved on at that point. However, 1st August was also the day we moved into the garage… Sampson said we’d need to be there a week. So I braced myself for two… ok, three, tops.

Our home for the summer – the garage of OKE Trucks Societé Transport

owned by M. Eric Oke, the giant guy (centre) from Benin, and his wife Audrey, pictured here with some of their hardworking team

That first week, with Stèph’s help, the boys took off the exhaust brake, steering rods and diesel tank. In between times, while Papi was away doing driving jobs, Sampson flushed out the latter, repainted all the tanks and siliconed the roof leaks.

The exhaust brake that caused all the trouble

Replacement rotule for the steering rod thanks to Aurelien

Diesel tank off

Steph blasting it with his mum’s Karcher – merci maman!

It was a four man job…

to get it back on…

though simpler to refill, with Steph’s innovations!

The dynamic duo seemed to be making good progress

That first week in August – the one we spent stationary in the garage with no sea breeze to save us – there was a dangerous heatwave across southern Europe with governments from Spain to Croatia issuing official warnings. Foolishly, we’d parked the truck with the door open to the worst of the midday 40˚C heat and we couldn’t turn it round once the parts had been taken off. Sampson was devastated that the brand new reverse camera he’d brought from SA simply melted!

Not my best wedding anniversary, admittedly.

No such thing as global warming? I remember when 30˚C was hot for southern France

We did our best to combat the feeling of being marooned. Although an official notice from the sapeurs pompiers forbids entry to cars of picnikers in the summer to prevent the wild fires which raged across the area while we were there, we explored the bush behind the garage on foot:

Zola and I walked up the mountain behind the industrial area…

and were rewarded with a fabulous view of the valley and relatively fresh air…

from a cave carved by centuries of buffeting by wind off the étang…

and wondered what the forest floor used to look like before the Anthropocene

while also practising our modelling poses…

In week two Aurelien tracked down a joint – but the circumference was too small. As we couldn’t go anywhere while we were waiting for the gaskets, Sampson decided he might as well take off all three oil tanks and power clean them as well with Steph’s ‘Karcher’. As there was no point doing things by halves, he thought he’d better take off all the constricted pipes and connectors and replace them too. While he redid all that, Maurice was doing the welding.

All 3 fuel tanks off…

Zola getting the hang of cleaning them

while Sampson tackled the connectors…

He was glad he bothered when he found…

algae growing along the feed pipes inside!

Not to mention the gunk…

in the mouth of the filler pipe

While they cleaned the fuel tanks, I cleaned out the drinking water tank

Before…

and After!

On Saturday, Steph came to say he’d been told that applying a layer of copper silicone would work as well as a gasket. Sampson was sceptical, but thought there was no harm in trying it… We ended up stuck at Lidl.

The abortive copper silicone gasket filler

On Monday of week three, Maurice drove out to the supermarket to help fix a ‘leaking nipple’ which Sampson thought might be the problem affecting the air pressure of the exhaust brake, and adjusted the clutch again.

Papi to the rescue

This nipple was giving grief

Having driven all over Marseille searching in vain for a gasket, Papi now attempted to make some himself from scrap metal.

Ta-daa!

He wanted to Loctite them in to be sure, though Sampson wasn’t keen

On Friday, we did the test drive down the hill back to Lidl. The brake was still whistling.

Sampson spent the weekend scrubbing Loctite off the exhaust brake…

then cut two more gaskets himself…

from the remaining scrap

I tried to cheer us up with some appropriately punky haircuts

By week four, things were getting desperate. Papi was driving up and down the Côte Bleue,  looking for gaskets everywhere, in vain.

He even came back once with some rubbery material from the Airbus helicopter factory they said would work but looked unlikely

Aurelien arrived with another joint that was still too small, but at least the right material and for the first time the right thickness (3mm), so Sampson cut and glued two of them together to fit.

Sampson’s DIY gasket, made by fitting two ill-sized ones together

At the end of the month the Bosch factory opened and Papi bought us new ones. But Sampson’s homemade ones were working well enough, and we couldn’t face ‘démonter-ing and remonter-ing’ the whole exhaust brake yet again, so we haven’t replaced them yet.

“Finally” we thought “we can go” – and headed back to Lidl one last time to stock up before departing. We always tried to arrive there on a Saturday afternoon, because they were closed on Sunday and it was blissfully quiet and peaceful.

Lidl’s carpark: the most peaceful campsite on the Côte Bleue

with the cheapest Friday Night Treats!

(we’d have got our knickers in a twist without it)

That weekend, Sampson discovered a small puddle on the ground underneath the truck: there was a tiny tiny leak in the diesel tank.

Aaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrgggggggghhhhhhhhhh nooooooooooooooooooooo! Where were we going to find a new tank? And how on earth were we going to pay for it?? We’d already had to shell out for two new carbon batteries in Spain and a whole slew of parts in France. Not to mention an extra month’s groceries in the most expensive country in Europe (a cooked chicken from a supermarket in Spain cost €5, in France it was €10) when we’d hoped to be in ‘bargain basement’ Greece by now.

When Papi and Sampson took it off and investigated the crack, they found the thin steel was rusting away from the inside, and was covered in algae too. It was a good job we discovered this now because the rusting bits would only have carried on clogging the filters. But at the time it was such a kick in the teeth.

After all that cleaning and painting and reinstalling, it still had to be binned…

When we went back to the garage in week five, I apologised to Papi for not being able to pay him any more cash just now. He just looked at me sideways and said “Did I ask for any?”

From this moment, Papi took on the job as his personal mission. This became his project as much as ours. Know how the French survived the Occupation? Stubbornness and determination, with a dash of inspired improvisation. Luckily for us, Papi has it all in spades.

First, he found this in the scrap yard next door:

An aluminium fuel tank, much lighter than the one we’d had to take off. Sampson was thrilled.

But it was also the wrong size, so had to be turned round to squeeze into the space. So then Papi and Sampson had to re-engineer the feed pipes and battle with a baffle in the wrong plane…

This took another 2 weeks. Another. Two. Weeks.

First they had to design a tray on which to suspend the tank…

weld cross bars on…

extend the connectors…

and bend them to fit.

Some trial and quite a lot of error involved…

It took over a week just to find an aluminium welder to add this extra panel…

to begin the process of reengineering the fuel delivery system…

not to mention the time and hair-yanking it took to source this 14mm ‘tap’….

in order for Papi and Sampson to create a brand new thread…

painfully slowly and carefully…

because if they messed it up we couldn’t afford the time or the cash to do it all over again….

PHEW! Nice job!

No wonder they’re looking so chuffed with themselves!

Don’t think anyone’s done this shit BY HAND in half a century…

A thing of beauty indeed.

Now for the second one…. eeek.

This was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my life…

and I was only watching!

Did it work? Papi tests it by putting a screw in.

Yayyyyyyyyy!!!!

Papi dignified in triumph but quietly very pleased 🙂

It took another agonising amount of time and persistence to get the feedpipes and banjos working. Air locks are the bane of every diesel mechanic’s life…

With the tank off, we couldn’t move the truck at all. (Big Reg can’t start up on waste vegetable oil because the fuel first has to be heated and thinned by a running engine, so it needs to go three minutes on bio/diesel before we switch over.) This was particularly worrying when the threat of fire became very real:

Not a bush fire, but a gas explosion that ignited a pile of old tyres next door…

The firemen and women arrived in a very impressive 5 minutes, had it under control in 15 and out in an hour

On the bright side, Zola and I bashed through 10 weeks of school work in 7, there being not much else to do…

except play with the dog:

we became so fond of OKE’s guardian Mia, we even discussed smuggling her out…

Zola and Mia used to run around the artic trailers lined up outside the garage every morning like it was a giant jungle gym. Zola can now parkour across remorques like no other person in Europe.

And thank goddess for the basketball hoop we bought him from Decathlon for his birthday.

Papi welded a pull-ups bar on for him too

Zola also learned to juggle clubs…

and his written French was coming on a bundle, though he still mostly refused to speak it.

He also read all 10 of the Cherub and Skullduggery books we’d brought with us

We initiated a daily music hour –

which finally got me to get the bass guitar down, after all these years…

Towards the end of August, we got news of the tragically early death of a friend. It was the fourth this year. Sampson and I were dizzy with grief. It was deeply frustrating that, not only couldn’t we attend Bood’s memorial, but due to the horrendous costs of data-guzzling Orange, we couldn’t even get online to witness it.

Thanks to the Miramar restaurant, down the road from Lidl, for letting me use their wifi during the few days away from the garage…

while enjoying the sea view, allowing me to load a blog and catch up on sad news from home

Thanks also to Hotel les Piellettes up the road who sometimes allowed me to sit in their laundry room and log on

On the day all of our friends gathered to celebrate his luminous spirit (thanks Helena), we were stuck in the garage, but the universe sent us this:

Meet Lucky.

One of Eric’s chatty lorry drivers stopped to drop off this tiny scrap, that he’d picked up from the side of the road. The one-day old abandoned kitten was probably thrown out of a car, judging by her bloodied nose. Although far too young to tell, I immediately called her ‘she’: firstly in defiance of my husband assuming it was a ‘he’ and to teach my son that the default setting shouldn’t necessarily be male; secondly because there was quite enough yang energy in the truck already.

Actions stations: after improvising the first day with a pipette, I biked down to the pharmacy to get formula and biberon

though it was Sampson who took on most of the feeding duties…

as I was struggling to get enough sleep as it was…

Not surprisingly then how furry chest man became her mum

Though we all fell in love with her

Lucky proved to share Bood’s spirit of playfulness and insistence on sheer unapologetic fun. (Six weeks later, she also proved to be a tom. However we’re so used to calling her ‘she’, we’re sticking with our trans-cat. Her vibe definitely helps to diffuse macho energy.)

Bood’s passing put our petty garage woes into perspective, while caring for this newborn helped us all through the surreal limbo of this time. I was very grateful to become punk à chat.

Irresistible life force? Moi?

During the first week in September, mean temperatures suddenly dropped to below 20˚C, as the Mistral kicked the cold air back in.

At the time I wrote:

“The Circle of Purgatory reserved for me is a dusty garage forecourt at the mercy of both the heat of the August sun and the sharp September cold whipped in across the étang by the vicious Provence wind, le Mistral. The infernal buzzing of the giant pylon looming directly above us drones all through the night. By day, the relentless drilling of the clanking quarry machine in the industrial park on the other side of the highway sounds like a drunken woodpecker or one of those ridged primary school percussion instruments played with a scraper amplified to 1000 decibel levels. These noises are interrupted by the screech of the double storey metal doors of the carrosserie, like giant’s nails on a blackboard, where every other day they respray vehicles.

The heady paint fumes are so toxic for me that last night, when I woke at 3am feeling like my skull was about to implode, I just had to get away. I got up and walked up the mountain in the dark to the caves and slept outdoors wrapped in a blanket until dawn… I wasn’t scared, too worn out with the constant battle against oil and paint, oil and paint, walked all over the floor, clasped over handles and towels, dripped over bedding. All these fumes and dirt and noise against the constant backdrop of articulated lorries dropping off their remorques every hour of the day or night, but most often at 5pm and 5am, so we wake up completely parked in by trailers. Worst than feeling trapped is the sense of helplessness: I feel like a newborn kitten in the hands of fate, as there’s almost nothing I can do to get us out of here, it’s all down to Sampson. I’m just the translator.”

My constant battle with oil: the part scrubbed with baking soda above, the tread-heavy entrance still to do below

I don’t think my husband has ever worked so physically hard in his life as those 6 weeks. Every day at least 7 hours hard labour and straight through the last 3 weekends; he was utterly exhausted by the end of it. We may not have chosen this as our preferred way to pass the summer, but Sampson sure felt a lot more confident about setting out for Africa afterwards. He’d personally checked Big Reg over from top to toe, from tanks to engine to brakes, and he knew we were ready for Part 2.

Dad said Zola’s massages were often the only thing that freed his back up and kept him going

Stèphane had said we wouldn’t be able to understand Papi’s accent, as Maurice speaks the thick patois of Provence, and at first he was right. But as the weeks wore on, and he came to share lunchtimes and teatimes with us, we learned to understand each other.

Sampson and Maurice spent many happy hours chatting away to each other in a mutually unintelligible ramble…

I am proud to say I converted Papi to a cup of Rooibos every day at 4pm

while he converted me to Calissons d’Aix, my new most favourite thing NOM NOM

Sampson and he spoke an hilarious mixture of Franglais and sign language. They share a very silly sense of humour and used to hoot with laughter half the day. This was precious time for Sampson – he felt he was being granted an experience he longed for but never had with his father. Maurice, he said, has the same hands as Reg, mechanic’s hands: flattened fingers, skin engrained with oil, ridged nails.

By week 6, Sampson was looking like a vrai méchano

Thanks to all the friendly people of le Côte Bleue we came to call family:

Frank (with his new puppy) who brought us our daily bread.

If you’re restricted to bread and cheese, make it French bread and cheese – Le Rove baguettes were the best

The fragrant and funky Djidji who volunteered her washing machine for a day

and inspired me with the incredible story of her discovery of, and recovery from, a brain tumour

‘The Madagascans’ Christelle et Marcel Berlioz who did another washing day shift

and American Michael Lodwick and his French wife Catherine who spoiled us with delicious meals, wifi, chauffering, invaluable advice, translation services and half a dozen cooked chickens!

Michael, the little bagful of wild lavender from your garden continues to lift me in testing times, bless you!

Thanks also to the generous folk who replenished our waste vegetable oil stocks so Big Reg left France completely full and ready to cross Europe:

M. Régis Koch of Ibis Marseille-Provence Airport

Mika Magic from Snack Mika

The lovely Frank from Restaurant Chutes Lavie

and most of all: Oléo Déclic

Driving on (tax-free) waste vegetable oil is illegal in France but a network of cooperatives called ‘Roule Ma Frite’ have been operating local recycling initiatives nationwide for more than a decade. Roule Ma Frite Perpignan and Roule Ma Frite Oléron clubbed together to donate 225L to us under the aegis of Oléo-Déclic, a magnificent non-profit enterprise in south Marseille that makes no charge to collect WVO from local restaurants before recycling it for heating oil, mostly for school radiators. They also successfully lobbied the government for a change in the law to make this legal.

Merci mille fois to tireless recycling campaigner Alain Vigier…

and his development manager Romain Ugarte

who, along with Jocelyn Michard who handles oil collection and a hardcore band of volunteers, make up the super dedicated Oléo Déclic team.

Their generous donation made all the difference to getting us back on the road

(We can’t wait to introduce Alain to our great friend and supporter Roy de Gouveia of BioGreen – whom we happened to bump into at the airport on our way back to Spain in May!)

We’re really looking forward to getting Alain together with our good friend Roy De Gouveia from BioGreen someday soon – they are brothers in oil! BioGreen South Africa has made such a difference by selling the environmental business case to companies such as Pick’n’Pay, Steers, Burger King and Woolworths. BioGreen recycles the waste oil from their kitchens to help power their delivery vehicles.

Our greatest contributor was M. Abdul Ali Doghmane, who, by mind-bending coincidence, had a waste oil collection business right next door to the garage. He sends it to Spain to be recycled for bio-diesel but very kindly donated more than 300L to us; his teenage sons also helped Aurelien and Zola get it on the roof. M. Doghmane is a most dignified, modest man and declined to be photographed, but we want to thank him publicly for demonstrating a key tenet of Islam: to give graciously whenever possible without thought of recompense.

Most of all thanks to our ‘nephew’ Aurelien, eyes as wide as the generosity of his spirit, and our Papi Maurice. We look forward to repaying their enormous kindness when they come to visit us in South Africa.

Aurélien pourrait même nous rattraper dans son camion!

Merci Papi, nous n’aurions pas pu aller aussi loin sans toi

Nous sommes impatients…

de rembourser ta gentillesse…

lorsque tu et Véro viendront nous rendre visite en Afrique du Sud.

P.S. On the day we left Le Rove we bought this for Zola via Le Bon Coin, France’s equivalent of Gumtree:

Zola’s first day on a unicycle

Cyriac, the lovely man we bought the unicycle from, who’d given up trying to learn after 6 years, will be appalled to know Zola got the hang of it within 24 hours. Chapeau!

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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