We reached Tan Tan and the Atalantic coast a week ago, but due to endless problems with cameras, computers, and internet, this post has taken a painfully long time to emerge, so I apologise to all those who thought that we may just have fallen off the map.
For three weeks we traversed the isolated piste between Assa and Tan Tan. Few vehicles take the rocky, ill-defined tracks that run through here; those that do belong either to the many nomads camped in the region, or else trundle stealthily through the night ferrying the usual array of contraband. Madani was very grateful to these smugglers of the darkness after the cigarette supply ran out; although we had little use for the gasoline the others were selling.
But where there are few vehicles, and no villages at all, there are always nomads. This region is inhabited for the most part by Etusa Saharawi, a very traditional, proud, and physically striking tribe. I also suspect they are blessed with supersonic hearing; every time the sound of tea hitting the glasses is heard, up pops a turbaned head, and we have another person to welcome with nuts, biscuits, and the inevitable tea. Greetings in Arabic in general are always long and involved, but with the Etusa, the formalities take on a whole other dimension. After the initial Salaam and Welcome, every individual person is greeted in the same ritual, courteous manner - albeit at such a rapid fire pace that it has taken me the best part of the journey to work out when I am supposed to be responding or questioning. The process runs from the customary "hello, how are you; are you fine; is your family fine;" on to the more complicated questions of "what do you do here; how are your camels; is the feed good for you here; where are you from; where are you going." Normal enough, you would think, until you realise that all of these questions are fired in a rapid monotone, leaving just enough room for the traditional responses of "fine, praise god," and a return of the question. The people speaking rarely look at each other during these exchanges; it is totally normal for the entire ritual to be conducted whilst either focussing on the far more important business of making tea, or simply gazing into the distance. The ceremony is conducted with each person present, and only after it is completed can the drinking of tea and normal discussion commence.
I had thought I was reasonably accustomed to the greeting process, but the Etusa raise it to a whole other level, and that is upped yet again when one enters the traditional tents that nomads erect for perhaps a three month period before moving on.
The world of the nomad tent is one layered in ritual and tradition, and has remained unchanged for over a millennium. In the region between Assa and Tan Tan there are hundreds of such tents, although sometimes it is many days between them, and occasionally there are a group camped in a kind of community. But every one greets us with the same unending hospitality, and occasionally we are able to accept (it is hard sometimes to stop if we are in the middle of the day's walking). The times we do are a great experience for us, and always an education.
Many of the Etusa herd goats, and thus the drinking of goat's milk has been refined to an art. When we arrived at the tent of this family - after meeting with one member the previous day and being invited to stop if we passed - Selkha, the matriarch, was sitting cross legged in front of a wooden tripod on which swung a tanned goat hide, containing the milk. She pushed it back and forth in a rhythmic motion for perhaps an hour before emptying the resulting yoghurt into a bowl and mixing it with sugar; the mixture is called "Jeera" and is absolutely delicious. She insisted I also have a go, and sat beside me giving instructions.
On the outside, the tents have changed with the times and are now constructed with canvas rather than the tradtional hessian. But the interior remains the same as it has for centuries: many colourful squares of patchwork sewn painstakingly together to form a striking, bright pattern all around the walls and roof; and woven mats covering the floor. Lining the walls are the metal trunks containing possessions and treasures, and the fine quality cushions that are usually taken down for guests to recline on. When we enter the men sit on one side and the women on another, the person making the tea the centre of the apex. Tea is brewed on coals held in a small pottery holder, and served on the traditional low tray. But in this tent it was not tea but a delicious concoction of goats milk, herbs, and sugar that was served piping hot; it tasted smoky and almondy and comforting. It is custom, and very necessary in the tents, to always stay for three glasses - a long process, as for each round the milk is freshly prepared on the coal fire, meaning each visit is at least an hour duration. We are always pressed to stay to eat; but of course this usually means a day long visit, so normally we just accept the customary bread, olive oil, honey, and amrou that comes out with the tea.
After a while the men depart diplomatically, ostensibly to regard the camels, goats, or landrover; but in reality to squat in the sun and smoke and gossip. After they leave, the women descend on me eagerly, unwrapping and remaking my melekhva, perhaps adding a new scarf or bracelet, drenching me in the precious stash of scent that always hides in one of the trunks, slathering me in moisturiser. They ask questions eagerly, but - quite wonderfully for me - they are not questions about my other life, or what I think of theirs, but rather questions about how I am coping, if I need help learning to make cous cous or sand oven bread, if I have enough flour to last until the village, if I would like help or to be shown anything. I am given the babies to hold and little things, treasures, to take away, things that mean a lot when you are walking every day - like lip balm. Anything that they can think to give, they do; any way they can see to help, is done. As far as the nomads in tents are concerned, if we are walking every day with camels and for a long distance, we are nomads too, and subject to the same hospitality and traditions as their own. Of course we are tourists and different; but somehow I never feel that way in the tents. And, whilst I spent weeks not ever wanting to pull the camera out and abuse the marvellous hospitality, we have discovered that for many, the thrill of being able to regard themselves on the digital camera leads to every nomad in the vicinity turning up eagerly to have his photo taken. I am still pretty circumspect about shoving the lens in people's faces, but often it is Madani who broaches the subject, and sometimes also takes the pictures - he is very good - and thus we are saved the awkwardness.
The stretch between Tan Tan and Assa has been the most beautiful so far. Feed for the camels has been so good and plentiful, that not only are they looking fat but also have not needed to drink for nearly three weeks. We have walked through areas of amazing ecological beauty - ancient acacia forest, vast dried lakes, and of course, the ever present soaring gravel mountains, often, here, with one sheer face of sand. For several weeks we had no contact at all other than with other nomads - absolutely no phone reception, and no villages at all, even remote kasbahs. This has meant a lot of work in food preparation; but I have really loved it! Every day after we make camp I mix up the dough for bread whilst the others search for wood to make the sand fire. We also search for the little plant which tastes like mint, to infuse the tea; and, most amusingly, for the fat lizards which roam about occasionally. Despite coming from a country where "bush tucker" is kind of a national pride, I have never before truly appreciated just how good lizard stew (or, of course, being Morocco, lizard tagine) can really be. But I have overcome my inhibitions to the point where I am quite happy to slit the throat in the halal manner and prepare the tasty little creatures for dinner; it makes a good change from MBarak's other fabulous speciality, lentil and haricot tagine.
He prepares the beans in a wonderful fashion which saves them from needing soaking. They are ground down between two rocks, seperating the husks from the beans, and he then trickles them through his fingers and lets the wind blow the discarded skins away, before rinsing the beans in water to rid them of the last residue. He cooks them up with onions, tomato, herbs and spices, and we eat the stew with plenty of hot fresh bread - and lashings of tea, of course. No matter how tired we are, food is never anything less than important; something I really appreciate.
The weather has descended into the grip of winter. The nights are bitterly cold now, and often we sleep in the tent rather than outside, more from laziness to change place after dinner than anything else. We have had some wicked nights of high winds; on three nights running we had to simply drop the tent and huddle amongst the camels in the relative shelter of the TalHia trees, jellabas over our heads to keep out the sudden bursts of rain, and try to grab what sleep we could. The camels are great thermarests and weather protectors, though, and if you don't mind the truly vile stench of Chamelette's breath, not bad bed companions.
When we finally emerged to the relative civilisation of the tiny village of Tilemzoun, it was to be met by - inevitably - the local gendarmerie. They had kittens when they learned where we had walked, and were full of dire stories about landmines planted in various parts by the Polisario in times past. MBarak just smiled through all of this as if he was stupid; but we all had to contain our laughter, as not only had he pointed out all the mine positions on the route, but he had also been mates with a lot of the people who planted them. We figured now wasn't a great time to mention this, nor the fact that MBarak seems remarkably adept in knowing how to set the mines without leaving tracks. I guess it is just one of those skills nomads need to know, huh?
The gendarmes visited us daily in that camp, bringing wonderful cous cous, bread, and, somewhat hysterically, a gift of a carton of contraband cigarettes. (Madani stopped hiding his stash after that.) They even drove us twenty kilometres up the road to where there was phone reception - a great bonus indeed.
But every time we emerge from the wilds, the villages seem a little more crazy, the bustle even more irritating than the previous time. After weeks of utter calm, routine, and other nomads, suddenly I am reminded that I am a tourist, as the people point and chuckle and whisper at the strange Western woman in a melekhva. The hammam in every village is also a bit of a challenge, although one I am better at now that I speak a little (painfully little) of the language. The problem is that normally when a tourist visits a hammam they happily pay the proprietor to scrub them down, unsure of how to conduct themselves in the steamy confines. But I am much happier getting on with it myself - after weeks of splashbaths, I want to enjoy every luscious moment, thankyou very much, and take my time - but there is always a moment of relative face off when I enter a room filled with naked (or nearly - everyone wears knickers) gossiping Moroccan women, and the room stops to gawp in astonishment at the filthy white woman nonchalantly filling her buckets with water. But after I manage the greetings and stake my place out, the room returns to it's normal hub, and usually after a time I get given a child to hold or offered some shampoo, and after that we can start talking. Someone always offers to scrub my back down, something I truly appreciate, and more often than not I end up with a group of women arguing over who is going to do my hair. I never leave a hamman without new phone numbers, empty containers of moisturiser after everyone has had a go, and a big smile. I am a huge fan of the hammam; a bath will never be the same. For those of you who have never entered, the routine goes something like this:
Enter the steam room and fill your buckets with water, alternating the hot and cold until you are happy. Stake a place out on the floor on your plastic mat, and coat your body in the black olive paste that every souk sells. After you have worked up a bit of a sweat, you take a scrubbing mitt and scrub every inch of yourself, rinsing all the dirt and dead skin off. After this you wash your hair, shave your legs, whatever takes your fancy, before coating yourself in another layer of scented soap and using a polishing mitt. After a final rinse and cleaning your place down, you are ready to leave - cleaner than you have ever been in life before, and wonderfully relaxed. I am often in there for over an hour, but that is nothing compared to the other women - the hammam is a refuge and great centre of gossip, and they happily while away hours, the kids having a marvellous time scrubbing each other down. Living as the sole woman in a camp of men, I treasure the time amongst just other women, and the luxury of endless hot water and nice smelling things.
Now that we have reached Tan Tan we have to return to Zagora for a week or so to renew the visas. It will be a nice time to take a little vacation; MBarak is resting with the camels, and is highly content, since on the first day he spied a robust, fine looking female nomad by the name of Embarka, and plans to spend the next week having tea a lot in her family's tent. He and Madani were utterly astonished to learn that in Australia and England slender women are admired; here, the "grand good arse" is an enormous asset. I am told it is a case of preferring the comfort of a Landcruiser to the skinny motorbike. As far as women go, BIG is good. Oh, how I love this country.
I plan to post another album whilst I have a break, as there are so many photos to put up and I can't manage them all on this post. Please for those of you out there who sent anxious emails, understand that very often during this leg we will be isolated and unable to be contacted at all. We have a lot of safety measures in place so there is no need - or point - in worrying about our safety. And believe me, the most dangerous thing we have encountered so far is the odd lizard.
Thanks for all the lovely messages, we really do love to receive them. I want to add that some of the photographs here - like the glass of goat's milk - were taken by Madani, who is proving to have a really good eye, as well as being a top chef.
All the best.