I have been learning how to make cous cous - yes, that is me looking like a good haus-frau. Well, you see, I have had plenty of time to learn these things, since I have, for TWO WEEKS, been resting in MHamid at the leisure of the Moroccan Tourist Brigade of the Policia. Contrary to a discussion we had before the walk started, in which we agreed that Gary and I would return at the end of November for an automatic visa extension stamp, for some reason known only to the powers that be here in Morocco when I did return it was as if the conversation had never taken place. Gary has had to be in England for a short time, and thus will have his visa renewed on re-entry for a further three months without problem. I just wish I had gone too - after two weeks of "negotiations"- in lieu of the less politically correct term - I have been granted an extension of one month. Given the time wasted I have gone through the merry-go-round just to gain two weeks. I am one very unhappy little walker, and after all of that it looks as though I shall have to leave the country in order to renew the visa before Dakhla anyway. Morocco has a loooooong way to go in the customer relations department; given the extraordinary hospitality, kindness, and generosity of the national character, it is a true shame that those in authority here are so inherently useless. I hope for the sake of the tourism industry as a whole that the situation changes.
Anyway, enough of my rant. Of course it was not all bad; the day above was spent with Habib's mother and sisters, going through the lengthy process of making the obligatory Friday couscous. It is some operation, as the couscous is steamed three times, all over a fire in the garden which must be constantly tended. The home of Habib's parents is utterly traditional; their days of wandering the desert may be over, but their home remains just as a Saharawi tent camp would be, complete with a hammam made from sticks in the backyard, and a well. The hammam is quite something - the sticks form a teepee-like structure over which a rug is draped for privacy. Inside there is a hole in the ground for fire, upon which a large pot heats the warm water. One enters and rests on plastic or cloth behind the pot, and works up a sweat and scrubs just as in a normal hammam. It's the traditional desert washhouse, although too much bother for those such as us who change place daily.
It was great to see everyone in M'Hamid again; Habib and Nhajet have an absolutely beautiful new baby girl, Aya, who was born whilst I was in the house! In the tradition here Nhajet is resting now with her family, and every day the women come to sit with her. During this time it is customary for the new mother and her family to offer a basket full of cosmetics and perfumes for the visitors, and everyone partakes of this eagerly, standing over the perfume crystals which burn on a coal brazier to fumigate their Melehkvas, and spraying themselves liberally with the scent. The baby rests just beside Nhajet, and I never heard her cry; the whole process is so civilised, somehow, just without fuss and with the whole family present for support. Yet another example of how family and community run the country and mentality.
This is Kitoum, Nhajet's older sister and a real friend to me. She is a true soul of kindness, warmth and generosity, and never tired of explaining things to me, always with a huge smile and great laugh. I shall miss her.
But it was not all tradition and training; I spent one extremely fine afternoon out at the dunes with Madani and his good mate, Nin, smoking Morocco's finest and listening to the lads sing - and man, these guys are really, really good. And I don't think it was just the stuff I was smoking. They sing all day long, given the chance, sometimes making the songs up as they go; they harmonise beautifully and are a true treat to listen to. I also ate at the house Nin lives in alone (when he is not at his family home) and was welcomed, most unusually for someone used to boys of 21 being less than domestic, in true Moroccan style with the tea ceremony, wonderful tagine, and endless courtesy. It is just ingrained in people here; there is not a hint of awkwardness in the way hospitality is offered, everything laid out beautifully, the tea prepared traditionally on the coal brazier. I know I go on about the hospitality but when was the last time you were invited to dinner by a bloke of 21 and three of his mates, without alcohol, and cooked a lovely dinner, then sung to for two hours? I had a marvellous time.
Another very pleasant evening was spent with two British tourists, Brendan and Rachel (sorry - Brendan is South African) who took a trip out to the big dunes at Erg Chigaga. They kindly let me tag along and it was wonderful to have a night speaking English, and with people from my own culture. It made me realise how many of the things that have become commonplace for me are still wildly exotic for others, and to appreciate how accustomed I have become to life here. It is a strangely disorientating feeling to actually talk with people from "home" again; I felt unsure of who, or what, I am, after such a long time in a different culture. I guess I will have to get used to that.
We returned to MBarak and the tent late last night after the twelve hour car journey. He was wildly excited to see us, poor sod, after resting alone with just the camels for company for two weeks. He leapt about like a jackrabbit and cooked a heavenly tagine and it was just like coming back to the family home after a long absence. It was so heavenly to stick my head out of the tent and hear the wonderful silence of the Big Empty again, and watch the sun come up in the majestic stillness so particular to the desert. There are two different lives in Morocco - that of the village, and that of the rural areas - and there is no question which I prefer.
So, with my newly acquired cous cous skills, I am revving up to scare Madani and MBarak this Friday; in the meantime we are taking one day today to organise our stuff ready to march tomorrow. We are heading off for another lengthy stretch of isolation, so don't panic if there is no update for a while. I apologise for the lack of suitably exotic photos in this post, but unfortunately the Policia here don't go in much for modelling, and since they have been my primary company for two weeks, I haven't taken much of note.
In closing I am going to post this final picture of Madani and Nin; sometimes in life there are perfect days, and for me, having this afternoon of peace away from the dramas of visas and village, listening to them sing in the still peace of the dunes, and afterwards treated to dinner, was one of them. They are great mates and I am lucky to know two such kind, polite, good humored and respectful blokes. Thankyou both for preserving my sanity.