When Madani headed back to his family for Eid Kabeera, the fete of mutton, I sent the camera with him, since I thought I might be spending a rather solitary time of it in the tent. As it turned out I had a wildly sociable time with a nomad family camped nearby, and sorely missed the camera; but nonethless, Madani got some great pics of his time with the family, although I can only feature a few of them on here.
This is him with his family and the unfortunate sheep. The process of slaughtering and eating is a ritualised one in Saharawi culture, following fairly strict traditions. After the throat is slit in the usual halal fashion (leaving the streets running with blood, since every family slaughters a beast) the carcass is skinned and hung to drain the blood.
Then the tissue from the front of the chest is taken (I know a million people out there are going to correct me on names and locations of animal pieces, but I am no expert and just have to describe what I saw) and dried. Meanwhile the sweetmeats are cooked up over a coal brazier, whilst the tender meat from the neck is strung onto skewers and wrapped in the dried tissue ready to grill. It is a wonderfully relaxed, convivial gathering, with everybody preparing something; the women wrapping the intestines into plaited ropes, ready for a later pot, the meat being wrapped and skewered, and over it all the wonderful smell of fresh meat grilling over the hot coals.
This is Madani's family in the process of preparing everything. I was in a tent on this day, the guest of a very kind family who wouldn't hear of me eating alone for the fete. I was captivated by the bustle of activity, as everyone from the youngest of children to the eldest of grandparents participated in preparing the meat, all sitting in a congenial group in the smoky tent, talking and laughing, singing as the delicious smells wafted through the space and out into the desert. The small girls of the tent, no more than six years old, picked up the babies when they cried and comforted them, leaving their mothers free to carry on working. The children in the tents are so capable; one small girl, no more than eight, returned to the tent to eat her brochettes and then resignedly pulled her sandals back on and marched back out onto the hammada to guard the thirty or so goats the family own, with not so much as a word of protest. She ran here and there, whistling and using her stick to drive them into good feed, quite confident in her role. The other young girls in the tent variously operated as baby carers, cleaners, fetch and carriers, or simply general dogsbodies. They never stopped working and never once did I hear them complain that a task was too hard, even when it involved a large, heavy cauldron of boiling water being shifted from the fire to the tent. It was a lovely family and I felt thoroughly welcomed and at home, not to mention utterly stuffed with wonderful meat!
Meanwhile Madani had a marvellous time being with his family again, and similarly stuffed himself into gastronomic heaven. We met in Agadir on my way back to Spain, and had a few very civilised beers in a quiet courtyard bar. It was a very odd experience for me, almost like being back in Europe; we kept looking at each other and bursting into nervous giggles, wondering if it was totally obvious to all there that a couple of stinking nomads had just come to town. The next day we handed over and Madani returned to the camp, where I just spoke to him and he is going suitably loopy on his own, bless him.
I then embarked on the mother of all horrendous bus rides. For various reasons I had to go to Ouarzazate before heading back to Marrakech; this alone was a very cold eight hour bus ride. After a night there, I got on the bus I have done many a time, the route from Ouarzazate across the High Atlas mountains to Marrakech. Unfortunately this year Morocco, like much of Europe, has experienced a particularly harsh winter. As the temperature in the (unheated) bus got increasingly icy, we arrived at the barrier which marks the entrance to the infamous Tizi n Tichka pass - featured some time ago in this diary page when Gary and I crossed it on foot last year. There were something like 100 vehicles backed up in front of the barrier, and snow was falling in thick, heavy curtains. We came to a stop and the driver informed everyone that he had high hopes the barrier would open later in the day; we would wait until then. There was not a word of protest on board, despite the fact that the temperature in the bus was falling to subzero temperatures, the sole food supplier in the little village had closed after being besieged by the passengers of all the coaches stopped at the pass, and many people had connecting buses in Marrakech they were likely to miss. Everybody simply settled in and began chatting, sharing out their blankets, putting on extra layers of clothes, and sharing whatever food they had. After a couple of hours a local woman turned up with a huge pot of soup which she charged 3 dirham a bowl for; it was wonderful, and just what we needed, since by this time it was 3 in the afternoon - the bus having left at eight that morning.
One by one the trucks and buses turned around and headed back to Ouarzazate, convinced the barrier wouldn't open. Ahead of us the odd vehicle was still passing; the common conclusion was that if one had enough cash to hand over to the gendarme on the barrier, the bad conditions would be forgotten. But finally it became obvious that the snow wasn't easing off, and our driver admitted that even if we all pitched in to pay baksheesh, he wasn't overly comfortable tackling the steep descent in fading daylight and heavy snow. We all agreed with this, and then a lengthy debate ensued about the best course of action: should we return to Ouarzazate, and give people the choice to end their journey; should we go to Agadir and then on to Marrakech (an enormous detour of about eight hundred km) or should we chance the alternate pass over Taznact and Taroudannt, also a major detour but slightly less than Agadir, albeit with the dodgy mountain road? This became the final choice in what was a very civilised group discussion. Everybody on the bus coughed up the fifty dirham per head to cover the extra costs involved, nobody saying anything about the few women on the bus with small children who didn't have the money. And so we set off.
But the weather got worse, and because so many other buses had chosen the same route, every town we came to had sold out of food after servicing the unusual demand; as the bus trundled on through the treacherous night, we shivered and shook with the cold and shared the bread and cheese we had been able to buy. Behind me a women with three small children, one a new infant, was helped by the two crusty old blokes opposite me who simply took control of the two older ones (toddlers), cradling them on their knees to keep them warm, talking and playing endlessly with them all night, taking them to the toilet when the bus stopped, finding them food and drink, leaving the mother free to look after her new baby. All over the bus I was struck by how incredibly kind everyone was to each other; there was not one raised voice or dispute, no complaining about missed connections or inconvenience, or the terrible cold, even when the bus was stopped at another barrier for a further three hours. Sometimes I would hear a mobile phone ring, and the laconic answer would go along the lines of : "Oh, hi! Yeah, everything is ok, just a bit of a hold up on the bus, no I'm fine - how are you?" Never once did I hear anybody get distressed and say what a nightmare it was. I know I go on frequently in this diary page about the extraordinary humanity of Moroccans, but never was it more amply demonstrated to me than through that terribly long, cold night, when the priority of everyone on the bus seemed to be to look after the other, and laugh at the situation with great good humour. Somehow, even though buses were sliding into each other and cars going off the road in near zero visibility, and half the bus was close to hypothermia, the calm, resigned acceptance took out the element of panic one would expect in such conditions.
In the end it was 28 hours on the bus when we pulled into Marrakech; 28 hours for a trip that usually takes no more than seven, and it was a stiff, cold, tired crew that lurched into the cafe for tea and kissed each other goodbye.
My journey to Spain after that was uneventful, just the train up to Tangier (on which I met a man from Belgium, blonde as you like, who told me his mother was an exiled Saharawi woman and he was the long lost prophet of the Saharawi people....hmmm) followed by the boat to Algeciras, and the bus up to Malaga, where I am now blissfully ensconced in a lovely little apartment with Gary, whom it is heaven to see again. The sheer luxury of eating glorious Spanish food again, and drinking wine in the sun by the sea, is impossible to describe; one could not have asked for a more perfect break, not to mention the bliss of talking to the one person who really understands the walk. Unfortunately for the time being we will remain apart, since Gary has commitments elsewhere, and the walk must continue; we are hoping this situation will change by Dakhla at the latest. In the meantime we are having a wonderful week and thoroughly enjoying the break and each other's company.
I am not at all looking forward to the travel back to Tan Tan, though I know of course that once I am back in my camp in the glorious peace of the desert I will be perfectly content once more. It is just the getting there that drives me nuts!
Normally I finish a post with a photo, but they are a bit in short supply this week due to my laziness. I promise more next time. In the meantime it will be some time before there is an update, possibly until we finish the piste stretch to Laayoune. I will catch you all there, and if I have time, post before then with some more photos. To all my mates who have sent such lovely emails, man, I miss you all, and really, really love hearing from you. Have a beer for me (and I will raise a glass to you all here in sunny Spain...)