If all goes according to plan, you will view some pictures on this blog. But this is Morocco - the Sahara Occident, in fact - and very rarely do things go to plan. Thus it is highly likely that you will not be able to see what I have been up to, and so I shall endeavour to paint a few pictures in words.
We have been having some weather out here in the desert. It has been some six years since the Western Sahara had good rains; and so - yes, you guessed it - this year the powers that be decided it was a good time to dump the accumulated precipitation in one great, torrential, seemingly endless, catastrophe. We have had rain, wind, more rain, more wind, mist, more rain, cold, wind again, the odd bit of very hot sun, and then more wind. The rivers have flooded. Nomads were washed away, tents, goats, Landrovers and all - some eighty lives lost in this region alone, not that this makes the news, because of course they are just nomads - who would miss them? The prediction of MBarak - more reliable than any news service, by far - is that this weather pattern is likely to continue for most of this month, in this region.
We no sooner came to terms with the erratic weather than Mimi, one of the best of our four camels, injured his foot; it is not a huge problem, according to the combined wisdom of the many nomads who have examined it, chewed their pipes thoughtfully, drunk tea and delivered a verdict, but nonetheless our Mimi is not in a condition to walk for a couple of weeks. Due to the weather, we had walked only 100 km skirting Tan Tan, to the place where the long piste road to Laayoune commences. This piste will be three weeks of nothing - no villages, just absolutely nothing but desert. I love stretches like this, but this time there were a lot of things to think of - after the 22nd of January I am illegal, and thus must exit and re-enter in order to renew my visa. Gary is arriving in Spain on the 18th of January, and I had planned to meet him there for a sybaritic break before travelling back to the camp together. The idea of being on the piste when the visa runs out, and having to deal with the angst of the gendarmerie in Laayoune when they realise they have an illegal in their midst was a less than appealing prospect; and also highly likely, given the inclement weather. On top of these considerations, in eight days there is the grand fete - Eid Kabeera - the fete de mutton, the Islamic equivalent, fiesta and gourmandisation speaking, of Christmas in Christian countries. For MBarak and Madani it is a difficult time to be away from their families - not to mention cooped up in a tent with an alcohol deprived, itchy footed Australian woman whilst the wind howls outside. I made an executive decision to take a long halt of nearly one month in order for both of the men to return to their families for the fete; for Mimi to recover; for the weather to stop; and for me to reach Spain before the visa finishes. In this way when Gary returns we can enjoy the piste together, something I would like very much since it is one of the most dramatic stretches of the Western Sahara.
So, yesterday, with the sun uncharacteristically shining and poor old Mimi galiantly limping along, we walked until we found a fantastic place to camp - a well, great feed for the camels, small palmeraie, and close enough to the road for me to wave down the police if I need them, just near the point where the piste track takes off into the wilds. We put up the tent in a good spot, and took stock of our supplies - at which point I begged a short leave of absence in order to return here, to Tan Tan, and buy necessary items such as booze and fags. Very fortunately for me, the gendarmes in the nearby village are exceedingly hospitable, and not only drove me in to town, but also directed me to the best place to buy contraband booze - and negotiated a very good price. Extremely understanding, bless 'em. They have promised MBarak faithfully that they will arrive every day to check I am ok, and since I have now met their wives as well, not to mention the numerous nomads camped in the vicinity, I somehow doubt that I will have a very solitary time of it.
Despite having been an extremely frustrating month in terms of day after day of enforced halt, I was very fortunated to run into a French bloke by the name of Jean, the last time we were in Tan Tan. He came back to our camp with us, and provided me with a marvellous week of speaking blessed ENGLISH, and communing with my own culture once more - a rather strange experience, actually, after such a long time in the Sahara. I made a concerted effort to take my melekhva off after he commented that he found it rather odd to have a discussion with a woman completely wrapped up. I tend to forget it, to the point where I feel rather naked without it; I have been trying to wear my "tourist clothes" a bit in order to remind myself of my other life. One thing I did realise, when he started to take photos of us walking, is that I am wearing the same melekhva in every shot; he reckons I should explain that I have one for walking, and others for socialising. (It is the French mentality and obsession with chic - I know all the Australians out there couldn't care less).
Unfortunately for Jean he arrived at the same time as the weather, so he spent rather more time flaked in the tent with us than striding through the desert; but he bore all of this with incredible good humour, and was a very welcome addition to our camp for a week. All the best with the rest of your travels, Jean.
In amongst all of this we passed Christmas and New Year. On Christmas day we were camped just by a nomad family with a seemingly unlimited supply of unmarried females of a suitable age, much to the glee of MBarak and Madani. I spent a wonderful day in the women's tent having intricate henna decorations tattooed on my hands and feet, a very long process and a lot of work for the women who created them. Not for me, however; I spent the day reclining on cushions and being fed. Yep, pretty much my idea of paradise, as we all know. It was rather amusing for me to try to explain the concept of Christmas; they had never heard of Christ, let alone Christmas.
Both Christmas and New Year were celebrated with a couple of bottles of the good old contraband. (I swear that when, or if, I ever return to European society I will forget that it is possible to enter a shop and buy alcohol legally, and go searching out the nearest Landrover with tarp covered back.) It was a pretty low key celebration, all in all. Everyone here is of course waiting for the real festival, when every family buys a goat or sheep and slaughters it in the ritual halal manner of slitting the throat, and then gorges unrestrainedly on meat, meat, meat for two days. After years of being a temperate meat eater, I have turned into a raging carnivore during this trip, and salivate eagerly every time I think of barbequed brochette. No goat is safe near my camp right now.
I got a bit down for a week or so, when I felt that we were getting nowhere. And then I thought back to last year, when we were forced to halt in Paris for a month, and how I nearly went stir crazy; I thought of how afterwards, I realised that if I had just accepted that we would be stopped for a month, I could have enjoyed Paris so much more than what I did. And so I gave into the myriad of factors preventing our immediate continuation, found a really good place, and plan to thoroughly enjoy this rest time. There is no point fighting the elements or fate when the world decides to take a break; and never, ever in Morocco is it worthwhile trying to speed things up. Time simply moves differently here, something I came to terms with long ago. Try to fight it and you really will go mad - far better to just lie down, brew the tea, and have a good long chat with whoever turns up at the tent, before taking a little wander off to check that the camels are munching contentedly. Let's face it, things could really be a whole lot worse...
The piste from here to Laayoune is 300 kilometres of - as I said previously - absolutely nothing. We won't be leaving before the end of January, and will be out there for a long time. I will of course post before then, but I really do need to stress once again, for family and friends who email in varying states of panic, that it is exceedingly difficult for me to get to internet - this little expedition today involved three different trucks, the gendarmerie, 150km, and a hotel for the night; not to mention the customary derrangements we encounter every time we enter a town. (The last time, Jean's bag got stolen, and we couldn't involve the police since it was stolen from the back of a vehicle laden with contraband gasoline - a friend of ours who had offered to drive us back to camp on his "business" run - and Madani spent a hectic day interrogating every petrol sniffing deviant in the slums until we finally found the thief, who led us to where he had dumped the bag in the river, and then cowered whilst an excited mob delivered rough justice with hands and feet. Just another bloody day out...)
Nothing is quick or simple here, so please, please do not panic if it is a month or more between posts. There is just nothing I can do about it, and responding to twenty different emails asking if I am alive every time is a bit depressing. I could not be safer than I am with Madani and MBarak, and now doubly so, since the gendarmerie here have decided that I am their personal responsibility. All is calm and tranquil in my little desert world.
Our estimated time frame of three months to Dakhla has stretched into double that; between the visa dramas, weather, and Mimi, we have lost a lot of time. But really for me it could not be better - the extended time here has given me a much better chance to learn the language, to become truly familiar with culture and custom, and to simply live the life. I don't see much point in hurrying anymore. I think I am becoming a bum.
It will be great to have Gary back again - sometimes being a woman alone here can be a bit of a strain, since of course no-one believes for a second that any man would actually leave his wife alone in the desert with two men not of her family. I have fielded rather more offers of marriage than I would like, and put up with being considered a prostitute by the vast majority of men we encounter in towns. The nomads of course have no such hang ups, and accept me and our little family of three without question or prejudice; but in the towns, the assumption is that Madani has got himself a European girlfriend - here, considered to be the same as a prostitute - and that I am surely up for it with all and sundry. I never offer my hand in greeting in the towns, as often the men tickle my palm with their finger to indicate a sexual connection, something I loathe. But I have to admit that I have become pretty hardened to it all; and also that I know this attitude is not universal, and certainly not amongst the nomads. It is easier if I am in melekhva. I have gotten pretty good at telling men "where to go" in Arabic. Always learn the most important things first, huh?
For all the halts and problems, I wouldn't change this expedition for anything. Every day when the sun drops behind the vast gravel mountains, and the stars soar far above in the still desert night, I look up and think that I must be one of the luckiest people on earth; I think of all the nights I sat in London, cooped up inside, watching adventures like this on the television and feeling a sad, weary kind of envy, wondering if I would ever get out of the work-and-pay rut and on with the life of my choice. And even though it is cold now in the night, I wrap up in a blanket and we make a little fire and I listen to Madani and MBarak sing, and drink my tea, and think that I don't have to wonder anymore, don't have to feel sad or envious - right here is exactly where I want to be, and I am grateful for this life every single day.
So enough of my sermonising, hippy trippy rant. I will drop another line before I head out onto the piste, and let you know if I have gone a little nuts or not; Madani is returning to take over camel-and-campsitting in a couple of weeks, so I can head off to Spain. In the meantime I will be spending a lot of time drinking tea and using my extremely crap Arabic on the poor unsuspecting nomads in the region.
Cheers and Happy New Year to everyone. I hope all your dreams come true.