We walked the longest distances we ever have, after leaving Boujdor. There were only two wells on the route to Dakhla, and Mbarak was stressed out about water – and landmines, although he didn’t want to talk too much about it. We met a few other nomads and they all frowned when we said we were continuing to Dakhla, and told us that after the second well, feed for the camels was absolutely terrible, and there were no other nomads – though plenty of opportunists who might take a fancy to the camels in the middle of the night.
A day came when we found a stunning camp – near water, and with the most amazing feed for the
camels that I have seen on the entire walk. And for the first time since we left MHamid, Mbarak asked for a group discussion.
I kind of knew it was coming. We were all exhausted, and I could sense he was worried about the coming week. So we had a long and involved conversation, with lots of sand drawings, tea, and translating by Madani, and he explained his concerns:
The road to Dakhla is actually forty kilometres off the direct route south into Mauritania. There is absolutely no feed for the camels along the route, as it is a Peninsular jutting into the Atlantic; this means we would have to camp back in the hamada before the road departs the main route. The problem with this, he said, was that this point is a notorious contraband route, and he would be very
concerned about someone stealing the camels. There is also no well for some 100km, or good feed. I had originally planned to rest in Dakhla for a week or two, and sort out what my next move was; but Mbarak said that he really felt he couldn’t camp there for a week without a water supply or good feed – something we were all in agreement with. After many previous problems, Madani and I were reluctant to be forty kilometres from the town, since this inevitably means hassles with hitchhiking and paying for a hotel. There are also not many Mhamid people in Dakhla, which cut out our usual fall back of having a helpful family member deliver water and supplies to the camp. We discussed our different options, and agreed that the place we were currently camped would be the best for Mbarak to rest; but there was no way for Madani and I to get into town from there. In the end, after long hours of looking at all the different options, we agreed to finish walking where we were, and turn back to a place not far from Boujdor where there were other nomads we could leave the camels with, and loads of family to help us.
It was a tough decision. I have been hell bent, in the past, on always reaching exactly the destination I set out to; but after six months here, and with camels and other people to consider, I had to ask myself what on earth a difference of fifty kilometres made in the grand scheme of things. I also thought that if I am able to continue walking, then where I stop for a break is absolutely irrelevant; and if I don’t, I will still have made it through 2000km of the Sahara. So I threw my hands up, we all breathed a sigh of relief, and back to Boujdor we came.
I rented a cheap house here for a month – there are family everywhere, and it was organised within a day. We put the camels with another nomad, where they are grazing contentedly on the lush pasture
that grows here, and Madani, Mbarak, and I packed up our gear and started life in the town.
I thought they would both leave; my money is pretty low, and I can’t afford to pay them after we finished walking. But they have both stayed, telling me I can’t possibly be here on my own, and besides – if I can find the money to keep walking, Mbarak wants to meet the new guide, and put him
through a rigorous interrogation process. The poor sod.
So here I am now, in my Moroccan home, trying to adjust to a life that doesn’t involve packing up a tent and four camels and walking every day. It has its bonuses; electricity for me to write on the computer (although this is intermittent at best – it goes off for about seven hours every day), a proper wash in the morning, and internet around the corner. But I miss the air blowing through the tent, and the peace, and the excitement I always feel in the mornings when we pack up and set off. It is also a little difficult to adjust to being around other people – I can’t just wander out of the house, answer the door, or be with people, without melekhva; and there are a lot of people! Every family and tribe member in Boujdor has either invited us for dinner or eaten with us – it makes for a busy social life.
The house is typical Moroccan – squat toilet which doubles as the place for washing – personal, dishes, and clothes, since there is no sink. The only tap is also in the toilet, and in the mornings we fill all the buckets and bottles, because the water usually goes off after ten o’clock and doesn’t come back on until late at night. There is a room that is obviously designated as the kitchen, evidenced by the long tiled bench and spaces beneath for storing food; there is no light in there, though, so we cook on the porta – gas by candle light, just like in the tent. There is a tiny room where I sleep and write, and a larger salon, where Madani and Mbarak sleep and we eat and receive guests. The camel blankets and mattresses cover the concrete floor, and in the large corridor running through the house there are lovely mosaic tiles on the walls and floor. Friends donated a car stereo and speaker, so Madani plays his Moroccan and Saharawi music incessantly; occasionally I protest and we switch to Bob Marley, the sole Western cassette he has. The other women in the street are lovely and invite me for tea every day.
On the corner there is a tiny shop which bakes absolutely awesome bread; it is a rare treat for us to be able to buy it fresh and hot for every meal, rather than eating two day old sand bread. In the morning men wheel carts past our door calling out their wares of mint and eggs; it is strange to taste tea with mint in it again instead of the small plant we used in the desert.
Ali Baba, our faithful donkey, was the first casualty of our new circumstances. He was unceremoniously loaded into the back of a Landrover and came to town with us, where he was promptly sold. Mbarak has not quite recovered from the shock, and I doubt that Ali Baba will ever recover from the trauma of being bodily lifted into the back of the vehicle. The poor thing was terrified. At night Mbarak gets all teary whenever he thinks of Ali Baba and Chamlette; when we look at the photographs on the computer, Madani and I crow over the people, and Mbarak points wistfully at the camels. Maybe he will miss us, but there was more than the suspicion of tears on the day he hobbled the camels for the last time.
I have applied to the Royal Geographical Society in England for a grant to continue my walk into Mauritania and Mali. I have met with some guides who are interested in taking me into the next stage, but not only am I unwilling to engage someone before I know if I have the money, I am also not ready to let go of Mbarak. He has been the most wonderful guide and friend I could ever have hoped for, and now is more like family than anything else. He and Madani have been my teachers, friends, guides, and the bridge between two worlds for six months, and I will never, ever forget them, nor be able to properly express my thanks. Mbarak taught me how to tie my melekhva; how to spot meteorites amongst the rocks on the hamada; how to greet other nomads correctly, and behave with them; the names of the plants the camels feed on, and what is good or not; how to handle the camels, and pack them so they are comfortable. He sewed up my clothes when they tore, kept a secret stash of cigarettes for when supplies ran out, and showed me how to make sand bread. The things he taught me are too numerous to ever list on this site; but above all, every day, he exemplified the unquestioning hospitality, open welcome, endless patience, and unfailing good humour that the Saharawi nomads are famous for (even though he himself is Berber).
Madani has been my best mate, confidant, and in-betweener for the whole trip. He will stay with me if I can walk into Mauritania; he understands my work, and is the invaluable link between French and Arabic when my grasp of the language fails. He taught me about the zig-zag country that is the other side of Morocco; the way nothing is ever direct here, and how to recognise the bendy parts and deal with them. I would never have survived the towns without him.
People ask me how I managed a camp of Arabic men, alone, for the last five months. I say I didn’t manage a bloody thing; Madani and Mbarak managed me, with tact, patience, and understanding. I have been very lucky indeed to have such companions.
I will not hear from the Royal Geographical Society until the end of April. My visa here finishes on the 26th of that month, and I plan to stay in Boujdor for one month, and see where I am at after that. I may return to the UK for a brief organisational trip, or if I actually get invited to the final interviews for the grant; if that isn’t the case, I will be working on trying to sell some articles about this leg of the walk, and my first book, which is still in the hands of London agent Jeffrey Simmons. The difficulty he has had in selling it comes down to the fact that I am not famous enough, something which gets me down a bit.
I want very much to keep walking. I love it here, and the other major bonus about having a month in Boujdor is the time it gives me to be with other Saharawi women, and learn from them. I am increasingly fascinated by women in Saharawi culture; unique amongst the Islamic world, they have long commanded equality and respect with men both in the home and wider community. In the refugee camps of Tindouf, where thousands fled during the war between Morocco and the Saharawi liberation army (Polisario) over the Western Sahara, it is the women who are the doctors, teachers, nurses, and administrators. In the ongoing demonstrations in the Western Sahara, which remains occupied by the Moroccan government in defiance of a decision by the International Court of Justice stating that Morocco has no claim to the territory, and a UN resolution calling for a referendum on the issue, it is Saharawi women who lead the activist movement – and who are frequently persecuted and imprisoned as a result. The women work together, placing community and the wellbeing of the group far above individual achievement; and they are remarkably self assured. I have never heard a Saahrawi woman moan about her weight or appearance, or make a self deprecatory comment. I find them inspirational, and a challenge to Western notions of what constitutes feminism. I think that in Saharawi culture, the women have a stronger grasp of what being feminist truly means, than in any Ph D thesis I have ploughed through on the subject.
But I guess I am rambling on. I will keep posting – regularly, since I find life here absorbing and fascinating, and find I have a lot I want to say. You will all be subjected to my naval gazing, so apologies in advance.
In the meantime, Mbarak, Madani, and I are resting content and enjoying the odd bottle of contraband. For a month, life could be a lot worse.
All the best to you and thanks for reading; Inshallah, there will be many more months of adventure to come. If the Royal Geographical Society reads this…
SHOW ME THE MONEY!!
Cheers from the non-famous European woman in Melekhva. And PS: it is hugely difficult to upload photographs, so I willbe putting them in over several days.