It has been an eventful few weeks.
MBarak got offered some work with tourists back in Zagora; he agonised over what to do, but I felt it was stupid for him to stay with me when it was possible to earn money elsewhere - and goodness knows, there was little in the way of funds to pay him or indeed keep him, with me in Boujdor. So, with one last visit to the camels, one final night of wine and song, tears all round and many promises to stay in touch, he swept out with his little bag and went his lonely way. It was a tough, very tough, goodbye.
Meanwhile, the king was visiting Boujdor. I have hordes of photographs of this, but I really, really struggle to upload pictures here, so I am not going to delay a post for want of photos but will hopfully post them up another time. The King's visit in this part of the country is a bit of a mixed blessing; since the population is predominantly Saharawi, and there is still a good deal of conflict over the independence of the Western Sahara, the King is hardly regarded as an honoured personage by many. But it is not overly wise, in the Western Sahara, to expound on the issue at great length - as the illegal detainment and human rights abuses of Saharawi activists are sad evidence. And so, the many Saharawi tribes dutifully set up their traditional tents on the flag lined road leading into town, donned their best gondoras and melekhvas, hoisted up the big photos of Mohammed 6, and made ready to proclaim their enthusiasm as the royal party drove into town. In reality, the whole three day festival was really just a great excuse for everyone to dress up, hear some excellent Saharawi music - and ride their camels through town at high speed, women lining the streets ululating and clapping, and a host of four wheel drives following slowly, honking and flashing their lights. The camels rode through town at regular intervals for nearly a week, the Saharawi men sitting up on the high saddles, robes flying in the wind, howling excitedly as they hurtled through the main street.
Behind them came the more traditionally Moroccan rows of men on horseback, holding their long rifles proudly beside their sabres, and trotting in stately, military splendour. Down on the plains near the seafront they gathered to perform the traditional ritual of racing across the ground and firing a fusillade as they neared the other side, to the excited accompaniment of warlike shrieks from the crowd. All very testosterone packed and wild, and a great show.
It was a bit tough for me to enjoy; despite wrapping up in complete melekhva, I was hauled into the local police station twice when I was spotted by the thousands of security present as being a tourist, and questioned endlessly as to my reasons for being there, regardless of the fact that I had already given all my details to the local gendarmerie. The problem is that this mob weren't from Boujdor but visiting from Agadir, and they were determined to ferret out any dangerous looking insurgents. I guess tourists qualify as that.
After a couple of days I gave up and just hid in the house until the carnival left town.
Despite my best intentions of buckling down to work, I found it almost totally impossible. At every minute of every day family either phoned to invite me to eat, or just arrived for tea or a meal, often staying for hours. Closing one's door is not possible in Morocco, and I was starting to get pretty stressed out, to be honest, since I had a number of tasks that desperately needed attention. On top of this Madani was making the most of his month off, which meant several friends on a nightly basis listening to Moroccan music in the salon until the early hours; not conducive to peaceful sleep or early mornings. Normally none of this would have bothered me, but when you are under pressure work wise, it is difficult to maintain composure.
I spent a few lovely days with various families, learning to make cous cous from the beginning, talking, making henna. But it was difficult to relax and enjoy it; I was terrible aware that I had just one month to try to organise continuing into Mauritania, and was desperate to try to source funds and organise a new guide, etc.
Finally one day I sat and took a long look at myself in the mirror. I wasn't eating. I was exhausted, wrung out, and getting very frustrated with Madani and all the others around me. My skin looked terrible, and I felt ill; I thought about trying to head off into the increasing heat, uncertain of funding, tension running high between Madani and I, and I thought - enough. It is time to take a real break.
I won't know the results of the Royal Gographic Society's decision until May. I have been over six months in Morocco, most of which have been spent entirely in Saharawi company; I need a little bit of time in my own culture, a peaceful environnment, to work out how to go about the next leg and get some work done. I don't want to try to maintain the camels, Madani, run a proper Saharawi home, and write articles at the same time; it is just too much. If I have learned one thing over this walk, it is that you must know when it is time to stop and take stock.
So I have organised a truck to ship the camels back to Habib in MHamid, along with all my baggage, tent and equipment. I will not renew the house for another month, but instead fly back to the UK at the end of April for a short rest. I remain determined to continue my walk - but I need to work out how to go about that. Of course, I hold out hopes that the grant will come through; but if it doesn't, I will need to work hard to come up with other sources of income. I know that to do this I am better off in England, no matter how much the though tof going back may rankle.
I still get dogged by thoughts of failure, that I somehow haven't done enough, or what I set out to; I had always hoped that I would get through to Timbuktou before taking a break. But I also accept that fighting ahead blindly when the weather is turning hot, money is scarce, and I haven't had time to properly organise my camp and equipment for the next leg, would be stupid and lead to problems. I feel that it is much better to return until I know the results of the grant decision, and then come back to Morocco and organise the next leg over the hot months of the summer, so I am ready to set off as soon as the cooler weather hits. No one in their right mind would head into the Sahara for the four hottest months of the year; it is close to a suicide wish.
And I need a rest. Not from the walk, so much, which I still love, deeply; but from the emotional strain of being totally immersed in a new language and culture, without any recourse at all to my own. I stayed in a hotel for a night - it was the first period of time I had spent completely alone for over six months.
My fascination and interest in Saharawi culture and the desert remains undiminished. I have learned so much, many things I never expected to, and I know that the experience has enabled me to put together a much more efficient operation for the next leg. But I also feel that if I take a little break now, I can come back renewed and healthy, with the energy and strength so important in organising things here. At the moment I am just tired, and worn down by the effort of trying to work on a Western schedule whilst living on a Saharawi one - I need to seperate the two for a bit.
Madani and I are okay with it all. It has been a bit hard for him to suddeny realise, after all this time, that he will be without a source of income or a purpose; he was pretty angry with me at first, since he had thought I would find a way to get money to continue directly into Mauritania. But I explained that I do still want to continue, and that I would very much like him to carry on if I find the money - but that there simply aren't funds at the moment. I think that came as something of a shock - although he had no issue with me not paying him after this month, he had assumed that there was still money to buy food, and cigarettes, and cards for the telephone. I had to explain the facts of life a bit, after he spent his entire month's wages on date whiskey and women, and came sheepishly asking for a bit more to see him through. It had never occurred to him that he might need to use his money to contribute to food and other things associated with the house. It has been a good learning experience for us both - I will certainly be well equipped when it comes to handling teenage children, if ever I have any!
But all is peaceful now. We are packing up the house and camp and camels, and I will be getting organised to fly back to the UK. I know it is the right decision; but it also hurts to be leaving. I just hope and pray that I can find a way to come back.
So, I guess the next update will be from the gray UK, unless I get excited in Marrakech and post from there. I really want to thank all those who have read my little blog through this part of the walk, and sent me messages of support. I plan to keep on going, and hope you will stay with me, insh'allah, all the way across the desert.
I'll get there somehow.