My last day in the Boujdor house, making tea and feeling mixed emotions about leaving. Thanks to Jamila and family for the fresh henna.
This was a traditional wedding in MHamid just before I left; Saharawi wedding ceremonies are long and involved, the celebrations continuing for three days, and pre-marital rituals such as the bringing of gifts to the bride's home, much longer than that. Contrary to Christian practice there is no one person who officiates over the ceremony. Rather the bride and groom gather with their families and agree to the marriage; it is the parents who say words of blessing from the Qu'aran, and join the two. There is no rigid formula to how this is done. Afterwards, the marriage is consummated, and a key part of the ceremony remains the display of the blood stained sheet, evidence of the bride's virginity. Friends of the groom will wait outside the room until the sheet is displayed.
So it was from amidst the feasts and festivities, I left MHamid, the desert, and Morocco, and took a flight back to the grey and cold (seriously cold) environs of England. But I would be lying if I said I wasn't enjoying it.
After the craziness of the last few weeks in Morocco, sorting out the camels, travelling from one end of the country to the other (between Boujdour and MHamid alone is something like 2000 km), organising my baggage and leaving everything in a state which I can come back to, I was pretty fed up and tired. After such a long time away, also, I was hanging out to see friends, talk in my own language, be around men and women of my own culture. Particularly men.
And I couldn't have come back to a more divine environment; I am staying with Dan and Stefania, very good friends of long standing, who worship at the altar of good food and wine, and also work independently (ie: also desperately trying to convince various organisations to fund their creative projects), and so I sank into the indescribable bliss of endless conversation, constant gourmandisation, and general congeniality. The only time I have drawn breath from talking is in order to pause and stuff more divine Italian cheese in my mouth. (Cheese! HAM! AAAAhhhhh, as Homer Simpson would say.)
And in the meantime, I have been trying frantically to work out what to do next. And here is where I am at.
The Radio Program "Excess Baggage" on radio Four have expressed an interest in me coming on the show (on Saturday Mornings); they have said they will call back this week, conditional of producer's approval, with a date. I have my fingers crossed and will be straight on this blog if it happens. I phoned the Royal Geographical Society; but the unofficial response from them is that my chances don't look good, since my expedition is more adventure based than research. I have never relied on the RGS, and always seen it as a long shot, though one I would have been very grateful for; they are now saying that rather than the original date of May, it is now more likely that interviews will be held in June (the first date given was JANUARY...), so the way I figure it, whether I make it to interview or not, I need to be here for a while. I have come across a fabulous woman by the name of Danielle Smith, a filmmaker who has worked with the Saharawi, and spent long periods of time in the refugee camps of Tindouf. She is currently in London after being awarded an Arts Council grant to showcase the culture and music of the Saharawi, and she is working hard to raise international awareness of the plight of people in the Western Sahara,a cause that is obviously very close to my heart. I am meeting with her later this week, which I am really looking forward to. You can look at her website at www.sandblast-arts.org. I am hoping to work closely with her, and feel excited about the projects the sandblast organisation are working on.
In the meantime I am still writing and sending off articles in the hope that someone will buy them, and working on my next book; and trying to get publicity in order to shift the first one! I have a lot of ideas about how I can raise money for the next leg of the walk (through my own efforts I mean - I am not going after sponsorship, as this has always been about me working to support myself through the walk, not relying on someone else to pay for my "holiday"). Although it is a bit tough at the moment, since there is no money and no immediate prospect of any, I feel that if I just continue focussing on what I am doing, and remain determined to walk again in September, that I will find a way to do so. And despite the fact that it is a wonderful luxury to be back in the UK, and feasting on food and friends, I miss the desert and my walk and I know I must continue.
I have been in constant contact with friends back in Morocco - it is pretty funny when I get a phone call on my mobile and pick it up on the bus, only to hear someone on the other end shout, "LABAS!" (how's it going) at great volume. Most of my phone calls just consist of the endless Saharawi greetings before the credit runs out, but I enjoy them just the same. It makes Morocco and the desert seem not so far away.
But, just as before, when we were planning our walk, I think that London is the best place for me to be based until I can start walking again. Everything is here, it is easy to work, and to be in contact with people. It is hideously expensive to live, and the weather really is bloody awful, but conversely, it truly is the centre of the world. I just need to find a cheap room to doss in for a month or two!
I hope to be posting a bit more regularly now that I am back and somewhat readjusted. I say somewhat; I still have an utter tea addiction and am very grateful I brought back all the necessary ingredients to make it properly. I miss my melekhva a lot; it is very strange to have to think about clothes again, and I don't feel as elegant and somehow comfortable in my Western stuff as I do now in melekhva. Odd, when I remember how difficult it was to manage at the beginning.
One thing I DO NOT miss, particularly after passing some time in Marrakech before coming back, is being constantly approached by men on the street. The first day I was back here I walked from the tube station to Dan and Stefania's flat, and passed several men. I put my head down and hunched my shoulders, mentally bracing myself for the barrage of crap I am so accustomed to. Sure enough, one bloke called out, "hello! Hello!" just like in Morocco. I gritted my teeth and wanted to kill him; how dare you, I thought - do I have something on my head that says I have just come back from Morocco and quite LIKE being approached? Seething inside, I ignored him and stalked on, carrying my pack and my anger. Suddenly another man did the same thing, and this time I was nearly in tears. I ignored him too. Then a girl ran up to me and tapped me on the arm: "excuse me," she said, "but you dropped this."
It was my bag of maps, and it had fallen off my pack. I turned around and the blokes were looking at me curiously, wondering why I had ignored them; they had been trying to let me know I had lost something. I felt so ashamed, and sorry and sad, and teary again; I wanted to explain that for months and months, every time I walked down a town street in Morocco I had endless men saying "Hello, hello. How are you? fine? American? Australian? Ah, very beautiful..." or, if I was less fortunate, simply "we go together? Now? I f@&k you?" And that this does something to your head, after a while, makes you defensive and sullen and stubbornly blind to all around you. (At this point I feel guilty and so place here a picture of some of the many "good guys" - nomads are always models of courtesy and kindness).
For this I loved wearing melekhva; but in the North, rather than the Western Sahara, it simply wasn't possible to wear it. There are barely any Saharawi women in Marrakech, let alone a Westerner adopting the dress. Only one night I wrapped up - it was late and I was hungry, and I just couldn't bear the hassle. I made full melekhva and walked right past them all, without one comment. It was bliss. The problem, of course, came when I opened my mouth - at which point my cover was completely blown.
Of course, if a man, like Madani or MBarak, was beside me, the comments stopped, if not the looks. But I was - am - tired of the constant hassle and harassment, the being seen as a walking visa opportunity and one desperate for sex into the bargain (and believe me, Western women are certainly considered in such a way, much of the time). It is the difference between Saharawi culture and the rest of Morocco; in the desert I was simply another nomad, part of the culture and respected for it. But the second I entered a town that changed, and suddenly I would have to deal with the other Morocco, one I don't like being alone in. It was exhausting and alienating; when I got back to England, I even hesitated before hugging my male mate hello, and that made me sad too. I have become so accustomed to treading around men with massive caution and trepidation that it is taking me a bit of time to readjust to them being friends and non-threatening. It is cultural differences like these that made my time out there so exhausting, and challenging; I think of the walk itself and that wasn't the hard part, although it had its moments. It was in the constant socialisation, and never ending immersion in another culture - without any kind of respite, and so totally different to my own - that the challenges lay.
But I have learned so much through this walk, and will do many things differently when I re-commence; I feel so passionately about continuing, and feel, also, that I have only begun to learn what I want to. There is so much more still to master and experience.
Well. One downside of having all this time and internet access is that I can't refrain from inflicting my mental cartwheels on everybody else, so after that long rumination I will stop. I will write again if (oh, what the hell, let's be positive - WHEN) I get a date for the radio program, and with any other thoughts or ideas that come my way. If you have any - feel free to share them! I am grateful for any and all suggestions.
Once again I really want to say an immense thankyou to all the kind people who emailed me in support, giving me encouragement, after my last post. I say it a lot on this blog but I truly remain grateful every day for the kindness of strangers and friends who take the time to write. It means the world to get them, and the messages on the site.
So I am going to go and make some more tea and indulge in something fatty, sweet, and NOT tajine or camp stew. May as well enjoy the sins of the West, eh?
The horses are from the king's visit; they were part of the parade I spoke about in an earlier post.