‘Welcome to Morocco,’
‘But you just said it was closed. You even said you were ‘desolé’. We’re the ones who should be desolé, not you!’
I knew I sounded mildly hysterical and looked borderline-manic and in retrospect, if I’d been the Moroccan border official, I probably wouldn’t have let me in even if the border was open. Which, in fact it was. It was a joke you see. The Moroccan official and his mates, having watched us tear across the concrete car park, passports in hand, had decided to have a bit of a laugh. You know how it is? It’s been yet another long, tedious day at the office but, just before knocking-off there’s a more relaxed atmosphere as people get into going home mode. A bit of banter, a bit of larking around, well it’s just the same for Moroccan border officials.
I bet that Claire and I weren’t the first and won’t be the last people to cross from Mauritania just as the sun’s setting, to be told by a beaming official that the border has closed for the night. Very funny! And truth be told it was, but not until it had sunk in that we weren’t going to have to spend the night in that desolate, windswept, watch-towered, floodlit, toilet-less, car park with only a bucket load of painkillers, a million cigarettes, a couple of 3 day old lumps of Mauritanian sheep food and some triangles of Laughing Cow cheese to eat. ‘The horror! The horror!’(2)*. I also think that I'd enjoy a bit of a laugh if I were a border official anywhere never mind Western Sahara. Just for a bit of fun like. I mean, nobody’s going to be bothered to go and complain about it unless they’re seriously anally retentive. Imagine the hassle involved in trying to find who you complain to in Rabat about some border officials 2000 or so kilometres away having a bit of fun. And who were, it turned out, a really charming bunch of gentlemen - and that really is the right word for them.
Also, they were all grown-ups. Like real adult men who looked like proper soldiers and not 16 year-old semi-literate mercenaries. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a fan of soldiers per se but, if we’ve got to have them, they might as well be people you’d be happy to chat to when they’re not killing people. So we joined in with the general bonhomie and then it was down to business. We were courteously ushered into the offices because, my friends, we had reached a land of concrete border posts with more than one room and chairs to sit on. First evidence to suggest we were heading in the general direction of Europe I think. Laughing boy turned out to be the chief and he sat down behind a large wooden desk. His two mates took upright chairs to the side of the room and Claire and I sat facing the chief. The office décor was what designer types call minimalist, classicists call spartan and ordinary people call bare.
There was a framed, slightly faded photograph of the King on the wall behind the desk. And a really interesting map on the wall behind us that I desperately wanted to look at. It wasn’t military or anything-it was topographical and far more detailed than the map we had in the truck. But no chance, it was mint tea all round, a chat about Scotland, a chat about New Zealand, a chat about Morocco, two stamped passports and we were off. Very civilized, very pleasant, but very time consuming. If we’d had to stay there the night then it would’ve been show-time for the watchtower boys. When the alternative to having a pee in a floodlit car park is having a pee in a pitch black minefield then, no offence intended, but I value my life more than my modesty.
It was now night and interestingly this was the first night we hadn’t had ‘another one of those African sunsets’. Instead of yet another huge red and orange sun visibly slipping below the horizon, the sunset had been obscured by an overcast looking sky to the north. Not rain clouds but low and grey like a blanket in the distance. Yet more evidence we were pointed towards Europe? We drove out of the car park and into the darkness of Western Sahara with nothing in the way of a plan, nothing to see outside the window except the sphere of the headlights on the tarmac road in front. I was knocking back the painkillers again. The fever wasn’t as bad this time but the pains in my joints were agony.
For 80km I sat in that dark cab in that dark desert thinking dark thoughts about dying. And how it would be a real hassle for Claire if I died – she agreed and said the bloody paperwork would be a nightmare. Because I’d never really thought about dying on a trip, I obviously hadn’t told my family what to do if it ever happened. So, thinking about it now, I personally would be quite happy to be buried wherever I die. Or cremated – whatever the local custom is, it’ll do fine. If I’m away on a trip it means I’m doing something I love doing so why not leave me there if I die? So long as my family and friends know where I am then it’s up to them if they want to come and visit. Some of them don’t get out much and could do with a bit of adventure in their lives. Must remember to tell them. So then we started discussing death in general and about how recently a number of people had said that it’s not in the ‘natural order’ of things for a child to die before the parents.
At the time I don’t think I gave much attention to the actual wording of the statement but I’m sure I would’ve agreed with the sentiment. But sitting in the truck cab in the dark we talked about some of the places we’d been through in Mali and Mauritania where the recorded infant mortality rates are amongst the highest in the world. In countries like these the ‘natural order’ of things is such that, as a parent you expect at least one of your children will die before they reach their fifth birthday. This is how it was in countries like ours up until 100-150 years ago. Nowadays our children usually die of incurable illnesses, by accident, occasionally as murder victims and increasingly of conditions associated with obesity. In sub-Saharan Africa the children there die of easily preventable and curable diseases caused by lack of clean water, poor sanitation and malnourishment. They also die of diseases where the only chance of a cure will be when countries like ours realise that it’s in everyone’s best interest to fund research into prevention and cure.
The anopheles mosquito is moving north guys and sooner or later someone will eventually realise what this could mean for us. I bloody well hope so anyway. And there are some interesting ideas out there in the limited world of malaria research I can tell you. Don’t ask me how, but it’s possible to make a male mosquito’s gonads glow in the dark – that way you know which ones are female – the ones you can’t see. I think they should do it the other way round and make the female mosquito’s chest glow in the dark. That way you can see the mozzies you’re supposed to kill. I’m sure it would help. They’ve also discovered that mosquitoes are attracted to people who already have malaria. Now I can only think of one practical application for that and, it’s not very friendly.
So you see, they do need a bit more funding to broaden the research horizon so to speak. Anyway, the point of all this is that we, in the ‘developed world’* are sentimentalists when it comes to the death of a child - in Africa they are realists. Particularly when, if your child hasn’t died from disease, malnourishment or famine then the only thing you have left to worry about is the next wave of war atrocities. Chaos and uncertainty is the ‘natural order’ here. And along we come turning someone else’s poverty into a sight-seeing tour. Claire and I didn’t just talk about sex and drugs and rock and roll in that truck. We covered a lot of ground between Bamako and Dover.
There we were, in a heart of darkness of our own making when we saw what looked like a light at the end of a tunnel.
(1) Conrad, J. (1902), ‘Heart of Darkness’
(2) Conrad, J. (1902), ‘Heart of Darkness’* and Coppola, F. (1979) Film, ‘Apocalypse Now’*
* Take your pick.
** I’m using the term loosely here and am not overly comfortable with the expression.