As we rattled round the almost deserted streets of Laayoune I was struck by one thing and one thing only – I hadn’t seen so many banks in one town since I’d been in the UK six weeks earlier. They all appeared to have working ATMs as well. Awe struck I was! The idea of reaching Tarfaya, our intended destination, had been completely abandoned and we were headed out to the main road to find a petrol station and park up for the night. We weren’t sure if it was Laayoune in general or the just the petrol station but something stank. There was no breeze; there was a thick cold mist and all you could smell was a combination of fish, diesel and something a bit sulphurous. Sea air can be so bracing!
Claire parked the truck up so that her side was up against the wall on the right-hand side of the station forecourt. On the left-hand side was a decent looking café and along the rear of the forecourt was a low building connecting the café to the wall where we were parked. This housed a mosque, the loos, and the petrol station office and immediately in front of us was the entrance to a pitch black garage workshop. While Claire was doing her ‘let the truck idle’ routine, I gathered up our gear, jumped down from the cab and locked the door behind me. Big mistake! The next thing I know I’m being chased round the petrol pumps by a maniac clutching a handful of sardines that he was waving wildly at me. I think he’d appeared from the black hole of the garage workshop but I wasn’t really caring too much about where he’d come from, I was more interested in him going back.
And yes, they were fresh sardines, about half a dozen of them and no; I hadn’t a clue why I was even involved in this scenario. As far as I was concerned, the man and his fish were nothing to do with me. The polite version of what I shouted to Claire was something like, ‘Claire dear! Could you be an absolute sweetie and just stop laughing for a moment? It really would be awfully good of you if you could pop down here and lend a hand. I promise it’ll only take a mo darling’. Well she was in pain with laughter, the cow. And she had the best seat in the house. I couldn’t get back in the cab, he’d be on me with his sardines before I could even unlock it, never mind drag myself back up there. I decided to be sensible. What was the worst thing he could do with a fistful of sardines? OK, let’s not go there… but the point is I didn’t feel particularly threatened by his behaviour so why was I behaving as weirdly as he was. I stopped and turned, he stopped and waved the sardines. It wasn’t a menacing gesture but it didn’t strike me as welcoming either. It was just odd.
‘OK sunshine, what’s with the fish?’
He waved them again and started to speak. Hadn’t a clue what language but as it wasn’t French, English or Spanish and as it didn’t sound very Arabic to me I can only assume it was some Berber dialect spoken in the south. The speech inflection and intonation also suggested more than a passing resemblance to Klingon. Could explain the stone circles up on the border with Mauritania and Algeria eh? I wondered if it might be a local political problem rather than a personal psychological one. Maybe some European fishing fleet had been depleting the Western Saharan sardine stocks out to sea and he was one well peed-off local fisherman. By this time Claire had wandered casually over and she stood looking from me to maniac and back again a few times.
‘Food.’, she said assertively.
‘Right.’, I said and followed her away from the petrol pumps towards the café door.
It was full of twenty-something blokes watching a huge TV mounted high up in one corner of the room. Football. No problem. Claire asked for the toilet and was led back outside the door while I asked the guy behind the counter for some hot water, bread and milky coffees. I then showed him how to make cuppa-soup – he seemed impressed and called a couple of his mates over for a look. They seemed impressed. Looks like there’s a marketing opportunity there. Claire returned and we settled down at a spotless Formica table to eat, drink and in my case consult ‘the Book’ and in her case to watch the footy. A few moments later Claire nudged me. I looked up.
‘They’ve turned the footy off.’, she moaned.
I looked at the TV then I glanced round the room. All the guys in the room were looking at us with smiles on their faces.
‘Tom Cruise very good, yes? , asked the guy behind the counter.
‘Yes …er, yes he is.’
‘All ladies like. You like?’
‘Yeh, he’s OK,’ replied Claire, ‘but football’s better.’
But no, they weren’t having it. They must’ve thought that we were only saying we preferred the footy out of politeness but we couldn’t possibly mean it. We were ladies so we must want Tom Cruise, we were guests so we were getting Tom Cruise and that was that. Not a bad film Jerry Maguire, but not for the squillionth time and please not in Arabic with French subtitles, please.
We were absolutely knackered so decided the best policy would be to finish up, get out and relieve the guys of their traditional and hospitable responsibilities towards guests and let them get back to the footy. It was interesting to note though, that they were treating us as females as well as guests. It’s not often you find yourself feeling mildly honoured and mildly insulted simultaneously. We ordered mugs of hot milk, selected two of the most scary looking pre-packed cake things, paid up and said goodnight to the lads. As we walked back to the truck we passed maniac man, now accompanied by a mate, grilling a handful of sardines on a small charcoal stove. Neither of them batted an eyelid in our direction. Cakes, milk then sleep. Bliss.
‘What in the name of god is that?’
I don’t know how long I’d been asleep for before the stillness of the desert night was shattered by a noise that was unrecognisable for a few moments and unbearable for the next few hours. It was simultaneously a deep booming, a high-pitched erratic feedback scream overlain by the loudest continuous white noise I’d ever heard. It took a while but eventually I was able to discern a pattern and a rhythm to this noise. It was none other than Dolly Parton! And it was Dolly Parton at thousands more decibels than the maximum level of human tolerance. The earth moved. After Elvis and Madonna, half- way through a local number, something broke. There was silence but I didn’t dare let myself drift off yet – I couldn’t bear the shock again. Good job, as about 5 minutes later the music was back on through what sounded like one speaker on half capacity. It was still loud but the truck was no longer bouncing up and down.
The music must’ve stopped at some point because when Claire woke me at 6am it was dark, very foggy, cold and really quiet. I was dragged into the cab whingeing that I couldn’t function without a hot drink and why was the café closed. I couldn’t believe it when maniac man appeared out of the gloom to demand money for guarding the truck. Wrong person to ask and wrong time to ask. We drove off through the fog, a solitary vehicle heading north. I read to Claire from ‘the Book’ to stop myself from falling asleep. I didn’t want to miss the first hint of coffee on the route. Claire was well impressed when I told her that we were driving through an area of great interest to ornithologists.
‘Thanks,’ she said, ‘I’ll remember that the next time I’m here in the daytime.’ Sunset was not very exciting, the fog had lifted but there was a lot of low grey cloud about. The cluster of buildings looming in the distance was far more exciting. We pulled up at a sort of shack café and asked for two coffees. The elderly blanketed man stared at us blankly. Suddenly a voice behind us asked, ‘Do you know of anyone in your country who would like a good husband?’ We both turned around.