Written by HELEN001 on 07 May, 2006
We both turned round to look at the speaker. He was a good-looking bloke in his early 20s, dressed in a warm woollen jellabah with a scarf wrapped loosely around his head and shoulders.
‘Excuse me please,’ he said in English, ‘but would you know…Read More
We both turned round to look at the speaker. He was a good-looking bloke in his early 20s, dressed in a warm woollen jellabah with a scarf wrapped loosely around his head and shoulders.
‘Excuse me please,’ he said in English, ‘but would you know of any ladies in your country who would like a husband? Or a good worker?’
Well I could think of plenty of females at home who would appreciate a good worker but certainly not a husband. I didn’t think though, that he meant someone to do the housework. Claire didn’t even bother to think about it.
‘All we know at the moment mate, is that we need coffee.’‘I will show you. Come.’ ‘What’s wrong with this place?’ I asked pointing to the stall behind us.‘Just tea here. Only Arab tea.’As we followed our new friend over the flat wasteland by the road towards a group of modern two-storey buildings I had a good look round. It was a fairly sizable settlement with buildings on both sides of the road. The architectural style was the ever popular in West Africa, ‘breeze-block’ brutalism painted predominantly in shades of reddish pink. The mosque was one of the few buildings of note merely because its stark unadorned parallelism was not something that you’d normally associate with Islamic architecture. We had also parked the truck on empty land opposite the other building of interest. Pale yellow seems to be the preferred choice of colour for ‘official’ buildings right up through Mali, Mauritania and in Western Sahara.
This particular example was very new, freshly painted with script and insignia, nice little garden arrangement at the front, white painted railings with a big red and white stripped pole across the entrance. Could’ve been military, could’ve been police but either way, it’s just not a good idea to stare for too long trying to work it out. As we walked up the steps to the café door I spotted a curious looking thing by the side of the road to the front of us. Maybe 3-4m high, it was a perfect pyramid shape made out of some highly polished dark pink rock. There was something carved into the side of the pyramid but I couldn’t make out if it was writing or what. Even though it was chilly we opted to sit outside for breakfast.
It was quite a small but perfectly formed café and it was obviously where the older male residents went of a morning to catch up on what had happened since the previous day. They made us quite welcome but it was nice to sit outside and watch ABSOLUTELY NOTHING go by. This was Tah, officially the crossing point from Western Sahara into Morocco and which also the starting point of the Green March in November 1975. Basically after the International Court of Justice said Western Sahara should be independent the Moroccans decided this was rubbish and that they should have it. But they would share some of it with Mauritania! So King Hassan II encouraged 300,000 or so unarmed civilians to wander across the border and stake their claims. It wasn’t so much a march as a dispersal really. When and if the proposed UN referendum on independence for Western Sahara ever takes place, as it will be the residents who vote.
After the Green March the Moroccans can ensure at least 300,000 votes in favour of it becoming part of Morocco. At least, that’s the theory and that’s what the pyramid monument is all about. Western Sahara even has a government-in-exile which, in 1976 named the territory the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic, and has been officially recognised by over 70 nations. Frankly I think the Moroccans little ruse on the voting tactics might backfire, particularly after what our friend told us that morning. But first we had to deal with the husband/worker issue which, as it turned out, was directly related to the Western Saharan settlement policy of the Moroccan government. Our friend* and his family used to live just outside Marrakesh until, enticed by inducements such as free housing, power and water, subsidised fuel and no taxes, they moved to Tah. After finishing school in Tah our friend went to college in Agadir where he studied English, and Business Studies.
He wanted to stay near his elderly parents but there is no work in Western Sahara whether you’re qualified or not. If he moved to another part of Morocco he wouldn’t earn enough to pay for someone to look after his parents. He wished they’d never moved to Tah and the only way he could see out of it was to get to Europe and the only way he could do that was to marry a European woman. In Europe he would earn lots of money. By the time we left Tah I think we’d managed to convince him that it probably wasn’t quite as simple as that. We couldn’t however, convince him that the streets of Europe weren’t paved with gold. I know we must seem rich when we waltz about in less-developed countries with our digital cameras and assorted gadgets so it’s not surprising people think like this. And then you look at the imported stuff on the TV in these places – the only time they see anything other than wealth is when they’re watching documentaries about their own countries.
There’s nobody around to explain the difference between fact and fiction in these imported programmes. I remember once being asked by a friend in Burma if my car at home could go under water like James Bond’s. A couple of gritty social realism dramas set in housing schemes in the UK would go a long way to dispel the myth that we’re all loaded. Our friend wasn’t the only guy we’d met who seemed to think like this though and he certainly wasn’t the only guy who was into what we called ‘Yahoo Girls’.
Throughout West Africa there must be thousands of guys searching the internet for European female ‘pen-pals’. Our friend had a ‘Yahoo Girl’ who lived in London and who has said she may come out to visit him. I hope she likes sand and ‘breeze-block’ brutalism. But our friend was unusual in so far as he wanted to stay near his ageing parents. He told us that the majority of his peer group were living in shanties outside Agadir in the hope of picking up work. So, I’m not convinced that all the freebies in the world make it worth the move to Western Sahara. If there was a referendum I’d be tempted to vote for independence on the off-chance the government might relocate me back to Morocco for free.
‘Do you know why Tah is famous in Morocco?’ ‘Start of the Green March?’ we ventured.‘What is out there?’ he asked pointing over the road towards the buildings there.‘The mosque?’‘No it is Canary Islands.’Sure enough, we knew they were out there beyond the mosque, the sea and the horizon.‘It is where many people try to go in boats at night. It is best way to Europe so people come to nearby to Tah to take boat to leave Africa.’When I asked him if he would ever do that he said no because many of these boats are too full, people drown often and he didn’t know how to swim. We finished our breakfast, walked with our friend back to the truck and wished him good luck in his search for the perfect ‘Yahoo Girl’. All we had to do to leave Western Sahara or the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic, depending on your leanings, was to drive past a pink pyramid towards Tarfaya.
* Of course he had a name but you just never know do you? I wouldn’t like to think of him being forced to dig berms or make random piles of tyres as a consequence of his anti-government sentiments.
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…Read More
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.
With the sun behind him the features of the approaching figure were in deep shadow. I was looking at the silhouette of a person holding what looked like a large spanner. Believe it or not, I had slowly started to put my hands up when…Read More
With the sun behind him the features of the approaching figure were in deep shadow. I was looking at the silhouette of a person holding what looked like a large spanner. Believe it or not, I had slowly started to put my hands up when the figure pointed to one of the rear tyres on the truck and spoke, in French. At first I thought he was telling me we had a flat but then I sussed that he wanted to borrow a jack. Cornflakes, board games, brandy and a trenching tool were just a few of the things I’d found secreted away in the truck over the previous weeks. But I couldn’t remember having seen a tyre jack.
‘Claire,’ I yelled across the forecourt, ‘this guy wants to borrow a jack. Where is it?’‘In the back’ She never looked up from her book as she yelled back in response. ‘Right.’Now ‘the back’ may not look big enough to easily conceal something as large as a jack but trust me, this truck was like the Tardis. All the seats had storage space under them and tons of stuff piled on top of them. I needed some clues. What I got was Claire humfing across the forecourt but who nevertheless found the jack and had it out in 30 seconds. Claire’s humf, as usual, didn’t last long and her professional curiosity got the better of her so we followed the guy, jack in one hand and spanner in the other, round the corner. I can’t remember the make of the car we were looking at but it would be classified as a ‘boy-racer’ at home.
And there, leaning against this black, gleaming, fully accessorised, insurance agent’s nightmare stood a pair of life insurance agent’s nightmares. What the hell were these two cool dudes doing here? Surely this wasn’t their hood? Where would you do a drive-by out here? There’s nothing to drive-by. Then it dawned - off duty soldiers, maybe. Or maybe not. I’m not sure how reassured the Moroccan Minister of Defence would be if he thought the people guarding the border weren’t savvy enough to carry a jack. I think I’d probably do a review or something. Mind you, you’d also have expected spanner man to have a jack as well. We assumed that the small tow truck parked next to the boy racer was his, and that the overalls he wore under his scarf meant that he was a mechanic, so the need to borrow something as basic as a jack was a bit mystifying.
Even I know to carry a jack at home though I’m not sure I’d know what to do with it. Once the car was raised there was further delay while Claire and spanner man went back to the truck to look for a right-handed, 18cm, ratchet sprocket or something. I don’t think I’ve got one of those in my car. I sat in the sun leaning against a petrol pump and watched the front drivers-side tyre come off. Interesting, as it was the rear drivers-side tyre that was flat. But no, there was more. Next the flat rear tyre was removed and even more interestingly, was put back in place of the front tyre. I must add that this whole process was interrupted at frequent intervals by a lot of debate and the occasional request from Claire for them to ‘get a bloody move on’.
Another mug of coffee later it was all smiles as the jack and the other thing were handed back to Claire. Boy racer now had a flat at the front instead of the back but everybody seemed happy except we were also more than a tad puzzled at this exercise. It wasn’t until was watched spanner man then reverse his truck up to boy racer, attach the towing hook to the front of the car and winch it a foot or so off the ground that we understood. Wedged into the tow truck cab, all three drove off waving effusively as both back wheels of the car rolled smoothly over the tarmac. Spanner man may not have had the tools for the job but we were well impressed with his initiative. Can’t say the same for the other two though, no jack, no spare and apparently no engine either.
Of course we didn’t make it to Tarfaya which is the price you pay for an unintended and leisurely lunch stop. Or at least, I paid the price, once we did stop for the night. Claire, on the other hand, had a great night, thought it all very amusing she did. It’s no wonder I slept for weeks when I got home. In retrospect though, lunch was worth the slightly unusual impending evening entertainment.
First we had a whole afternoon of hammada dotted with the occasional settlement, communications towers, army check points and even once, a single solitary huge sand dune. At intervals on our left hand side were steep gullies in the cliffs that afforded views of stunning deserted beaches and an intense blue sea. These gullies, some almost up to the road edge were always located in places where dry wadis crossed the road. It’s the force of the water falling over the cliffs when in spate that causes these gullies. It won’t be long before some gullies will need either bridging or a detour into the hammada.
The weird thing is that the land seems completely flat for miles yet it must slope imperceptibly towards the sea for water to flow in that direction. If you didn’t know the sea was there then you’d never guess which way the water in the wadis flowed. The other things that were far more frequently spotted at the side of the road were tyres. They cropped up all over the place. Some had been arranged as if marking out a plot of land – they’d been positioned upright and half buried in the sand. Others were just stacked in piles either on the side of the road, stacked in isolated piles some way off the road or over a milestone as in a game of hoop-la. Bizarre it was, as none of the tyres seemed to have just been randomly thrown away.
There was obviously some logic behind this but we didn’t get it. I don’t think for one minute this had anything to do with marking plots of land either. Why, in the middle of nowhere, would you even bother to mark out a single plot? Of considerably more interest on the artistic front were the cairns or pyramid shaped piles of stones at intervals along the road. Well some of them were pyramids but many of them had been built into amazing sculptural shapes and obviously with great skill as not one of them had fallen over or fallen to pieces. We figured that they must’ve been made by the guys who built the road but we’d no idea why. Some of these guys would make a fortune in the UK building dry stone walls and garden features. An exhibition at the Tate Modern even? Not everything was a complete mystery on this particular stretch of the N1 though.
Somewhere along the way we came across hundreds of those huge things made out of concrete that they use to make harbour walls and jetties. No idea what they’re called but they’re shaped like pointy stars and when they’re stacked on top of each other in the same way you’d build a brick wall; the pointy bits all interlock and make a solid foundation. All the spaces between the pointy bits at the top are filled in with rubble and the whole structure is then levelled off. Later on we saw a new port development where these things had been used to make really long jetties with really big container ships moored alongside them.
But it was such an unexpected sight - hundreds of these things in rows by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. I wonder where we store ours in the UK? I wouldn’t have thought we’d got the space. Just south of Laayoune, a large industrial complex was lit up like a bloody Christmas tree; floodlights, street lights, spotlights, stop lights, go lights and headlights all twinkling in the distance. But if the darkness hadn’t been temporarily banished to the edges of our vision we wouldn’t have seen …… the conveyor belt. Yes, rumoured to be the longest conveyor belt in the world, it carries phosphates from Boukra, about 80km to the east, to Laayoune for shipping. And jolly exciting it was too. Another one of those things that I didn’t know existed that I came upon by chance. Serendipity or what? After much careful consideration on the subject of the sights of Western Sahara and their overall scarcity I find myself in the position of calling a conveyor belt a ‘must see’. How sad is that?
Parked up on the side of the road eating sandwiches – the vast featureless stony plain of the hammada stretched as far as the eye could see in front of us and to our right – I started to wonder if maybe I’d imagined the…Read More
Parked up on the side of the road eating sandwiches – the vast featureless stony plain of the hammada stretched as far as the eye could see in front of us and to our right – I started to wonder if maybe I’d imagined the terrors of the previous night. And no, it wasn’t that I found the miles of endless hammada a particularly uplifting landscape. I prefer a bit more topography in my deserts. It was the view on the other side of the road that did it for me. We could see the sea and oh, how we’d behaved like a pair of over-excited school girls when we first saw it.
The urge to go and throw ourselves into those toothpaste ad breakers after miles and miles of parched landscapes was overwhelming. Not however, overwhelming enough to get us anywhere near the edge of the steep cliffs that sheered down to the beach below. So near and yet so far! I wouldn’t even go so far as to say that the view was particularly stunning either, it was just because it was the sea at last. We were near Dakhla so we thought we’d have lunch and see if we could spot it through the haze on the peninsular. We couldn’t, but according to ‘the Book’ it’s turning into a Winnebago Wonderland with its endless beaches and not too bad eateries.
Dakhla is about as far south as you can get without a visa and it’s becoming an increasingly popular winter destination for European ‘retirees’ who like fishing, eating fish and hanging out in brothels. It seems Dakhla could be in the running for the title of ‘Sin City of the South’ should things get a little busier. According to the map we’d spent the night in the car park of the Café Restaurant Motel Barbas and it was there, at 8 o’clock that morning, we’d bought half a dozen or so side-plate sized loaves of bread, flying saucer in shape and alien in taste and texture. Way back in Bamako when we’d sorted out the tinned food on the truck, we’d found a small, dusty tin of apricot jam. It appeared to be of Chinese origin and on close inspection probably dated back to the Ming Dynasty!
So it was then a toss-up between possibly activating a curse upon opening and witnessing the contents of the ancient Chinese artefact, or bloody Laughing Cow cheese, again. So what if The Wizened Claw of Wu Wang was out to get me, I thought I was dying again anyway, so what did I care? Claire looked me in the eye, got out her multi-tool thingy and calmly opened the tin, and……. it was……. REALLY NICE JAM! The bread however, ah well…the bread – now that was a different story. We knew just couldn’t possibly have bought sheep fodder cakes again. Could we? Nah – we’d seen other people buying them and they didn’t have any sheep with them either.
So it was definitely for humans. It was just a little on the hard side with a slightly odd taste – there seemed to be equal parts salt to sugar in it. After a bit of experimentation, the most palatable combination turned out to be jam and bloody Laughing Cow cheese together. Sweet and sour sandwiches. The simple pleasures of life eh? A mediocre view and some gum-numbing sandwiches were all it took to make me look back on the previous night as just another one of those things that could happen, to anyone, anywhere. Dinner had been fantastic, an enormous tajine of chicken and chips, each. More milky coffee, more heavy duty medication and then bed, ‘...to sleep: perchance to dream’ (1).
‘Claire?’ I shouted up to the back of the truck, ‘Why did you say we were parked next to this sign?’A muffled and sleepy voice came from the darkness of the platform behind the cab, ‘Security.’‘So when we’ve been parked up before in the middle of nowhere at night, we were safer than we are in this car park?’There was silence. If she’d been awake she’d have answered. She’s like that – this woman who could sleep standing up in a wardrobe. Once she’s out, she’s out. This is more than can be said for the petrol station sign. It was monolithic, a bit like the black slab out of 2001: A Space Odyssey (2)*, only it pulsed with that intensely bright, white, type of light they use in pathology labs and mortuaries. I lay on my back in my sleeping bag, covered by a most hideously and garishly patterned acrylic blanket which was in turn under a rough woollen blanket bearing the logo of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees** printed on one corner. I shivered.
The gaps between each pulse of slightly brighter white light were so small they were barely perceptible – almost subliminal. Likewise there was also a slight increase in the pitch of the continuous low buzzing noise emanating from the monolith that accompanied each pulse. Also pulsing on the same frequency was the headache I’d had off and on for 3 weeks. It was grim. It was one of those ‘if there is a god then can you turn the light out please’ situations which, once resolved, would become a ‘now god, how’s about dealing with the pain and fever’ situation. The row of half-sized, mock-Victorian street lamps that ran along the edge of the car park and were dotted around in the patio garden had been turned off.
Like that made any difference! I hate light pollution. I could never live in a town or city – even the handful of street lights in my village I consider to be serious overkill. And don’t get me started on those profligates who start wiring up their Christmas lights in August each year. By the end of a night of total delirium, I’d decided that I was going home to shoot the street lights out and that the monolith was God. I’d rather live on the dark side if it’s all the same to you. Needless to say, the car park ‘security’ acolyte got short shrift from me when he came looking for his handout in the morning. Now, a couple of hundred kilometres later and what felt like a couple of hundred °Celsius warmer, I was feeling a hundred per cent better than I’d felt whilst communing with god. Totally knackered but definitely better.
So much so, that I missed the next couple of hours of hammada which was a bit of a shame I suppose. But, all was not lost. I did manage to convince Claire that yes, I really did want to have a look at the plants. Although the hammada is usually described as flat, rocky desert which it is, in Western Sahara it’s also got loads of amazing plants. The tallest type of plant looked disconcertingly similar in shape and colour to the heather on the hills in Scotland and possibly Madagascar! (3).
There was another plant that covered the ground in huge swathes in some places and, from a distance, looked like it was a mass of dark red flowers. And another that always seemed to spread outwards in the shape of a star. Of course, they must have been xerophytes to survive in that environment. (There’s nothing worst than a smartarse is there sometimes?) It’s just a scientific way of saying they’re very very drought resistant. Imagine going down the garden centre and asking if they’ve got xerophytes. They manage to survive by storing water inside their stems and leaves which is why they feel fleshy to touch. They’d be grown as house plants where I live, if you could buy them there in the first place. I’d no idea what any of them were called and I’ve still got no idea because, surprise surprise, I’ve not found any information on plants of the Western Sahara. Now there’s a niche market. Nevertheless, it was a happy woman that promptly fell asleep the minute the truck set off again. Easy to please, that’s me.
(1) Shakespeare, W. (C16th), ‘Hamlet’ (2) Clarke, A.C. (1968), ‘2002: A Space Odyssey’ and Kubrick, S. (1968) Film, ‘2002: A Space Odyssey’ (3) Kilner-MacPhee, H. (2006), ‘Mauritania Journal, Part 6’ * Take your pick ** There are lots of blankets for sale in Mali including huge numbers of these UNHCR blankets. Nobody could tell us where they had come from and we didn’t know why they were being sold rather than given away. They were the warmest and cheapest but we did feel slightly uncomfortable about buying them. It could have been quite legit or it could have been a scam. Difficult.
‘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…Read More
‘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.
Strange place this Western Sahara. You can’t help wondering why anyone would want to fight over it, much less build a wall round it. OK, it’s not really a wall, more a sort of high ridge made by digging a deep ditch in the sand…Read More
Strange place this Western Sahara. You can’t help wondering why anyone would want to fight over it, much less build a wall round it. OK, it’s not really a wall, more a sort of high ridge made by digging a deep ditch in the sand and piling the extracted sand along the edge of the ditch. This sand wall is often referred to as the ‘berm’ but I think I’d have to take issue with that. In geographical terms a berm is a narrow horizontal ridge that runs parallel to a beach foreshore made up of storm debris. So, it could be made of sand but it could also be seaweed, shells or even algae. In archaeological terms a berm is the flat bit between a ditch and the next ridge on an earthwork, say a British Iron Age fort perhaps. And yes, that could also be made of sand but, more pertinently, it was a defence measure constructed by man.
Now the sand wall I’m talking about wasn’t caused by storms at sea and it certainly won’t be a subject of archaeological interest for a wee while yet. The only way this sand wall can be called a berm is because it’s a defence measure and it was constructed by man. Unless of course, I’m way off beam and berm is in fact the Sahrawi word for ‘blimey, that’s one hell of a long ditch’. Which it is – for 2500 km it follows a route that’s too complicated to describe without a map but basically runs parallelish with the borders of Mauritania to the south and east then clips the Mauritanian border at its pointy intrusion in the north east and then swings north and ends somewhere in that place where Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania and Algeria all nearly meet up together. I said it was difficult to describe didn’t I? The areas to the east of the berm, roughly 20% of Western Sahara, are under the control of the Polisario.
These guys are Sahrawi guerrilla fighters who, as the indigenous people of the region, believe they have rightful claim to independence and self-rule in Western Sahara. The United Nations seems to agree too but well, you know how it is? Some wars are just more important and take up more time than others and there’s only so many hours in a day. So basically, over a six-year period between 1981 and 1987 the Moroccans built this bloody great sand and rock wall and pushed the Sahrawis towards the borders and in many cases over the borders and into grim refugee camps situated mainly in Algeria.
And of course, Morocco isn’t the only country that’s gone in for wall building as a means of ensuring the continued suppression of native peoples. Originally the Polisario guerrillas were fighting for independence from Spain but once Spain left the Western Sahara region in 1975, the Moroccans and Mauritanians moved in with their own claims. Eventually the Mauritanians withdrew and the Moroccans took over that bit too. And guess what they’ve done? They’ve built settlements in the ‘occupied’ territory. Sounds a teeny weeny bit familiar doesn’t it? The only time both sides seem to agree is when they both disagree with a UN proposal of which there have been about two in 30 years. The possibility of phosphate reserves in the disputed territory further complicates the issue and perhaps partly explains the grab for land policy of the Moroccan Government.
For the Sahrawis however, their reasoning is simple – they just want somewhere to live. I’d like to think that at some point in the future the need for a sand wall across Western Sahara will become as unnecessary as the hedge that crossed India (1). There is precious little in the way of factual information or the cartography of the hedge. Even less is known about the grief and suffering caused by the hedge. Because there is no physical evidence left there is no constant visual reminder or memorial even? If there is eventually a peaceful settlement between the Moroccans and the Sahrawis I think they should preserve a stretch of the sand wall just to remind everybody of how much suffering we can cause each other sometimes.
I’d have liked to have seen the sand wall but we didn’t. I shouldn’t imagine you’d be allowed within a million miles of it from the Moroccan side. I gather it’s quite effective though, as tanks can’t cope with it. It’s also mined to kingdom come. I wonder where they got them from? Sahrawi insurgents prefer to tackle it in the heat haze of the afternoon when blinded border guards blink into the bleached beyond. At night, half way up a vertiginous man-made sand and rock slope you’d stick out like a sore thumb through a pair of night-vision binoculars. Like the Sahrawi I’d opt for the daytime trip if I had to cross the sand wall.
And talking about archaeology, as we were, when I was trying to find out more about the berm, I found this really interesting website about some archaeological excavations that had taken place in the Northern Sector of Polisario controlled territory. This team appear to be from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia and in order to get to the sites they’ve had to have support from the Polisario who’ve been pretty cool about it. They’ve found some interesting stuff out there including rock art, funerary monuments and stone circles. I wouldn’t mind seeing that as well but I’d be hard pushed to fit Algeria into my life right now.
So the website is, www.cru.uea.ac.uk/~118/wsahara.htm Their map shows the location of the berm as well as the archaeological sites. The website also has a good summary of the political history of the region and some good photos of the finds.
Strange too was Ech Toucan. At first we thought it was another army roadside sentry post. They were no hassle – when they did stop you they were efficient, polite and professional. None of the ‘you give me fucky fucky or you don’t get your passport back’ routine here. Personally I wouldn’t blame them if they did hold you up for fun. What an awful place for an army posting especially when you see some of the nice places in Morocco they could’ve been sent to instead. I thought at first that it was probably where they send the guys who’re doing their national service. But then I found out that a huge number of ‘conscripts’ opt to stay on in the army and sign up for squillions of years. If I was the Moroccan Minister of Defence, which I can’t be because there is no Moroccan Ministry of Defence, I’d sent the conscripts somewhere really cushy for 18 months, wait for them to sign up in their droves then pack them off to Western Sahara in their droves.
Incidentally, there is no Moroccan Ministry of Defence because the King is the boss of the Moroccan armed forces. This too is a defence measure, the principle being that if the King is the Minister for Defence then he’d have one less person in the military to mistrust. Yeh well, it’s worth a shot! The army road-side sentry post turned out to be another isolated café-restaurant and petrol station about 200km north from our sweet and sour sandwich stop and around 450km to our planned night stop at Tarfaya. No monolith but a very nice little Italianate terrace with three tables overlooking the garage forecourt and fronting a very large, spotless dining room with a prayer alcove off to one side. Long distance coaches to Dakhla stop here but when we swung in for a coffee break there was just us, a jeep load of soldiers and a huge ginger cat stuck on the roof. And of course, the two elderly guys behind the counter. We had the usual good-natured proposals of marriage then got down to the serious business of ordering two milky coffees in our large plastic mugs.
‘You wanna eat?’ asked Claire.‘Nah.’ I replied.Then we saw what the soldiers were having.
After a leisurely lunch on the terrace I popped across to the truck to get something and stood for a moment admiring the monstrous red and white painted communications tower on the hill behind the café. They appear at regular intervals for hundreds of kilometres along the side of the road. Heading north when you first come across them they’re defended to the hilt by armed soldiers and you try not to look as if you’re looking at them and their tower. The closer you get to the ‘Moroccan’ border the less strategic they become and by the time you’ve hit central Morocco nobody seems to care if people build their houses round them. Suddenly I became aware of a figure crossing the forecourt towards me.
(1) Moxham, R. (2001) ‘The Great Hedge of India’
We drove through the darkness towards the orange pinprick in the distance. Like moths to a light bulb we were. The pinprick grew larger the closer we got. It then divided into two distinct colours – a perpendicular line of bright white light on the…Read More
We drove through the darkness towards the orange pinprick in the distance. Like moths to a light bulb we were. The pinprick grew larger the closer we got. It then divided into two distinct colours – a perpendicular line of bright white light on the right hand side and a splodge of soft orange light to the left hand side. It was the bright white light we identified first – petrol station/gas station/servo* or whatever. The orange splodge of light stayed an orange splodge of light until about 5 minutes before we reached it. Or should I say them? Because the splodge gradually fragmented into smaller orange splodges that eventually turned out to be the lights of a hotel/a motel/the bar in Star Wars. Claire did a perfect job of reversing between two parked vehicles just as she would have done without me waving my arms around behind the truck like a fruitcake. I needed to feel useful.
I felt I’d been about as much use as a chocolate fireguard so far on the trip. I was also freezing my arse off. It’d been warm in the cab and I’d climbed out in a t-shirt and long cotton skirt. So now the truck was parked and for some technical reason that I couldn’t get my head around, you’ve got to let the engine idle for a bit first. Well that was the coldest bit I’d experienced in a long time. I couldn’t get into the back of the truck without Claire because I didn’t have the energy to lift the tailgate down myself. When I went to Mali I was expecting to be cold in the desert at night but I thought my 3-seasons sleeping bag would probably be a bit of overkill. Instead I bought a second hand nylon zip job from a charity shop and worked on the principle that I’d buy a nice locally made blanket if I needed one and then give it to someone as a present when I got home. After frantically rummaging around in the back of the truck for warm stuff we headed towards the beckoning orange glow across the car park. Our truck was probably the most unusual vehicle in the car park, the rest being the usual mix of 4x4s, shiny Mercs, Toyota pick-ups and clapped-out Peugeot estate cars. A couple of gleaming white camper vans provided more evidence that we were still heading in the right direction for Europe.
‘Why did you park up next to the petrol station light?’‘Safer.’, replied Clare.‘Right.’, I said.What a weird place. Architecturally there were two ways of looking at it - it was either post-modernist fusion gone mad or the place had evolved over time and could therefore be defined as ‘organic’ rather than designed. I incline towards the latter. The building appeared to be modern with smooth rendered walls painted a sort of dark terracotta colour. The main entrance to the place was reached by winding your way between wrought-iron, mosaic-topped tables and chairs scattered across a large circular paved patio area. To the left hand side was a garden area surrounded by a rudimentary barrier made of bamboo poles.
As far as we could see, the only purpose this barrier served was as some sort of deterrent should anyone take a fancy to the scaled-down mock Greco-Roman pillars dotted around amidst the foliage. With its eclectic mix of tropical and savannah planting this small garden area was also entirely in keeping with the notion that it was either evolution or design behind this place – but not both. There was also room on this paved area for a couple of large brick outdoor cooking ranges and a bread oven, none of which were in use when we were there. And covering this whole patio area was the biggest umbrella-like structure I’d ever seen. It was huge and, although it looked like it, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t held up using the same principles as a normal umbrella.
As our immediate mission was the toilets we didn’t pay much attention to our fellow travellers while negotiating the patio furniture or the corridor we were directed along. One toilet door was nailed up and the other had a sign up in what looked like Arabic that we thought probably translated as ‘These toilets are not inspected at all so do not hold any expectations in relation to either cleanliness or the provision of water’. It wasn’t that we hadn’t come across worse loos on our trip; it was just that we thought the place looked like it could have done better than that. I started to wonder if this was going to be one of those ‘all fur coat and no knickers’ hotels that I associate more with Asia. A leisurely stroll back down the corridor took us past the entrance to a self-service food counter behind which was a kitchen that looked as clean, if not cleaner, than my own kitchen at home. It was deserted.
Dressed exactly as you would expect him to be dressed, at Claridges, the maitre’d stood by a table, on which was arrayed the most frightening looking variety of cake things, just inside the doorway leading back out to the patio. When I asked him if that was all there was to eat he gestured to us both and led us to a table, pulled out our chairs, waited for us to get settled, handed us two menus and took our drinks orders with some bemusement. He was so courteous and polite I really hoped the cakes I’d looked at with horror hadn’t been made by his mum. Almost immediately he was back with our two triple-sized milky coffees and, as he placed them in front of us, he remarked on how we were two clever ladies. Damn right we were! Somewhere along the route we had acquired a couple of large-size plastic mugs because we were fed up with small cups of coffee AND more importantly, because you’ve got your own mug you can order drinks ‘to go’ if you’re in a hurry. And eeebygum** was that coffee good. Once we’d ordered we started to have a nosey at the others. Although it was only about 10 ish, I think the ‘professional’ travellers had all gone to bed because there wasn’t a soul dressed in clean, ironed, co-ordinated, proper desert travel kit. The rooms were on the next floor reached by a concrete staircase leading up from the patio, complete with what I call a ‘Spanish villa’ concrete balustrade.
At least it was painted the same terracotta colour as the rest of the building. After looking around in silence for a while I decided I was having a David Lynch movie moment. There was a tall, well-dressed, man with his foot in a cast who kept laughing and talking to himself as he laboriously made his way up the stairs on a pair of crutches. There was a table occupied by 4 hooded Wookies and another by a black toy-poodle sitting on a chair beside a man who looked like Lenin. Inevitably there was a smattering of usually young and European ‘Innocents Abroad’ (2). Most had only gone moderately ‘bush’ in their dress but there were a couple of seriously gone ‘bush’ in the head types. But this was ‘fusion bush’. Boubou from Nouadhibou, tattoo from Timbuctou, turban from Durban, hat from Fez. For the head types there seems to be a deep fascination with the different belief systems they’ve encountered and in many cases they will dabble a little. Nothing wrong with that. It’s when people take on board a whole bunch of different beliefs from different systems, particularly those that are fundamentally antithetical to each other, that I get twitchy. I just wish they’d give a bit more deep thought to life, the universe and everything before opening their mouths.
This lot are not ‘gappies’ – you don’t get many down this way. No, I think they think they’re nomads or free spirits or something and they certainly seem mostly harmless. The man with the crutches came back downstairs walking perfectly normally without them and rejoined his friends. A family, father in blue boubou, only the eyes of the three black-clad women with him could be seen, two young boys in tracksuits and a baby in a buggy all sat at a table furthest away from everyone else. By choice I suspect. Then I looked at Claire. She was wearing four t-shirts, a pair of bogging jeans and a bandana. I was wrapped in a Fulani marriage blanket with a Tuareg scarf round my head. And in the background, the Eagles echoed out across the desert.
(1) Eagles, (1984) Music Album, ‘Hotel California’ (2) Mark Twain, (1869) ‘Innocents Abroad’ * Delete where applicable ** Yorkshire (UK) expression not directly translatable and the meaning of which can vary depending on the context of its use.