Hakim’s story

Hakim had promised to meet us in the car park first thing in the morning, but he is nowhere to be seen, so we seize on the opportunity to find our own way to the library. In fact, it’s only 100m from the van, and we know exactly where it is, but in a town where poverty runs high, as a tourist you will usually find that a guide attaches himself to you, whether you like it our not. They have to live, it’s their only income, and they will insist on guiding you even if your destination is within sight, on the other side of the road.

Tamegroute’s library has indeed an impressive collection of ancient books, but they are kept in inaccessible shelves or dusty display cupboards in a dimly lit room. The librarian seems to be bored of his work, he rattles the facts out in whatever language you’d like, waiting for us to be ready to move onto the next book. I’m not sure he knows exactly what he’s saying though. At the end, he makes the ubiquitous demand for money. Somehow today this is the last straw that breaks the camel’s back. We’d been told that the library was free to visit, and when we came in there was no sign of an entrance fee. He insists they need money to maintain this amazing collection, and of course that makes sense, however, I’m not sure that the money we give him actually reaches its destination.

As we come out of the cold library into the dazzling sunshine, Hakim sits on the front step waiting for us. He apologises for having missed us in the morning. We vent our frustration to him, but soon the conversation turns to a deeper sharing. I want to find out what is the locals’ side of this dynamic. How do they feel about their town being sporadically swamped by tourists? How has the culture of giving changed to a culture of taking? What is our (the tourists’) part in the dynamic of this? What can be changed?

Hakim talks about the different sorts of tourists; those who don’t connect with him and snobbishly look down on him, where he has no qualms taking, and those who he can talk to and may not get any money from. We have a few things to do this morning, photocopying and post office, and he accompanies us. Then we do some work in the van until he collects us for lunch at his house.

The houses and families we have visited along our journey have been very varied. In this house, a very formal atmosphere prevails and I wonder if this has to do with a more strict variety of Islam. The women are quite shy and keep away from us. We are served tea and later food in a room with only Hakim as company. Some curious children poke their heads around the doorway and are  sporadically told to back off, only for them to return a few minutes later. The only woman allowed into the room is one of his sisters, a young woman who I think might be slightly mentally handicapped. Maybe as a result of that she has a different status, which makes her not eligible for marriage, hence she doesn’t have to be hidden from strangers, especially men. She is smiley and relaxed. I wish I could communicate with her, but I don’t speak Berber, she doesn’t speak any of the languages I do, and resorting to hand gestures etc. doesn’t really work in this case either.

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Hakim, pouring us Berber tea after lunch

We continue our conversation with Hakim. What would he like to do if he were free to choose? Would he choose to be a guide? No, he says, I’d like a regular job with a steady salary that would feed my family. Anything, a chauffeur, work in the field, work in a factory, look after a house, anything. As it is, sometimes I have no work for a month and my family has to eat other peoples’ leftovers.

We walk back from the town to Emma through the dusty bowl of a valley. This used to be a palm grove, with fields. Up there was where the stream came down. There was water, there were crops. We had to go round the outside, you couldn’t just walk here. The water disappeared, so we dug wells to feed the plants, but the ground water is too salty – all of the vegetables and many of the palm trees died. Sand storms came and carried away the earth and deposited sand.

We look around – there are still quite a few palm trees left but you can see where the gaps are, and those that have survived don’t look too healthy. When I grew up, I had something to see and something to look forward to. My children have nothing and they are asking for things which I can’t give them. There is so much despair and resignation in his words. I talk about the children begging from the tourists and that instead of just giving something, we tend to try and make a connection, engage with them. A flash of anger crosses his face when he says, yes, but other tourists give them things and that’s what’s created this situation. I feel for him. It pains him that he can’t provide for his children – them begging and being given stuff from foreigners rubs further salt into the wound, and yet he can’t afford to forbid it. It’s all out of kilter. We leave Tamegroute with heavy hearts, ever more determined to look for ideas that tackle the problems of water shortage.


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Hotel Repos du Sable

Not far South of Tamegroute, the road passes by a hotel that has seen better days – a skeleton of a 2CV is indeed reposing in the sand – it may never get back out of there!

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The hotel itself is a bit lost to the sand; there are little dunes in the courtyard, the swimming pool is full of it and bigger dunes outside snuggle up to the perimeter walls. It looks deserted, but we hear voices. We walk in and find Mohamed, a Touareq, who seems to be squatting there, having installed a little solar panel. Mind you, he still offers bedrooms and they have hopeful names like ‘marriage’ and ‘cinnamon’ and ‘rose’, but they are long past their heydays, with the doors falling off their hinges. It’s kind of quirky though to be in a squatted hotel – I can even imagine that some people actually come and stay here!

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Mohamed is a bit evasive about his role here. He tells us that the hotel has been empty for a number of years, following the death of the owner’s wife. He shows us the various rooms and courtyards. Abandoned items lie around; old pots and tagines, decorative items, knicknacks. If you like anything, take it he says, vaguely gesturing across the compound. I’m confused – is he the guardian, does he get paid to look after the place? Not exactly, he says, but won’t be drawn any further on the matter.

A friend of his sits on the terrace, dangling one leg over the side of the wall, playing a one-string guitar. I wish I had some guitar strings on me to give to him, but this year I’ve got my bandoneon with me, not the guitar. Maybe a guitar would have been wiser – my Bandoneon does not like Morocco. By now, two buttons have come loose, the tuning has suffered considerably and the bellows are wheezing a little. The roads are too bumpy and the climate too dry, I guess.

We have quite a lot of food in the van and our Touareq looks pretty thin, so we invite him for lunch. We set out a table by the side of Emma in the sunshine and share a chicken dish with some greens and a carrot and beetroot salad. He says it’s the most he has eaten in a long time.

After lunch, we ask Mohamed if we can take a photo of him against the hand-painted sign directing people to Timbuktu.

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He shows us his ID card with his address on, so we can send him the photos when we get a chance to print them. It often happens that people show us their ID cards. It’s one way of giving their address. Sometimes, people are quite open about not being able to write, other times, they will hide it, saying something like they have a pain in their arm and currently can’t write.

Although the desert itself is magnificently silent, the Hotel Repos du Sable is right on the road from Zagora to M’hamid (another famous desert spot), where many vehicles thunder past. We don’t want to stay here for the night, so we head back towards Tamegroute. Suddenly we realise that we’d been in such a rush to leave the touristic atmospheres of Zagora and Tamegroute that we still haven’t refuelled! We notice that our tank is pretty much empty, so we can’t afford to do any extra mileage to find a nice sleeping spot. We pull up outside the library in Tamegroute, ready to defend our space against hawkers. Strangely enough, although there are lots of people about, no-one bothers us. It seems they are 9-5 hasslers!

I take my bandoneon out and practice in the balmy evening air. Frank lights a fire in Emma. The wood we picked up two days ago is indeed smokey – soon a cloud of it is hanging over the car park and drifting towards the village… No one complains though and we have a very lovely night there with no disruption at all!

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Tamegroute

There is a famous library in Tamegroute, with 4,000 ancient books, going back almost 1000 years. There are some ancient copies of the Q’uran , written on deer-hide, with the initial letters of each Chapter decorated with Gold and Saffron.

Tamegroute is also famous for its potteries and especially for a particular kind of green glaze containing copper.

However, these things come at a price: it seems that if you want to see anything on the tourist route, you have to brace yourself. As soon as we step out of the van, we are tailed by various people, offering to be our guides. Here they don’t work against each other but as a group, because ultimately all the ‘takings’ are fed into the same co-operative. We shake off the first two or three of them, but when someone comes towards us in the courtyard that we have snuck into, despite it being closed that day, we are trapped. There is something very authoritative about the way he points to the exit and then takes control, leading  us through the back streets, where we get a glimpse of the underground dwellings, which protect people from the summer heat, before he takes us into the pottery co-operative.

We enter a very busy courtyard where boys and men of all ages are at work. The young kids kneel on the ground whacking the dry clay with sticks to crumble it.

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Young men heft buckets of water from the well, mix it with clay powder and roll it out in big slabs, not unlike the making of Devon fudge in the shop in Totnes, only on a much larger scale and on the ground.

The adult men are involved in making pots. One sits on the ground, his legs and feet disappearing into a hole in the ground, where he operates the treadle of the potter’s wheel.

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Others fold themselves into a z-shape to climb inside the still hot kilns to bring out the freshly fired pots. Yet others take the items and dunk them in a bucket of glaze, without gloves (let’s hope the glaze is all natural).

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It’s a busy atmosphere but it’s quiet, not hectic. There is a good feel about the place, despite it being hard work. This could be deceptive, I’m well aware of that, but if that is so, they give a perfect performance for the tourists, because by the time the guy leads us into the showroom, we are ready to part with money for the first time in 6 weeks of avoiding the acquisition of ‘stuff’. The wares they offer are good quality and beautiful colours (especially the deep green that is particular to this town) with decorations, done by the women in the souterrain houses.

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Apparently the heat gets up to 50 degrees in the summer and those underground houses are the best place to be, but still, it seems quite something to be so shut away. When the women do come outside, they often are more wrapped up here than in the other regions we’ve visited.

When we finish choosing, but before paying, they say, how about some exchange of things, why not bring your van up here. The gazelle can stay here (that’s me, by the way) and you Monsieur can get the van. So Frank gets escorted and I get kept. All with a smile of course. While I’m sitting and being entertained, I realise it was a very clever move to separate us – if we’d paid up and both gone to get Emma, there would have been a chance we’d just take off, foregoing the barter stage.

When Frank comes back with Emma we invite them all into the van and we start digging for things that may interest them. One guy in particular takes over, but the others watch and chip in (or maybe watch and learn). We unearth three cans of beer, two bottles of wine, a jar of Frank’s marmalade, several candles, an old coat, a foldable water container, some slippers and various other bits and pieces. We even offer two big chunks of the wood we have picked up from the side of the road, but he takes one look and declines them as being too fresh. It would make too much smoke.

There is a momentary stop to the bartering when we realize that their idea is to barter for additional items of pottery, but we insist that we don’t want to buy more but instead lower the price of what we have already bought. There follows 15 minutes of haggling, which they win hands down – they are so much better at it than us. Never mind, we have a good time with them, with much laughter, and I think of our loss as a payment for the entertainment, just like one pays for going to the theatre.

I notice just a tinge of guilty conscience on the part of the guy who ‘delivered’ us to the pottery. When the others leave, he invites us for a couscous the next day. As we have to come back anyway, to see the library, we happily accept and tootle off out of town to recover from having been so mercilessly milked.

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Zagora

A few kilometres on from our lovely deserted spot for the night, we come to a T-junction where we turn South towards Zagora and the other desert. A few miles on, there’s a man hitching a lift with a large metal item. We stop and he climbs aboard after safely storing a broken water pump in the back of Emma. He is the head of the local cooperative and as such, in charge of getting the pump repaired or replaced. The workshop he needs to go to is some 30km further South in Zagora. We travel on and chat about this and that. Suddenly, I spot some wood by the side of the road. We never know if it’s in private or public ownership, but Brahim reassures us that we can pick up as much as we like here ( it looks like some trees had to make way for the new road, and they are just lying around). He and I jump out of Emma while Frank stays at the steering wheel, since we’ve stopped at a narrow part of the road. We pick up a few very large logs (in fact about half a tree, but there’s plenty of space in Emma, and move on. Brahim tells us about his village and invites us to pass by on our return and meet his family. We ask him to find us someone who will sell good quality, local organic dates at a reasonable price and promise to visit him in a few days’ time.

We need to get fuel, so when we get into Zagora, Brahim directs us to a fuel station. There are several young people on mopeds hanging around, one of whom approaches Frank’s window, offering a maintenance check in a garage nearby. We decline, but he’s adamant that we need it, our springs, our tyres, they can do anything he says, not taking no for an answer. Brahim tells us he’s a faux guide and not to pay any attention to him. It’s hard though to ignore him, he’s so persistent. The fuel station doesn’t take cards and we have no cash, so after saying good bye to Brahim, we drive on to get to a bank. I take my card and go to draw some money, and there’s the same guy again, obviously having followed us, now watching me take money out of the bank. I really don’t like it and I tell him so as I pass him. He completely ignores my remarks and says you need camping? Follow me! We don’t need advice on how to get to a camp-ground, we’ve already looked one up on park4night, and this guy is really getting on my nerves now.

He is in front or behind us all the time until we arrive at our chosen camp-site. He even has the audacity to walk in with me! Well if he thinks he can earn a recommendation fee from the camp-site, I’m going to spoil this for him.

I approach the two guys in the reception and tell them that we came here under our own steam, nothing to do with him. It turns out though that he’s actually employed by them! So then I change my tune and give them all a piece of my mind about hassling tourists and that we are much less inclined to stay at a place when we’re treated like this. They all nod their heads as if they understand, but I’m not sure that it’s sinking in. In the end, we decide to stay anyway – it’s late afternoon, we are tired and hungry, and, somehow I think we could be more effective if we stay and tell them not to be like this to tourists, rather than turning around and leaving.

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This is not a good camp-site. It’s called Paradis Touareq, but Frank, on his visit to the local Souq finds out that it’s been nicknamed L’enfer Touareq by the locals.

Nothing actually works – we end up having to use our own mobile hotspot, as their internet is down and either stay dirty or contend with cold showers. The place is a dusty building site and neither the owner nor the manager are exactly welcoming. Before we leave the next day, we try to give them some constructive feedback, as they have a new establishment, but we are not sure if we are heard. When it comes to payment, they extract the highest possible amount out of us, even charging us for berber tea they had offered us. This leaves a bad feeling all round.

They don’t even say good-bye. This is really bad customer service and not very clever. They should focus on giving a good service at the camp-site, not employ people to trap tourists at the entrance of the town.

We don’t take to Zagora, people in the shops are pushy too – any shop you enter, you have to fight to get back out without buying anything. This place has been destroyed by tourism. We don’t like this kind of atmosphere, so we are glad to leave it behind.

Luckily most camp-sites that we have come across have been wonderful. This is really an exception.

We tootle on for a few kilometers and then stop in the middle of nowhere by a school. Just when we’ve settled in, there is a gentle knock on the door, and a tall, slender man politely asks us for our passports. He explains that he is one of the senior members of the local community. We invite him in. He’s very well spoken, despite only a basic command of French. We spend half an hour together, pouring over maps and chatting, partly in French and partly in Arabic. We share stories about our families and our respective villages. We invite him to taste Frank’s freshly made marmalade and when we see he likes it, we give him a jar. This prompts him to scoot off across the stony fields on his moped, returning 10 minutes later with two boxes of dates, one of which is full of the Medjool variety – the best quality we have ever tasted. He leaves us his phone number, insisting that we should ring him if there is any trouble and off he goes again into the darkness.

There are no interruptions that night – we sleep soundly, appreciating the quiet space around us, after having been cooped up in a town and campsite we didn’t like.

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Ait Omar

We’ve been told to go and seek out Hartmut, the owner of one of the 45 Kasbahs in this town, apparently you can find him every morning in the cafe on the corner, opposite the school and the post office.

After 5 days of wallowing in bed with Moroccan flu, we’re ready to have a peek at the town. Having spent all this time indoors, the sunshine once again seems dazzingly bright. I can hardly keep my eyes open. Indeed, in the cafe on the main street we meet Mahmoud, as the locals have lovingly renamed him, a German who came here about 30 years ago, bought a dilapidated Kasbah and painstakingly rebuilt it, drawing on local knowledge and materials, combining German standards with Moroccan aesthetic. The result is absolutely stunning. Ait Omar is one of the most beautiful houses we have seen in Morocco and the first one that is warm inside (underfloor heating, fed by solar panels and a wood burner)!

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The traditional layout with its many rooms is spread out over a number of floors and buildings, there are little courtyards everywhere, a beautiful swimming pool in the centre of it all, and a roof terrace with views to die for. N’kob itself is full of Kasbahs and, while in a good place for tourists to reach a number of attractions, such as gorges, deserts and mountains, in itself it is not touristic – on the contrary, it is a typical Moroccan village or small town, relaxed and peaceful, with un-tarmaced back streets and earth and straw buildings, children playing in the roads and the locals giving you a friendly smile as you pass.

During our last 4 years of travel, we’ve always been on the lookout for a possible venue for a group event and although we’ve spotted a few stunning locations, as yet we hadn’t found anywhere sufficiently spacious and comfortable.

In Ait Omar, we may just have found the right place, so who knows, maybe one day we will run a Tango event here…

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On our way back to the van, we stroll through the village, play hide and seek around corners with the children we meet and go door to door hunting for empty jam-jars with lids for making more Marmalade. The latter produces some hilarious ‘conversations’ with women from the different houses we call on, where we try to mime what we need the jars for. Even my little bit of Arabic is no use here, because these women are Berbers and not all of them speak Arabic, let alone French.

But in general, they are very much used to the concept of re-using items (I will talk more about this in a later chapter), so after 15 minutes we have a further 7 jars and make our way home. This is enough excitement for our first post-flu outing!

That evening, we decide we are strong enough to drive on, so as the sun sets, we head out of town, not without stopping along the way to take a look at a big restaurant called Jenna, another venue we might include in a potential group holiday to Morocco.

 

Night falls as we drive on. We soon stop by the side of the road on a flat piece of land that looks like its been prepared for a house.  There are a lot of birds and an unusually green coloured hill. Next morning, I take a  walk to explore what is growing on them, but it’s not plants that make the hill green but the stone itself – a finely broken type of green slate. Subsequently, we often see this material being used for roads that lead through the stony desert.

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N’kob

It didn’t take long for the bugs to germinate in our bodies. This morning, I’m not feeling too well, so we stop off by the side of the road for me to have a rest and for Frank to have breakfast.

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Down the valley from us is a row of unusual looking trees, almost willow-like in their shape. Surely, willows can’t survive in this arid climate? After breakfast, Frank takes his camera and goes out for a recce, while I lounge in Emma with the sun streaming through the open door onto our bed.

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However, even an hour’s rest is not helping much, so we decide to turn into a campsite for the day. The next little town is called N’kob and park4night tells us there is a camp site called Ouadjou, so by 10am we turn into their compound. There is an area for campervans, a garden with some berber tents, a swimming pool, some rooms to rent and a restaurant. Right next to where we are parked, a rickety ladder is leaning against the wall, on the other side of which a plume of smoke mingles with delicious smells of fresh bread. Frank, being Frank, climbs up and starts chatting with the women gathered around their clay oven, the other side of the wall and gets invited round by the family and even manages to buy a loaf of bread from them – the best one we have tasted since coming to Morocco.

The camp site manager is a bit non-plussed when Frank walks past him with a loaf of fresh bread within 10 minutes of our arrival! I, however, am struck down and Frank follows me 24 hours later. We spend the next five days coughing, snotting and sweating it all out in a good, hot fever. It’s quite something when your body is not at all familiar with a particular strand of cold virus! Luckily, we are able order delicious Tajines from the camp site’s restaurant which they deliver to our van, so we don’t starve. We also have enough wood in our store not to feel cold at night, when temperatures outside drop to zero. One day a mighty wind picks up and blows dust everywhere. It is so hard that it wheezes through the closed windows and doors of our Emma and we find desert dust settled on our clothes and furniture for days after. I lie in our comfortable bed, with the lovely wood-burner to keep me warm and my thoughts turn to Youssef’s family in their house without windows or doors and no heating of any kind, just a shell of a house where the wind can blow straight through! Wow, people here are hardy!

Camping Ouadjou has been a great stop, it’s lovely and quiet here and provided us with everything we needed to rest and recover from our illness.

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Youssef and his Family

The late afternoon light is always exquisite in Morocco, so I decide to descend into the riverbed and go on a little wood forage. I see a large pile on the other side of the pebbly, completely dry expanse that obviously sometimes becomes quite a raging river, but my guess is that this belongs to the house 40mtrs further up and I’d be loathe to be discovered ‘stealing’ wood, even if I didn’t intentionally do it. I walk along the riverbed into the sunset. Half a mile further down, I give up. There are plenty of bushes and no doubt the river brings along chunks of wood too when it flows, but there is absolutely nothing to be found – someone, or probably a whole lot of people, have been here before me. I return empty-handed to Emma. Just when I get to the bridge, I see two old women walking home, bent double under the huge weight and sheer bulk of firewood they have collected in the afternoon, god knows where, wrapped in a handmade Berber cloth, the size of a double bed sheet.

As promised, not long after sunset, Youssef turns up, climbs into Emma and we tootle off to his home in a little town by the side of an oasis. When we arrive, the whole family is crowding onto the street to welcome us, mother, sisters, cousins, and many children.

Over the last years, Youssef has built a big house for his near and extended family. It’s by no means finished, but they have already moved in. Maybe they have another house in the village, we don’t know, but for tonight they are all here, including his ailing father who is  recovering from a recent eye operation.

The house has electricity, many rooms, several storeys high, a television, a washing machine and a basic kitchen, but apart from that, there is a distinct feeling that this family has only just moved in, or possibly it’s their first house ever. It is literally still a concrete shell with holes for windows, no heating and hardly any doors and yet, the family is happy and very proud to show us all the nooks and crannies. So what I don’t understand, there are at least twelve people in this family and we get shown the whole house. In one room, I see two suitcases, but apart from that, there is no evidence of where people keep their clothes – no cupboards or shelves. Ditto in the kitchen, no tables or chairs and very few cooking utensils. The work is done on the ground, maybe a tarpaulin is spread out and this is where vegetables get peeled and food prepared.

It’s one thing to get one’s head around how little people need here to make their lives work, but there is another thing that I fail to understand: When you go to the souqs, there are many, many stalls offering stuff. You can get everything there – clothes, toys, kitchen utensils, carpets, food, furniture etc etc. But who buys all this, and where do they put it??? Every time we get invited to a house, we are struck by the sparseness. Even in families where we think it’s not out of necessity but out of choice.

We spend a lovely evening with the family, making paper boats, planes and birds, talking to Youssef’s lovely parents and partaking in a delicious couscous. Youssef’s mother takes my hand and won’t let go. She shows me all the women’s parts of the house – the kitchen, the washing machine, the haya – a window, from where she can watch the road without being seen (this is a deliberate architectural design quite common to houses here, so never think there’s no-one watching you!). At some point, I get whisked out onto the road – all the women of the neighbourhood and a whole lot of children meet outside someone’s house to share a very large tagine of couscous. This is the custom in this village, and families take turns to provide the tagine. I get pulled into the fray and Youssef’s sisters and sister-in law reach over the kids heads to grab a handful of couscous and vegetables, deftly rolling the food into a ball and passing it to me. I don’t know how many hands have been in that Tagine and where they’ve been before but there is no way I can refuse this offer of female solidarity, and besides, the food is delicious. I wash it down with a swig of water from the one metal cup offered to me, a cup that all 15 women and 30 children, use. Ah, what the heck, I drink it down gratefully. This is about being invited to be part of what’s going on. It’s an honour to be here and to be treated as one of them.

To complete the natural Morrocan inoculation programme, we also hug and play catch with the delightful children of the house, ignoring their hacking coughs and snotty noses.

Eventually, the family is ready to eat. A delicious couscous is served to us and the men of the house. The women are nowhere to be seen, apparently they eat or have already eaten elsewhere, and the children are told to sit by the wall and wait. Once we have finished, the dish is taken elsewhere, some more food added and it’s the children’s turn to eat. We are a bit surprised that not everyone gathers and eats together, but this is the way things are done in this house. Youssef has the main say here, and he walks around arranging everything, telling his family members what to do, when and where. His mother looks at him proudly – like so many older Berber women we meet, she has a happy, content look on her face and she obviously loves having all her family around her. She is a hard worker and she sees everything. It seems like she is able to comment freely on everything too. Looking into her eyes, I feel a thick stream of love and again and again, she takes me into her arms and hugs and kisses me, smiling and showering me with words I don’t understand.

 

Its quite intense, the way we re looked after in this house, so by about 10pm, we are happy to ‘escape’ to our van. The next morning we’re up early and ready to go before most of the family are awake. We slip into the house where all except the mother are still asleep. We bid a wordless but emotional good bye. Her eyes are brimming with love and she gives us big hugs and kisses.

The village is just awakening. We pass by children on their way to school, waving and smiling at us, and men and women using palm brooms to sweep the front of their houses. Everything looks fresh and tidy in the morning sun. We cross the river and turn right, back up the road to Tazzarine and off westwards from there.

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Tazzarine

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Moving on from the camp site Hotel Kasbah Meteorites, our first priority is to find someone who can help us repair the window mechanism in the driver’s door.

We drive on to Tazzarine, another funky town. We find a garage straight away where a young guy tries his luck for about half an hour before taking us 100 m further down the road to a bodyworks place. The ‘chef’ is not there, so we wait a bit until he returns from the souq on his little moped. He takes one look and knows exactly what to do. It involves dismantling the mechanism even further than we already have done, in fact removing it from the door entirely and replacing the bolt that must have come loose on all these bumpy Moroccan roads. Putting it back together again, he replaces a whole lot of worn plastic parts, tut-tutting at previous attempts to make do with lesser solutions. A real perfectionist – Emma is in the hands of a good craftsman here. After an hour or so of giving Emma TLC, he asks for 200dirham, which we gladly pay and we’re off on our next adventure.

We seem to be in luck with passing towns exactly on the day of their weekly souq. Tazzarine is heaving with people. Even though we still have food left over, we can’t resist stopping for a stroll through town, and who do we bump into but our mechanic. It seems as if, on Wednesday, everyone stops their work to meet in the souq, and he must have just interrupted his visit to the souq to return to the garage and help us with the window problem.

We find a type of citrus fruit that is neither an orange nor a lemon, so we buy some of them, even though the locals say they aren’t for eating but to use on your skin and hair. That sounds like it could be a kind of Bergamot, so we take a load of them to add to the next marmalade-making session. We meet Youssef, a smiling, well-spoken man who invites us back to his family home some 20km South of Tazzarine. He has some more shopping to do, and he instructs us to wait for him by the riverside and where he’ll join us shortly after sunset.

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for some photos of the beautiful landscape we drove through in those days, click here


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Beldi (not for the faint-hearted!)

Beldi is the word for free range. We’ve been on the look-out for a beldi chicken for some time, so when we come through Alnif, we stop at the souq to try our luck again.

We ask at the first chicken shop, but he only has the white variety. He leaves his shop to help us find a brown one with a happy past. Everywhere we ask, we get funny looks, as if it’s a really crazy idea to want a Beldi chicken. Finally, on the edge of the souq, by a dusty road, we find our man. On a tarpaulin, he has a whole lot of second hand clothes spread out (none of the things we gave the women yesterday are to be seen, thankfully), and by the side of his second hand store, there is a box full of live chickens, plus a cockerel and a fat hen ducking into the dust beside it. Our young guide haggles with him on our behalf for a while until we agree the price of 80dh for the fat hen, including getting her killed, plucked and otherwise made ready. I’m not quite sure how he’s going to do this, but he tells us it will take about 20 minutes. We agree and he goes off, so Frank follows him as we have already handed over the cash. Meanwhile, I watch his second hand stall.

Several people come by and I tell them to return in a little while. One woman stops and chats with me. Eventually, the men return, we take the chicken with us and as we say good-bye, I ask the guy for 20 dh for having watched over his stall. For one moment his face shows pure shock, but then he realises I’m just joking and he thinks it’s really funny.

We look forward to a Beldi chicken tajine. However, this chicken is the toughest thing we ever met. Two hours of cooking is not enough, so the next day it gets re-cooked in a stew, and the day after once more in a soup. We did eventually eat it, thinking about the fact that it lost its life specifically for us, so we just can’t not consume it, but maybe that’s the reason why everyone looked at us as if we were mad. Those white, fast-growing chickens are probably a whole lot more tender!

Generally the meat here is very good quality, and I think this is the reason for me needing to eat less and less of it.

The next part of the journey takes us through an impressive landscape of stony plateaux and black mountain ranges with rugged edges.

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As the sun goes down, Frank and I discuss where to stop for the night. We like wild camping, and there is absolutely no safety issue about this down here in the South of Morocco. We’ve rarely felt so safe anywhere else in Europe. But we are urgently in need of a really quiet time, somewhere we can be sure not to end up receiving another string of visitors, so we turn into a camp site. Besides, one of Emma’s windows seems to have lost a part in the winding mechanism and we cannot wind it back up again. The ‘camp site’ is just a graveled courtyard by the side of a hotel complex, but that suits us fine right now, it’s secure and quiet and we’re the only ones. They are happy for us to make our bbq outside the van, and so we sit there in the fading light, enjoying that for once, no-one, not even the hotel staff, is looking after our well-being.

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The next day, we stay holed up there while a Big Ralley is thundering past – huge lorries that are in a terrible rush to get somewhere, overtaking and cutting in. What a way not to experience this landscape!

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Desert Encounters

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After a few kilometers of driving, we think we have found the perfect spot – a flat, stoney expanse with no houses in sight. I like to experience the stillness of this place. It’s so far away from everywhere, there isn’t even any reception for the phone, despite it being completely flat for miles.

Little do we know that the spot we’ve chosen is in the middle of the Universe for some… not five minutes after stopping, some girls who are hearding goats come running helter-skelter towards us. They have to catch their breath for a minute before they manage to ask us to ‘donne-moi un bonbon’.

Each time we are asked, we get more determined to respond in other ways. So this time round, we get involved with them, we ask for their names, I try to write them down with their assistance, we invite them to help us with the fire, we share some dates, we look at books together, we juggle with stones and we tell them about our lives in the UK.

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They discover we have a tambourine and it turns out the older girl is really good at playing it. They all break into song and start dancing. Later some boys join too, one of them proudly showing us a gecko he caught and gutted, ready for his family’s dinner. If you look closely in the video, you’ll see the boy holding the dead gecko.

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They have so much fun with us that they forget to look after their goats, who meanwhile have disappeared. I go and help look for them, but they seem to have made their own way home. It’s getting dark so the kids take leave too, skipping off across the desert to I don’t know where. How far away is their home, I ask. 50 kilometres answers the girl, but the boy says, she’s joking. It’s about 2 km across the desert.

The next morning, I wake up early. I’d like to go and deliver a letter and a photo we took of the girls. I’d like to point out to them how different things can be when we make a real connection; how nice it was to spend some time laughing and playing together, rather than just handing out sweets.

After a 2km walk, I reach the house of the boys from the day before. It is 8am and the whole family is outside, having watched me approach the house from far away. They invite me for breakfast, but I would first like to deliver the letter, so they point me on over the hill. On the brow of the hill I see that it’s still quite a way to the next houses, so I turn back and hand the letter to one of the boys to pass it on.

This time round, the family will not let me go without joining them for breakfast. I am offered a delicious savoury porridge and some bread. The mother of the family tells me she has ten children. Some of them are standing right in front of me, looking longingly at what I’m eating, so I hold out my bread to share and they are at it in a second but are then told off and have to deliver their loot back to the outdoor kitchen. I have half of the broth and pass the rest back with thanks, which is then distributed between them.

They are desperately poor here, I realise. This is the house where an eight year old brings home a gecko for dinner, as a special treat! But they are determined not to show it. There is no ‘donne-moi’ to be heard here, on the contrary, the eldest daughter is told to show me the garden. She’s got a bag in her hand and keeps trying to offer me vegetables to take home. I insist I only want to look. In the end, she is grateful that I accept some fresh mint. It is impressive how they have wrested a large garden from a stony desert. Also, how do they protect it from marauding goats? There are no fences…

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When I get back to the van, Frank is a bit agitated. I’ve been away for too long and he’s meanwhile been besieged by three very pushy women and their children, demanding shoes, clothes and money. We give some clothes and refuse a whole lot more demands. We’ve by now heard that often they will take anything, even clothes that don’t fit, and it all ends up being sold in the souq. Eventually the women move on with their donkeys and children. Somehow these experiences always leave us with a bad feeling. This ‘pushing and resisting’ dynamic is dissatisfying and also exhausting.

Just as we are about to leave, two young men turn up. They are the older brothers of the children we met yesterday, and they have arrived with their school notebooks. They just want to say hello, practise their French and English and make a connection. So we stop Emma again and we hang out together for an hour. This is a much nicer way to finish our time here in this rather busy spot of desert!

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It’s exam time in Morocco, with most exams scheduled for January 4th, that’s why we see so many young people walking around and looking at their revision notes.

 

for photos of this part of the journey, click here


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