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.
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.
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…
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!
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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I’m not usually a fan of shopping, but the souqs in Morocco are a delight, especially as you come further down south. Just before reaching the desert we stopped off in Erfoud where we experienced the joy of three souqs next to each other. Some kids surrounded our van as we parked up and clamoured for biros, sweets etc. We went in the back of the van and put our jellabahs and turbans on. When we opened the door, the kids, ready to pounce, gasped and moved away – they were shocked by our transformation, which seemed to instill an instant respect. They let us through without a single ‘donne-moi’.
The first souq was quite full of tourists, and we instantly acquired an unwanted guide who ignored our protestations that we didn’t need help finding our way around.
The second souq was another matter altogether, it was like a vegetable wholesale place, and the third one was for chickens only. This is not for the fainthearted, especially if you’re also vegetarian and I’m bordering on being both fainthearted and vegetarian! Chickens are held in the back of shops, you choose one, it gets killed, drained, quickly put in a boiling vat, then in a kind of centrifugal, hoovering type of spinner that sucks off all the feathers and bingo you have your fresh chicken, faster than a haircut. We forewent the chickens in this souq, mainly because they were all of the white, fast-growing type that never sees the outside. We shall wait until we find a free-range chicken.
After our desert time, the next Souq we experience is Rissani. Here you dive into a densely built area of houses where in little alleyways all sorts of vendors offer their wares. Frank is looking for a haircut and starts bargaining in various shops. After going into a bazar and managing to come out without having bought anything (it was a narrow escape, it felt like we might be taken hostage until we bought something), I’m tempted by the smell of berber pizzas wafting from several wood-fired bakeries that have their doors open to the alleyway. We point to a freshly baked one asking for the price, which is followed by 10 minutes of negotiations and then a half mile walk back to the restaurant where they are trying to give us an older one. Why can’t we just buy from the bakery? Well apparently they are all spoken for. We leave the restaurant and end up instead having a delicious bean soup and Berber whiskey (Moroccan tea) from a friendly street stall. Frank finds his barber where he can have a haircut for 10 dirham (one Euro) while I go in search of wooden clothes pegs and a box of matches.
There is no shortage of things in this souq, I find many hardware stores and plenty of plastic clothes pegs and cigarette lighters, but not what I’m looking for. People look at me in a strange way when I insist on wood in preference to plastic.
It is New Year’s day and everywhere I go people wish me a happy New Year, even though they themselves mainly operate on a different calendar.
We buy some good quality lamb for a tajine and we drive on to find a quiet place in the middle of nowhere to cook it on our bbq (we have to take care about how much gas we use, to ensure we have enough for 3 months. There aren’t any GPL outlets in Morocco as far as we know – if anyone knows of one, please do get in touch!!!).
For more pictures of this chapter, click here
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