Archive for February, 2010

Cirque des Fées Episode 8: Imaginary Menagerie Managers

Animals are everywhere in Morocco. Dead ones are easily spotted; scorpions on keychains, fang-toothed eels stretched out at fish markets, the head of a honey badger hanging from the ceiling at an apocathery shop. The abundance of such sights has both horrified us and yet reassured us with the knowledge that at least these animals are alive in the wild in sufficient numbers that they can be found in the souks of every small town we pass. Their living counterparts are naturally harder to spot. The most exciting critter we have seen was a Short-Eared Owl (I think) watching us in broad daylight from a nearby tree.
And bugs. Bugs, everywhere. The van is abuzz with flies. Van flies, as opposed to house flies. These transient little monsties hang around at lonely camp sites and cliff tops watching and waiting for a friendly van-hold to adopt them. The earth crawls with ants and beetles. I can only assume that the Moroccans have either been to wise or too poor to smother their land with DDT and other gruesome pesticides, as we so tragically did in the UK.

I’m about to start on a rant now, sorry. But there will be a really cute story about a baby goat soon.
It is the domestic animals that have really struck a chord with us the most. In a wealthy European city, it is easy to imagine that Humankind strode their solitary path of social evolution by sheer determination and ingenuity. Here, it is quickly apparent that, actually, people rode there on the back of a donkey. Or a horse, or a camel using a dog to help them round up the goats and sheep they depend upon for survival.

Working animals are the backbone of Civilisation and many bear the brunt of the struggle. We are often angered by the sight of a tired, underfed mule struggling along a road carrying heavy packs, especially if their master is riding them to boot. We have since come to understand that often the people are doing their best to look after their animals, but are just as tired and underfed themselves. That excuses some, but not all, the cases we have witnessed. Sadly, some people are just cruel and have little time for the creatures they exploit. In the West, if you’re not an ‘animal person’ it is easy to have nothing to do with them. Here, if you can’t afford a car (and most people can’t) you get a donkey, whether you like them or not.

Right, social commentary over. On with the nice stories about cute animals we have met. The best one was definitely the baby goat. One happy lunchtime when we were sunning ourselves by the van with our awning up (thanks Kevin – awning works like a dream!), listening to The Pixies, Flame looked up from her book.
“Goats, Holi! Goats!” she cried in delight.
Indeed, three knock-kneed goats were wandering across the little plateau we were parked at, ears flopping. Then three more. Then about thirty of them appeared over the brow of the ridge all at once accompanied by the goat-herd-ess. They strolled about happily eating all the shrubs, leftover bits of dinner, car tyres and all those things that goats love best. Then…
“Oh, wow!” Flame exclaimed. “Oh, wow!”

Oh, wow indeed. As the goat-herd-ess came closer we saw what she was carrying; a new-born baby goat. Absolutely brand new. The umbilical cord was still attached and I think that the extraordinary Berber woman who handed us her precious cargo for a hug was trying to tell us that the little tyke had just been born that morning. She only spoke Berber, not even Arabic let alone French or English, so I’m not too sure, but I think that is what she was saying. The mother goat was apparently rejecting her offspring and so the kid would have to be hand-reared, was the gist of the scenario. Poor fing. How could anyone reject anything that cute? Well we certainly weren’t going to. So as to prolong the time we could hug it, we made the goatherdess some popcorn and sat with her on a rock and helped her crack Argan nuts which she had collected to grind up for oil. The happy ending came when the kid’s mother turned up and, after a little coaxing, allowed it to suckle. My thoughts are always with that goat, I hope its mother came to love it after all.
Then there was the time we were woken before dawn by what we thought was a car alarm. But it wasn’t. It was a donkey with a very wiffly nose who had been parked by our van. Flame was quick off the mark with carrots, apples and cabbage to make friends with him. Donkey stayed with us all morning and then wandered off of his own volition.

The very same day, we were driving down towards the beach when a small caravan of camels wandered onto the road. They had no saddles and we couldn’t believe our eyes.
“I’m sure there’s no wild camels in Morocco,” I insisted.

Though these ones sure seemed to be. They rolled around in the dust and sniffed our van suspiciously whilst we took their photos. Then, of course, the camelateer turned up out of nowhere and demanded payment from us for taking pictures of his camels. This is one thing that has blighted our time here – people who demand money for photos. Occasionally you get a guy who is hungry and asks for food; fair enough. Usually though, people just want your money and then we refuse on principle.

Sorry, I’m supposed to be done ranting. But then there’s the stray dogs. These poor fellas make us really sad. Wherever we go, we sit down outside for a bit of food and they slink up from goodness-knows-where and sit a little way off looking hopeful. Most are pitifully thin and look pretty sick. Of course it’s not safe to touch them because of the risk of Rabies and that’s the hardest thing of all ’cos most of them look like they just want a hug. A few travellers we have met have adopted Moroccan strays – normally healthy-ish puppies – and given them all the jabs etc. to take them back to Europe. It pains us that we can’t do the same but we can’t afford another mouth to feed. We have done our best to leave them food, making extra rice to put out for them hoping that that is enough to keep them going until the next kind-hearted person stops by. One day, we keep telling ourselves, we will have our sanctuary and save all the animals we can. Until then, we have to just love them and leave them.

Cirque Des Fées, Episode 7: Exscusez Moi Madame – Eees this your Van?

Just before I start another torrid tale I’d like to write a quick note to you, our wonderful friends. Many of you have been a little worried about us, and scribbled notes of concern at our stories of woe, or felt guilty for giggling. We write the worst bits of our travels here because we are having a great time and we think that these juicy little niggles are the most entertaining! So go ahead and enjoy the high drama in one….
XXxxxXx Flame.


The view from our Essaouria Hotel

Here I was sitting in absolute luxury. Our new connection with the Essaouira Mafia had swung us a gorgeous hotel – Arabian carved wooden doors, cactus silk curtains, handmade furniture of stained cedar wood – for only 17 pounds a night with breakfast! Admittedly I needed it to recover from food poisoning. The previous night Oli had rescued me after my third bout of vomiting and fainting by tucking me into the van bed and then driving me to a doctor at 1am. After an injection in the posterior I was now doomed to eat nothing but antibiotics, rice and bananas for five days. But to do so in such elegance – Sumptuous!
Our new friends, who we dubbed the ‘Essaouira Mafia’, were the lovely bunch of guys guarding the car park around the tiny walled city that was Essaouira. The laid back leader of these lads was Omar who, in Panama hat and chunky stoned rings, had connections all over the town. We had first found it expensive and frustrating that you can’t park up and camp in Morocco without someone leaping out of the nearest tree and demanding guardian money. But here, where there is such poverty, it can also be dangerous. The guards are necessary and it also seemed gangster Omar could get us anything – even a good mechanic! So while I sat about like Cleopatra in satin sunlight, our van was off getting a new – and not-rusted-all-the-way-through – wheel arch and windscreen frame… or so I thought…

Oli burst in through the hotel door.
“Flame – come downstairs now! The police are here. The mechanic’s apprentice has crashed the van into a truck!” OUR HOUSE!!! Oh NoooooooOOOOOOO!

At this point the day began to blur. We were bundled into a muddy police car with two officers, the mechanic and Omar, all looking miserable and confused. Everyone was yowling in Arabic and I had no idea what was going on. We were driven to the van, which was sitting outside a dingy garage surrounded by rubble. Broken glass was littered everywhere. His front left tyre was in ribbons. There was a huge jagged scrape all down one side. Poor Battle Beast! And worst of all his left front door was munched up and lying in a puddle in the road. Puck’s hairy fairy bottom. Holy Hell. This was not good.
“It’s OK, Flame, it’s OK, nix problem”, Omar was patting my arm (possibly to restrain me from killing someone). The mechanic’s apprentice was nowhere in sight, which was damn lucky for him.
With the famed British tallyho bravado, Oli was perfectly calm. “At least it’s the side that needed the new wheel arch,” he said.
I was gritting my teeth like a snarling Moroccan Ratel. My tail was swishing ready to pounce. “Nix problem Flame, no problem. The mechanic will fix it all no charge, three days. Nix problem”, Omar kept soothing, amid the Arabic arguing. But the gesturing went on and I had no idea what was happening. The van is solely in my name so the policemen concluded by unsuccessfully interrogating me in French (???) and then made to drive off with my passport, log book, driver’s licence and insurance. Then I lost my temper. “My HOUSE! And now you’re taking my passport!” I screamed. With Wonder Woman strength I hurled myself through the police car window reclaiming the latter. A scuffle ensued in which it seemed I was under arrest, then Omar stepped between myself and the unfriendly officers. More Arabic negotiations followed and the four of us were bundled back into the police car (me still gripping the passport and hissing) and driven to the local police station. Which was absolutely fascinating!
The station was a plain concrete single-story box, with a heavy bench dividing off one area. All that was in it were two wooden desks with ancient typewriters and a filing cabinet. Nothing else. Not even a kettle. Could this really be a police station? Omar was insisting he would be personally responsible for restoring Beastie to his former beauty and running translation between the mechanic, the policeman and us. Apparently they were laughing at my snatching Banshee moves of earlier. I smoothed my tightly clutched passport and let them have it back. The poor mechanic’s apprentice was behind the dividing bench in tears.

My knees are slowly getting better – but we found another way of getting round town!

So far in our two weeks in Morocco we had not spoken to a single local woman. Wearing headscarves or covering their faces for modesty they were much more introverted and inaccessible than the men. Come to think of it all the shop owners and café layabouts were male – we had hardly even seen any women! But if I thought the lads were going to talk over my head and ignore me I was wrong. With extreme courtesy I was handed cigarettes (it seemed a good time to take up smoking) and consulted as ‘Madam.’ After three hours sitting on rickety wooden seats, the babble of three different languages and clicking of typewriters, Omar had negotiated a situation where the mechanic had to restore that side of the van to perfection and carry out our planned repairs for the original fee; if it was not to our satisfaction the apprentice would go to prison. Of course, I had absolutely no intention of prosecuting the poor young bloke (the way people drive here it could happen to anyone!) but I was acting tough to the nines. We had to have our home back! The mechanic could easily have fired the poor guy and left us with a trashed van, our rubbish 3rd party insurance and a court case. I think in England he would have, but employees are family here and honour is everything. And this is where the situation began to unfold revealing a flower in the garden of Moroccan culture.

With the guys who repaired the van. On the left of me is the poor bloke who crashed it and on the right of me is our fab friend Omar, the Mafia King of Essaouria

It’s hard to explain how amazing it was to watch our van take shape again over the next four days. Popping back each afternoon to cook another 24 hours-worth of rice and bananas (oh woe) at first I thought it was impossible. This tiny shack of a garage seemed only to have the most basic of tools – it just looked like a welding torch and a few screw drivers to me – and a herd of oily local onlookers. Actually it turned out the onlookers were in fact seven mechanics.
One guy drove the 352 kilometre round trip to Marrakech to get spare parts, one was an electrician, the head mechanic did the welding and another was teaching several boys how to fill and sand the bodywork. The windscreen was removed and replaced, the whole side was airbrushed flawlessly and I don’t know how on earth they fixed that door! Such teamwork and camaraderie, it was unbelievable. On the last night we had a party in the little garage. We brought out the champagne Tim had given us as a wedding present and I got glammed up and performed a fire-eating number on the stony ground. A lot of Muslim’s don’t drink of course, but these guys all tried a bit (the Champagne label said ‘Established 1786’ and I think they thought it was the year of produce which made them very excited) followed by mint tea and lots of hash. Omar translating here and there, but really the language barrier didn’t matter anymore. We were completely accepted into their company and witnessed first hand the Moroccan ability to fix anything with almost nothing (true recycling) and to uphold hospitality and morality with complete strangers. It was an honour I will not forget.

Oli on the Essouria Battlements.