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.

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