I am feeling quite good this morning thank goodness. We breakfast early with Steve and though we keep telling him we don’t need much, he puts out the full deal. The pomegranate is so delicious. I hope I can get the one Mum started for me growing. In fact I hope it’s still alive, but whether it will produce anything as plump and sweet as this I don’t know. They are like small beads and when pressed against the roof of your mouth they pop with a delicate flavour that increases with intensity and then disappears. Steve says they are all ripe now, so cheap and he loves them. Mohamed knocks at the door to collect us. He’s huge, his smooth dark skin is like it’s been polished and he wears a permanent smile that has a huge scar on the side. He asks to take my bag and I direct him to the heavier one. I bet he regretted that as it’s about 20 kilos and I see him constantly changing hands. As we walk I apologise for the weight and he laughs and asks me if we have gold in there. I tell him I have bought every kind of souvenir that Fes offered me.
We are introduced to Mustafa who is our guide for the trip. I was a bit worried that we might be taken in a rattletrap car but it is a lovely Sangyong with leather seats and aircon and I hand the money over to Muhammad happy. Everything looks shipshape. Mustafa is 29 wearing jeans and a white polo shirt. During the drive tells us his baby boy is eighteen months and before long he is proudly sharing photos on his phone. Watch the road Mustafa!
He apologises that we would normally be seeing monkeys in the forest on the way but right now they are having monkey weddings. “You know what I mean”, he says connecting his two hands together. Ahhhh we see….and he continues “they are busy and don’t want to be seeing tourists right now”. That’s pretty funny. Monkey weddings! That’s ok Mustafa. We have seen monkeys before, we tell him. He seems relieved as if it was a condition of our trip.
He drives us through what he says is the largest Cedar forest in the world. We stop and I smell the branches while Gilbert takes pictures of the donkeys nibbling at the road edge. “Donkeys are smart, he tells us. The owner will just come back and call him and he will come. It’s no problem.”
Not far away he shows us where the ski slopes are and the chair lifts hang there waiting for winter. Right now there’s barely any grass and it’s warm enough to be in a singlet with the windows open. Imagine this in snow I tell Gilbert. It would be like fairy land with the cedars dripping white branches.
“So, Mustafa says looking at GIlbert. You are Asian and your wife is Indian.” “Yes and No Gilbert laughs. I am half Asian but Tricia is Croatian and Irish and…” “What! he answers. I think she is 100% Indian?” We tell him our break down and promise to show him photos later. I don’t want him driving looking at my small photo album. He’s a good driver though and I’m quite happy to nod off while he asks Gilbert a lot of questions about New Zealand.
The scenery reminds us of bible stories. Barren red ochre earth, young boys and girls in long robes and gnarled old men with turbans tending goat and sheep herds numbering twenty or so with a donkey waiting patiently, an old frayed and faded quilted blanket on its back. The sheep have long tails and a full winter coat thickening ready for the snow. Whole villages coloured the shades of the rocky clay and dunes so they disappear into the huge hilly background behind, which shelters them from the dusty winds.
I wake as the car stops. “Excuse me”, he says and parks on the side of the road and heads down to a roadside stall. An old lady sits close to us and Gilbert investigates her boxes and decides to buy an apple off her. “How much?”, he asks holding out his hand full of coin. “Oui” she answers looking at his offer of a couple. He puts another into her hand and she nods. “Oui”, She replies again. I think I could’ve put a hundred in and she would’ve taken it he says when he returns to me with a juicy crisp red apple and he has a green. Both are sweet and lovely. Mustafa comes back after negotiating a price for a bag full and then goes to the family well and pulls and pulls and pulls until he gets a bucket of clear clean and cold water which he washes them in, and then pops them in the chilly bin in the car. “These are for you to eat too”, he tells us. “The well water was really deep?”, I ask. “Yes, he says, because it is autumn it will lift after the rainy season and the winter. It is at its lowest right now. That is why it was so cold.” Ok I nod. Makes sense.
“These are the Bedouin families, he points out as we pass large tent like structures. The family will be grazing here and when they need to they will move on.” “Will the children go to school?” I ask because I have seen children tending animals. “Not always he says. The poorest families will not send their children to school. The government do nothing about this. It is up to each family what they do.” As we pass I see women and young teens perhaps collecting firewood as they watch over a flock. “A sheep is worth between 150 and 300 euros, he tells Gilbert, so they don’t want to lose any.” I nod off again as they discuss minimum wages, house buying and politics. Yawwnn..
I wake again as the car pulls over. “Here you can take a fantastique photo” Mustafa says. And I can hardly believe my eyes. In front of us is a huge gorge with a lush verdant green path cut through the middle of it of date palms and trees and housing. The true meaning of an oasis. I really have to pinch myself here.
“What is behind these walls?” Gilbert asks. “These are forts Mustafa says. Yes. The army”, and when we pass the second one he tells us we are very close to the border with Algeria. “What religion do you study?” he asks. “Weellll”, I go to answer. “I am sorry to ask you this, Mustafa cuts me off. It is just that I am a Muslim.” I’m pretty sure he can tell we are not. “Muslims here are not extremists, he continues, we accept all religions. We are not trying to change everybody like the east.” When we stop it becomes apparent that he wanted us to know because he wants to go and pray and he asks if we mind. “I will be thirty or thirty five minutes”, he says. “That is fine Mustafa. I am very happy here” I say sipping the mint tea in the afternoon sun. When a French car rally team pull in for their lunch.
We had passed them earlier. They are heading to Erfoud to the desert to test the cars. I tell them my brother was part of a rally team in America, (now I sound like Mum) and they ask the name of the team. I tell them I have no idea. It was twenty years ago. They ask did he drive. I said no. He would deliver the car and fix if things broke. He is clever so he can fix the motor, fix the panels, fix anything. I REALLY sound like Mum. They smile and nod and tell me they are the same as my brother but are testing the cars. Not the proper drivers. I’m surmising, because the conversation was mostly in French. It’s the Rally – ‘Paris de Gal’ which traditionally was held starting in Paris and ended in Senegal so went through here, but because of extremists making trouble it’s been moved, though they still practise here, Mustafa tells me later as we wave them Au Revoir!
The desert is all starting to look the same when Mustafa goes “Wow!” we don’t normally get a view like this! And stares in amazement. The afternoon sun is shining right onto the sand dunes which have lit up into a golden orange tone. Most deserts are yellow he says but the Sahara and the Namimbia are the only ones who have an orange tint. Maybe he says this to everyone but they look amazing to me especially with the black sand in front of them giving the glow even more contrast. We are nearly at our hotel and before long we pull in after some six hundred kilometres. It is supposed to be owned by Muhammad’s brother but I’m not so sure. It’s not fancy but comfortable and we are shown to our room which sleeps six. For a second I’m wondering if Mustafa is sleeping here with us but he puts our bags down and says dinner will be at eight. Please be comfortable until then…and I lock the door behind him.