Photo ©Michael Meredith.
The border lights loom ahead. It’s midnight as our metal convoy rolls up and joins the queue of loaded up cars returning with Spanish goods to Morocco. Ancient elephants amongst burdened donkeys.
Borders, arbitrary scars across the landscape of human history, symbols of conflict and “security”, mankind’s crossing points from one system of control to another, restrictions to our primal urge: migration.
The Spanish authorities wave us through, broad smiles and chuckles emanating from toy soldier uniforms at our oversized tonka toy army. We snake through quickly and pull on to the Moroccan side. Again, as we throng through the foot soldier guard and the touting throng of hooded men, the respectful reception to our midnight majesty.
Park up. Ignore the smoking touts wanting to fill in an immigration form or “fiche”and ultimately charge me a euro to show me where to queue, warn Georgeoff them as he’s spinning in the maelstrom, line up for our police number to be tattooed into my travel documents so the police can trace me and bind me to my truck, cheerful but wily police man: “do you smoke?”. Is this a test question or a request? Truth is best. “Yes”. He puts on a sternness, “do you have tobacco?”. I don’t believe him and I’m not in the mood: “No” I lie.
“Nothing to give me?”
He hovers, considers then smiles and hands me my passport. “OK. bon voyage!”
Customs queue. Fill in green “fiche” for Betsy, hand George one to fill in for Maud. George hesitates: “do I have to put Maud in my name?”. “Yes as the driver.” “I can’t do that, you didn’t tell me”. I thought I had when we discussed taking two vehicles but I had forgotten to add this point when Joe left.
“Well I’m sorry if i didn’t but obviously I can’t drive two vehicles at the same time and each country we go into the person who drives the car in is responsible for that car and we lost our other driver.”
“What if I have to leave Morocco – I don’t intend to but if my grandfather gets ill… I got trapped in Guatemala doing exactly this and nearly missed seeing my grandmother before she died. If my grandfather is dying I have to be able to get out.”
I assured George he could get out. I had to do this last summer when my friend Dave had to leave Morocco. We transferred the vehicle out of his name and left it at customs at the airport.
George wasn’t happy but filled out the form on my assurance that if he had to get out we’d impound Maud at the airport.
“La Grande Bretagne” said the customs officer as he plugs the details from my vehicle and my police number into the computer, “your first time to Morocco?” “No.”
Moves onto George. “America”. All seems to be going swimmingly as he chats about baseball to George when he gets up and leaves his cubicle, walks across the tarmac to an older man in a smart light blue overcoat and over done military hat – a bit like the king in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – hands over the papers and points to the trucks. They can only really see Betsy. I turn bak to her. She does look like a huge elephant next to the tiny cars!
A minion beckons me over. I begin to walk. He shoos me back to bring Betsy forwards.
Once this is done I try to charm the chief: “50 years old!”. Nothing, just a shake of the head as he eyes her up and down, picks at her details… He’s looking pretty negative, just ride this one out. Feign lack of concern, nothing to worry about as nothing to hide…
After about half an hour of them pretending we are not there things come to a head. The chief is dismissive “militaire” and walks away to a desk and chair randomly positioned on the tarmac. I approach him slowly as though he’s a big beast with much power and I am a little ant, I plead Betsy and Maud’s antique quality, their 50 years. He looks beyond me. His side kick – a tad Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther – barks “military aspect” and signals me to turn round and go back.
As I give up, too tired to struggle now, the chief throws out “come back in the morning and see the chief”.
Another chief! We cause a great stir turning Betsy and the trailer round and returning to Spain the wrong side of the road, having to move barriers and bollards and gates to squeeze out our girls. I km back towards Ceuta there is a lay by by the sea. We pull in, makes ourselves a sandwich, crack open a bottle of wine and camp up in Betsy the night with the glimmer of hope the big chief in the morning.
I decide in the morning I will paint at least the trailer, show an effort to de-militarise, for sake of the big chief!
I slept well in Betsy, better than I had since we left England. With the stress of worrying about Jarmo and Anna gone and having reconciled the thought of going forwards without a mechanic, the border issue seemed a minor obstacle.
George hadn’t slept well. Passers by commenting on the trucks kept him awake. Opening Betsy’s canvas I saw a throng of Moroccan women and children walking in from the border, for the day’s work and school I presumed.
We went across the road to a cafe for coffee. It was all Moroccan men, smoking on the terrace with an empty interior. It would be the other way round 1km away. We entered and ordered our café con lechés at the bar, and went out to the terrace to warm up in the morning sun.
A kindly looking Saddam Hussein looky likey without the tash welcomed us with “Bishmillah” and asked our nationalities. George trotted them out and we discussed the way forward. I would get some paint and we’ll spend the morning painting the trailer to show an effort and then try and cross as early as possible to catch the big customs chief. I was no longer convinced, it felt like pissing in the wind, but what else could we do other than return to Algeciras and re-cross via Tangier?
We finished up and went back to the trucks. Michael was antsy, possibly picking up on my lack of conviction of the way forward.
Not to waste time I decided to go and find paint. That at least i knew i had to do. I went back to the cafe and asked Saddam where I might find paint. A young lad jumped up and said he’d take me – the kindness of strangers – and seconds later I was burning round Ceuta checking out the paint stores. Not speaking Spanish, this was lots of charades and my Italio-French with “th”s and “b”s. Typical I thought – I’m trapped on the one tiniest little corner of Africa where I can’t converse and I’m in the shit.
Found paint that would do the job, 5 liters of “peace” white and returned to George who I found sitting in the back of Betsy looking out to sea.
“I got to talk to you man. You got another problem on your hands. I just can’t do it – drive Maud across the border. I’ve been here before when my grandmother died and it would be mad to put myself in the same situation for my grandfather. Plus it’s just beyond journalist protocol – if funding came through for the film and I had to go back to the US for interviews and I was stuck in Morocco it would be really bad. I’m sorry but one thing is certain, I am not having a vehicle in my name across Morocco.”
Well they come in threes! Joe, customs chief and Michael in less than 24 hours! I understood and sypathised with George’s position. But now I really was fucked. Two huge trucks, no mechanic and only me as a driver and Michael here to record how I get out of this mess! The whole return, this journey, all I had been working for this year was falling away from me. I lay down on my bed space. “We’ll be here for some time while I figure this one out.”
George threw me a lifeline: “it could be the answer to your finance problems. Let’s just go in one vehicle and once through Morocco come back for the other”
“That will add 2 weeks”.
But it was an idea. The one thing we have now is time. There’s no date for the refugees, we’re already later than planned, with one vehicle we are less a military convoy…
Again the dark dark cloud lightened, he was talking sense. There’s always a chink!
I could see a truth about this journey which troubled me but also gave me a strange comfort. Despite my attempts to push the codependence of this group, I was alone on this journey, as indeed I was on the caravan of refugees project and as are the Tuareg themselves. I have sought help, partnership, I have tried to hand over to others, I have been taken on and strung along and engendered interest at high levels in the UN, but so far, at every turn, when push has come to shove, when I have required a leg up, when I have called in an “interest”, when I have relied on another or reached out I have found only mirages.
From now on this particular journey I had to concentrate on what was best for me and my purpose. The film, George, Joe and Emma had been having too much impact on my decision making. To move on now I had to play the same game, I had to act in my interests, which are getting to the refugee camp and not bankrupting myself in doing it, preferably with these vehicles but if not by selling them and using the money to fund the return in-situ by hiring other trucks out there. If I now have to camp up here in Ceuta for a month to sort myself out, so be it. One thing is certain, I cannot take these trucks back to UK.
I had pressed our co-dependence as a group but to no avail. Its something the lone traveller relies upon but which the individual tourist sometimes finds difficult to take on. It’s letting the journey dictate, suppressing individual need for that of the group, the journey and the vehicle (s) carrying you.
I needed to go forwards now looking after my interests in the trucks and this journey or I will have nothing left for the refugees. I needed to go back to my way of travel. First principle: don’t rush. Second: trust in the community. Only problem I’m not quite in Africa Africa yet. But those guys in the cafe, they are essentially African, though being Arab they may not accept it.
“OK George. So we are staying here tonight. First I have to find somewhere to park up Betsy and then I want to paint the trailer and possibly Maud. Just a little to do today.”
First port of call. My lad who took me for the paint, his car was still outside the cafe.
With my Italo-FranglArabia and gestures I explained how I needed to park one truck for some time and I needed it to be for free. I heard in his Spanish: “I have a friend, just here, you can park for free” and he was marching to his car.
We climbed into our trucks, and turned round (not easy) back to follow our lad towards the border. A few hundred yards and right up a winding hill and into a fenced off lot perched on a hillock above the coastal road to the border. To the right was the border, to the left a gleaming European city looking out east from the peninsular to the Mediterranean sea. The day had become cold, drizzly like a British coastal town so Gibralter across the sea was now hidden. We were between Europe and Africa, at the Pillars of Hercules between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. I had a massive burden on my shoulders. I’m really not sure where all this is going suddenly.
Next up: how Betsy turned from the above to this and who the little thing is: