High Tailing it out of Morocco and not a jolly Christmas on the Mauritanian border

Dawn. Boxing Day. Nouadibou, Mauritania, after the worst Christmas Day on the Morocco Mauritania border. No family, no friends, no food, a little water, not a tinsel or coloured light to be seen, no telly, no games, no alcohol and not a wrapped present awaiting.

I spent the day explaining Betsy’s drastic situation to officials: why I had no engine, why Betsy had to be carried to the border on the back of another truck, why I was alone.

When I got to the Mauritanian customs I skipped losing my mechanic, losing my driver, the tons of metal I had left behind in Ceuta after 2 weeks of deliberation, the changing of Betsy’s “military aspect” into a hippy wagon, the cost of these trucks transport and the refugees project ahead. So I kept it to the past few days of this inadvertently epic journey. 

I skipped also how en route to Marrakech Betsy began her farting again which I had a Marrakech professional look into and then en route to Agadir a piston blew on me near a lovely lake and how Mocktar my Moroccan guide and his cousin Abdullai came to the rescue and before I knew it I was sailing across the a Sahara on the back of a breakdown truck. 

I jumped forwards to the present and how I had solutions to be towed to Bamako if only the custom’s chief would give me the normal tourist “laisser passer” which allows me to pass through the country rather than the normal lorry escort he was threatening to the Mali border. I even plunged into the whole refugee project ahead – something I have always kept quiet on official business as its amazing how much suspicion one arouses mentioning refugees – in an attempt to emotionally blackmail him. 

Despite the custom’s chief’s kindly face all was to no avail. My only options were: 

– put my truck onto another (towing not possible) and be escorted with all the freight lorries to the border, paying for the escort and of course my carriage. Arguing that Betsy is not exactly a lorry lorry, I have no merchandise, I am using her as a camping vehicle essentially, she is 57 years old….did not wash. 

– leave her at the border get my parts and return to repair here and drive her through Mauritania.

In that barren, sandy wasteland, the light went out on my journey, and like that crunching metalic thud that shuddered my hopes when the piston blew near Agadir, or the moment George announced he couldn’t be a driver, or when I lost Joe the mechanic and when the Moroccan customs couldn’t see beyond Betsy’s “military aspect”, I knew I was fucked. But this time – perhaps out of exhaustion, perhaps because this journey has broken me financially, and certainly because I realised that even if I passed this hurdle, I no longer had the resources personally and financially to climb anymore mountains – I could spy no chink of light.

So I packed up my personal things with my friend and guide Cheick and left Betsy at the border to go into Nouadibou wash, eat, drink, sleep. Cheick took me back to his family home. They fed me and watered me like one would a camel after a long caravan. 

I wasn’t able to stay at Cheick’s house. New security measures – all “tourists” (euphemism for white people) have to stay in hotels “for their security”. Don’t you love it! If I was looking for a tourist to kidnap, was I more likely to find my prey in a hotel or by searching all the houses of Nouadibou? But logic doesn’t work with security measures – the world over in my view, not just in Africa. It is just important to have rules, to have put in a measure, reacted. If someone tries to blow up a plane with a shoe bomb but they fail miserably, rather than laughing at their craziness we check everyone’s shoes when they get on a plane forever more. Thankfully the underpants bomber did not have the same effect – decorum bing more important than security I assume. But I’m drifting…!

So here I am, Christmas night, the only guest at Ali’s campement, everything seems to be over, the whole refugee return project hanging on a thread. As I lie down to sleep I have no new ideas other than turning up at the camps with a landcruiser and driving Radwan home and then relaying his family back to him and leaving it at that. I can still make a little effort, but its not going to be the caravan. 

What a Christmas.

——-

Dawn has come, the sun is out – at least its warm here! – and something is bubbling away inside my head. 

If this journey has been trying to tell me something perhaps it is that these trucks are not my answer. They are a hinderance, a burden and I possibly should have been bold in Ceuta having lost Joe and done something that was fluttering in my head all the time: go it alone.

And if this campaign, 7 months in the making, has indicated one thing it is that I am best alone: whenever I have sought outside help I have been thwarted, cornered, delayed, frustrated and betrayed by others’ interests.

I have to work this out now from within the refugee community.

Perhaps  now I need, perhaps, to start shouting loud. I’ve been too cautious. Now I must just be bold, say it as it is and use my trump card. 

I can’t say too much about this for fear of scaring it off. It’s an ace card, someone who has it in their power to enable me to help the refugees. If I play it I have to be sure, I have to play it well.

Full speed to Bamako without the burden of vehicles, travelling as I like it: alone, on foot with my resources in my head and in my bag.

—————–

Boxing day I returned with Cheik to the border to decide what to do with Betsy. Either I give up now, and take her back across the Mauritanian border into “no man’s land”, a 5km chunk of mined desert between Morocco and Mauritania, a place littered with the carcasses of cars and trucks, where deals are done on vehicles between borders. There I’d park her up and Cheik would come each day, as he does anyway to help tourists through the borders and hope to find guiding business, and slowly he’d sell off Betsy’s parts or sell her whole.

Or I leave Betsy with customs at a charge while I go off and find her parts, do my business, come back and repair her. This would involve more spending on a truck that had lost its purpose. If I left her with the customs and didn’t return they’d sell her off themselves. I’d prefer Cheik to gain something. So caught between customs and no man’s land!

 Cheick wanted me to make my decision but I felt I had to give the chief of customs one last go. Cheick said it would be impossible, no way would they give me a laisser passer because they knew I’d get Betsy towed.  I was going to go for all or nothing. I wanted the laisser passer, because I knew I had the big man Oulibou waiting in Nouackchott and he owed me cash. He had already told me he had a truck that he was trying to sell and if he couldn’t he would take it to Bamako and could tow me. 

So the only solutions that suited me were leaving the truck for the wolves in no man’s land and forgetting it, or towing it to Bamako with Oulibou. The latter demanded a laisser passer.

The chief has a kindly face and I felt there was sympathy yesterday.  When I braved to tell him about the refugees his response was “you should help those in Mauritania too.” I jumped on that: “I am. Many of those in Burkina have relatives in the Mauritania camps”.

I explained to the chief that I’d tried to look for a breakdown truck to put Betsy on but not found anything (a wee lie, Cheick had told me they don’t have them in Nouadibou). I told him about my solution for towing all the way to the Mali border so if I could just get a laisser passer I could resolve my situation. If not, then I will have lost everything.

He interrupted: “I’ll come and see the vehicle”. My heart jumped, this was the opening I was looking for.

I waited and waited, hardly daring to hope. Eventually he came while I was scoffing a sandwich “No – continue eating” he said as I put my food aside “no, no not at all” I replied. He took a brief glance at the truck and turned back to his office.

About an hour or so later Cheick came back to me: “he’s giving you a laisser passer!”

Oh my God. Last night it was all over, I was resolved to going on alone by foot, and almost looking forward to it, but the loss of Betsy was hard to take. Suddenly its all back on. All I need to do is get her to Bamako. From there I have her forever. Now I just need to find a tow to Nouackchott!

Not sure I can cope with much more of this see-saw ride. What more is ahead?

Why am I doing this and why should you care?

Now I have broken the barrier and am finally in Africa proper I can see the journey ahead and turn my attention again to its purpose: the refugees in Burkina Faso, Radwan and his family, my friends and the people I have grown to know this year.

Why should you care if I get across the Sahara, through Mauritania, into Mali with an old truck so I can help some friends? A hundred or so people I can hope to help – it’s a drop in the ocean! There are 50,000 in Burkina Faso alone. What impact can this possibly have in the greater scheme of things in Mali?

And why should it concern you anyway that some obscure dispossessed people go home? Hey shit happens, the world is a complicated place and this is Africa after all!

For me it’s not just the humanitarian principle of a state and an international politics that denies and ignores a cultural catastrophe that is happening to the Tuareg, some of the world’s last real nomads, whose ancestry recedes and branches back from the guardians of the Sahara to the Berber and the Atlas mountains of Morocco, the Moors of the Alhambra in Spain, protectors of the Prophet Mohammed in Arabia, to the shores and the sails of Phoenicia and perhaps, some say, on backwards to the centre of western tradition, the family of Israel. Are they the lost tribe of Israel? If they were this would explain the world’s blindness and deafness: it’s in our DNA!

For me it is the politics and mythology of the war on terrror, which is fundamentally the west’s war to wage on wherever it finds its strategic interests lie, that has driven the Tuareg to this catastrophe. Radwan Ag Ayouba’s story is testimony to this: in his 90 or so years he has weathered every Saharan storm thrown at him from drought to sword war fare to rebellions. He weathered this crisis – the rebellion, the coup d’etat, the MNLA take over of Timbuktu, the Al Qaeda occupation right up to the French “liberatation” and then he fled Timbuktu and Mali for the first time in his life, leaving all his livestock behind. The international world, represented by the French military, the UN agencies and 12,000 peacekeeping troops have been present on the ground in Mali for the duration of Radwan’s exile. During the past 6 months he has watched peace return to his country, a president elected, recent legislative elections done and dusted with no incident, tourists coming back and yet he is withering away in exile aong with most of the Malian population of his colour.

If Mali was in Europe, if it was say Yugoslavia, you’d know what was happening, but the only time you hear about Mali is when something happens in Timbuktu. Moreover, in the coming years, military chiefs would be hauled up before the Hague. No one will face justice for the campaign against the Tuareg, that’s for sure: no one has ever been put before a court for any atrocities committed against the Tuareg, and they have come after every rebellion, the camps are full of the testimonies.

I hear, though I cannot confirm, that the 2012-13 exodus from Mali is the greatest migration of people from the Sahara region ever. How often have you seen images of the Malian refugee camps in Burkina Faso, Mauritania, or Niger on TV? Often enough to justify one of the biggest ever migrations of people in Africa? And what do you know about what drove them to migrate? Have you heard the term “ethnic cleansing” or a ‘colour war” applied to the Mali crisis? If not, why not when 95% of the refugees are light skinned Tamashek, aka “Tuareg”?

Before this journey, over the past 6 months, I have tried every angle I could to seek support for helping the refugees begin returning. The conditions are there for it to be possible, but they are stuck in political limbo. The UN will only help them back once Mali signs off that it is ready to take them back.

Meanwhile all the people of the north – Songai, Arab, Peul – are suffering. Those who are in, say, Timbuktu, suffer because without half the population the economy cannot get going, many displaced people within Mali (225,000 according to UNHCR) wont return because nothing is happening, and the refugees don’t go back because they have no means and they are not sure what humanitarian set up awaits them because they get no information.

The UN will only support the refugees to go home once the Mali government has signed off an accord with the UN to say it is ready and prepared to have the refugees home. Why isn’t it ready now? There are 12,000 UN peacekeeping troops on the ground, with the French in force as well, all the UN and NGO agencies needed to reconstruct, development money waiting to come in: the country has never been safer. They have an elected president and have had two country wide elections. Peace is back and yet the refugees can’t go home.

The refugees are on their knees, many have been out of Mali for 2 years, all have had to support themselves with anything they want other than 12 kilograms of rice a month which is all they receive from the UN. Their resources have depleted, their animals stocks are again decimated or totally lost, their lives have been turned upside down, their children have missed out on education, students’ degrees are on hold, lives are all in limbo while the government and international institutions that should be looking after them continue to play the politics which got these people into this mess in the first place.

This journey aims to be a spark to bring this issue to light.

Mohammed “Mouss” and Parking Marmeta to the Rescue

 

Mohammed Mouss and Maud in Parking MarmetaWe rolled into a maelstrom of parked cars and laughing smoking men ushering us into a wired off parking lot perched on a windy hillock between the coast road to the Morocco border.  Cars tables, people had to be moved so intricate backing could be performed. When all was done we were ushered out of the strengthening wind by the main man with brown stained front teeth (those left) into an old van that was now, he explained a sitting/dining/tv/office for him and his staff. “Mohammed Mouss welcome to Parking Marmeta”

We huddled into the van. Lots of smoking and a smell of Moroccan hashish. Our lad explained what he knew of our situation. I was relying on George’s Spanish to complete.

“So what do you want to do?” said Mohammed.

I didn’t know yet, but I needed to leave a truck and the trailer here for some time, possibly 10 days, possibly quite a bit longer. 

“No Problem. €15 per truck per day.”

If I went down to Mauritania and sold Maud and returned for Betsy that would be about €150. Not bad for peace of mind.

A hot tagine appeared at the door in the hands of a toothless hoody, with a sack of bread placed before us. Mohammed broke us off some bread and took the top off the tagine –  declaring: “Bishmilla Parking Marmeta”. I got the name now: “marmeta” meant cooking pot all over Africa. We had landed in a parking cooking pot!

I hadn’t eaten properly for a day and a half. The warm food was deliciously other – the taste of fruits, nuts and spices of the orient. I felt comfortable and familiar in an African way, something I had left behind in Mali two months ago. It’s the warm bosom of an African community, and although we were still technically in Europe, we were clearly amongst Africans. Moroccans don’t really see themselves as African, their focus is much more on Europe, but they are more African than European whether they like it or not.

I sensed salvation to my predicament lay here in this car park on a windy mound looking east out to sea, north to Europe and south to Africa. In all my travels help and solutions always come from the community, never from authorities or embassies.

———–

I can’t converse with Mohammed. He speaks no French or English and I speak little Spanish and worse Arabic. But we communicate as brothers.

He is the ‘kindness of strangers” the traveller meets frequently and relies upon to get through the journey.

 

Mohammed Mouss

 

 

On that first day in the parking lot I went over to Mohammed squashed up in his van with his boys to negotiate a better price. He immediately dropped it by a third “because you are helping the poor, like me” he laughed and indicated the waifs and strays he had taken in and surrounded himself with in the caravan. “How can I help you? Whatever I can do I will, I want to help your journey, tell me?” 

I thanked him and told him he had already helped by giving me breathing space.

Later that day I was preparing to leave again for the border with Maud and the trailer, but again I wasn’t convinced we should be going, I was feeling rushed for the George’s sake because of previous delays, but again, before a crucial decision I knew this was unwise and something was telling me I needed to stop here the night, I needed to take stock. I needed to get this next step right or this whole trip might be over. As though having read my mind Mohammed approached me in my dilemma as I tied up the trailer in the wind and rain with “don’t go now… It is late, tomorrow”. I submitted.

That night Mohammed took me back to his house, nourished me with food, a hot shower and a bed which, having slept in Betsy since Bristol, was luxury.

Since then I have stayed with Mohammed for 10 days. He hasn’t let me pay for anything. He has fed me, housed me, escorted me, encouraged me when I thought of giving everything up and would love to come to Timbuktu to help on the caravan.

Mohammed is a central figure in the community of Principe. Everyone knows him and his patronage gives me the keys of this “village” perched on top of a hill above the parking lot. 

It’s a strange community of Moroccans living isolated and marginalised from Spanish Ceuta. Down the road Ceuta is white and gleaming and European. Principe could be any Moroccan town: red, brown, orange and purples, narrow streets and close buildings, cafés filled with smoking men, women selling their produce. Anyone illegal stays within the Principe quater because the police don’t enter. Everyone is unemployed, all talk of the corruption of Ceuta, police harassment, “a prison”. Mohammed talks of escape, of coming with me to Timbuktu, of bringing his family but there’s something here, an echo from the walls that tells me no one is going anywhere, ever.

Ironically it is a prison to all of us: Spaniards on 3×2 kms of land with seeming little interest in venturing south (in the petrol stations maps of Europe and Spain for sale and not one of Africa); the Moroccans imprisoned as the troublesome underclass; the border officials with their petty rules imprisoned in the resentment of history over this border; and me and my two fat ladies imprisoned from my journey and from fluent communication. The phones don’t work well, even my computer has lost all its memory and is imprisoning me from accessing my photos on my camera and relaying what is going on to the real world of cyber space.

Mohammed talks of escape, of coming with me to Timbuktu, of bringing his family but there’s something here, an echo from the walls that tells me no one is going anywhere, ever. Their entrapment mirrored my own, but for now I was happy to be trapped here. I had found a new home, a space to think how to get myself out of my own prison of my own making.

———-

Mohammed gave me space to think over my options.

I had to decide how far I could realistically get with these trucks. They were costing me too much and now they were possibly more of a hinderance than a facilitator to the whole return project. Mohammed proposed being my other driver, but I was now looking at my fleet and my 3 blows in 24 hours, plus the burden of responsibility to get to the camps, and felt I had to streamline. Plus if I was having problems already with the trucks being ex-military, what might happen further on? I had been intending to paint them anyway in Morocco for Mali because of all the war machines there, but I hadn’t expected Morocco to be a problem. Only months earlier I met Mike, a crazy Canadian with a Karl Marx beard, who had travelled down in an ex-Austrian military vehicle with no problem.

Was it just this border? The problem was it was going to cost me a ferry back to Algeciras and another ferry to Tanger to find out.

It rained the first few days so no painting was possible. a few people came to enquire if Betsy and Maud were for sale but like most things here in Principe there is much talk but little happens. 

I considered all the variations: staying here till I sell them, leaving all with Mohammed and going on down to Mali by hitching and bus, going home and giving up. 

For the return, if I went on alone, I have to use my Landcruisers already in Mali, and could pull in others from the refugee community in Ouagadougou and a couple of trucks I know of with people I know. 

After a few days the sun came out, the winter gloom slowly lifted. It became clear I wasn’t going to find a quick buyer in Ceuta and I had to just act, I had to do something. I began painting Betsy, to show buyers I was going, I wasn’t hanging on for any buyer, and to give myself something to do. 

As I painted her, the purpose flooded back: the refugees – Betsy was perfect. She may be 57 but she’s built for another 50 years. She’s strong, simple and has all she needs to make me a great travelling home after all this. I’ll change her into a hippy wagon, though not too hippy, once Im in Western Sahara the Moroccan police hate anything that smacks of humanitarianism potentially there to sympathise with the Sahawiri of occupied Western Sahara, another dispossessed people. Morocco/Western Sahara is the Israel palestine of Africa, but because it is Africa you probably have never heard of this issue, despite 30 years of UN resolutions against Morocco. Morocco supports western policy, are supportive too of Israel and so the west does nothing to trouble Morocco.

As I painted Betsy, the parking lot boys rallied round, especially when the camera was rolling! If George took a day off I was alone with my work. We got her all white in 3 days. Then I began colouring her up. All white she looked a bit UN! I had to make her look as inoffensive and, if anything,  slightly ridiculous, to make that initial official impression a smile rather than  a growl.

And the result:

Mohammed Mouss, Betsy and a painter in the wind

 

When she was done, after big fanfare goodbye to Parking Marmite, we attempted the Ceuta border once more. 

Again we felt huge chugging through the lines, but I had the impression that the police were not recognising Betsy with her new look and indeed this was the case with the customs. A kindly looking older man came up and suggested he helped me through. As this was going to be delicate I took him on.

First customs officer got all the way to completing the form but then somone came back and mentioned the word “camion” which she wrote on the back with a question mark and sent me to see an inspector. 

The inspector looked her over, checked that no merchandise and was happy to let her go as a camping truck. He took me to his desk, got out his stamp, hovered it above the form then put it aside and said just let the ‘chief” see and pointed to a man in the suit. Rats! That was so close. That stamp was all I needed.

Cheif took a quick glance: “Non, camion, à Tanger!”

I begged him to reconsider. “Ok see the chief”. “But I thought you were the chief”. ‘No I’m the second chief, but I’m sure he will say the same thing.”

Big chief eventually comes out – its the same man who refused my first entry as “military aspect”. Amazingly he didn’t recognise Betsy nor me, but he was not for moving. As a “camion” it had to go via Tanger.

So we rolled back to Parking Marmeta. Would we ever leave?

—-

Ceuta is 60km from Tanger by land, the port even less. No it was not possible for me to take a taxi to Tanger with my papers and photos of the truck and present my case there and if they give the go ahead send message to Ceuta to let me through. No, I had to return to Spain and get another ferry to Tanger. 

So last option Tanger. Ferry back to Algeciras and ferry onto Tanger.

After more boring tooing and froing whilst customs decided what Betsy is – a lorry, wrong side drive, a camping car, a wagon, a white elephant or a crazy  Englishman’s idea – at midnight they gave up and stamped the ‘fiche” and we crossed the border with 10 days to get to Mauritania and a high five.

 

Ah the relief. We were in Africa for proper. Trimmed down, make up on Betsy looked the biz and after nearly 3 weeks trapped in Ceuta it was great to be on the road.

We had a good drive on down to Rabat, stopping off en route to camp up the night.

In Rabat I took Betsy in to have the once over that I had wanted Joe to do before we even left England, to tweak her carburetor to make her more fuel efficient and a few other odds and bods.

 A much needed hamam – hot rooms for washing, a bit like Turkish baths but without the bath – was had by all. 

When the mechanics were done onto Marrakesh. En route Betsy’s farting began again. The mechanic at Rabat had cured her of her wind but in a high gear she began blowing like a trooper, so rather than continue on to Agadir I called my Moroccan guide Moktar who took us to his mechanic who took great pleasure in showing of his skills on old trucks.

That day I fell ill, just run down. After the mechanic had sorted Betsy I parked her up and slept in the back. That night there was some football match on . In my exhaustion sleeping in a tent on the back of Betsy the city roared – some match was getting this town going man.

 

Next morning the parking attendant told me it was the Club World Cup semi final. Casablanca, only in the tournament As Morocco are hosts, beat the Brazialian South American champions against all odds 3-1 to go to the final against Bayren Munich. Geroge had been offred tickets and had been at the match. 

 

So with renewed good cheer we hit the road for Agadir. Pulling out of Marrakech I pulled in for a hitcher with a green and white Casablanca scarf on. He jumped into the back of Betsy and within minutes was sheltering from the wind in my tent.

 

Services, fill up, coffee. “What’s your name boy?”

“Mohammed”.

 

 

 

 

The third blow in 24 hours and everything grinds to a halt.

I must apologise for my silence. I have been writing, but as may become clear in the following pieces, as well as being trapped physically in a corner of Europe on Africa my computer began playing up and I was trapped outside cyber space as well. Plus as will become clear, major re-thinking about how to go forwards has been going on daily.

I slept well in Betsy the night the border prevented our military convoy passing, 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, the film maker (real names are all now changed for legal reasons) 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 without the tash welcomed us with “Bishmillah” and asked our nationalities. Michael 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.

Not to waste time I decided to go and find paint. 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.

Finally found paint that would do the job. Bought 5 liters of “peace” white – I may look a bit UN but any other colour had connotations – and returned to Michael 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 can’t take over from Joe  and 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. This is your journey, I’m just here to film, but I can’t be trappped in the journey. 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 George in less than 24 hours! Now I really was fucked. Two huge trucks, no mechanic and only me as a driver and George to film 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.”

Michael threw me a lifeline: “it could be the answer to your finance problems. Take Maud to Mauritania, sell her there and then use the money to come back and take Betsy to Burkina.”

“That will add 2 weeks”.

But it was an idea. Now Joe and Emma have gone, the one thing we have 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 when push has comes to shove, when I have required a leg up, when I relied too heavily on others with power to push forwards or reached out into the official world 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 one of those African things, and something the lone traveller relies upon but which the individual tourist 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 Gates 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.

Betsy and Maud cause more problems…

Betsy Bedford and Guy Lankester, copyright Michael MeredithPhoto ©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 Michael off 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?”
“Nada, desolé.”
He hovers, considers then smiles and hands me my passport. “OK. bon voyage!”
“Shookeran”

Customs queue. Fill in green “fiche” for Betsy, hand Michael one to fill in for Maud. Michael 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 Michael 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.

Michael 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 Michael. “America”. All seems to be going swimmingly as he chats about baseball to Michael 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.

Michael 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. Michael 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 Michael 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 Michael’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.”

Michael 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, Michael, 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 Michael. 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.

Europe from Africa, Europe in Africa!

————-

Next up: how Betsy turned from the above to this and who the little thing is:

Hippy Betsy Bedford

 

A Story of Two Fat Ladies as the Return 2 Timbuktu Departs

Betsy and Maud climb through an English villageThis is Betsy and Maud.

They have got me into a bit of trouble at the southernmost point of Europe and the northernmost point of Africa. From here I can see Morocco, Spain and a piece of Britain. But to reach my goal and achieve my aim I know i can no longer do this alone, i now need to garner support.

 

So I must tell our story:

 

Ceuta, Spain in Africa.

I rarely write publicly as I travel because I don’t like revealing my whereabouts. But I am cornered now on this journey of all my journeys I am making from UK along the familiar route to Mali and my way out and my mission depends now on openness.

 

My mission is to cross the Sahara and reach Burkina Faso with vehicle capacity and a camera to take an old Tuareg chief and his family back home to Timbuktu.

 

Security is not my concern. In Africa security lies in the community and this i am never without, and here I at least found Mohammed who is central to the Moroccoan comunity in Ceuta so I am with Africans and they are looking after me well.

 

Nor do I envisage security to be a problem further on if  get through and finally make it into Mali, nor do I think it is the number one issue for the refugees returning, which is what this journey is about. If I felt security was an issue at any stage I wouldn’t be going forwards.

 

No my problem is not security. My problem right now is Betsy and Maud. They are the reason this journey has been so cumbersome and expensive, they are the reason we had to take a mechanic with us so he could look after their vintage needs; they are the reason the mechanic has abandonned me and they are now the reason I am cornered in Spanish Ceuta on continental Africa, unable to pass into Morocco; they are the reason I now have to change direction, change plan and come up with a new idea of a way forward so I can get myself and my remaining companion, the film maker Michael Meredith, to Burkina Faso to take Radwan Ag Ayouba, to his ancestral lands. These two large ladies!

 

I’m being unfair. Its not really all their fault. They are victims of heritageism!

 

For the journey from UK to the southern tip of Spain they had been waved at and photographed, pointed out to children and respected for their considerable age. Then suddenly, crossing into Morocco, chiefs of customs in smart uniforms were speechless, slick dudes in shades tutted and photographed and a guy straight out of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with the tash, the stick, the white hat and big belly ran his fingers across Betsy’s curves and barked “military aspect!” Poor old Betsy and Maud blushed and my heart sank.

 

I’d better go back to the beginning of this journey to explain Betsy and Maud.

We met… wow only a few weeks ago, seems like a lifetime… in York where I went with Michael Meredith, a US film maker who is with me to record the journey, to look at a 1957 Bedford army truck and her sister, a 1964 Bedford Towing truck, for our upcoming trip to Burkina Faso.

 

The 1957 was fit for the purpose of carrying a lot of people and, I was assured by the charity I was buying from, solid as a rock, simple petrol engine and geared for their own aborted journey to Africa.

 

I was in unchartered territory with such a big and old truck but bit the bullet and bought her. She  promptly conked out a mile down the road. So Michael and I left York in our hire car with the promise that the charity we were buying from would sort the vehicle out in a week’s time.

 

Back home in Bristol I said to Michael that I was going to abandon the idea unless we took the two trucks, one as security for the other and a mechanic.

 

A week later we returned to York with a new deal with the charity –  we take the two trucks, one on credit – and Michael had roped in his Finnish friend Jarmo who was an uber-mechanic who specialised in classic cars and was up for the journey if he could bring his wife, Anne who wanted to come down to Mauritania with us and they she would leave and he would continue onto the camps with us. Perfect.

 

Again our departure from York  was delayed by a night as the trucks hadn’t been moved for months and the work we assumed was being done to prepare them for us after our first aborted attempt clearly hadn’t been done. 

 

But eventually we got going: the big bird “Betsy”, a towing truck who became “Maud”, a solid trailer sadly without name, me knowing the way and the why and driving Michael to film,  and Jarmo our mechanic and the other driver with his wife Anne to just enjoy the madness of it all had arrived. We were a strong enough team thrown together at the last minute as we left northern England to go back to Bristol, and then the following day onto Portsmouth for the ferry to Bilbao and …. the Sahara.

 

Early signs on the journey were worrying. Jarmo and Anne arrived with colds and were anxious to get to the sun and I was pressured to rush which I hate when travelling as it gets you nowhere more quickly and usually the opposite with something left undone or behind. Anne’s high heeled shoes when we left Bristol caused an eyebrow lift from Mum as she waved us off. I was getting messages that unless we got to Morocco quickly Jarmo might jump ship because Anna wanted the sun, and then we’d be stuck without a mechanic. So on we rushed.

 

Portsmouth to Bilbao and across Spain.

Luckily I delayed our departure from Bristol as it gave me time to buy jump leads which were promptly used 12 miles into our journey to Portsmouth. Tinkered a little with the trucks for a drizzling afternoon in Bilbao and then the next day set off across the mountains of the Basque country. The sun was out as we climbed and descended and Michael took advantage of the light, got into his harness and tied himself onto the back of Maud the tow truck to film me driving. Awesome day.

 

The journey across Spain to Algeciras where we would get the ferry to Morocco was surprisingly without incident with the trucks but Jarmo was appalled at their mechanical maintenance. But after a hesitant start my two old girls were great. Betsy didn’t start one morning, Maud was a bit of a carbon monoxide chamber, Betsy “back fired”, as she calls it, like a trooper, but what to expect from 50 year old ladies? And everyone loved them.

 

We pulled into Algeciras in the evening of our third day in Spain. The first leg was over, we had made it across Europe, though we had done nothing to sort out Betsy and Maud’s outrageous drinking problem so I was burning money in a race to get Jarmo and Anne to the sun of Morocco where we would stop for a few days to have a good look over the trucks and try to curb their crazy consumption.

 

I suggested we take the ferry straight onto Tangier that night and we could be in Rabat by the next afternoon, but Jarmo wanted to stay the night in Algeciras. I was getting a bit tired – the trip had become all about Jarmo and Anna, the purpose of getting to Burkina was getting lost, and yet they were travelling for free and Michael was paying all their costs. I had been sold Jarmo as this tough Fin who was totally up for a road trip. All I could see was a couple who needed  a Holiday Inn each night and could only do what they were engaged for for their free ride when we got to the sun.

 

And then the first bombshell landed. After delays leaving Algeciras as i had been alerted to a potential problem getting my trucks into Morcco as they were lorries so i may need to pay transit costs Jarmo and Anna decided they were going to leave us from Rabat. 

 

Bombshell and pissed off. I had agreed to do this journey with these old Bedford trucks for the sake of the film and because we had an expert mechanic all the way to Mali. We had just raced across Spain without looking at the trucks at extra expense to me just to get Jarmo and Anne to Morocco so that Jarmo would stick with us to Bamako.

 

That night I couldn’t sleep. My head was spinning with the possible consequences of Jarmo leaving. Also someone had alerted me to a problem I may have with the trucks getting into Morocco at Tangier – I may have to pay transit charges as they could be seen as utilitarian vehicles.

With my mind racing I decided we couldn’t take the 6am ferry as planned as I needed to check out the Tangier issue. Understandably Jarmo was furious, but I had no option. When I feel like I’m heading for trouble and I don’t know what to do, I have to stop and do nothing until I see the right solution.

 

I spent the morning rushing round checking this Tangier issue. Nobody could give me a firm answer. Spanish customs and even Moroccan police couldn’t say. Eventually the best advice from two people was rather than cross to Tangier to go to Ceuta instead as this was a Spanish enclave on the Moroccan coast, a bit like Gibralter, so if there was a problem on the border I wouldn’t have to pay for the vehicles to return to Spain by ferry.

 

I remembered Ceuta from my first time crossing the Sahara. It can be a problematic border   because Morocco don’t like Spain having a rock of theirs. Sounds like Spain about Gibralter no? Ah colonialism!

 

I was ready. That was the plan, we’d go to Ceuta. We could catch the 1200 ferry. Word came back that Jarmo was stalling. We missed the 1200. At 1330 Michael, Jarmo and Anne came over to me at the truck yard. 

 

Second bombshell: Jarmo announced that he and Anne were leaving that night for Sevilla and flying from there back to Finland. They weren’t even coming to Rabat.

 

We were a week into their trip. All had been focussed on getting them out of the cold of UK and northern Spain to Morocco, Michael had been putting them up in hotels all week and I had been throwing cash at fuel aiming for Rabat, no work had really been done to the trucks and there’s lots to do but Jarmo wanted to do it in the sun, and just as we are ready to go across the Med to the sun, the Sahara, and Africa… Jarmo and Anne left Michael and me and Betsy and Maud as they disappeared in their hire car.

 

Its going to be tough and once we get to Rabat I need to rethink things. Let’s just get to Rabat. I get 19.30 tickets to Ceuta. We cause a stir getting Betsy to back the trailer onto the ferry. And gradually I realised it was for the best that they left. Jarmo and Anne were not up for the rigours of Africa, and certainly not for this particular trip.

 

On the boat I discuss with Michael how losing Jarmo felt initially like the floor falling away from the whole journey but now felt like a relief, now the journey is what it is, with no pressure or agenda that isnt to do with the project ahead. Now it was my journey and Michael was filming it. Not having the extra driver was going to be difficult but we’d have to work something out on that.

 

In Ceuta we decide to stop off to get cheap last minute wine and something to eat from the  last European supermarket we’d see before hitting the border. Neither of us were tired and we could sleep the other side.

 

Ceuta is about 3 kms long then there’s a wall snaking up the mountain and a border post by the sea. We all rolled up to the border. Africa at last, from here… i know where i am.

 

Screen Shot 2013-11-21 at 7.45.52 AMPhotograph: Michael MeredithPhotograph Michael MeredithP1070154