Monday, 23 February 2009

Oudja (Morocco) to Near Algiers

I'm writing several days behind events, and so I'm going to make this a general catch-up. On the negative side, the troubles brewing about the organisation are still brewing, and have even intensified, but today I'm going to do a travelogue, with pictures.
On our way through the Atlas foothills to Fez, we stopped for lunch at Guercif, a pretty little village, and we had lunch at the local big-wigs house, and what a lunch. Every table of 10 or so started off with soup, meat soup, then we moved to a whole roasted lamb for each table, with a vegetable garnish, then a dish of four roast chickens per table - remember that there are over 250 of us - and then it was sweet mint tea, a Moroccan speciality, and huge bowls of fruit. When we arrived at Oudja we were taken to a wedding house, am entertainment centre for celebrations, and there we were treated to a first course of soup, followed by a dish of roast lamb, a dish of roast chicken, sweet mint tea and fruit. Of course it is a traditional Moroccan feast for special occasions, and every where we go, it seems is a special occasion for the local residents. I don't know how I am going to make an impact on the heart-strings of the folks back home if I keep talking about all these hardships and self-sacrifices that I'm making.
We arrived late in Oudja, went to bed late, woke up early and went to the local cafe for breakfast - eggs, or bread and jam and coffee. You should have seen the startled look on the proprietor's face when the disheveled crews, instead of walking past his restaurant, turning in to its early morning emptiness.
After re-fuelling, and in the absence of the promised buses, we caught a cab back to the meeting point at the wedding place. There were some delays, and we entertained ourselves watching the main North Africa Highway blocked for about ten minutes by the local flock. That's a bit unfair really, as the border between Oudja and Algeria has been closed for fifteen years, so there's no-one to travel on the Highway.
Except us. We had received permission to cross, and so we rolled the 2 kilometres up to the border and through into Algeria. Well, the head of the convoy rolled through into Algeria, but the tail was still parked in Morocco. It took all day to process the documents. I must say, that in my opinion, and cotrary to the views of many others, I feel that the governments of both Morocco and Algeria, have done us very well. The food in Morocco and accommodation was provide by them, and in Algeria they also through in free petrol, although at an unscheduled stop were arrangements were not in place, a local benefactor stepped in and paid for the entire convoy, spontaneously. Really, there shouldn't be a dry eye in the house. I interviewed him, he had nothing to say except that he loved Palestine.
Eventually we get through, and of course all the planned arrangements have to be changed, and we are taken to a parking place a few kilometres away, where we sleep in the vehicles - except women - and breakfast starts at 4.17am. (That's when I went to the toilet and speculatively punted the idea that someone might produce a cup of tea. 'You can come in to breakfast' said a waiter, so I did) There was no tea, but bread and jam and strong coffee, and it's amazing how quickly the place filled up.
We started driving at about 9am, and were constantly marshalled by efficient police in 4X4s. Actually their courtesy should be mentioned, because they never understood the concept of discreet groups in the convoy, and the system broke down completely, but they were unfailingly polite and helpful, at least in so far as language would allow.
On the way over flat fertile lands, we passed dense agricultural fields, shepherds working the roadside verges and waste places, sheikhs in keffiyas (checkered scarves), and a sophisticated clas of business men and women, sophisticatedly dressed, both with and without Islamic accoutrements. I made a friend of an Algerian Journalist who was among a group who met us at the border. Some wanted to learn English, some to talk about the world, and very many came to chant slogans in solidarity with those vehicles where people were prepared to join in with them - which was many. They waited patiently for 8 or nine hours without complaint, and various organisations kept turning up with bags of roast chicken and lamb sandwiches, as well as water and juice. The total miles we did that day was about 25, and we had no idea of the storm that awaited us. At the roadside the people were calm, reserved, quite unlike Morocco. A few shy waves, the occasional excitement, but mostly they were watching. However we discovered that if we waved first, they responded, generally very strongly. As an actor might say, we were learning to work the crowds.
As I said above, the next day's drive began at 9am or so and the crowds were again supportive but restrained, we stopped and started our way along main highways avoiding the towns, but at each village there would be knots of people watching us. Late in the afternoon we stopped right outside a cafe, which didn't sell tea, but donated a juice, a sunny terrace, a toilet, oh and a burger in a baguette. It was lamb, and it was delicious.
Shortly after our customary stop for evening prayers, we started going through more urban terrain, though still small scale. As night fell the crowds got larger, and began to spill off the pavement into the roads. Each settlement slowed the pace of the convoy to slower than walking, and then, once clear, everyone roared away to catch up with those in front, and the convoy once again became a race-track for those who wanted it so, and as the driving went on and on through the evening and into the night, with no information, people began to notice that we had turned back on ourselves, and, indeed we finished up at a place 30 kilometres back from where we had reached, so we could have saved 60 by going straight there, and instead of going to bed at 5am, we might have got there at 2. (Convoy time does not compute into KPH divided by distance, because there is a great deal of stopping, marshalling and crawling, especially as I mentioned through the towns in the evening. Nevertheless, we did 400 miles, and we are now outside Algiers).
Once again there will be a rest day and we will have a genearl meeting, the first one, to discuss how the problems can be resolved - or if. I'll let you know.
Back in the real world, those crowds were exhausting. Not only did they make us feel like heroes, but they also, now that they were demonstarbly more demonstrative, became somewhat overwhelming, at least if you're a shy retiring type like me. Doing high fives as the vehicles travel at extreme slow speeds through the crowded streets, often pushing, gently, the folks out of the road to make a path; doing those high fives invites the pasionate to grab your hand with both of theirs and whilst they give you their impassioned blessings, to bend your arm round the windows and bang your elbow. once or twice I was seriously worried that I have my arm broken; but which would I rather have - to witness these scenes of fervent support and hope and have a broken arm, or to stay at home.
Oh I'm so glad that I came.

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