So, after eighteen months spent thinking about embarking on it, nine months planning the adminstative details for it, and the last month panicking about the realities of it, here I am: LIVING IN THE SAHARA DESERT.
Now, some might think me a little crazy. Even some of my Saharawi friends have told me in no uncertain terms that I must be mad to put myself in this situation. But I always did like a challenge. And if you’re going to set yourself a challenge, it might as well be a bloody difficult one.
Two weeks in, I’m reflecting on the realities and day-to-day ups and downs of that challenge. I’ve recently come to the conclusion that this is going to be a little bit like learning to run. The first ten minutes are always tough, no matter how far you are on in your training. Something about it will never feel totally natural all of the time. There’s always going to be a moment, whether during one run or over the course of a whole week when you want to give up and never put your trainers on again. There will always be a little twinge as you adjust to the routines and the rhythms. And you’re probably going to have blisters and chaffe marks. That’s just the way it goes…
But that’s the reality of my challenge. But also the reality of my unique situation whilst I’m here. Because I can go home at any point. I am only here for three months and then I return to my life of luxury. And believe me, everything about the UK feels like luxury at the moment (except listening to news about Brexit every day; that is a lack that feels like luxury right now).
I have chosen to experience this for six months of my life, with a little recharging break in the middle. But for the people with whom I am living: this is it right now. No choices. No other options. No let-up. No promise of a better near future. And that is sobering. Whenever I want to complain, whenever I want to mock what is happening to my hair as it gets greasier, my feet as they get dryer, and my hips as they get slightly stiffer from sitting and lying on the floor all the time, that’s what I have to think about. But it also gives me more impetus than ever to fight for Saharawi rights, something I’ve been doing for a while now, without really knowing the harsh reality up close and personal.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t have a little giggle at some of the cultural differences that have made me laugh out loud or want to cry just a little bit. And celebrate the small wins which are helping me through the difficult times as I adjust to this new way of life.
Let’s start with the journey here. Never in my life have I had a group of ten men stare so disbelievingly at me. And given that I regularly drive a van in a dress and did a triathlon on my commuter bike (without removing the mud guards or the pannier rack), that is saying something. My cabin baggage was pretty heavy (for those who think it’s because I can’t travel light, please remember I was carrying a desktop MAC in my hold luggage). So what’s a woman to do but take her shoes off, climb up on the seat and haul it out. I couldn’t tell if the various open-mouthed stares from the Algerians were in anger at themselves for not helping given their height advantage or disbelief at the strength in my arms. I may never know…
The late-night arrival in Tindouf was surprisingly simple. An ecclectic group of foreigners arrived on the same flight as me, including a large delegation of Cubans. As I was the only one headed to Boujdour Camp, I got my journey with driver Ahmed all to myself. We conversed in our mutual broken Spanish. My fears lay calm as I looked out across the sands in the midst of our convoy of bashed-up Land Crusiers on our way from Algeria to the land given over to the Saharawis to set up their temporary Camps more than 40 years ago.
Day-to-day life is quiet and simple. Quite a shock to the system for an always-busy bee like me, but part of the appeal. We wake up in our communal space and eat together on the sand in the courtyard of the family home (mum and five sisters). The mornings are cool and a welcome break from the heat that characterises the rest of the day.
My favourite breakfast is the soya ‘porridge’ that is the least sugary of all on offer. Made with powdered milk it can sometimes feel like a war-rations meal but that somehow also appeals (although, let’s not talk about the amount of chicken luncheon meat I have consumed since I’ve been here). On the other hand, waking up the other day from my first deep sleep and unexpected lie-in following dreams of life in London to be greeted by a breakfast of stewed camel was just too much. I nearly burst into tears based on the depth of the culture shock. Not for breakfast, thanks. Camel for lunch is fine and I’m actually starting to like it…but breakfast? A step too far for this sensitive-stomached señorita.
And then there’s the sugar. It really is in everything. Piled in by the shotglassful. Tea, which is such a ritual in Saharawi life, is so lovely but a very syrupy sip or two that starts to coat your teeth after the third glass. I’ve seen adults add several spoonfuls of sugar to sweet fruity yoghurts. I’ve seen children eat sugar by the handful. And then there’s me, tentatively asking after my first week if anyone in the Camps might drink their tea without sugar, in the vain hope that it might be something I can do at least once in a while… When I tell you they looked at me in disbelief, that they told me people die from not having enough sugar in their tea, we can see the extent of the problem. We rolled around laughing as I explained that where I come from we believe that sugar will kill us. But I have had a few glasses of tea without sugar. It’s ridiculously strong and totally awful but I am pretending it’s fine as I have a point to prove… ‘Stubborn’ doesn’t even come close. But who am I to critique the sugar intake? There’s plenty of other vices of which we are much more guilty back home.
Mornings are filled with helping where I can with the daily chores, reading and doing a few activism jobs on the internet (more on the internet and electricity prevalence in a later episode) and after lunch we all expire in the heat and siesta on the floor. I wake in excitement for the English classes with local children that I am helping to run. Evenings are spent playing cards, listening to the excited chatter I don’t understand of the friends who come to call and making strides to speak to others with whom I might develop working relationships while I’m here, before a late dinner and an early-ish bedtime. I drift off to sleep planning lessons and fun ways of learning English through drama and creativity. My dreams resemble BBC Dramas mixed with elements of Black Mirror and characters who over-pronounce and emphasise English (MY favourite…YOUR favourite…HER favourite, which always comes before HIS favourite…slowly, slowly and on the sly with the feminism).
And those little wins I was on about? The main thing I knew I would miss here is my independence. So taking the ten minute walk to school on my own now I know my way around a little is a massive win. Managing to wash each day with just two cups of water in the morning and one at night is a total triumph! Showering after ten days without, using only two mixing bowls of water was the greatest feeling ever. Dealing with a period in this heat and water-shortage situation: high five to me! Teaching my Saharawi sisters how to play Newmarket (an Allen family favourite) with clubs, hearts, spades and diamonds (all new to them): total joy and laughs out loud for all. Hearing my students repeat a new phrase they have learned from me and recall something the following day: nothing comes close. Finally getting lucky in the necessary throwing technique for the stick game that still baffles me as to how the rules actually work: #lifegoals met. And don’t get me started on how I feel about teaching my Saharawi sisters the real lyrics to Celine Dion’s ‘The Power of Love’ having heard a rendition from them that included not one word of recognisable English.
Best win of all? On a day I was feeling particularly low, my Saharawi mum made my heart melt, through translation telling me I must never forget them when I go home for she now already thinks of me as another of her daughters. #tearsofjoy
I have come from a life where I was time poor but opportunity rich. Now those tables have been turned, my markers are different and my goal posts have shifted. But achievement is always achievement. And learning to run here is making me so grateful for everything I have and have momentarily left behind. How could it not?