Tales of the Unexpected

I had some idea of what I was expecting from this Desert Life before I got here having been once before but plenty has come out of nowhere and made me stop and think. More often than not about myself.

Firstly, it turns out I’m not as good at sharing as I might like to think I am… I have managed to slip easily into sharing glasses for drinks, gulping water from a communal bowl or jug that we all share (even when one or more of us has a cold) and I knew I was fine with eating off one big plate with everyone else (perfect for helping you avoid one of your least favourite ingredients). But when I can’t find any of my three pairs of sandals because someone else in my very large Saharawi family is wearing them, the internal fury is intense. This lone-liver has got used to (and very quickly I might immodestly add) many aspects of this communal living scenario but turns out: BECCY DOESN’T SHARE SHOES! I’ll keep you posted about when I manage to get over myself.

A very small selection of our family shoe collection

Moving on. I thought I’d be hungry all the time, desperately thinking about some of the food at home. Yeah, I’m already looking forward to a British cuppa as soon as I land in December. And a bacon sandwich. And, blimey, I miss cheese. And oats and juicy berries and plain yoghurt for breakfast. And plates of varied, fresh and steamed-so-still-crunchy veg. And rich and creamy curries. But other than that (!), I haven’t actually craved anything in the last three weeks and bar a couple of instances, I haven’t eaten between meals. (Our mum went out to get us cookies and juice for when we got home from school the other day. Best treat EVER). I’ve realised a hundred times over that I eat too much at home and most of the time just because I want to, not because I need to. Classic realisation taken from this kind of experience. But that doesn’t make it any less true.

I was conscious before I arrived of not wanting to eat too much of the World Food Programme rations people are living off and ensure that the money I gave to my family each week would be enough to cover anything extra they needed to buy to feed me. I was very worried about being the greedy White Woman. But turns out they all think I barely eat anything! They laugh at me when I say I’m full before they have finished and my Saharawi mum has given me her concerned look on more than one occasion to suggest she thinks I’m getting skinny; something considered highly unattractive round here.

Helping prepare my favourite meal so far: dumplings of mashed potato, Laughing Cow cheese and chicken luncheon meat.

Now, no one jump to any conclusions about a notion that they have more than enough to eat. They certainly don’t. We need to put this into context: they are very used to filling up on carbs (platefuls of rice or pasta at 10.30pm at night with just a sprinkling of onions and veg, a little oil and maybe a tin of sardines shared out between 8 or 9 mouths). I, on the other hand, need to be doing a whole lot more exercise than I can currently manage to process a lot of carbohydrate and can’t really contemplate a huge plate of pasta just before bed. And in the heat of the day at lunchtime, my body struggles to cope with large portions of a stew of meat and veg with boiled potatoes whilst my family tuck in wholeheartedly. Every mouthful makes me hotter and scream for more water. (Plus, I am definitely living off the fat reserves I’d stockpiled over the summer whilst not denying myself any treat that I knew I wouldn’t be seeing for the next three months). I’ve had a salad once and ate more than my fair share. Craving cold food!

Women covered to protect their skin from the sun (taken during my last trip to the Camps)

This leads me to another thing: our different methods of coping with the heat. I would quite happily wear little to nothing while I am here even though I know it would be culturally insensitive… And whilst I cover my skin to be modest and protect myself from the sun, my Saharawi sisters are proactively hiding every part of their body from it. They really don’t want their skin to get darker than it already is. Quite a difference from this fair-skinned Englishwoman who’d quite like a little bit of totally unnatural tan for Christmas. So, they are all wearing leggings, long-sleeved tops (I have even seen a jumper or two), thick socks, gloves (!), UGG boots (equivalent) and their traditional melfha (a little like a sari) and then an additional headscarf wrapped around their heads like a turban. Honestly, I am sweating just looking at them in all that garb in the approaching-40℃ conditions. Of course, they are used to the heat in a way I might never be even if I lived here for ten years, but still. Gloves and furry lined boots in 40℃! YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS?!

I manage a small headscarf to walk around the streets

Ah, and the head covering. I had so hoped I would manage to be totally culturally sensitive and feel comfortable wearing a melfha. They are really beautiful and ensure every woman can be the individual that she is. But turns out trying to make this feminist put something on her head in this heat just because a man arrives pushes her over the edge. I was probably kidding myself that I could manage it. My British politeness comes a not-even-close-second to my self-preservation and desire to ease the sweating even if just a little. All that Bikram Yoga training to make it a mind over matter thing about feeling too hot? Totally and utterly out of the window.

The washing machine

But we have electricity! And air conditioning! And a fridge/freezer! A washing machine when there’s enough water (and it’s working)! Totally unexpected. And total luxury compared to my pre-trip expectations. And about bloody time. These people have been living in the harshest Desert conditions but not far from a city with an airport for the past 40 years. They desperately needed this kind of infrastructure to ease the harsh conditions here and I cannot imagine how we would be coping without it… (Note: The electricity does sometimes go down and you have no way of knowing when it will come back… A few minutes or a few hours later… And some of the loose wires going straight into a socket rather than through a plug are incredibly scary… It’s a work in progress). 

The Desert and the Electricity: A welcome partnership

One of the things I said I was looking forward to most about this experience was putting my smart phone away, escaping the internet bombardment and reliance and not having both a daytime and volunteering-time job that was shaped by an infinitely filling email inbox. I definitely had some romantic notion about going back in time and living technology-free. But I still wanted my e-reader and my IPod (yes, I’m old-school) and my electric toothbrush… So there’s a balance in there that I was obviously seeking. 

From my first day here I have had fairly easy access to the internet. Turns out, access to worldwide information searching, photo sharing and Whatsapp chats is pretty much a fundamental human right these days. Maybe it’ll soon be added to the Universal Charter. For around £10 a month (cheap for us but not so for everyone here, of course) I have nearly double the data I did at home alongside local and international mobile calls. Granted, when I first got here we barely got above an H, flitting occasionally to some 3G, and it took 4 hours to download one app. But one day 4G appeared out of nowhere and it hasn’t yet disappeared so fingers crossed I was here to witness a revolutionary technological advance… The whole network does go down every so often in the same way the electricity does though, so I get that sought-after disconnection every so often even though it is obviously annoying for everyone here.

But what was I running away from? Much more from the anxiety that has begun to accumulate from the ever-increasing battle of clearing my notifications bar, of replying to every email and message, of dealing with the constant bombardment of advertising and the information and news live feed overload. But I wasn’t running from all the things that are totally great about my smart phone. Being completely in touch with family and friends back home? Of course I want that! Being able to call over Whatsapp and feel like I’m just down the road from everyone is so important while I’m finding my feet here and it’s not like I’m in prison. I don’t have to add ex-communication to the list of everything else that is difficult about living in the Desert. But now my phone brings me lots of happy rather than being any kind of chore. And that new way of seeing it is great.

The hallway with a door at each end. A great place to be in the afternoons for some welcome breeze

One thing I hate of my weekly chores at home in the UK is dusting. I think it is the most pointless of all cleaning tasks and I basically never do it. So, you’d imagine my landing in the middle of the dustiest place on earth would catapult me into intense anger every morning as we realise we have lost the day’s battle with the dust and everything we swept away yesterday is back. But actually, sweeping away that dust every morning has become one of those little wins I talked about last time. We are living together in a totally inhospitable environment and for just a few hours every morning, we can look at the clean and tidy living/eating/sleeping room and the dustfree hallway and think: we won. At least just for now.

Our living/eating/sleeping room
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