The planned route (Click to enlarge)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

An African interlude

Our first glimpse of Africa was a big orange haze hovering in an otherwise black horizon. It was 4am and we were flopping around in a dead calm sea waiting for daybreak before we hit the ignition and faced whatever Morocco had to throw at us. We still had another two and a half hours to wait before the sun blessed us with light. Suspense and anticipation was high. That fuzz of light in the distance was Africa and we had made it here with almost nothing but our own sweat and toil. For the last 4 days we had known nothing but our bubble of a wooden boat bobbing about in a big blue sea. In a few hours time we would be in a completely different world as our bubble collides with foreign lands. No frantic packing of bags, queues, flashing lights on boards, flight numbers, tickets, passport checks, announcements or conveyor belts in sight. We just rocked up in Africa, completely unannounced and unexpected. Drifting into somewhere by boat is the closest you can get to making the world a bigger place again. The simplicity and calmness of it feels ancient. As the sun crept up and we crawled closer and closer to land the more foreign we became. Each step towards to shore is a little bit further from your comfort zone and a little bit closer to an unknown world. First you see a nondescript coastline but bit by bit the detail comes through; a town, buildings, a port, crumbling walls, human smells, mosques, fishing boats, birds, the sound of engines running, fishermen shouting. After a long stint of seeing little other than different forms of blue the stimulation is overwhelming and your mind spins with what you are about to experience. With no sterile airport, transfers, motorways or tourists to buffer your entrance a feeling of vulnerability runs high and suddenly the world is huge.

As it happened our arrival in El Jadida was remarkably smooth. Given the number of fishing boats we have seen smashing into each other since, it might have been the smoothest mooring this port has ever seen. El Jadida port is closed from sea and so it wasn't until we were 20m from concrete that we had any idea where we were or what to expect. As we turned into the enclosed walls there was a space of little more than 10 minutes in which we all dropped jaw, gasped with awe at everything we saw, received numerous directions about where to go, doubted help from shore, trusted it, put some lines together, got some fenders out, attracted a 20 plus man crowd and secured ourselves to land.

And so we arrived in Africa, right bang in the heart of a Moroccan fishing port. Twenty four hours a day this port is an explosion of activity. The coming and going of everything from 90 to 10 foot wooden fishing boats never stops. They plough in or out of port, overflowing with more nets, crates, fish, fumes and men than seems possible, regardless of what other boats are moored up to them, in their way or who is about to get crushed. The local sailing and windsurfing club operates in the same (rather small) space and regardless of wind conditions. Often at midday we look onto a gaggle of kids or an overweight parent frantically try to jibe their lasers or windsurfs to avoid an oncoming fishing boat, seagull attack or anything else that might cause them to topple into the faeces and fish gut filled water. And that is all just on the water. The surrounding port is also home to the fish market, the dry docks, conspicuous looking warehouses, the local midget, a bonfire, most of the population when they don't have anything else to do, some confused egrets, a thousand or so cocky seagulls, an infestation of scrounging cats and a bunch of bored officials. Lista has been happily bobbing amongst it all for a week and so we have lived, breathed, smelt, ate and slept the life of El Jadida with little respite.

From the port we wondered into the town, thinking that we must have arrived in the hub and so perhaps there was little else to see. How wrong we were. The port is considerably organised compared to the torrent of activity onshore. The hecticness of this land smacks you in the face everywhere you turn. There is no time for structure or organisation here, everyones too busy buying, selling, mending, making, discussing or playing something. Why would you waste your time contemplating the most efficient way to do something when you could just get on with it? Everyone here goes about their business as they see best, without the input of consultants, instruction manuals or experts. Its how England would look if it was built solely on the back of suburban Sunday DIY experiments. The garden shed approach to life. Grow some stuff, load it up on a cart, take it into town, sprawl it in front of people and wait there until they buy it for a price that works for you and works for them. Make a hole in the town wall, heat it up, bake some bread in it and wait for people to buy it. Breed some animals, throw them in a van, bring them down to town, bring a slaughtering kit and some scales and wait for the demand to flood in. Catch some fish, bring them into port, wait for people to gather around your boat and barter for your goods or just eat them there and then. The same approach goes for everything; nuts, seeds, cakes, bread, meats, eggs, popcorn, tea, tins, fruit, veg, fish, cloth, wood, bikes, cooking appliances, adidas tracksuits, pants, socks, CDs, TVs, towels, books, toilet brushes, beds, sofas, coffee and the list could go on. Pretty much anything you could ever want will be piled up in front of you for your taking within a 100m sq of the middle of town. No space is spared for the convenience of the buyer. Each man is selling his stuff regardless of the man next door. Nothing is masked behind plastic, on shelves, through bar codes, queues, systems, calories or e numbers. Everything is presented and bought the only way its ever looked.

As we become more and more accustomed to shopping in this hodge podge of goods our systems at home seem increasingly ridiculous. Somewhere miles away someone breeds about a million chickens, somehow they get killed, someone builds a massive factory so the meat can be cut up and packaged, it travels some more miles to get to a massive store in the middle of nowhere, someone puts a load of information on a label that means something but no ones really sure what, someone in a big office somewhere dictates its price and then we pick it up, put it in a plastic bag and probably drive for a good 20 minutes to get it home. We must have gotten really bored at some point to spend the time thinking that one up.

This raw approach to life expands far beyond the overflowing limits of the market. A trip to the local Hamman presented washing in an entirely new light. It was initially traumatic, as I strutted in butt naked to be welcomed by a room full of women of all sizes scrubbing their bits and staring at me as if they had never seen something so pink before. However once eyes turned away and I found a corner to hide away in it was an incredible experience and I was rather envious of this cultural and social naked time. Everyone needs to wash so why not do it with all your friends and family in a tiled room filled with steam and buckets of hot water? And so the simplicity continues. If people want tea then they will sit on the floor and drink some tea, if kids want to play football on main roads the cars will have to avoid them, if you need to whizz your motorbike across a pavement at full speed then go for it or if you need to pray on the spot then whip out a rug and get on with it. Life is for the taking so what are we waiting for?

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