Tuesday, 21 October 2008

8: "Trust in Allah, but tie up your camel"

A modern day tourist caravan winds its way through the dunes at Erg Chebbi

I thought I might expand on last week's rather pessimistic entry and elaborate further on my thoughts about children and cycling in Morocco. A question that I always find interesting is how is it that two people can visit the same place and then come away with vastly different experiences? While the postive or negative events that the traveler experiences in these places undoubtedly are vital in their perception of the place, I think how the traveler feels internally and how they view their experiences that shapes so much of their accounts.

I've had plenty of time in the saddle over the past few days to ruminate further on why children here see a cycling European as a likely source of sweets, pencils and dirhams. I've also met several cyclists at this stage and one of the first topics of conversation was the children we've encountered. Like a scene from a Mad Max film, I've been cycling across an apparently barren, rocky plain, when suddenly I see a group of children who had been playing contentedly, or keeping on eye on a herd of goats, jump up and run at a angle that is timed to intercept me further along the road. Yells for water, sweets, and more rarely my bicycle, fill the air, as the children perform admirably well at bearing down on me. And let's be clear, we're not just talking about the poor kids here, but also children who are obviously well-dressed and playing in front of houses that are adorned with all the accoutrements of a wealthier household.

The key factor here is that the children never appear to approach Moroccans, no doubt fearing the rebuke that they would receive. So somewhere along the line the children have learned that by pleading to a nisrani they will potentially receive something in return. Four years ago, when my cousin Mark and myself were touring here, we came upon a caravan of Spanish four-wheel drives that were tossing sweets out to children waiting along the roadside of a popular off-road tourist track in the High Atlas. There was no human contact here, instead it was like feeding time at the zoo. A few days ago, I heard a story from someone living in Merzouga about a group of holidaying Europeans who had loaded their vehicles up with clothes and other items and then pulled up in a village near Merzouga, handed the items over to the presumably surprised villagers and driven off. No need was identified. No one consulted. Such indiscriminate giving may momentarily salve the conscience of a visiting European, but it reinforces a stereotype that foreign tourists will just give things if you demand it from them. The dangers are obvious. Children run out, not just in front of bicycles, but also cars, 4x4's, and motorbikes. They may also avoid going to school and wait for passing tourists at the roadside instead.

European perceptions of poverty are not always accurate either and judging the wealth of a household is not always as easy as one might suspect. The other day another traveler related a story of how he was invited into an old man's house in a small village for tea. The front of the house looked tatty and afterwards the traveler offered to pay for the tea. At that point the old man smiled and in his unkempt djellaba, led the traveler over to his garage. Behind the rickety wooden door were the possesions bought with remittances sent home from a son in Europe - a recent model Mercedes and a new motorbike.

While children may just be having fun and seeking something sweet for their teeth, it's also important to recognise that begging replaces what a social welfare system might offer people in other countries. This is particularly important in Muslim societies, where a strong emphasis is placed on acts of charity to those less fortunate. One of my favourite stories is recounted by my friend Charlie about an epsiode from his first travels to Morocco, some years ago now. Charlie was sitting at the front of the fully occupied bus, waiting for it to depart, when an old man clambered up the steps and put out his hands for money. Not wishing to be perceived as the hapless, gullible traveler, Charlie resolutely refused to hand over any of his money. Unperturbed the man moved on down the bus, requesting money from the other passengers. Nearly everyone on the bus gave something to the old man.

Alright, well that's enough on this particular subject for now. As I fear I may have created a bad impression with all this talk of begging and children descending on me, it's also vital to note the huge generousity that I've experienced whilst traveling in Morocco. On previous trips I've landed up at the doors of people close to sunset and been given a bed and dinner with no hesitation. Everywhere I pass through people shout greetings and give good wishes. Tourists in their rental cars and four-wheel drives often wave as they pass by. The other morning I was interviewed and filmed briefly by a Hungarian documentary crew that I had met at a cafe in the middle of the rocky wilderness between Merzouga and the Draa valley. Funny stuff.

Coming up along the River Draa to Agdz, where I'm writing this entry, I realised just how extensive some of the damage from the recent flooding has been in this part of the country. Many roads are only partially cleared of the debris from landslides and from the flash flooding that occured. The size of rocks that could be moved by flowing water alone was truly impressive, not to mention devastating for walls and irrigation works that were in their path. Arriving in Agdz last night, I had to follow a five kilometer detour, along a newly graded piste, as a section of the main bridge into town had been washed away. It seems like a fantastic injustice to live in a land normally so deprived of rain, only to receive too much, too quickly, and have to start cultivating and building all over again.

Agdz, Morocco
Trip distance: 5514 km

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