A loud throbbing hum followed by a series of bone shaking bumps wakes me from a light sleep. I had dozed off with my head against the window and had therefore just received the equivalent of a punch to the face.
Rubbing my sore temple, I look up just in time to see the driver's head snap up from his chest. Feeling a sharp veer to the left, I'm temporarily glued to the door of the battered old car as we make our way jerkily back up onto the road, throwing up a huge plume of brown desert dust behind us. No one else seems to have noticed.
A browned fist with gnarled fingers reaches up to rub bleary eyes and whilst holding the steering wheel with his knees, he searches his pockets to find cigarettes and a lighter. Shit, he fell asleep? Now I'm freaked out!
We were trying to get to The Gambia. Across country … from England.
So far we had done pretty well. We had managed to hitchhike, work, bus and train it down through France and Spain, having some merry adventures on the way and sleeping in some very weird places (most memorably, once underneath a motorway bridge, but that’s a story for another time!), finally making it into Morocco.
We had travelled down the country as far as we could and then been advised that the only way to get down far enough to reach Mauritania was by taxi to Laayoune, a small city at the top edge of the Western Sahara. After waiting for roughly 17 years for the taxi driver to have enough folks to make the trip worthwhile, he had squeezed us in and off we went.
It went … elderly Arabic gentleman, elderly Arabic gentleman, slightly younger Arabic gentleman, ancient Arabic gentleman, me. In the front seat, elderly Arabic gentleman and my boyfriend. We were snug, let's put it like that!
The drive from Marrakech to Laayoune is horribly long and tragically boring. It takes about 13 hours by car and I had a very entertaining first few hours trying in vain to have a chat with the the insanely friendly ancient gentleman next to me. After a wonderfully confusing conversation consisting of toothless smiling, hand gestures and head bobbing, we had lapsed into an amicable silence, broken only by the occasional nudge in the ribs when we felt the desire to revisit our previous topics for a few seconds.
In one adorable moment, he had sprung to life and started singing a wailing, eastern song in the querulous, squeaky way of old folks and clapping along to himself. Almost as if it had been staged, everyone started clapping and singing along at the same time … we had no choice but to join in, their joy was infectious!
We had set off from Marrakech in the afternoon and driven solidly for a long time, passing flat desert and not much else for hundreds of miles. Eventually, at around one in the morning, our driver had stopped in a small village and simply disappeared. No one knew where he had gone and no one seemed to care. He had left the keys in the ignition and with a cheerful ‘je retour!’, he was gone.
The elderly passengers had drifted off leaving only my ancient neighbour and the two of us in the car. My toothless compadre had simply fallen asleep and stayed that way until we pulled off again and Alex and I had been left in a haze of confused indignation.
After an hour or so, he showed no sign of coming back anytime soon so we had a stroll around.
For a tiny village in the middle of Morocco, at 3am, there was a surprising amount of nightlife. There were children playing in the streets and mothers huddled around on the kerbs, eating and chatting. There were cafes full of smoking men, drinking tiny cups of black coffee, waving their arms and shouting in their customary manner. Groups of young boys clung to the shadows of houses, hunched and secretive and we were literally the only foreign faces.
However, no one paid us much attention and we began to realize that this must be the regular stop for travelers making their way down the country.
At that moment, sitting with my legs out of a clapped out old car in the middle of the desert, trying in vain to sleep without waking my surrogate grandpa … I fell hopelessly in love.
He must have been about 2 years old. He staggered sweetly towards me with his little hands outstretched and his beautiful brown eyes huge in the darkness. His mother didn't seem to be anywhere around so I gave him my hand and he shyly took it. He seemed to want to get in the car, so I hoisted him up and sat him on my lap. He beamed and gurgled, sticking his fingers in his mouth. His tiny clothes were frayed and old but clean and he looked as though someone was taking care of him, so I assumed his mom was around somewhere.
As I looked into his tiny face, it became apparent that something terrible had happened to him. The entire right side of his head was hairless and thick scar tissue ran snaking across his scalp and face. His skin had the melted, waxy look of a burn survivor and I noticed that his right eye was half closed due to the awful scars that covered him. They were old scars, fully healed and no longer causing him pain but it was shocking to see him in the burnished, orange light of the car.
I thought he was the most beautiful little thing I had ever seen and I immediately wondered how much jail time I would get if I simply took him home with me. This was the closest I ever have come to wanting a child.
We played and smiled at each other for nearly 2 hours before he clambered off my lap and toddled away into the night. He seemed to know exactly where he was going and he didn't look back as he stumbled off. My heart ached as I watched him go … I can still remember his wonderful little smile as clearly as if it were yesterday!
Our driver rocked up again at around 5am (the other passengers strangely materializing out of the darkness at the exact same moment), climbed back into the driver's seat and we roared away again.
I wanted to know about my little buddy and asked in my halting French (which was a lot better than the non-existent French that I speak today) what may have happened to the little boy.
The driver half turned in his seat and said something to me that I have never forgotten.
‘His mother probably did it to him, so that he can beg better’ he said this in a no-bullshit, matter of fact kind of way and turned back to his driving.
Shock poured over me like cold water. I was hopelessly naive and couldn’t believe that a mother could do that to her own child … to get money. It was inconceivable to me that a person could be so desperately poor that they would harm their own children.
Perhaps he just wanted to shock me … but I have since been to enough countries to know that this kind of thing happens … all the time.
This was one of those moments (and there have been many after) where I felt truly blessed to have been born in a country where my mother, even though we had definitely fallen into the category of poor by European standards, had never felt the need to tip boiling water over me and send me out onto the streets to beg. Realisation of how lucky I had gotten in this lottery we call life began to sink in and I almost wept with sorrow for those parents who feel that this is the only way to survive.
And what about him? Was he destined to always be in poverty now? Had his mother sealed his fate as a beggar by denying him the opportunity to get another job? Had she forever labelled him as a ‘maimed street boy’ by doing this?
I often think of that sweet little boy and wonder what he’s doing now. I wonder if he has taken up this role that was placed upon him or if he somehow fought his way out of this stigmatisation.
And I feel grateful and humbled that this was not my fate … that I was allowed to choose my path and live in luxury compared to many on this planet.
Only travel can show us so many things in the space of such a short amount of time. One moment we can be standing, awestruck in front of most beautiful scene we have ever witnessed and the next we can be reeling in shock from the terrible things we are seeing.
It is these soaring highs and crashing lows that make traveling such a mind expanding experience. We are plunged into another culture, where people live in a completely different world to us. The things that they do on a daily basis in order to survive can be so utterly different to ours that we don’t believe it possible.
One thing is for certain … when we come back from seeing things like that, we are forever changed. We are more able to appreciate our home countries and the small things that make our lives so much easier … like running water, a bed to sleep in and our ability to feed ourselves without sitting, maimed on the street.
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Love, as always,