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I came downstairs the other morning to find my husband, in beret and scarf, striding back and forth in the garden in front of a tall, thick hedge. This hedge is the height of a house, thick and ivy-choked, and Donn had his head tipped back as he walked, eyes constantly searching the pale pink dawn sky.

The night before, the children were playing soccer at dusk, and Elliot managed to kick both the ball and his shoe into the hedge, where they immediately sank from view. This was amusing to the children, but not so much for the parents. “Guess I’ll just have to stay home tomorrow,” quipped Elliot, but we didn’t agree. Yes he has only one pair of shoes at the moment. The other pair, sandals, were left at our other place of residence. We tried searching the hedge, getting wet and muddy for our efforts, and we tried dragging out a ladder and looking from the terrace, all to no avail. Beyond the hedge, a pack of stray dogs barked wildly.

It was time for the kids to leave for school. Donn went for a walk and found some workers doing construction nearby. They obligingly climbed their ladders and spotted it. Elliot complained about wearing something so squelching wet, but we refused to listen to him and hustled him off to school anyway.

How is it going, you ask, in your current temporary location?

The answer is great. I think this is my favorite place so far. In fact, A & J, if you’re reading this, feel free to extend your vacation another week or two. This is a great house. It’s sprawling and comfortable and in every single room there are books piled haphazardly on flat surfaces, books you want to read, books that call to you and entice you. I’m currently reading about 6 books; I set them down and drift into another room where I pick up another one. Apparently there are upstairs books and downstairs books, which makes it sound very posh and comme il faut. Don’t worry, A, I’m not mixing them up. The downstairs ones can be borrowed, so I’m trying to get through the upstairs ones before we leave.

This plan isn’t working, as a classic way I deal with stress (i.e. moving constantly) is to read mindless books, preferably a nice light murder mystery, and these people have STACKS of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. Not to mention I’m improving my mind by reading memoirs and literature and travel and I just started GK Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy.” And today each boy has 2 friends over, yet I’m not stressed at all–I just made cookies and sent them all outside to that lovely, landscaped garden…um maybe I should be worried.

This house has appliances. Elliot was ecstatic to realize that his week of dishes coincided with a week of a dishwasher. And I am especially grateful for the dryer. Usually, I have to plan things out–if I wash my pajama bottoms this morning, they won’t be dry until tomorrow, so what will I wear tonight? Ilsa needs her sweats on Tuesday so I need to wash them by Sunday. Etc. Now, I just toss things in a lovely big American-size washer and dryer without a second thought.

This place also comes with a car. And what a car! It’s fantastic. It’s about 25 years old, old enough to be hopelessly outmoded but not quite an antique, an ancient Renault. It is treated with loving care by its owner. We’ve taken it to the garage twice in the two weeks we’ve had it, and each time it is greeted affectionately by the mechanics.

If I had to describe what riding in this car is like, I would have say “It’s a blue tin can.” You get in and you feel there is very little between yourself and the large bus that is not slowing down at all as your car splutters and half dies and inches its way up the hill. And you are right. This is not a car that comes with airbags, padding in the door, or even a normal gearshift.

carinterior1

I think, however, that it makes a perfect surf-mobile.

surfmobile

surfmobile2

This is an attempt to show you scale. I’m sorry to not be able to show you a picture of Donn, in beret and scarf, shouting “Contact!” as the engine rumbles loudly to life.  I just happened to have my camera one sunny afternoon when he had finished work and was able to head down to the beach.

donniechauffeur

Why yes, he is saying, “Dear, I really do need to go!” How could you tell?

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I’m sitting backwards, squashed up next to a man in a leather coat on one side and the wall of the compartment on the other. I’m reading a book, hoping to forget and therefore escape any nausea brought on by the swaying and rumbling. The train is crowded and I’m lucky to be sitting down, although being a middle-aged white woman helps; people are more likely to offer me a seat. My head is beginning to ache and all I know is that we’re somewhere between Ain Sebaa and Rabat.

My third train trip of the day. Train service between Morocca’s largest city, Casablanca, and its capital, Rabat, an hour up the coast, is frequent and inexpensive, but Casa has many stations and direct service to the one you want is rare. I’d arranged an appointment for late morning so that I could catch a direct train, one that I hoped wouldn’t be too crowded, but I wasn’t very optimistic that the afternoon train home on a Friday afternoon would be anything less than jam-packed. As it turned out, I was right.

I’ve taken my share of train trips in Morocco, even though I haven’t lived here very long. My first trip in Morocco was in Spring 2005 when we were living in Mauritania and went to a conference in Southern Spain. We flew to Casablanca, then took the train to Tangiers and the ferry to Spain and then a bus to Malaga. Our journey took longer than the conference! That train trip was my first glimpse of the Moroccan countryside and I stared, fascinated, at glimpses of green hills covered in orange poppies, fuzzy sheep scattered here and there. It was so different, so much more colorful, than the desert that was then my home.

When Donn and I visited to check it out before moving here, we took trains between four major cities; Fes, Rabat, Casablanca (called Casa for short), and Marrakesh. We rode first class because that guarantees you a seat. Train travel can be a little stressful because the stations are not always well marked, and so you are constantly trying to figure out if this is Sidi Yahyia or Sidi Kacem, trying to get a glimpse of the name on a sign whisking by. The sign is legible about half of the time. If you are sitting backwards you are completely out of luck, as the signs are only printed on one side. As you leave the station though, you can read the signs and relax; either you were correct in staying on or you just missed your stop, but either way there’s nothing you can do about it now.

The family took the train to Tangiers when we went to Spain. We bought 5 first class tickets for about $30 and were rewarded with an entire compartment to sprawl out in. It was very nice.

When we’re just popping down to Casablanca, we take second class. So on Friday morning, I descended the escalator through the construction and down to the brick, open-air platforms. When the train came, I was thrilled to get an ideal seat; forward facing, by the window. The train was desperately overheated, and even the elderly Moroccan women who ended up sharing the compartment were complaining, removing excess scarves and putting their feet up and chattering away. When I got to Casa, my cheeks were bright pink from overheating. What a day to wear the pink blouse!

Coming back, I should have missed the train but I didn’t. I had forgotten to factor in the additional 45 minutes needed to find a taxi on a Friday afternoon, but it was all right as the train was running late, lucky for me. It was supposed to be direct to Rabat, but at Ain Sebaa the train stopped and we all got out and stood on the platform until another train arrived. The train was full and the platform was full and one might have wondered how all those people could fit onto the train, but we managed. I was offered the last seat in a compartment that looked packed, and I squashed in cheerfully, my briefcase between my legs. Those standing in the aisles put their cases in the racks above our heads.
Rabat has two stations and I wanted the second. We stopped at the first for a very long time, so long that I considered just getting out. When the train finally started up again, I saw an older woman without a seat. “I’m getting out at the next stop,” I told her, and gave her mine. I was towards the end of a car, but the corridor that way was blocked by people sitting on their cases. I turned to go the other way, and threaded my way between business men and families and a group of uniformed officials who’d boarded at the last stop. When I was fairly near the door, I had to stop. I could go no farther; in front of me was a solid mass of people.

I’m not claustrophobic, just American, so this mass of people was unnerving. Train stops aren’t that long; I began to imagine being stuck on the train, trying desperately to get off in Rabat, being helplessly carried off towards the next stop, beyond town. It had been a long day and I was already late; I wanted to get home, feed my family, watch a DVD in our Friday night tradition.

The train slowed as it entered the station and I subtlety leaned into the woman in front of me. Happily the door opened, and a narrow queue of people filed out, squishing our way between the food cart and several people who were staying on. I took a deep breath of fresh air and caught a taxi home.

I’m not a very good American. I’ve never watched American Idol or the Bachelor, never sat through an entire Oprah show. My overseas friends are often rather shocked and disappointed with me, as they usually know  more about American pop culture than I do. (My grasp of English idioms is still better)

But still, on Tuesday afternoon when Elliot said to me, “You’re not very patriotic, are you?” I was stung. “What do you mean?” I shot back. He gestured at the television, where a newscaster, discussing Obama’s speech, had just breathlessly mentioned it as “this generation’s defining moment,” and then gone on to say “like the other defining moments.”

Donn and I explained the difference between mocking a newscaster desperately filling airtime with inane babble, and the silence with which we watched the inauguration ceremony in its entirety.

Abel only has one class on Tuesday afternoons, from 3 to 4. I went up to get him at 4, all pins and needles, because I thought I was missing the inauguration itself. We’re 5 hours different now, but I was mixed up and thought it was four. A small cluster of Moroccan parents eyed me curiously as I tapped my foot in impatience until Abel finally appeared. “Hurry up! We’re missing the inauguration!” I said. “The what?” he said. “Barack Obama is becoming president,” I explained as we trotted out of the parking lot, and I caught understanding smiles out of the corner of my eyes. They might not speak English, but they know the words “Barack Obama,” and even non-English stations provided live coverage.

We hurried home, where Donn and I continued to watch live coverage on CNN and Abel curled up with a Calvin and Hobbes book until we got all parental on him. “Put that book down and watch TV!” we told him, which is not our usual command. “This is a historic moment.”

Ilsa and Elliot were still at school, but Elliot happened to be in the library at 5 p.m. local time, where someone turned a computer to watch the swearing-in live, with French translation.

The newscasters, who apparently can’t stop talking, made a big deal about two items: the historic aspect of America’s first black president, and the peaceful transfer of power from the 43rd to the 44th man to hold this office. At first I was rolling my eyes a bit, although I blame the announcers, who fear the sound of silence.  (One almost implied that the US is the world’s only democracy! Well, I suppose that makes sense; after all England has a queen, don’t they? And Germany produced a Hitler, admittedly some time ago now, but still. And we don’t always agree with whoever France “elects.” Uh, yeah.) But then I got to thinking about the ways that places I have lived have shaped my views of my home country, for both good and ill. My thoughts drifted irresistibly to my time in Mauritania.

Mauritania is a country that officially made it a crime to own a slave on July 2, 2007. And yet, my Mauritanian students loved to cast up racism in America to me. American slavery was a favorite topic for thesis students, and after all the news coverage following Hurricane Katrina, a lot of them took it upon themselves to talk to me about America’s race problems. This seemed a bit thick, coming from the self-named White Moors, many of whom had black people in their homes doing all their work, and were smug in the fact these people were not slaves because they had been in the family for years.

“Racism doesn’t exist any more here,” Hamed told me once, and I nearly choked, thinking back to Aicha’s shock when she saw our cook sit down and eat with us (“You‘re very humble,” she told us), or her comment on  Miss Uganda: “She’s black and skinny. To me, she’s not even a woman.” I thought of Hamed himself walking out on a black teacher, a woman from Ghana with her doctorate in English, because he believed he could treat her any way he liked and get away with it, because he believed in his superiority as an undergraduate but lighter-skinned male who grew up in a small village out in the desert.

I have lost touch with Hamed, but I thought of him yesterday, and Aicha, and my other friends. Barack Obama is biracial and no darker than many Mauritanians, and they relate strongly to his African name. I wonder if slavery and America’s race problems will continue to figure so highly in their thinking now. I have no way of knowing.

I also thought about my friend Mina. When the war in Iraq first started, she watched a protest clogging the streets of New York, and couldn’t really wrap her mind around it. “Bush is a dictator,” she told us.

“No, he’s not,” we argued, but we couldn’t convince her. “The people don’t agree with him about the war and he’s still doing it,” she said.

Ri-ight. Welcome to the concept of open disagreement with your own government, also known as freedom of speech. We pointed out that Mauritania’s then president had handily won by 97% of the vote, which we didn’t feel actually possible, and she said everybody just really liked him. O-kay. We heard of an African president whose people loved him so much that he got over one hundred percent of the votes!! (Probably urban myth but I love it anyway). That’s not real democracy, we explained, but we got nowhere.

I thought about Mina yesterday as I watched the reins of power handed off from one party to another without any threat of violence. Whether you wish the Republicans had won this last election or you are excited to see what Obama‘s going to do, you have to admit that this closely-watched peaceful election gave people in other countries something to think about. So I guess I don’t mind if the newscasters natter on and on about it. Government by the people and for the people is still a revolutionary thought on much of the planet, and I‘m not afraid of sounding like a newscaster in saying so.

I am tired of fixing other people’s things for them.

We arrived in Morocco the end of August and moved into a furnished apartment, not our own.  Everything there belonging to someone else. We stayed there for September and October, and during that time we broke and replaced several glasses, fixed the shower when it broke, and rehung the laundry lines.

The handle to one of the pots was tenuous at best when I started using it, so I didn’t worry about it when it broke off quite early in our stay.

We arrived in this current apartment, also not ours, the third week of November (after a trip to Spain and a stay in a friend’s basement, where we replaced a shower curtain rod). We vacate tomorrow, although we’ll be back next month. We are spending our time sorting our things out from the things already here, pulling books and DVDs off shelves, remembering which are ours and which aren’t and who we borrowed which books and DVDs from. We are emptying drawers and folding clothes and finding things that we lost 2 moves ago, which is fun. Still no sign of that library book though. I wonder if it got tossed overboard on the ferry? Seems unlikely, but then, it seems unlikely that we wouldn’t be able to find it anywhere. Seriously, have you seen it?

One of the problems with staying in people’s houses is that the second law of thermodynamics is alive and well here in Africa. Things fall apart. (bonus point: correctly identify the author of the novel by that name without googling it. How does the title fit the novel? How does the novel fit this post, or does it? What do you mean you haven’t read the novel? Discuss.)

We’ve essentially sub-let both these places, paying rent and utilities. So how responsible are we when, for example, the toilet goes on the blitz, or the shower head springs a leak? We’ve only been here 2 months; these things long pre-date us. But we’re the ones here when they break.

The owner (okay, technically he rents it too, but the rental contract is in his name and the furniture is his) arrives tomorrow. So it makes sense to me that in the last week or so, things have started to really break down.

We have replaced the shower head but not the broken toilet. We have not called an electrician for the fact that suddenly, the light in the dining area (I.e. the main area of the house) doesn’t work, although we began by replacing light bulbs and went on to some amateur electric work which fortunately left no permanent scars. We were only startled, not hurt, when the hot water heater exploded in flame the other night; it died out quickly and still works as well as it ever did (which isn’t saying much; when you turn on the cold water tap, the hot water stops. Dish-doing is an exercise in burnt fingers and patience).

Obviously, we will pay for any damage we do. We’ve broken an inordinate share of glasses, because I believe in child labour chores. We bought new ones. That’s simple. But what about all the maintenance of a place. Is that included in a sub-let?

Discuss in comments.

The good news is that we have a lead on a house. And not just any house–it’s huge, old and creaky and damp, with lots of quirks like a loft room and balcony accessible by ladder only, or a half-finished space over the garage where the moss grows. There’s a little garden on 3 sides, with a fig tree that is not only climbable but also, hopefully, fruitful. It is painted a murky sort of pink. It even has a basement, including a vast low-ceilinged room where we could put in a bowling alley or archery range! (These examples are intended to show size, not actual plans) We have a verbal agreement with the property manager, and are awaiting his phone call.

The not-quite-as-exciting-as-you-thought-at-first news is that it’s not available until March 1st, which is always a momentous day round here, and not just because it’s the twins’ birthday. So that means two more moves until the big, and hopefully last, move. We have to be out of this place on the 20th, and then we’ll return on Feb 2nd. Yippee. More suitcases, more frantic searches for the Bescherelle (French conjugation book) and Abel’s history homework and that certain shirt that Ilsa really wants to wear but that got left behind or put in an obscure case. I’m hoping we’ll find the library book we lost a couple of moves ago–possibly in Spain but most likely in the basement.

Right now I am feeling like I never ever want to move again as long as I live. I do wonder how long this will last though. The longest I have lived in one house is 5 years. The numbers aren’t exactly on my side that I will settle permanently; I wonder if I am even capable of it.

Ilsa wants to have the loft room as her room. She loves it! (Underline “loves” twice in your mind, once in teal and once in purple, to understand the depth of her emotion a little better) But I have become what I always dreaded becoming; the Grown-Up, The Mom, The One who says things like, “You can’t climb trees in white jeans” instead of just focusing on how much fun it is to climb trees. Who worries about clothes? The Mom, that’s who. The worst is that, having become this, I am quite content to be in this place. Because climbing trees in white jeans ruins them, and you then spend far too much time trying to get the stains out and then having to go shopping again. And so while I, too, love the loft room and the ladder access, all I could picture was Ilsa having the flu and having to dash down that ladder in the middle of the night. I couldn’t come up with a winning solution to that; either she would lose it all over the ladder and the floor and I would have to clean it up, or she would fall, which would be far worse. So I have refused to let her have the loft room as her own. Instead, I have announced grandly, it will be the library! (How will we get bookcases up a ladder? Umm….) Also a play space. She can use it for an art studio! Abel can store his legos there! This could be good.

Today I am sick. I am hoping it does not turn into a sinus infection; that kind of sick. We have had a whirl of a time the last several days. Our friends who were supposed to stay here last week got snowed in, in Marseilles of all places, where no one ever gets snowed in. They’d left a bag here, so on Sunday afternoon we took the train to Casablanca to meet them in the station. They had a seven-hour layover, so we headed out to McDonalds and caught up on our news over cheeseburgers, fries, and Coca Light that was actually cold. The day was clear and crisp, and we sat outside.

The train coming home was crowded. I was able to get a seat, even facing forward, because of my gender and blond hair, but Donn had to stand the entire way. I sat with Ilsa on my lap, making occasional eye contact with the woman next to me. Ilsa read. One woman turned her phone to play Arab pop music for us all. Another woman, in her 30s at least, leaned against her mother and slept. The train swayed and jerked through the night; I brushed Ilsa’s long hair out of my mouth; out the windows we caught sight of the moon rising, full and yellow and luminous.

We came home, collected the boys from their friends‘ house, turned on our space heaters, ate some of the French cheese our friends had brought us, and were happy. Home. What does that mean? It is the place you will sleep that night.

The morning was wet but by late afternoon the sky was clear and the sun was shining brightly, although there were white puffy clouds piled untidily on the horizon, promising more rain. Ilsa and I took a taxi down the road between the Chellah and the old city walls, on our way to try and find a doctor.

roadoutsidewalls

This is the road we were traveling along. This picture was taken in September; it’s greener now after all the rain.

taxiandcitywalls

I took this picture through a taxi windshield.

On Saturday, I noticed a rash on Ilsa’s neck. I showed it to Jenny, our English friend who happened to be over. “Oh I hope it’s not that thing we had once,” she said, and described a tiny but tenacious bug, not lice but similar. “We spent so much money on this chemical treatment, and washed everything multiple times in hot water,” she told me, “but the only thing that really worked was excessive bathing in really hot water. It took weeks and weeks to get rid of it, and it was terribly contagious.” Great.

With much trepidation, I checked Ilsa’s neck every day, but the rash grew worse. Wednesday was the obvious day to go to the doctor since she finishes school at noon. After lunch, I rang the doctor, only to be informed she would not be in until next Monday.

I asked another friend if she knew of a good doctor. She did, she said, and gave me an approximate description of his location (“There are two furniture stores facing each other behind the Gas Company. Next to the cheaper one you will see a flight of stairs…“) but not his name. I wasn’t sure which furniture store had cheaper furniture but only one had a sign for a pediatrician outside the stairs. Interestingly enough, upstairs from the other furniture store was a dentist and an oncologist. Apparently, working above furniture is a good thing for the medical profession. Who knew? And do any of the medical professionals in your life work above furniture stores? I’m just wondering how wide-spread this is.

We walked in and saw a spacious waiting room with quite a few people in it, which made me nervous. We asked how long, and were assured only ½ an hour to wait. (We hadn’t made an appointment, obviously, not knowing the name or exact location) There were no magazines, and both Ilsa and I, voracious and insatiable readers as we are, had come out without reading material. It was dire. We were reduced to watching an Arabic soap opera about a guy who had just joined the army (we saw him get his curls shorn) and his wife? I assume, living at home with a new baby and two grandmothers and several aunts, all of whom worked together to change the diapers. I couldn’t figure out who the middle-aged woman wandering pensively by the canal and feeding the fish was, while the sad music sobbed in the background, but I really liked her shirt.

We waited about 45 minutes before being shown back to a room with a bed on one side and a large modern desk and computer taking up most of the room. The nurses all wore black head scarves, white lab coats, and the scuffed low-heeled white shoes of nurses everywhere. Ilsa was duly weighed and measured and then told to lie down; then we waited another 20 minutes for the doctor. Typical.

The doctor’s visit was fine. Turns out he has a boy at Ilsa’s school, same grade but different classes so they don’t know each other (there are six Grade 6 classes; not surprising). He pronounced the rash to be an allergic reaction to a really fun purse we got her for Christmas in the medina; local craftsmanship and great one-of-a-kind work, but apparently using harsh dyes for that darling green strap.
ilsaspurse

ilsaspurseopen don‘t you love the interior pockets?

I showed him another spot on her arm, and he pronounced it a fungus. In French, they use the same word as ‘mushroom,’ champignon, which really amused me. I’ve been calling her my little mushroom ever since, which she loves. No really! What 11 year old girl wouldn’t?

I am all about spreading out the holidays. I learned a new word the other day; celebrator. It’s a noun, and it means someone who likes to celebrate, who is good at celebrating. I think it describes me. Another good word for me is procrastinator. If I combine the two, I get an excellent excuse to make gingerbread cookies with the kids this weekend.

Today is, of course, the 12th Day of Christmas, which I’m sure you knew from reading Veronica’s excellent series, a yearly treat she prepares for us. In honour of Epiphany, here are a few odds and ends from the camera files. Also that tree is out of here tonight!

After the crèche was completed, the town of Bethlehem was built. There was a guy sleeping in the back of the inn. The streets were not still; they were patrolled by a Roman guard.

romanpatrol
This needed to be constantly readjusted, as the Roman patrol were rather unsteady. They lasted until one of Abel’s friends came over to play, then they were urgently called to defend Middle Earth and left Bethlehem alone.

The twins were only about 6 months old when I noticed their inherent competitiveness. They were next to each other in their little baby swings. Ilsa was bawling away, but Abel was contentedly swinging, watching his twin howl as if her little heart was broken with an expression of great interest on his tiny face.

As soon as I picked Ilsa up, though, Abel started to scream. Gone was that contentedness. Ilsa was getting held, and he wasn’t; that was all that mattered.

They haven’t changed all that much. So when Ilsa saw me photographing Abel’s creche, she was “inspired” (read: jealous of the attention) to make one of her own.

Out of candy.

infantgroucho

Ilsa is very detail-oriented and given to fiddly little details. Look at the eyebrows on this kid! The manger is chocolate, the child is toffee (weird flavors you get here…) and the halo is a sort of yellow licorice.
And she wrapped him in tinfoil, and laid him in the fridge…so that he wouldn’t melt or get eaten. Or, even worse, get ants!

wrappedintinfoil

I’ve mentioned before the wonderful, fresh, cheap local olives we can find in Morocco. Here is a picture highlighting 3 kinds: the black ones have harissa and cilantro on them, the red ones are plain (but sublime), and the green ones are lemon. In the back is falafel.

olivesfalafel

It was part of our New Year’s Eve party. I spent the day making mince and coconut pies and two kinds of mini quiche. It was quite tasty.

newyearsparty

I’ll invite you next year if you’re in town!

Last night, our guests left at 12:30 a.m. “Happy New Year!” we shouted into the crisp night air, not worried about bothering the neighbours. We knew they were up, you see, from the music and the sounds of partying. “I feel like we’re back in Mauritania,” I groaned to Donn about 1 a.m. as we lay, trying to sleep, twitching to the beat. In Mauritania there are no noise regulations, and we were often kept awake by the music of nearby (as in, within 3 miles nearby) weddings, which inevitably began at 1 a.m. and went till about 3 or 4 a.m. Last night’s party wasn’t that late, ending around 2:30, but it was loud enough to murder sleep. At least for me. No sooner had I reminded Donn of our sleepless nights in Nouakchott, when his gentle breathing told me that, once again, an annoying techno beat had not kept him awake. Grr. Sooo jealous.

The result was that I was none too happy to get up this morning. Normally, of course, New Year’s Day is a time to sleep in and then eat a big breakfast, kind of like Christmas without the presents and the overexcited small children who didn‘t understand the part about sleeping in. But we had an 11 a.m. (okay technically not that early) appointment with 2 other families to go to the beach. It was supposed to rain, but I forced my heavy eyelids open about 9 to see sun streaming in through the chinks of the shutters.

I packed leftovers from our small New Year’s Eve party into a carry-all for our beach picnic, and we loaded Donn’s surfboard on top of our friends’ car. This was a great beginning to a new year for him, since he hasn’t surfed since we left Mauritania in July 2007.

We drove in caravan, 3 families in 2 cars, heading south from Rabat to a suburb called Temara. We drove too far south and had to backtrack but I didn’t mind. The ocean was a deep blue on our right, and the ditches and fields filled with tiny yellow or orange wildflowers. The sky was clear, the breezes light. We passed fields of tomatoes and potatoes, saw women carrying large baskets of greens slung over their shoulders, or herds of ragged sheep tended by an equally ragged shepherd. Through it all, the light spilled through the clouds on the horizon, and the surf pounded the sand.

We eventually found the beach our friend had in mind. Donn took his new board and headed for the water. There was a big rocky break just offshore, and the current was strong, but he had a good time getting used to his new board and enjoying being in the water again. That rocky break meant that the water just in front of our picnic spot was shallow and calm, perfect for the younger children to splash around in, and older children to dunk each other. Nearby, a Moroccan family picnicked also, the dad fishing in the shallows.

There were tide pools swarming with hermit crabs, sea snails, prickly sea urchins in dark purple or green, mussels, and tiny fish. A Korean friend took several children out onto the rocks and they came back with a Tupperware container full of sea life. The little creatures were fun to watch, although I think our Korean friends were planning them for supper that night. Donn stepped on a sea urchin and got 3 prickles buried deep under his skin.

The light gentled into late afternoon. A lot of people, family groups and couples, were on the beach now. The tide was coming in and most of the rocks and pools were submerged under the spray. Elliot and I went for a walk and saw a young man on a beautiful, spirited chestnut horse riding down the beach. I suddenly and completely reverted to being about 10 and loving horses, although in real life I’m pretty much over that obsession. It was a beautiful horse and he let it prance into the edge of the surf, stepping high, tail swishing. So romantic, I thought, and then, “But I don’t think he should ride so fast near so many people.”

In the meantime, another 3 horses passed us. One in particular caught my eye–all black, glossy, just like the horse of my girlhood fantasies. This was obviously a riding school, and the girl on the back of my dream animal sat stiff and uncomfortable in the saddle, holding tightly to the reins. They went on ahead and we followed more slowly, chatting about various things like ancient battles and Elliot’s prowess on Tribal Wars. I was watching the horses, thinking again that the young man on the chestnut horse was an idiot. Suddenly, the black horse with the girl on its back broke free and wild, headed straight at a family with a toddler, veered off at the very last minute, and galloped toward the small hill that marked the edge of the beach, tossing its inexperienced rider into a heap on the sand.

Some young men raced after it and caught it, then we watched as one rode it at a fast pace up and down the sands, whipping it frenetically. I guess he was trying to get some of the wildness out, but it struck me as hardly safe, on a beach filled with families. Donn said to me, “What kind of man hits a defenceless animal?” (Movie identification, anyone?)

Her friends crowded around the downed rider, and soon she was on her feet again, and then on horseback, although not the same horse. Thankfully, they moved off down the beach, where if they killed any toddlers at least I didn’t have to witness it. I imagine that the horse was spooked by the other horse’s antics, although my obsession was never developed enough for me to actually know much about real life horses. We exchanged wry looks with the family of the mercifully unhurt baby, and headed back to the cars.

We drove home through the rose-coloured dusk, quietly happy after such a pleasant day. An auspicious start to a new year. Plus it took me an extra day to finish and post this, which is pretty much how things work around here. How was yours?

January 2009
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