Abraham’s son had drowned in a nearby river that morning. The boy, we would be later told, was 7 years old. The body washed to shore about a mile downstream from where he had been last seen playing with friends. A sharp undercurrent had caught him and he was unable to swim. None of the local children could swim.
During my week-long stint on the outskirts of the caravan town of M’hamid, South Morocco, the region experienced afternoon temperatures ranging between 40°C to 50°C; I have been told that it can get much higher. At no point during the day are you not aware of the skin torching, migraine inducing, diarrhea prompting, Saharan sun. When spending time in the desert, it is strongly advised that one wears a Tuareg at all times while outside. This couple metres-long stretch of fabric, strategically wrapped around the head, protects one from direct sunlight and with some relatively simple manipulation – manageable by even the most urbane and uncoordinated of travelers – can be rearranged to cover the face and mouth in the event of a sand storm. While this brand of headwear is doubtlessly effective – the results observable in one’s not dying – after 2 hours amongst the dunes, it is difficult to escape the speculation that the heat within your skull could possibly be broiling your brain into gray, lobed pâté.
To keep hydrated, each member of the tour group – All either an Australian or New Zealander, myself being the exception, an Anglo-Irishman – consumed an average of two litres of plastic bottled spring water per hour. Bought during SUV piloted trips to the Arab-ran store a few miles from camp, on purchse, the bottles were frozen solid. After 45 minutes in the desert heat, however, you would invariably find yourself drinking a bottle of luke-warm water; not refreshing in any weather.
This year’s Ramadan fell during the hottest part of the summer and – with the exception of two of the younger Berbers – I cannot recall any of our nomad hosts ever taking water between dawn and dusk. With air conditioning non-existent and freely available running water lacking, the inhabitants of the M’hamid region exploit any and all available opportunities to avoid the late August heat. While the adults tend to spend light hours sleeping in the shade, the more energetic local children are to be found at the nearby river. The relief such a body of running water provides from the otherwise choking and unrelenting summer heat cannot be overstated (we spent an hour in one such river during one particularly insufferable day and it remains one of my fondest memories of the entire trip).
We were three hours into a cross desert camel trek when it happened. Oblivious, we killed time deliberating on the rough treatment with which the human crotch is subjected while atop a camel, the difficulty in keeping a bottle of water cool, how there was so little to “do” out here, the intricacies of Australian rules football, the Norwegian IT industry, and the various shortcomings of the Irish dental profession. Despite the undeniable levels of exhaustion and irritability he must have been feeling as a result of his piously motivated avoidance of food and water, Abdul, our tour leader, remained perfectly composed and accommodating to our needs; answering our tragically naive questions on Islam; sharing brilliantly tasteless jokes and enthusing about the British rock music scene of the 1970’s.
During a lunch of olives, couscous, fresh vegetables, biscuits and the all important resupply of bottled water at a family ran olive farm – the exact location of which I can pinpoint no more specifically than “somewhere in the desert” – Abdul, was called away to the phone. It is only now that I understand what the contents of that call must have been and the reason behind his somewhat subdued behavior following. At the time, of course, I was completely unsuspecting. I could say that I attributed his behavior to the effects of hunger and extreme dehydration but I didn’t put that much thought into it. This was a holiday after-all. With an insufferable heat outside and little else to keep us occupied before the camel trek back to camp, we followed local custom and slept.
It was only days after, at a home cooked dinner in Agadir, that Abdul shared what had happened to the boy. It is a curious thing, that the dominant emotion I experienced at this revelation was guilt. Not the guilt of responsibility but something more along the lines of shame. You see, on the evening of the drowning, dinner had been served later than usual as another member of the nomadic team had been hastily assigned with cooking duties while Abraham went to confront the horrendous situation waiting at home. I remember, quite distinctly, many members of the tour complaining quite vociferously at the wait to which we had been subjected before being served dinner. They were sun-kissed, sore arsed, and wanted to eat. The Berbers were reticent, remaining as hospitable as ever. Following our late meal, they lit the camp fires as usual before assembling with instruments – as they must have done for thousands of tour groups – for a recital of traditional Moroccan music. If only we had known the exact circumstances behind the delay; a gaggling congregation of over-privileged Westerners windbags we must have seemed. How, if in their position, I would have hated every last spoiled one of us.
On the final evening of the tour, walking amongst the two-dozen-or-so stalls in the Marrakech market in search for a place to eat, an Australian companion asked if I saw myself as better than these people. I doubt he would have posed such a question unless he himself harbored some sense of superiority to them. Without knowing it, he had just summed up the entire dirty and patronizing business of the nomadic adventure holiday. Many tourists, I would bet, view the natives not as conscious, intelligent beings, but as some kind of exotic novelty – like animals, ogled at in a zoo – existing only so we can tell the folks back home how “amazing it is that people actually live like this”.