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Sahara

Day 16: Smara Camp

Smara Refugee Camp, Algeria 
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All building materials welcome. I find myself leaning on the Far East at one of the shops that have recently sprung up in Smara.
Michael Palin - SaharaI ask her if keeping a conscripted army isn't just a romantic gesture, bearing in mind there has been no fighting for years. Her response is quick and unapologetic.

'My people are tired of being ignored. If force has to be used to gain our birthright of independence, then that's the way it must be.'

Smara camp is so well run that it really doesn't resemble a camp at all. As I look out from a low hill, which is now the cemetery, the pale brown mud houses blending in with the desert around them could have been there for ever. The considerable size of the cemetery, a scattering of rocks and boulders just outside the town, suggests that life expectancy is low. Bachir shakes his head vigorously.

'It is seventy, eighty years.'

Sanitation is basic, he concedes, but the air is dry and there have been no epidemics here.

He smiles at my nannyish concern. 'People don't die in the desert, you know.' In that case, the size of the cemetery merely emphasises how long the Saharawis have been away from home.

That night in the camp we tuck into camel kebab and pasta cooked with carrots and turnips, served, as ever, with tea. Tea is central to the nomadic life. In a land where alcohol is forbidden and most bottled drinks are beyond people's means, it offers welcome, gives comfort, stimulates conversation and provides a focus for social intercourse. Being a rare indulgence in a land of extreme scarcity, its preparation is taken very seriously. The water we splash on our faces in the morning is not good enough for the tea.

'Too salty,' says Bachir. 'The best water for tea comes from 50 miles away.'

Water this prized should not be heated on a gas ring, but on a brazier with charcoal from acacia wood, which heats the water more slowly and provides better flavour. Once heated, the tea is poured from one vessel to another before being tipped into small glass tumblers from ever-increasing height. Then it's tipped from tumbler to tumbler, until the required alchemy is deemed to have taken place, whereupon it is poured with one last grand flourish that leaves a foaming head on each individual glass. These are offered around on a tray and drunk swiftly. Then the glasses are washed and a second serving is prepared, tasting delicately different as the sharpness of leaf and sweetness of sugar continue to blend. The process is repeated a third time and that's it. I'm told that if you're offered a fourth glass it's a polite way of saying you've overstayed your welcome.
Smara Refugee Camp, Algeria 
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In the school playground. Hamstring fully recovered.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 16
  • Country/sea: Algeria
  • Place: Smara Refugee Camp
  • Book page no: 65

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