I was raised in an unusual family. Of course you might say all families are unusual and you would probably be right.
My tribe shuffled out of our home and into a new one whenever the garden weeds had grown over knee height, or that was how it felt to me as a young girl. Travel to us was not so much the two-weeks-in-Bali-on-the-beach kind, more of the oh-are-we-moving-again-show-me-the-map, kind.
Our familial peripatetic shuffling, rather frustratingly at the time, kept leaving my little friends behind to carry on the lives they and I had started together, and I found it rather hard to bed down meaningful friendships. On the flip side, there were always new people to play with and no-one really crawled into my head and saw the ugly bits, nor I theirs, because we rarely got to know each other well enough.
On the same flip side, I cherished the wild travel experiences, and the animal friends I made, along with the human ones. Come on, tell me you didn’t have an animal friend when you were seven? I befriended dung beetles, a caterpillar and an ill – fated Ramadan sheep, as well as the usual array of cats, dogs and donkeys. Remember the sheep, she will feature in a later tale.
My time in Algeria, a vast swathe of Mediterranean coast and Sahara desert, wedged between Morocco to the West, with Tunisia and Libya to the East, is prominent. She is a country of contrast, with a long, complex ethnic and colonial history. At the age of seven however, when she first began to lift her veil to me, her history interested me far less than her sensory richness. History back then meant tedious day trips to Timgad to see the Roman ruins. When you’re seven, one sandy pillar looks much like another and there was no air conditioning to freeze out the cockroaches on the bus, so we’d try to catch them instead and get them to race.
She, Algeria, rattled my young bones through her snowy Atlas Mountains to her ochre gorges many times over the years, winding onward to the dusty savannah and onwards again to her rolling Saharan dunes. Her heat, dry and pervasive, plastered my legs to the vinyl seat of a battered red Renault 6 with three jerry cans of water, a tent in the boot and Glenn Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy on the eight-track cassette player? Not a star spangled rodeo in sight.
In the Saharan sand dunes, we would pitch tents to shelter for the night from the Bedouin, the desert foxes and the relentless morning cold. Yes, it could be as much as forty seven degrees celsius during the day and plunge to zero at night. The sand between our toes was either searing hot, or chilled and dewy. I dreaded stepping out of the tent in bare feet at sunrise to wee behind a sand dune, and would scurry back into my sleeping bag and shiver until the sun came up again.
In 1975, a Bedouin stall holder in Touggourt, medjool date capital of North Africa, offered my parents seven camels in exchange for my wifely hand in marriage. One for each year of my age. I wonder sometimes how life would have played out had the transaction completed. It serves to remind me of how we are all born to different existences, opportunities and calamities and yet how seamlessly our lives can change in a heartbeat.