The Best of Times Short Story Competition

Autumn 2008 Results

Bushmal and the Bus

Copyright © Peter Holz 2008

With a wild flourish Bushmal urged all nine of us into his minibus. Then he slammed the door, jumped in the front beside his sidekick, gunned the engine and roared off into the streets of Marrakech. As soon as we were in traffic Bushmal’s nonstop commentary began, delivered not to us, his clients, but to his passenger. Four days he regaled his companion with tales tall and true. Four days his companion emitted not so much as a murmur in reply. Bushmal’s command of English was limited to “lunch”, “one hour” and “toilet”. Fortunately our party contained two Dutch ladies, one of whom had been married to a Moroccan, who spoke fluent Arabic. Unfortunately, despite it being Morocco’s official language, Bushmal did not. Berber was Bushmal’s native tongue. This may have explained his companion’s silence.

The rest of our group consisted of three immoderately dressed young Australians with bare shoulders and legs; my wife, Ros; ten year old son, John; and seven year old daughter, Lucy. Because we were sensitive new age travelers we had taken the precaution of covering up those body parts that apparently drive Muslim men crazy, and were feeling the effects of the intense Moroccan sun; all except for John, of course. He complained of feeling chilly while wearing his jumper in 350 C heat. Suggestions urging him to remove his garment always sparked an enormous tirade and ended in tears.

The shock of seeing Bushmal swerve wildly to avoid a few errant donkeys, carts, mopeds and the odd pedestrian ended my reverie. I congratulated myself on the wise choice not to hire a car and attempt to drive myself out of Marrakech, a decision which no doubt would have resulted in our permanent disappearance within the city’s labyrinth of back alleys. The organized tour was looking good. Normally I give these things a big miss but Bushmal inspired me with confidence as he skillfully left the streets of Marrakech behind and headed sedately towards the Atlas Mountains with the air conditioning on full i.e. all the windows were wound down.

The Atlas Mountains presented a spectacular, steep and windy climb. Unfortunately their grandeur was lost on John who was rapidly turning an interesting shade of green. When he swung towards me, a look of panic in his eyes, I knew I had only seconds to act. So I did what any responsible father would in that situation and handed over my beloved Akubra, which he promptly filled with a porridge-like orange mixture. Feeling much better, he handed it back and sank contentedly into his seat.

I now had a hat full of orange vomit. Fortunately breakfast had only consisted of freshly squeezed orange juice and bread, all of which swirled dangerously each time Bushmal navigated the bus around another hairpin bend. I was just wondering what to do with it all when Ros suggested that I surreptitiously pour it out the window. I wasn’t too sure of the wisdom of this manoeuvre but, as she insisted, I relented and quickly tipped out the contents, gazing guiltily in Bushmal’s direction. I needn’t have worried. He was gesticulating wildly and still deep in monologue with his friend. I now had orange porridge-like remnants in my hat but at least they wouldn’t slosh out onto the floor.

The drive down the Atlas was uneventful and we arrived at the World Heritage town of Ait Benhaddou mid morning. I alighted from the bus noticing the very attractive orange smear down the side. Quickly collecting the family we hurried off to see the sights before Bushmal caught sight of our sight. The town was hot and dusty, apparently made of mud and was full of children offering to be our guides, for a very friendly price of course. I politely declined and took off for the river to wash out my hat. On returning to the bus I bore the full brunt of Bushmal’s displeasure. Fortunately his English was not good enough to give me a proper telling off but the message permeated through the Berber/Arabic mix. As we climbed back into the bus and took off into the dust once more I noticed that the smear was gone.

Eventually we arrived at Ouarzazate for lunch. Bushmal shouted at us all to get off, and examined the exterior of the bus for any further violations, scowling at me as he did so. Ouarzazate was to prove a great source of income for John who, having decided that his life’s goal was to become richer than Bill Gates, returned to Australia and wagered everyone in sight that they would be unable to spell the name of this town. Most didn’t even get past the first letter and he made quite a tidy profit.

The Moroccan desert is truly astonishing, more desolate than anything I have seen in Australia or elsewhere. While the Nullarbor is dotted with small shrubs and bushes, this landscape seemed to contain nothing but dirt and rock, which made the appearance of a herd of goats, accompanied by their person, even more startling. I always knew that goats were hardy creatures that would eat almost anything but I hadn’t realized that there were breeds that could survive on a diet of rocks.

Bushmal must have thought it all pretty amazing too as he kept up a leisurely pace to make sure we could enjoy it all properly. Although the speedometer was broken we estimated, based on the time it took to travel between towns known distances apart, that he averaged approximately 50 km/hr. This was on a dead straight bitumen highway through the middle of the desert. All the speed must have gone into the use of his mouth.

Even more astonishing, after we passed our lonely goatherd we came upon two women in black burqas who were approaching the road. Where they came from was anybody’s guess, as we had not passed a town or village for at least an hour. Being the new age Muslim that he was Bushmal pulled over and offered the two ladies a lift. We enjoyed the pleasure of their company for perhaps twenty minutes before Bushmal deposited them in a place that looked equally as remote and inhospitable as the one he had collected them from. Once again, there was not a village or sign of human habitation in sight.

Eventually the road entered the Draa Valley and meandered along a water course lined with palm trees and small children selling dates. At the end of this route was our destination, the town of Zagora. Upon arrival we hastily unpacked, repacked, took what provisions we needed for the night and were hoisted atop several surly looking camels. John was wrapped up like Lawrence of Arabia and, much to his displeasure, found it impossible to continue his book while atop the camel.

After a bone jarringly hard hour and a half’s meander through the desert we arrived well after dusk at our accommodation for the night, a Bedouin tent in the middle of nowhere. The next morning delivered the prospect of the same hour and a half’s camel ride back to civilization. This was too much for my wife’s aching bottom and she decided to walk back with our guides. Close examination of the raw wheals on both cheeks revealed the wisdom of her decision.

Then it was back into Bushmal’s bus and the continuation of our slow and agonizing crawl to the Sahara. It was only then that we realized how much Bushmal did in fact love his bus and what a sacrilegious act it had been to cover the side with orange vomit. We paused at a petrol station for what I thought was a routine comfort stop. After our rest and refreshments we were ready to go again, but there was no sign of Bushmal or the bus. A diligent search found him, and his companion, around the back of the service station thoroughly washing not just the outside of the bus but also vacuuming its interior. Once it was spotless we were allowed back on only to have the entire bus covered in dust again seconds after it returned to the desert highway.

At the end of another long day on the road (timekeeper John calculated eight hours and 50 minutes spent on the bus on the first day but only six hours and 50 minutes today) the bus ground to a halt in front of a pair of ominous looking military types. Despite being at a checkpoint near the Algerian border Bushmal’s constant babbling never missed a beat. He exchanged multiple kisses with the men in uniform much to the amusement of all on board, particularly Lucy who repeatedly kissed everyone for days after, and then veered off the road into the desert. After apparently driving aimlessly through the wasteland we came upon the enormous Saharan sand dunes that spilt onto the barren plain. Scattered around the edges were numerous former kasbahs transformed into hotels. A few had been constructed a tad too close to the dunes and were all but submerged beneath the desert.

We stopped for the night with our intrepid Australian companions striking off for a night in the Sahara on yet more camels. My wife’s stricken bottom protested strongly and we managed a shorter camel trip into the orange dunes that loomed some forty metres above us. This time we were lucky enough to get the deluxe model camels with extra padding. After half an hour we dismounted, with our Berber guides all dressed in blue like Tuareg, and proceeded to climb up the tallest dune. Why? Because it was there, of course. Climbing a steep sand dune is no easy matter. For every two steps up you slide one step down. The view from the top was nothing short of spectacular, however. The orange sand of the Sahara glowed with multiple shades as the sun set and the whole desert tapestry spread out below us like a rumpled blanket. A distant camel train completed the surreal atmosphere. Our guides spent many happy moments dragging the children feet first down the dunes only to haul them up again, time after time. Then we all proceeded to surf our way down the giant dunes to the bottom. Great fun but the prospect of climbing back to the top made it a once only experience.

The next morning we breakfasted in the kasbah, where the owner took a fancy to young Lucy. He offered me 100 camels for her hand. I refused of course, not thinking him to be serious. But when he upped the offer to 200 camels I started to reconsider. He was talking serious currency here, but the look of concern on my daughter’s face plus a few stern words from my wife brought me back onto the straight and narrow. It was certainly more than the one dollar fifty I was offered for my wife many years before in Kathmandu.

And then it was day three with six hours and 15 minutes spent in Bushmal’s bus as we made our way slowly back to Marrakech. Towards the end of the day we detoured into Dades Gorge for our accommodation stop. As we entered the gorge Bushmal offloaded his traveling companion. The isolation hit Bushmal like a shot and he jammed his foot onto the accelerator pedal taking off at double the speed we had been traveling for the past two days. Only now we weren’t on a straight desert road, we were winding through narrow mountain passes with sheer drops on either side. We made it to our accommodation intact and were treated to the same rally driving display next morning out of the gorge; that is until Bushmal’s friend climbed back aboard the bus. Then it was back to dead straight roads and a snail’s pace. We had entered our final day, a colossal eight hours and 10 minutes, by my son’s calculation.

The highlight was the stop at, presumably, Bushmal’s brother’s carpet emporium. What trip to Morocco would be complete without the carpet experience? We were led through a labyrinthine maze from which there could be no escape to a small room containing an unfinished carpet, a loom, a fat sister and the prince of all Moroccan carpet salesmen. He treated us to mint tea, pleaded with us to examine the quality of the loom, explained how many months of back breaking work it had taken for his sister to produce just one carpet and then proceeded to roll out an endless series of carpets and tapestries. He extolled their fine qualities and pointed to one that would survive the ravages of a motorcycle no less. It came with a one hundred year guarantee. My wife was so smitten by the sales pitch that she purchased it on the spot, forgetting even to haggle. We did make sure to emphasize to our offspring that should anything ever happen to this carpet before the year 2105 that they or their children or their children’s children were to immediately return to Morocco and demand their money back. Hopefully the rest of our group appreciated the purchase as this was no doubt a requirement for being allowed back onto the bus.

Our final stop, in the Valley of Roses, gave John the opportunity to try his hand at haggling. As we passed a roadside stall an ornate curved dagger caught John’s eye. The old salesman spoke no English but the language of commerce is universal. Noticing John’s interest he quickly whipped out a notepad and wrote down a price of 200 dirhams. John took the pad from the wizened merchant and scribbled down 50 dirhams. I expected this would lead to a torrent of abuse in Arabic but instead the merchant smiled, took back the pad, wrote 190 dirhams and showed us a wallet sized photograph of his seven presumably starving children. Unmoved John advanced to 60 dirhams. This continued for some time with John finally winning the dagger for 110 dirhams. Impressed by his success I tried a similar tactic with a neighbouring date seller. When I refused his initial price and offered one of my own he glared at me in disgust, put his dates back on the stall and turned his back on me. Obviously John knew something that I didn’t.

We survived the rest of the journey to Marrakech unscathed. There were a few green moments as we rolled back over the Atlas Mountains but the hat, thankfully, was not required. Bushmal dropped us off in the same noisy square in Marrakech that we had left from. After hurling our luggage at us he tore off into the pollution and confusion, his trusty but silent companion still by his side.