Many kilometers, several dramatic regions, and a pile of fine travel acquaintances later, we catch up with ourselves. Have I really not managed a blog post since before coming to the edge of Western Sahara? I hope that pictures of our beach bumming have tided you patient people over, and that no one has been worried as we crossed great expanses of sand between there – mid-Morocco – and here – Dakar, Senegal.

We have been safe and sound, if stretched to the limits of our mental, emotional, and physical strengths. Dave is the best travel partner and fellow adventurer a girl could ask for. He lets me lead the way, keeps a grounded perspective, and forever excels in that social instinct and priceless sense of humor. Oh yes, and let’s not forget the pictures! If not for Dave, there would be many long lapses in documentation of our journey. But, as is, we are rapidly filling up my 120-gig hard drive, a sample of which you can find here.

The highlight of all of Morocco came the day after my last post in Taghazout. Just about 150 kilometers (yes, thinking in kms these days!) further down the Moroccan coast – shhhh – is a relatively untouched gem of a beach town called Mirleft. My “shhh” is somewhat useless, I am afraid, since it has a mention in Lonely Planet as a “hippy paradise” and much building seems to underway along the shoreline. However, we were able to score a $14 apartment, complete with a kitchen for lentil soup cooking and CNN and Al-Jazeeera in English (the only TV of our trip so far), for one evening. We were also able to head out in the early morning for our first swim in the Atlantic on a broad sweep of beach inhabited by only three other people. We were some cold but happy hippies, indeed!

Our premonitions of the joys of being off the beaten path – leaving more touristy Morocco behind – have not been disappointed. Leaving Mirleft and nearing the filmy line between Morocco proper and the disputed Western Sahara, we ran right into the famed Saharawi hospitality. Three students from Guelmime – the gateway to the Sahara – befriended us on a bus and offered to show us around their hometown. I believe it was the first genuine (i.e. no ulterior motive) invitation of our Moroccan adventure – indeed, one of the boys, shyly testing his English, confessed that we were the first tourists he had ever spoken to.

The next day, we covered over 1000 kilometers of Western Saharan territory – but picked up quite a bit of atmosphere between the camels, dunes, and salt flats along the one tar road running down the coast. We could also not help but realize we were in a different political reality, as we passed through no fewer than nine police checks between Tan Tan and Dakhla. At each stop, particularly the six along our overnight bus ride – a mistake, to say the least! – from Layoune to Dakhla, Dave and I – the sole two foreigners on board – were the focus of the most time and interest. Our passport numbers and some French approximation of our professions has been recorded and rerecorded in innumerable police ledgers. Forget anonymity. I assume that most of our fellow passengers resented us for the frequent delays, but one kind woman, traveling with her daughter and sitting across the aisle, seemed to enjoy my three-phrase bastardized Arabic lexicon enough to invite us to her home in Dakhla. Although she did not speak French or any other language in common with us, she explained through a fellow passenger that her husband spoke Spanish, the former colonial language of Western Sahara.

Both Layoune – where we spent an afternoon between long legs of our journey – and Dakhla – where we spent a day and a half trying to find a ride to the Mauritanian border – are undoubtedly cities under occupation. There seem to be as many Moroccan military as civilian citizens in both cities, along with frequent UN vehicles. Morocco has invested heavily in building the infrastructure of both cities, so that they have crisply pressed exteriors. I understand that this investment has been partly a strategy to encourage migration from other parts of Morocco, while many native Saharawis are exiled in refugee camps over the border in Algeria, thus blurring the border in question at least as far as population goes.

To me, the outcome of UN negotiations, which should be resuming in March 2008, seems foregone, given the length and determination of the Moroccan campaign for control of Western Sahara and the way the subject is treated elsewhere in Morocco. Nonetheless, there is some fierce resentment brewing in the eyes and conversations of some native Saharawis. One employee of the camping spot where we stayed just outside Dakhla was determined to explain to me the political situation, introduce me to a Saharawi refugee visiting for a few days from Algeria, and make it clear that he still believed in independence and the Frente Polisario. Our native Saharawi taxi driver to the Mauritanian border was just beginning to warm up to conversing with us when we passed the second police check outside Dakhla and a Moroccan soldier hopped in for a free ride to the border – upon which, our driver clamped down, steamed resentment into the rearview mirror, and barely said another word for the next 425 kilometers to the border.

At the customs post leaving Morocco, we were kindly offered a ride into Mauritania and to Nouadhibou by a Dutch and English couple, Roland and Georgina, who had been at our camping spot the night before. They did not have enough space in their low-riding eighties sports car packed for the voyage from the Netherlands to the Gambia to offer us a ride all the way from Dakhla, but at the border, they were willing to squeeze us in for the last 70 kilometers.

As fate would have it, no longer were we squeezed into the back seat, happily swapping i-tunes and travel tales, and through Moroccan customs, than we got stuck in a sand trap in the 3 kilometers of no man’s land between Morocco and Mauritania. The low rider dug her engine deeper and deeper into the sand each time she went in reverse, no matter how much the four of us dug, pushed, raised the wheels, and ate sand. But, help – in some form – was on its way. Four apparent desert dwellers of unknown nationality descended from the dunes in flowing robes and offered to get us out – for the small sum of 150 euros. We, of course, refused and continued toiling with moderate success for the next half hour, while our would-be saviors lounged around in various postures of sympathy and amusement. Finally, they offered to do the deed for 20 euros and we pantingly relented, only to watch them start shoving sand back under the wheels (shock!), sit all four on one side of the car to start it rocking and rising out of the sand, and get us free and back on the rode within five minutes. If 20 euros bought us freedom and a life’s lesson in sand-trap escape, I say it was well spent.

Au revoir, Morocco, bon soir, Mauritania! We cruised into Nouadhibou just after sunset and set up in another sandy camping spot off the main drag of the center city. Stepping into the city streets, there was no doubt we were in another country – and much closer to West Africa. At least in Nouadhibou, immigration from southern Mauritania and other parts of West Africa overwhelms the Moorish populace that is the majority elsewhere. We changed 10 euros on the street – cash only economy in Mauritania – with a Pulaar- and English- (for us) speaking man who also helped Dave to purchase a dark couscous and sour camel milk combo. Then, the two of us and Roland and Georgina ate a wonderfully cheap and relaxed dinner in a restaurant run by Gambian immigrants. Highlights of the dinner were interrupting the tail end of an African Cup game and being invited into the kitchen so that we could explain our vegetarian/vegan diet – i.e. point to what we wanted and did not want to eat.

The next morning, Dave and I broke out our water filter for the first time – thanks to his parents – wandered around looking for any bank that would change travelers’ checks – no go, as we learned more about cash-only economies – and prepared ourselves for what would be the most unique train ride of our lives.

The world’s longest iron ore train – 2.3 kilometers long according to guidebooks – runs from just south of Nouadhibou (the port where the iron ore exits the country) to the iron mines along the Western Saharan/Mauritanian border at Zouereg. We – along with two new travel acquaintances, Patrick of the Netherlands and Bevy of Croatia, and several hundred Mauritanian travelers – hopped onto the empty ore cars returning to the inland mines. Then ensued the windiest, dustiest, dirtiest, coldest, and entirely most thrilling 12+ hours of my life. I leave it to pictures and the strength of your imagination to describe further.

The adventure did not end, however, when we dismounted – frigidly half-comatose – at about 2:00 AM at the midpoint of Choum. As soon as the train started to move away, a bevy of 4WD pickup trucks appeared flashing their headlights and began to run up and down the tracks scooping up passengers for the 2 hour ride to Atar, the third city of Mauritania. I wearily bargained in French for a better price for our foursome and then we waited, nibbling on candied peanuts (from Christmas in Vermont!), for about an hour for our vehicle to reload its luggage and passengers for the ride. Finally, we perched atop the luggage on the back of the pickup, holding onto netting as we bounced along a sandy road, arriving in Atar just after sunrise.

The city of Atar and the Adrar region are perhaps the places where the consequences of recent tragic events in Mauritania are most visible. On December 24, 2007, four French tourists were shot and killed while picnicking in southern Mauritania allegedly by terrorists with ties to international Al-Qaeda. The details are chilling. But, far worse is to see the devastation – we hope only temporary – of a developing tourist economy in one of the world’s poorest countries. Prior to the killings, at least four Air France flights came directly to Atar from Paris each week, bringing thousands of tourists to the edge of the Saharan desert. Our guidebook prepared us to be surrounded by French businessmen trying to “get away.” Since the French government issued a travel warning for Mauritania, this flow has dropped to a trickle. At the height of the tourist season – early February – Atar’s hotels were notably empty or, more sensibly, “closed for the season.”

We recovered from our journey at a camping spot run by a Dutch ex-patriot couple on the outskirts of Atar. The owners – clearly ex-pats of the first world for a reason – were well informed, cynical about world politics, and irate about the current situation in Mauritania. Justus articulated what at least Dave had been saying for weeks: this is one isolated incident in an otherwise safe and peaceful country; the Mauritanian government arrested nine people, including the killers and other members of the terrorist cell; and there were protests against the violence in the streets of Nouakchott. Then, Justus pointed out the double standard in stinging terms: “Nine people were killed in a supermarket in Chicago last week, and no one is told not to travel there.”

Dave and I have meditated on these subjects a lot, particularly as we read of four school shootings in the U.S. in the last week, and I write essays about the rule of law in developing countries in order to convince U.S. law schools to admit me. To me, it seems that the issue is use of the word terrorism. I do not go so far as Justus, the Dutch hostel owner, who claims that Al-Qaeda is pure political fiction. But, I take his point more broadly: we tacitly accept or become accustomed to violence of all sorts so long as it falls into “understood” categories such as crime or warfare. Violence that is called terrorism is shadowy, unknown, and makes us westerners feel like sitting ducks.

There is also a double standard. If the four French tourists had been killed, as it was first broadcasted, in an armed robbery gone wrong, it would have been treated quite differently. Also, if Mauritania were more broadly known throughout the world, this incident would have registered as just one of many impressions of the country – rather than defining it as a terrorist bastion.

As it is, Mauritania seems to capture the hearts of many who go there and end up staying. Aside from the Dutch couple, we met a Scotsman in Nouakchott who abandoned his homeland three years ago to work as a camel herder in Mauritania. We also met the most seasoned of travelers in Mauritania, the best of the road, and had some of the most genuine and positive interactions with locals along the way. We felt safe. The worst things that happened to us in our zigzag across the country were as follows:

  • A goat peeing on Megan’s backpack on board a pickup truck to Chinguetti (we don’t blame him as he was stuffed in between all our luggage and under the weight of us and about 8 others);
  • A goat lightly tinkling on David’s backpack when it shared the trunk of our taxi;
  • A car back from Chinguetti that overheated repeatedly and then only got us to the edge of town before tanking out completely;
  • Two flat tires on the route down to Boghe, with positive results (thanks to the good company of our driver and his friend);
  • Accepting hospitality in the form of camel infused rice (Dave says it tastes like Chinese fried rice) and sweetened camel’s milk; and
  • Seeing too much trash on the dunes of the Sahara.

These are adventures I can live with. See pictures for some of the highlights of the trip, including picking up trash on the sand dunes near Chinguetti, the Port de Pesche in Nouakchott, and our many forms of transportation. Oh, and, go to Mauritania.