Morocco


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.

Megan contemplates camelThis post has been building up for a while – all sorts of thoughts, reflections, and good stories piling on top of one another and gaining coherence over the last 12 days in Morocco. Dave and I have just completed what seems to be the “tour” of Morocco: the circle from Casablanca through the cities of Rabat, Meknes, Fez, then up through the mountains to the edge of the Sahara, before heading back to the tourist capital of Marrakesh (via Oarzazate, the “Hollywood” of Morocco), and finally to the seaport of Essouira, made famous by Jimmy Hendrix (among others), although we have been told not to believe the local tour guides when they tell us that he wrote Castles of Sand here.

 

Arriving at Essouira, for us, brought a certain sigh of relief. We feel that Morocco has done us justice, so to speak, and we can now embark on our own journey. Ill-prepared as we were for Morocco – our original guidebook, borrowed from my Aunt Babs, did not offer any hotels, and our main guidebook was only obtained from Juan on the eve of our departure from Spain – we jumped in with a sheepish sense of duty and disorientation. Luckily, we have been met by a country very ready and willing to accommodate us, host us, haggle us, and charm us.

 

So, the news: I am still a vegan (except for a couple of french fries that I have my doubts about). Dave is still a vegetarian (except for his one foray into “tagine legumes,” which most definitely had some animal fat boiling at the bottom). We are both taking daily vitamins and eating lots of bread and avocado. We have begun our malaria inoculations, last Thursday, in fact, the morning of our camel trek and overnight in the desert – and we are proud to say that week one (for me) and week two (for Dave) have not produced any thrilling dreams, ahem, hallucinations to speak of. We have pictures enough to prove that we actually did ride camels, make Berber pizza over a fire, and sleep under the full moon on the edge of the Sahara. We will see what next week (and the 33 after) may bring.

 

The reflections: Following the “tour” has its positives and negatives, as one might expect. We are welcomed into each town by many hospitable folks who are eager to welcome us in many different languages, and offer us lodgings designed to meet our every need. This makes us very suspicious in our wanderings of any one who might inquire what our nationality may be. An interesting side note: we have never, not once, had the first guess be American, which means we are either hiding our heritage well or folks fear to insult us with that as a first guess.

 

Two other asides on the American note: most people do not seem to understand “Etats-Unis” until I clarify, America. However, most people do know Chicago right off the bat. We have not encountered much political discussion, although Dave often says, “Chicago, where Barack Obama is from.” My first overtly political interaction came last night, when leaving an Internet café in Essouira. The young man who ran the place guessed that I was English and when I corrected him, he asked me, “How about George Bush?” I probably rolled my eyes and got out half a sentence before he continued, “I like George Bush. You know why? He makes war and everything; he does what is good for America.” Astonished, I tried to get out of this conversation, but could not do so before he added that the person he does not like is “Condo,” i.e. Condaleeza Rice. I chose not to explore whether this has to do with gender or race, and his gestures were open for interpretation.

 

Following the tour makes life easy, as almost everyone along it speaks three or four of the following languages: Arabic, French, Berber, English, Spanish, Italian, and a smattering of Japanese (and probably others). There are also amenities a-plenty, everything that we could want along the way.

 

Lastly, following the tour makes the country feel small, somehow, as we overlap with other travelers and guides and the places that they promote. On the bus from Midelt, in the Atlas Mountains, to Rissani, en route to the desert, we had the good fortune to meet a pair of Japanese friends, Yoko and Yuji, headed in the same direction. We got along well and decided to aim for the same spot in the desert. We also met a particularly persistent guide, who jumped onto the bus at the second to last stop and began to encourage us to go to his desert auberge, Le Petite Prince. I was a little skeptical of this guide right from the get-go, as we had already received a card for the place from the owner of our last hotel, and subsequently been forcefully pushed to the same spot by another “friend” in the mountains.

 

The third Petite Prince pusher began working on us on the bus, staying on for the last 30 minutes of the bus ride, despite our repeated explanations that we had a reservation elsewhere. He dismounted the bus in Rissani with us, stuck around the bus station for 10 minutes while we purposely dawdled, and then followed us as we walked towards town, trying to ignore his many forms of persuasion. Still unable to shake him, we stopped into a café for a coffee and to wait for a taxi to come take us to the auberge of our choice. He stayed in the café at a nearby table for a full 40 minutes. When our taxi arrived, we were probably as happy to finally be rid of him, as we were to be on the last stretch of our journey to the desert.

 

Yoko and Yuji atop a DuneTwo days in the desert did us a world of good, despite being a full-blown tourist indulgence, complete with lessons in the Berber language, late night drumming and dancing, and the famous camel trek. Dave and I left a day before our Japanese friends, and made our way by thumb and grand taxi to the town, Erfoud, where we were to catch to seven-hour bus to Oarzazate.

 

We arrived a couple of hours early and sat down at a café by the bus stop to catch up on postcard writing. Lo and behold, no sooner did we sit down than were we saluted by the same young man who had haggled us for so many hours two days before. I thought, “Ah, a chance for reconciliation, now that the sale is off,” and I made small talk with him for about 20 minutes, during part of which I attempted to explain that Americans (and probably others) prefer the “soft sale” to the “hard sale.” Apparently, my pointer was lost on him or irrelevant, as he spent the next hours leading up to our departure attempting to lead us to his favorite souvenir shops in town. From all of this we learned that, in his own words, “Dave is not as nice as his girlfriend.”

 

Luckily, we have had two delightful reencounters to push that far into the past. Two days after the desert, Dave and I were settled in a lovely hotel in the old medina of Marrakesh, with a terrace for sunny breakfasts, views to the nearby minaret, and sunset watching. On our second day, Dave came back early from a day of sightseeing to find our Japanese friend Yoko on the doorstep of our hotel. She and Yuji had decided to take different paths for a few days, and we were lucky to spend an evening sunset and morning coffee together, solidifying the friendship.

 

The following day, yesterday, Dave and I headed on to Essouira, a three-hour bus-ride to coast. We again found a marvelous hotel in the old medina with a terrace overlooking the sea. I settled into the “chore” of uploading all of our photos, while Dave headed out to do laundry. Within moments of leaving the hotel, Dave ran into Yuji, our other Japanese friend, who had just arrived in town. Yuji ended up in our same hotel and we, again, shared a beautiful evening sunset, dinner, and morning stroll around the fishing port and beach. The end result was that, at 11 this morning, Dave sat alternately watching a youth soccer game on the beach and the waves, while Yuji helped me remember/practice writing Kanji in the sand.

 

Now, we are a couple of hours south along the coast, in a small town of Tagazout. I am writing from the comfort of the beachside apartment that is ours for the night for the negotiated price of about $20, listening to our landlady’s TV upstairs and the waves crashing outside. Dave has struck up a friendship with a young man who runs a souvenir shop down the beach, who is taking him to a local party. Having seen enough glimpses of male-only nightlife in Morocco, and with so much for the blog that I am about to burst, I stay behind. I want to write a bit about gender in Morocco, and a few other anecdotes, but perhaps it will have to wait till later. As Yuji said to us last night, “Good night, and good luck.”

Garden in FezSo, I hear the complaints…where the heck are the photos? The same thing has been going through my head for the last week. All my glimpses of Spain were meant to be illustrated, but I let the traveler’s worst threat get the best of me: technical barriers of quick moving in strange places. Dave and I apologize, and humbly beg all not to give up on us. We are committed to the VISUAL! (As our friend and host in Madrid, Juan commented to me last week, “Your boyfriend is Japanese.”) David has been repaying hospitality across Europe with the visual, leading to  a computer crash at Cindy’s and over a thousand Spain photos left on Juan’s hard drive.  (NB: these blessings too can be yours, should your home lie in our path to Cameroon!)Since coming to Morocco, I fear we have gotten even worse. I’ve taken perhaps a quarter as many photos as Dave, but then, hey, I’ve got about a quarter as many memory cards and camera batteries. Once we filter his – including so many ridiculous pictures of me with my eyes half shut under my head scarf or translating for him from our Spanish language Moroccan guidebook (long story) or instructing him (with a typical Megan instructive face) in French from our “Easy French for Travelers” – we may be even.

So, right now, I amend the previous post with a few real glimpses of Spain, and leave you all to a visual tour of our first 7 days in Morocco. On the map, the route goes: Casablanca (not as romantic as the movies), Rabat (so much more than an administrative capital), Meknes (confusing as heck Medina but good jumping off point), Mulay Idriss (our first hired guide) and Volubilis (mmm, Roman ruins!), and Fez (phew!). I write currently from the Middle Atlas, a town called Midelt to be specific, where we have just been offered the “Berber hospitality” (two cups of mint tea, “the Moroccan whisky” and a 60 Dirham room). Tomorrow, we continue the trek down to Rissani and Merzouga, for a genuINE camel trek into the desert. That means, yes, more photos. Blessings!

Walk with Cathy in Burgo de OsmaIt is a blessing to speak the language of the country you are in. Such was my relief when we stepped off our Easy Jet flight in the Barcelona airport one week ago. When we began to head in the wrong direction for the baggage claim, I could without thinking or gesturing too wildly or sheepishly speaking English, ask for directions. True, I may have offended a Catalan, but speaking a common second language is still an improvement – and probably the best I can hope for in coming months.

Plaza George OrwellPlaza George OrwellBarcelona was also blessedly balmy after Berlin, and Dave and I happily shed our coats (and backpacks) at the hostel before heading out in the Barri Gotic. It wasn’t quite sunny or quite Plaza George Orwellwarm, but it felt like spring to us and we practically skipped through the streets, snapping pictures of laundry hanging out to dry, and plants drooping off of balconies, until we came to Port Vella, the old port.  There, we devoted our first afternoon to the Museum of Catalonian History, which like the Museum of German History the afternoon before, was thorough from prehistory to recent times, overwhelming, and at times, a touch one-sided in favor of the nation writing its own history.

For example, any visitor to the Catalonian History Museum could leave believing that Catalonia has been mostly independent for most of its history, with a few tragic breaks, such as the centuries following the War of Spanish Succession, and again after the Spanish Civil War. Ask a Spaniard from another region and they will most likely explain that Catalonia has never been independent, but has rather been under the rule of some empire, kingdom, or nation-state since forever. The same outsider perspective will explain that Catalan has only been a written language for about the last century.

Nevertheless, what impresses me is the region’s ability to forge an independent identity and a certain perspective on Spanish history, aided by bilingual signs and monuments to Catalan heroes all around the city. But it seems simultaneously to me that the mobility of people (whether tourists such as me or young Spaniards from other regions) will always give favor to a lingua franca – such as the ubiquitous English in Germany and northern Europe.

Aside from our required and rewarding tour of Gaudi’s architecture, which occupied the better part of a day, the highlight of Barcelona for me was a two hour tour we were given by Ana, the Spanish friend of our friend Ian from Seattle, and her boyfriend Urial, who showed us some sights off the beaten path. We wandered past the smallest shop in Barcelona (literally, a medieval window front measuring about 3 by 6 feet, sadly no longer in use) and down into a small square with a church on one side and a three-on-three futbol game in the center. Ana and Urial showed us the wall of the church, pitted from gunfire of nearly 70 years ago, when Franco’s army executed defeated Catalan republicanos. Both Ana and Urial also had stories to share of their own grandfathers’ experiences during the civil war.

From Barcelona, we took a train to Zaragoza, cutting up through the Aragon region that I know mostly as a Civil War battlefield from having read the first chapters of Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. There were few signs from a distance of such violence on the misty hillsides. From Zaragoza, we took a bus up into Soria, arriving in the small town of Burgo de Osma just in time for Spanish lunch at nearly 4 PM (those who know me and my eating habits will know that I am well-suited for the Spanish meal schedule).

We were given a warm welcome indeed in Burgo de Osma, where the aunt of Dave’s best friend from childhood has lived with her Spanish husband and children for the last several decades. One of her sons, an architect named Sevi, who we were fortunate to meet, had designed a home for his parents in the hills outside the town. The home acts as a picture frame, so that on all sides windows look out to frame the hills and farmland. It was snowing as we arrived, drove up the long dirt road, and while we looked out the windows over lunch. But, by the time that we cleared up from lunch and went out for a 4km walk with the 5 dogs, the snow had stopped, the sky had cleared and chilled, and we watched a beautiful dusk fall over the landscape.

Time flies by in Spain, most likely because of the language, making conversations easy, the hospitality and good company of so many. From Burgo de Osma, we continued on to Madrid, where we met Cindy (our German host), who could not bear to say goodbye in Berlin. The three of us stayed with our friend and former Spanish teacher, Juan, and his family near to the Casa del Campo, southwest of central Madrid. Four days in good company flew by, until suddenly, we were bidding adios, packing our bags, and boarding the flight to Casablanca.

I feel in many ways ill-prepared for Morocco, a land where I can at best stumble through the most basic of conversations in a mutual third language (French), but we have arrived. The rest of the journey spreads out before us, with many a challenge and beaucoup de opportunities – yesterday Casablanca, today Rabat, tomorrow Fez, then who knows?