After hearing all about Jonathan and Win's trip to Mauritania last year, freezing on the back of a coal train in the middle of the night, hoping the Mauritanians would forget that Jonathan was American and remember that Win was Geman, I had long desired to visit Mauritania. I also wanted to visit the sole remaining place that still had chattel slavery, as I found that interesting, in a schadenfreude manner, and incredibly sad. I was intrigued to see what such a place looked like.
But it's a bit of a hike to get there. You take the train down to Marraksh, and then the bus for awhile. And then some more. And then some more. Consider that you have to go the nearly the entire length of Morocco to get to Mauritania, and Morocco is as long N/S as the distance from Canada to Mexico. Except the roads aren't as good and the mass transit is slower. We're talking a 24+ hour bus ride. In fact, I have 9 days for my Spring Break, and it's taken three of them just to get down here.
But this is an area that no one else I know gets to- I mean teachers at my school. Hey, most Moroccans I know don't get down here. And my goal is to be the most traveled teacher at the school. It really is a different culture down here. I learned that when I visited Smara, deep in the Northern section of the Saharan provinces, the Southern half of Morocco. The clothing is different- gone are the jallabas, and instead there are these huge blue billowing clothes draped over the guys, and beautiful wrap-around sari material for the women. The language is different- Hassaniya Arabic, closer to Classical, and very different from the Dareeja spoken in the Northern half of Morocco. In fact, there aren't many places in the world that recognize this area as Morocco. They call it the Western Sahara, and claim it's status is in contention. But prima facia facts on the ground- it's owned completely by Morocco. The two largest cities- actually the only places in the Southern half of Morocco that could be called cities- are both on the coast and populated mostly by Moroccans who were brought in (some say forced in) during the infamous Green March decades ago. The culture there is a mixture of the North and he South- maybe something like Detroit in the years after Reconstruction in the U.S.
I'm used to an older feel to cities, with narrow winding streets. Even Casa is 100 years old for the most part, and most of the streets aren't all that wide. Dakhla is different. It was built up only in the last couple decades. And these streets are huge. We're talking the width of a couple villas, or the short end of a block. There's all this space down there, and fewer people. And the government has poured in tons of money enticing people to move there, following the age-old pratice of Mesopotamian rulers of planting your people in a conquered land, so it's much harder to change over in the future.
It's an international border, and the only peaceful border Morocco has. (Algeria's border's been closed for decades, ever since they supported the Polisario, the geurilla group fighting for Western Saharan independence. And now you understand why I don't use my last name over here.) Most of the produce and food of Mauritania comes into Morocco. So you'd expect there to be some regular transit over the border, and it to be easy to use. Nope. It is incredibly difficult to cross. Dakhla was only the first step- and also the last stop for buses. From there to the border is another five hours, by expensive taxi (usually paying both ways, for all the seats), or even more expensive land rover, the preferred method of tourists. I found another alternative- catching a ride on a vegetable bus. Free with a small gratuity, and leaving at first dawn.
The desert is truly an amazing place. So varied- not what you expect. Sometimes flat hammada, sometimes glistening mound of snow, and other times reminding me of the Basin & Range provinces of Arizona. As we passed the ocean numerous times I thought of my roommate Collin and the virgin shores 300 feet from the road, probably never touched before by a surfboard.
The border is open, but slow. They took awhile to look over my passport, visa (non-Arabs need one to enter Mauritania), and carte de sjour, my identity card. Gave me some time to check out the surrounding desert, at least in the area the omnipresent soldiers would allow me into. One particular succulent caught my eye, perhaps doing CAM photosynthesis.
After being cleared, and the driver giving the Moroccan police some vegetables as douane (bribe), we passed 100 feet over to the Mauritanian side. Immediately things got poorer. In Morocco the collection of buildings was permament, with facilities, and made of solid material. The Mauritanian border was a small guard shack that looked like it might fall apart. The Mauritanian police also needed some douane.
Another difference was the road. The Moroccan road was paved. As soon as you crossed the border the pavement became shoddy and bumpy, with wisps of sand blowing across the road. Then it became gravel, and then nothing even recognizable beyond a goat trail- for cars. This was basically an international highway between two countries. It was my first indication that Mauritania was on a whole nother level of poverty.
We were finally on our way, when we came to the border police. The other guys were the border guards. The border police in their hut needed douane vegetables, so we stopped. Then we were finally on our way. Till a few minutes later we came to the Mauritanian State Police. They also needed douane for their shack. Then we got moving. We kept going for a solid thirty minutes, but then stopped at a checkpost. No douane, but there were checkposts about every half hour. This wasn't the freedom of Moroccan travel. We kept this up until deep into the Saharan sunset, on our way to Nouadhibou, the sole large city of Northern Mauritania.