Always ethereal, always eclectic, I write as the mood strikes, when there intrigue reveals itself. Usually that means something controversial or adventure of some sort.

I've tried really hard to be unprovocative, but have as yet been unsuccessful.

Saturday, 26 March 2005

Return in the Sahara

I've noticed it's often a lot harder to leave a foreign country than it is to enter it. Because it's a three day journey each way to Mauritania, I only had a couple nights actually exploring the culture down there. Then it was back up North. And because it's a three day journey, much of my experience is....well, the journey.

Now I'm fairly familiar with traveling through Morocco. Due to gender and natural prolictivities, I've traveled in country probably more than any other single teacher at my school. I'm comfortable getting a train, bus, taxi, or even a Mercedes (chicken bus). I figured it would be fairly easy to set up a cab to go back North to Morocco.

I took a cab to the International Cab Station, and communicated that I wanted to go North to Morocco. They said that's fine, and they'd be leaving soon, and took my passport, for they had to get permission for me to leave the country. I knew from my experiences in Morocco that "soon" is the Arabic word for a couple hours, so I sat down with the other travellers to wait, and read a book.

I finished that book and started the next one. I'd left early in the morning to catch the first cab, around 8. And now it was 1030. So I asked when we'd be leaving. Soon. A German guy came up to join our party. I waited. We needed to get enough people to fill up the car. No- the two cars. No- also the big van that was brought in. More cars, so we could wait more, for more people. Now it was 1130.

At 12, some excitement. We were piled into a Notice the sign is leaning?very nice cab and driven to the police station, 400 feet away. We waited about half an hour, and then were told to get out. We got into the back of a paddy wagon, with wood slabs for benches, and waited. At 1 in the afternoon we left. And remember what I said about the roads in Mauritania. This time it was on the wood slab. We got to get out ocassionally at check stops, but couldn't walk too far, as the sign graphically demonstrates.

A couple hours later we were at the Moroccan border. Ironically my paperwork was in order, but the rest of my compatriates had more difficulty. We were waiting a couple more hours there at the border, so I talked to some of my traveling companions about splitting a Moroccan taxi to get to Dakhla. They were up for it, so I told them to wait, while I ran and got my Visa, still being held by the border police. I got it, no problem (he remembered fondly from two days prior), and ran back- to find that the taxi had left. They couldn't wait the extra five minutes; they were in a hurry. Oh how I'd learn to rue that missed opportunity.

We finally got going again. But there was a problem with our van with the wooden seats. It couldn't go above 40 kph. So we sat there on piles of luggage and merchandise that the drivers had brought in with them to increase their profit on this journey, and we sat through the night, as I and the other Westerner made comments to each other in German about the state of mass transit. It grew dark, and we were still on our way to Dakhla. Until the car broke down.

We all climbed out and stretched while the driver looked at the car to make sure we were truly royally screwed. "Yup," he said. "We are truly royally screwed." Except it was in Arabic. After fixing the car for an hour or two, we were off. At 40 kph.

And then came to a screeching halt. We hadn't been the lead car in the caravan. Another had been. And his merchandise was strewn all across the road. Along with some of the passengers, sitting there, waiting for us. There are so few cars on this international highway that they could wait for us for two hours, knowing that we would be the first ones to arrive. They were waiting because the police had stopped them, and realizing that they were carrying contraband items smuggled across the border, had seized the car, some of the items, and some of the people.

So they clambered in, and we began to move again.

We arrived in Dakhla, a five hour journey from Nouadhibou, if you're on bad roads, at around five in the morning. I know because roosters were just starting to crow. If you've forgotten the beginning of this post, I left Nouadhibou at 8 in the morning. Or tried to.

We weren't in the main square of Dakhla, but somewhere off in the suburbs. But I recognized the area, and grabbed my stuff. I think the drivers were feeling a little guilty about how long it had taken, and tried to get me to stay with them, but I needed a more comfortable rest after that night in the back of the van, so I declined, and walked to the center square to grab a hotel room.

After a bit of a rest I walked around Dakhla and explored, as I hadn't had as much time coming down. I was very impressed with the intricate beauty of their spooling machine. I wandered around aimlessly, coming to this large domed building I'd seen in the dark on a previous night. As I rounded the corner I was shocked to see it was a church, and there, larger than life, a giant 40' cross! If you're not aware, you just don't see this in Morocco. They hide the crosses. The churches are behind high walls so you can't see them and no one would be tempted into Christianity. As dhimmis, it's even hard to get permission to do repairs on a church, not to mention building one. But here, in the middle of a large city, was a gigantic church, with a gigantic cross, and it was new!

Later that evening I was off on CTM, the national carrier busline of Morocco. (Not to be confused with sutiem, the Moroccan word for the brazziere. Ah, that never gets old...) This was high living. Occasional air conditioning, unlikely to break down, and a straight shot up North to Agadir, the most Southern city in the Northern half of Morocco. It's a long road to Agadir, and it's all desert. But the desert is not uniform. It is ever, changing, shifting, beautiful. And has some suprises. I watched the sand blow across the road during the wind storms. And then saw that evidently, this desert is harsh. It's even too hard for the camels to go it on the hoof.

It's a desert, but that doesn't mean without water. I watched the mist come in from the nearby ocean, covering the land like something out of a King Arthur legend on the moors.

And then, so wonderful, for the first time in my life, I saw it. Or rather, thought I saw it. A mirage. And I had never realized you can catch them on film. I'd always thought it was a trick of the mind. But there it was- water in the distance, beyond the reach of our bus.

The desert was ever-changing and wonderous. For the first four hours. Then it got long, and I still had another twenty hours to go. I talked with people near me, but there was only so much I could discuss in my limited Arabic. Then I read my books I'd been carrying with me. All of them. I got down to the last one, Railroaded. This was a book the author had sent to me because I was a top 1000 reviewer on Amazon. He'd sent it to all the top reviewers to try to get a higher rating on Amazon. In the first two pages a guy with my namesake dies. Now I'm uncomfortable with the author sending me this book.
Those first two pages were the best part. I do think this may have been the worst book I ever read in my life. It was filled with cliches and flat characters and stereotypes. It's the story of a black football player who gets played by a white hussy, who tries to make it look like he forced himself on her, but he's always good, so he never did anything like that. It's so bad that every time there was an item, it wasn't a sneaker, it was a Nike. With a "TM" written afterward. There was no description in the book- it was all telling. It was so bad that I was literally getting a headache after every few pages- from the book. But I had nothing to do for twenty hours, so three pages every ten minutes made me get through the book.
And then a nice little reward at the end. I love it how Moroccans practice art in their produce.

Wednesday, 23 March 2005

Land of the Slave

The thing you're struck with most upon arriving in Mauritania is the poverty. And I'm saying that from the perspective of the 2/3rds world country of Morocco. The second largest city, Nouadhibou, is dingy and grey, sometimes brown. Even compared to Morocco, there's no green at all. It's dusty, and surrounded by more dust. Everywhere is unremitting desert.

I asked a local cabbie to take me to the beach where everyone goes to bathing. I wanted to see if there was perhaps some coral reef snorkeling this far South. But their form of Arabic is very different from the Arabic I know. I tried two different cabbies. They kept on taking me back to this same garbage strewn beach, through the desert dusty dunes, with fish drying and hanging out, and no other people. And when I say garbage strewn, I mean there was some occasional water in between the plastic and metal. In the distance are the rotting remains of wrecks that once were mighty ships, and now are only rusty remnants of proud glory.

The shops are much smaller than those in Morocco, maybe 100 square feet, and there are far fewer vegetables for sale. Most of those there are rotting tomatoes and cucumbers. It turns out most of the "fresh" vegetables are carted all the way from Morocco. Incomes and prices for items like taxis are far lower here than up North. I've gradually came to realize that Morocco is to Mauritania as the U.S. is to Mexico. And Morocco is not a wealthy country.

Clothing and language are fairly similar to that of the Southern half of Morocco. Unfortunately Hassaniya Arabic is fairly different from the language of the Northern half of Morocco where I live, so communication is more limited. Men have these awesome blue drapes they wear with giant holes below the armpits. You have to wrap the cloth behind you when you walk, or pile it up on your shoulders so it doesn't drag the ground. Women are wrapped up in sari cloth, or wearing traditional Sub-Saharan African clothing, as there are a lot of immigrants from the South who've come up to Mauritania to escape the
poverty below.

I went shopping in the souqs to get an idea of the native artwork and merchandise. I think I was the only Westerner I saw the entire time. I found a donkey corral, where they hold the asses in between work. I've noticed that donkeys get really badly treated in Morocco, and so every chance I get I try to pet them, talk with them, and encourage them. I went up to the donkeys in the corral and started doing this. A large crowd of Mauritanian men gathered around me, wanting to know what the strange Westerner was doing in such a counter-cultural manner.

I asked them, "Hasn't God created all things?"

They agreed.

"Then hasn't God created donkeys too? And shouldn't we love all of his creation?"

They couldn't disagree with that.

It was good to see that signs and practices are the same in both cultures. Still here signs on the walls saying not to pee or deposit trash, right next to the trash. (I didn't check for the pee.)

Every chance I got, when I was alone with someone who spoke some English or Moroccan Mauritanian MosqueArabic, I asked about the slaves. I knew from my reading that Mauritania was the only place in the world that still had chattel slavery. Where people are actually owned, family lines belong to the master, there is a lot of work and no pay, and the master has all rights. There are three ethnicities in Mauritania- Arabs, Africans freed long ago, and African slaves. The second group does not associate with the lowly third. But the government doesn't like all this to be made known. It's bad for business. Every few years all the slaves are permanently freed. They just have to keep on doing it.

So when I'd ask about slaves, people didn't understand me. Or they'd change the subject. The most honest ones would quickly silence me, making sure no one was around, and warn me not to talk about such things. The government doesn't like it to be made known. And they make sure their people know that too.

Monday, 21 March 2005

Down to Dakhla

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.
Kids in Dakhla.

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 That's not snow- it's sand!  The desert plays tricks on the eye down 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 Saharan Basin and Rangethere 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.