Planet Nouadhibou…

November 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

We have entered a war zone. Well, not really; it just resembles one. Welcome to Nouadhibou! It’s hot, dusty, buildings are crumbling, and everyone looks like they want to kill us. It could easily double as the set for Black Hawk Down, with its post-apocalyptic feel. The city, if you can even call it that, is covered in shades of gray. Garbage fills the streets, animals are left to roam, and the cars, as well as people, look like they’ve seen better days; though, I’m not sure that’s true.

While driving in circles, looking for a place to stay, we witnessed a young boy going number two in the street. It wasn’t the act that shocked us, but the position he assumed. The tiny half-naked boy was practically upside down in what resembled the yoga position, downward facing dog (thanks, Google). Not a pretty sight, as you might imagine – squatting makes much more sense.

We finally settled on an Auberge off the main road. On a whim, we decided to exchange our Moroccan dirhams for Mauritanian ouguiya with our driver. Trust me, I already know how it sounds; and yes, we got totally screwed. To our defense, we didn’t know the exchange rate, had previously read that the banks would not accept dirhams, and we were suffering from exhaustion to top it off. I know – excuses, excuses.

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Marathon – Part Two (Meet The Tweedles)…

November 27, 2010 § Leave a comment

We have entered the Twilight Zone. My alarm was set for 5:45am. While getting ready, the call to prayer sounded shortly before 6:30am. That struck us as odd, because it’s usually much earlier. We peered out the window to find it was pitch black outside; equally odd. Perhaps we crossed into a different time zone? It wouldn’t make sense, but then again, nothing does these days. To clear up the confusion, I walked downstairs to confirm the time with reception. The gentleman manning the desk turned on his computer and told me it was 5:23am. Puzzled by this, I returned upstairs, and informed Rich we were ahead of schedule. Thirty minutes later our driver came knocking. As we were leaving, the guy who gave me the time, just 45 minutes earlier, said it was now 7am. Seriously, people – what the hell is going on?

Confused, we hopped in his Mercedes and headed to a nearby café to meet our travel companions. When we arrived, we were greeted by two cranky brits. Let’s just call them Tweedle Dum & Tweedle Dee, or The Tweedles for short. Their stop in Mauritania would be brief, as they were headed to Senegal for a little camping extravaganza. With three weeks to spare, they were on a tight schedule. They allowed themselves two weeks for transit in order for one week of camping; poor planning if you ask me, but then again, it’s not my vacation.

After an exchange of names, I found myself sandwiched between the two in the backseat. Meanwhile, Rich stretched out his long legs and enjoyed the view, sitting shotgun. Being 6’4”, he manages to avoid these types of situations. Me on the other hand, I barely scratch 5’4”; I suppose I have my parents to thank for that.

A little ways into the ride, Rich shared a story about a French man we met in Rabat, who had to make the journey twice, because the first time he arrived at the border without a visa; little did he know, he was pissing all over their parade, for they were sans visa as well. The overall mood in the car was headed south… way south. Instead of going back, they decided it was best to soldier on in hopes of obtaining it at the border. Unfortunately, their decision would prove to be costly, as this is no longer an option for anyone, regardless of your nationality.

Getting out of Morocco was time consuming. When we arrived at the border, we flashed our passports to a guy guarding the entrance, who asked for 5 dirhams. After that, we were directed to a window, where another guy gave us the once over, and stamped us out. This was followed by a 45 minute wait next to the car, while everyone and their brother took turns with us. Some were dressed in uniform, while others were not. Most asked questions, which we couldn’t understand, and others just wanted to partake in a staring contest. Eventually one of them busted out a latex glove and it was business time. They opened the trunk, removed our bags, and asked if we were transporting drugs and/or weapons. To me this just seemed silly. If I was in possession of either, do you really think I’d just give it up that easily??? After a few pokes, they grew tired, and gave us the green light. It would have been a good day to be a smuggler; mental note for next time.

We made it about ten feet before we were stopped again. This time, they wanted to review the driver’s registration and license plate. All was good, so we moved another ten feet, where we were stopped once more; this pattern continued for a while. At the last stop, all eyes were on me, and a little flirting ensued. I could have said Rich was my husband, but what fun would that be?

During this time, The Tweedles had convinced themselves that they were surely getting into Mauritania, because they had been stamped out of Morocco. The only problem is that Morocco is a different F-ing country and doesn’t care if you have an onward visa. If you want out, go right ahead; they’re not going to stop you. It’s not their job to deny you entry into an entirely different country. If you get denied, they know you’ll just come back.

The no man’s land separating the two borders spans for 6km. It looks like a sandy junkyard, littered with rusted vehicles, garbage, and a large number of refrigerators. Yes, refrigerators; still searching for an explanation to that one. There isn’t a road, just a very rocky path. If you were to veer off this path, chances are you’d be blown to smithereens, as there are landmines everywhere, due to the Western Sahara debacle.

Fortunately, we made it to the Mauritania border safe and sound. We entered a small room, one by one, where our passport information was recorded, and we were questioned about the nature of our visit. Dum & Dee managed to make it through this stop, which surprised­ all of us. Their relief was merely temporary, though.

Stop two was another room filled with serious military folk. Within minutes, the bad news was delivered, and the more outspoken of the two tweedles attempted a tantrum, but the officer wasn’t having any of it; no means no – even if you’re British. Disappointed by this, our driver put them in another vehicle, headed back to Morocco. We’re not sure if they received a partial reimbursement; my guess is no.

I probably seem heartless, but then again, you didn’t have the pleasure of spending all day with them – I did.

Marathon To The Border (Part One)…

November 23, 2010 § Leave a comment

With the clock ticking, we boarded a train to Casablanca the next morning. We opted to upgrade our accommodations, as we were in desperate need of a decent night’s sleep; sleeping pills had failed us, and we would be slumming it for a while. After consulting our LP guide, we decided on Hotel Guynemer. The staff was wonderful, but our room was the size of a tiny jail cell or Manhattan apartment, making it difficult to move around and repack.

With only one full day in Casablanca, we had a lot to accomplish. We managed to secure bus tickets for the 31 hour trip to Dakhla, Yellow Fever vaccinations at a local hospital, find a bookstore with a few English titles, and get the necessary goodies for the road. Needless to say, it was a long day.

The next morning we loaded up our backpacks and walked to the CTM bus station a few blocks away. The thought of spending 31 hours on a bus made me antsy; my prior record was about half that. Fortunately, we stopped often, so I was able to enjoy an occasional cup of coffee and stretch my legs. It was bearable; definitely not fun, but I could do it again if need be. We also met a nice man who gave us fruit and kept an eye on our seats. Part of me thinks he assumed we were without lunch money, but I can’t be certain. We were looking pretty disheveled at that point. Whatever the reason, we were both very appreciative.

The drive took us through southern Morocco and into the disputed Western Sahara region. There is nothing but desert flatlands for miles. It is one of the most sparsely populated areas in the world; a vast sea of nothingness. Morocco and the Polisario Front (Sahrawi liberation movement, assisted by Algeria) both lay claim to the land. A few days after passing through the area of Laayoune, Moroccan security forces raided a refugee camp, leaving 4 dead and 70 wounded.

Exhausted, we arrived in Dakhla and quickly found a place to stay. That night, the hotel staff arranged for us to meet with a driver who could take us out of Morocco/Western Sahara and into Nouadhibou, Mauritania. The meeting went well, so we agreed to leave the next morning. He suggested we start our journey at 7am, and then asked us if we’d like to make it later. We said 8am, but then he told us 7am would be better. Why even ask? This is a reoccurring theme in Arab culture. They want to make you feel as though you have options when in fact, you don’t – in šhāʾ Allāh (or in šhāʾ-BLEEPING-Allāh, as we like to say).

Rich snapped this photo while on the bus. Yes, that’s an Ostrich and Marlin in the middle of the desert. Random. Very random.

Ready, Set, Go…

November 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

It’s illegal to take Tunisian currency out of the country, so when we arrived in Morocco, we were without dinars and in need of dirhams. Unfortunately, Rich’s ATM card wouldn’t work. He tried multiple machines at the airport and all over Rabat. He received a variety of error messages, leaving him empty handed. Luckily, mine was still up and running, so it was more of an inconvenience than a serious problem; one of the upsides to having a travel companion.

Rabat is all business. It’s well organized, relatively clean, and surprisingly modern. It was a decent place to stay while dealing with our visas. Monday morning rolled around and we were ready to go, bright and early. We arrived at the Mauritanian embassy shortly after 8am, assuming it would open around 9am. When we arrived there was a small line outside.

We met a handful of other travelers, most just passing through to destinations farther south. Everyone seemed genuinely concerned about the current security situation due to various travel warnings. We shared in their concern, but decided we’d take our chances and proceed with caution. A little crazy? Perhaps. Only time would tell.

After filling out their lengthy application, littered with unnecessary questions, we each forked over 340 dirhams and two copies of our passports. We were told to return at 2pm to collect our visas; it all seemed too good to be true.

As promised, our visas were ready for pickup later that afternoon. We requested six weeks, but received four; I guess they were feeling a little stingy. We also learned that our visas started on the issue date, not enter date, meaning a mad dash to the border was imminent.

Reading Between The Lines…

November 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

I’m a sentimental person. I always have been, and I’m guessing, always will be. I’m especially sentimental when it comes to books. If I come across a book that I can relate to, I have trouble parting ways. Some will be read multiple times, others will only end up collecting dust; I know, not the best life for a book. A good book should be shared – passed through the hands of many.

One of my recent reads, which I mentioned in a previous post, was by Nick Flynn. I passed the book onto Rich, and he stumbled upon an interesting quote. At the time of my reading, I had no intention of visiting Mauritania, so it didn’t stand out or hold any significance, until now. Who knows, perhaps it was always in the cards and I just didn’t know it?

“By the time I make my way to the border of Mauritania, to the edge of the Sahara, I see no end to being lost. You can spend your entire life simply falling in that direction. It isn’t a station you reach, but just the general state of going down. Once you make it back, if you make it back, you will stand before your long-lost friends, but in some essential way they will no longer know you.”

Going The Distance…

November 19, 2010 § Leave a comment

After much debate, we decided the beautiful country of Mauritania would be next on the list. As in many places, a visa is required for entry. We had read that there was an embassy located in Tunis, but finding that embassy would be like searching for a needle in a haystack; to this day, it still eludes us.

The internet, American and French embassy officials, postmen, cab drivers, multiple policemen, and every Tom, Dick, and Harry on the street, provided conflicting information; all of which was wrong, mind you. We burned hours getting screwed by our taxi driver and roaming the streets while on this wild goose chase.

As usual, Plan B quickly become A. We admitted defeat and decided flying to Casablanca, Morocco would make the most sense. From there we could take the train to Rabat and receive visas within 24 hours; making our stop in Morocco quick and easy. Well… as we were about to board our train to Rabat it dawned on us that it was in fact Saturday, and we would have to wait until Monday for the embassy to open, which means we rushed without reason – awesome.

We tried to make ourselves feel better by blaming it on the fact we don’t have jobs, adult responsibilities, or set schedules. In the end, the real reason was obvious…

On the upside, the gentleman checking us in at the airport upgraded us to business class for no apparent reason; there’s always a silver lining, I suppose.

Lunch (date?)…

November 18, 2010 Comments Off on Lunch (date?)…

After two weeks on the road it was time to take a breather and setup shop in Tunis for a while. Hotel Salambo would become our home and café (I can’t recall the name), our office. We needed a little time to regroup, research our next move, edit photos, update blogs, and get our wifi fix – you know, the important stuff. At the time of arriving, Egypt was still a strong contender, but other areas in Africa were calling to us too; it’s hard to make a decision with so many interesting options close by.

Within a few days we had settled into a routine. Get up, watch Al Jazeera while getting ready, laugh about the Tea Party clips they’d show (especially Karen Angle – that lady has half a brain), stroll into the office around 10am, and then break for lunch in the mid afternoon. We frequently dined at this tiny sandwich shop which was epic. For around $1.50 you get something that puts the likes of Subway to shame. They sprinkle fries on top, so it’s not exactly healthy, but delicious nonetheless. We’d return to the office for the afternoon, squeeze in a walk or two, and then our evenings usually consisted of wine, movies on my laptop, and a little shuteye when the mosquitos weren’t feasting.

One afternoon, while minding my own business, I was approached by two men while enjoying a cup of coffee. A few minutes into our conversation, I learned that they were both local journalists. Normally I would shoe them away, but I saw this as an educational opportunity; perhaps I could get away with asking questions, others might not. Being a young female American does have its advantages from time to time. They invited me to join them for a drink, but I thought lunch would be more appropriate, so we decided to meet the next day. I opted to play the student card and asked if I could interview them for a paper, to which they graciously agreed.

We met in the city center and took a short stroll to a nearby restaurant. At first, our conversation consisted of the usual questions: family, work, and travel. Once our meals had been ordered, I decided to get cracking. Unfortunately, they had the same thought too. Sadly, my questions were never answered. Instead, they wanted to discuss my relationship status, have me guess their ages, and share a plate of spaghetti, Lady & The Tramp style; I successfully dodged all three.

At one point, I asked the older man if he had a family (he looked to be around 50). The younger one, who acted as a translator due to his English skills, responded by saying, “yes, he has a wife and kids”. He was quickly interrupted and an argument ensued between the two in Arabic; talk about awkward. Once it was settled, I was told that he made a mistake. His friend was in fact single and without children – you’ve got to be kidding me.

Is all I could say was, “Check, please!?!”.

Playing Gladiator & The Not-So-Grand Mos-KAY

November 16, 2010 Comments Off on Playing Gladiator & The Not-So-Grand Mos-KAY

We spent the last few days making our way back, stopping along the east coast in Mahdia, and then heading inland to see El Jem and the city of Kairouan. El Jem is an ancient Roman coliseum smack dab in the middle of town; something we didn’t expect. We had assumed the location would be more remote and resemble an archeological site. Needless to say, we were a little disappointed. The site was surrounded by souvenir shops and littered with large tour groups vying for their Gladiator moment (I might be singing a different tune if Russell Crow had been on hand). Let’s just say it’s worth seeing if you’re passing through town, but I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way.

I was really looking forward to our next stop in Kairouan, because the grand mosque there is considered to be the fourth holiest site in all of Islam. As we rolled into town, we were struggling to navigate the chaotic streets when a man pulled alongside us on a motorbike yelling ‘Mosque’ (pronouncing it ‘Mos-KAY’), as if to ask if that’s where we were headed. Rich responded, ‘Yes, we want to go to the mosque’, and the gentleman motioned for us to follow him. Thinking it was a done deal, we proceeded, but he continued to yell ‘Mos-KAY?’ at least ten times. Rich kept replying, ‘Yes. Yes, we want to go to the mosque’. He just didn’t want to take yes for an answer.

In the end, our night and shining armor was actually touting for a shop in the medina, and wanted to make a quick buck by posing as a concerned citizen. His plan crumbled when two cops appeared, forcing him to pull a rather quick disappearing act. The cops were nice enough to point us in the right direction after warning us to keep our distance from him. I’m guessing our leader has regular run-ins with the law.

The grand mosque was anything but grand. I try not to set expectations, but after all I read about this site, I was expecting to see and feel something. What we found was nothing more than an old building, cracking at the seams, with weathered prayer mats strewn about. You would anticipate them to take pride in this structure, especially because it’s the oldest mosque in North Africa, and believed to house a well that’s connected to Mecca (Now, that’s probably just a myth, but still). A site like this should be appreciated, and this is coming from someone who doesn’t agree with principles of Islam – at all.

On our way out, Mr. Mos-KAY appeared out of the woodwork once more. He wasn’t about to let us leave without paying for his GPS service. He was less than pleased when we only handed him a few dinar, but in our eyes, it seemed fitting. Having our fill, we hoped in the car and headed for Tunis. On our way out of the medina, we inquired about the correct road to take, but the carpet salesman wanted nothing to do with our question; instead, he wanted to play twenty questions. We quickly put the car in reverse and Rich yelled something about being in a ‘terrible rush’. We literally laughed for days over that one. Who says that???

Hertz (Mission Impossible)

November 15, 2010 Comments Off on Hertz (Mission Impossible)

Since meeting up with Rich, I’ve been in a constant state of laughter. I wake up, look to my left and within seconds, I’m bursting at the seams. I don’t know how, or why, but it never fails. He says the most off-the-wall things and has an uncanny gift for matching songs with scenarios; I seriously wish I could crawl inside his head for a few minutes… I think.

Traveling with someone can be difficult, especially on a trip like this. Days can be long, personal space is often limited, and conditions aren’t always ideal. Luckily, we’re both easygoing and get along swimmingly. In my personal opinion, it’s almost impossible to be mad at someone who makes you laugh; I suppose he has that working in his favor if tension were to arise.

One of the most memorable events from our road trip was attempting to contact Hertz to extend our car rental contract. We rented our trusty steed from the Hertz office at Carthage airport in Tunis. We originally paid for 10 days upfront, but the nice lady working in the office, who spoke decent English, assured us we could extend the lease while on the road if need be. She provided us with a folder that listed the locations throughout the country, and suggested we visit or call the nearest office if we decide to do so. Seems easy enough, right?

Once in Tozeur, we were up against the clock. Our handy-dandy folder listed an office in the area, so we were in luck… or so we thought. The folder, as well as our LP map, listed the office on the main road heading towards the airport. After driving up and down the street multiple times (which is a challenge all on its own), as well as circling the entire city for good measure, we came to the conclusion that the office is no more.

We returned to our hotel and decided to call, but the number provided didn’t work – go figure. The gentleman working the front desk confirmed our conclusion, so we quickly reverted to Plan B: contact the Hertz office in Tunis where we rented it from.

We called the main number too many times to count, but it just rang off the hook, so we switched to the secondary number. The phone would ring, someone would answer in Arabic or French, we’d get transferred 3-5 times, and eventually they’d just hang up on us. This would happen over, and over, and over again. Most would have found this mildly frustrating, and to a certain extent it was, but I also found it rather amusing. With each attempt, Rich’s English became more childlike, as did his voice. Eventually he did away with complete sentences and just stuck to keywords.

After going round and round, we enlisted the help of someone who spoke the language, but as usual, history repeated itself. We were so puzzled by this, because the language barrier obviously wasn’t to blame; eventually we would learn that the number was for the actual airport, not the Hertz office inside of the airport. Why, oh why, would they do such a thing? No wonder they didn’t want to talk to us.

After two days, we were still at square one, and our time was running out. We contacted every office with little to no luck. There was an emergency number listed on the folder, but what classifies as an emergency? Car crash? Theft? Lease extension??? Maybe.

My explanation of the situation was met with little to no sympathy, but the operator took down my information and said she’d do her best to get in touch with someone. We played the waiting game for hours, but our patience was wearing thin. We were seriously considering rolling the dice and just keeping the car, because the operator said we’d only have to cover the additional days, but when I called again to confirm she said, “Well maybe you get arrested?”. WHAT!?! Arrested!?! Talk about one extreme to the other, lady.

Feeling slightly discouraged, we continued down the road, mulling over our lack of options when my phone rang. Someone from the office in Douz, who took our phone call and didn’t speak any English, contacted a friend who did. He spent at least an hour tracking down all of the necessary information and eventually put us in touch with someone from the original Hertz office; a miracle indeed. All of that for complete strangers… pretty amazing if you ask me.

Below is a little snippet of what we were dealing with. My camera was acting up, so the majority of the footage was lost – bummer! 

A Dose Of Reflection…

November 6, 2010 Comments Off on A Dose Of Reflection…

If someone asked me what I’ve accomplished in my adult life thus far, I’d be able to riddle off multiple things. I’d probably say something along the lines of, “I’ve worked long hours, spent time in college classrooms, added business owner to my resume, and devoted a lot of time, energy, and emotion into my family”; The latter holding the most, if not the only, significance of course. Kind of sad, really.

The last few years have brought forth some very interesting chapters in the book that is my life. It’s become very apparent that certain events have shaped me in ways I couldn’t fully comprehend until now. Two chapters, involving two people, and two sets of circumstances, being the most notable; both produced the same questions, thoughts, and feelings.

In these chapters, long days would give way to even longer nights. They all started to blend together after a while. Eventually my memory started to fade, and before I knew it, I couldn’t recall our last interactions. The clothes they were wearing, the look on their faces, the exchange of words – all lost. The only thing I was certain of is that they were gone, nowhere to be found. When that happens, months might as well be years, because it all feels the same.

If the phone rang late at night, would it be someone calling to say he’s turned up, face down, in an alley somewhere; an overdose, bad debt, deal gone wrong? Maybe it would be to say they’ve found what’s left of her in a ditch somewhere, on the other side of the country? Dreams would only further these thoughts.

Was he in the same zip code, or she in the same time zone?  Did either have a place to lay their head at night? Were they hungry, happy, sad, safe? Everything was given a new meaning. Checking the weather forecast was no longer for making weekend plans; it was cause for concern. If it applied, did they have a jacket to keep them warm or shoes with soles still intact? They both knew they had a home to return to, and a family that loved them.

Thankfully, with time, they would both resurface, but they weren’t the same as I had remembered. Now I can see that neither was I; those events changed everyone involved, in more ways than one.

It’s so easy to get sidetracked by things that simply don’t matter. Maybe we need certain events to put things in perspective, even if this process takes a while?

Where Am I?

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