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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.