What am I getting myself into? That question pops into my head more and more often as my departure date comes closer. ‘West Africa’ is the easy answer, but what does that really mean? I honestly don’t know; there’s only so much you can learn about a place by reading about it. I’ve always been a bit of a dreamer, and I’ve been dreaming about making a trip like this (and many other adventures) for years, but so far, dreaming is all I’ve done. Now that I have both the money and the time, I intend to live that dream.
The mad dash through Europe has hit me harder than I thought; the morning after my arrival in Tanger, I have a bit of a cold. This isn’t made much better by me staying in bed and not eating or drinking enough during the day, so by the end of the afternoon I decide to go out and exploren the Ville Nouvelle a bit. It’s full of Art Deco buildings with an Arabized twist in details such as doors or windowsills. It’s also full of people; during the day it’s busy, but in the evening it’s absolutely crowded. Seemingly all the young people of Tanger gather here to eat, shop, flirt, and generally enjoy the good life.
The morning of my departure from Tanger starts badly; on the toilet, for an hour and a half. Thankfully it turns out to be a case of agitated bowels not yet being used to the Moroccan cuisine, rather than a virus that would leave me toilet-bound for days on end. Once my bowels have calmed down, I walk to the port, where Lonely Planet claims there is a bus station for CTM, Morocco’s national bus company.
On the first morning of my four-day trek in the Rif mountains, I meet up with my guide, Amin. He’s 40 years old and has been guiding tourists for the past 20 years (after deciding that smuggling cannabis to Spain was too risky). His father was a Berber from the mountains, while his mother is an Arab from Chefchaouen. He’s not married but, insha’Allah, he will be in a year’s time.
Screw Fes. In fact, screw Morocco. I’m sick of the chaos, I’m sick of the heat (it’s 23 degrees here in Fes, while just two days ago I was walking in the snow), and most of all, I’m sick of the hustlers, none of whom are really my friend, even though that’s what each and every one of them uses to address me. The shopkeepers constantly trying to attract my attention and the restaurant people shoving menus in my face as I walk by can bugger off, too. Fes may be the cultural and spiritual capital of the country, but I can’t wait to get out of it.
Our first few minutes in Meknes are spent wedged into a tiny Isuzu minivan, probably from the early eighties. Bernhard, Lorena and Casey sit in the windowless back, while I’m next to the driver, whose XXL figure is comically oversized for a car like this. The chassis seems to have been repaired – poorly – several times, and I’m so far forward in the car that in case of an accident, I would probably be the main component of the crumple zone. All of this makes me even less enthusiastic about the driver’s preferred method of minimizing the time spent per ride: inventing extra lanes whenever there’re cars moving slower than he’d like, squeezing his sardine-can-on-wheels inbetween trucks and busses with admirable precision, too much speed and a whole lot of confidence in the bus and truck drivers.
I can’t turn around. I can’t move forward or sideways either, for that matter. The train’s seats are all occupied, and the pathway is too narrow; adults, children, suitcases, backpacks, and cardboard boxes full of tradeware are all jammed in there with no space to move; for a while, there’re even people hanging out the door. And that’s before the refreshments trolley has to come through! We make the most of it though, exchanging looks saying ‘lovely, isn’t it?’ with the wise old Moroccan who makes sure no one gets trampled, and having some small talk with the Indian-American tourist whose shoulder is wedged into my armpit. It seems a suitably chaotic way to travel to Marrakech!
As we descend, the temperature rises again, but the trees and greenery don’t return; it’s still stony fields and tiny scrubs all around. I’m absolutely amazed by the sparseness of the landscape, the way the mountains turn into plains with zero vegetation, which turn into blue-purple mountains again on the horizon. I hadn’t expected this part of the country – so close to the green Atlas mountains – to feature exactly the kind of epic desert landscapes I had been dreaming about. Caravans coming from the other side of the Sahara, carrying gold, slaves, ivory and more, used a string of oasis towns in the Moroccan desert as stopovers, with each of these towns having several castles made with stones held together by a mixture of mud and straw (called kasbah or ksar), to protect the precious tradeware from bandits. Skoura was the last in this string of towns; here, the goods were transferred from camels to donkeys and taken across the Atlas mountains to the large cities near the coast.
‘I like rock music, like Nickelback, Thirty Seconds to Mars, and the Backstreet Boys.’ For a few seconds, looking out the window and concentrating very hard on the mountainous desert landscape passing by is all I can do to stop myself from laughing out loud and insulting my new friend, Marouan. He got on the bus at a small town, about one third into the distance between Ouarzazate and Taroudannt, and is on his way to Agadir, where he studies English.
The second, unguided part of the walking tour takes place some 30 kilometers South of Tafraoute, where the real desert begins. The guide agency drops me off at Aït Mansour, a village at the beginning of a narrow, winding gorge in the bone dry landscape that has an oasis running through it. The narrow line of green palm trees snaking through the red rocks is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular sights I’ve seen so far.
Could it be possible that I’m not the world’s clumsiest person after all? Ingrid, one of my walking buddies in the Afella Ighir gorges, and I leave Tafraoute together. Joining us in the private taxi are two Englishmen. One of them is Ian, who works at the British embassy in Rabat, making reports about Morocco and supporting political emancipation projects. They are avid rock climbers, and were having a lot of fun scaling some of the more remote granite and quartz cliff faces of the Anti Atlas; there’re lots of routes here that have never been climbed before. It stopped being fun right around the time they dropped the key to their hire car somewhere during a climb…
Not another one! The ocean is as relentless as I am helpless. Wave after wave comes in, and I’m floating around, holding on to my surfboard like a shipwrecked sailor to a piece of wood. Just paddling into the surf has exhausted all my upper body strength. Now that I’m in the right place, I can no longer generate enough speed to properly ride the wave, let alone push myself up to stand on the board. The best I can do is sit up, enjoy a glorious second or so as I’m on top of the wave, feeling the energy pick me up and push me forward, and then try not to get completely sucked into the vortex when the inevitable happens and I capsize, again.
‘This is not really Morocco, you know?’ I’m surprised to hear the man sitting at my restaurant table say it at all, let alone out loud in a public place, let alone at a border crossing. It could get him in a lot of trouble if the omnipresent Moroccan police hear it.
After a short stop we continue our journey, and for the first time I get to see the landscape we’re driving through. It’s literally awesome. Western Sahara is probably the most appropriately named territory in the world; it’s simply the Western end of the desert. Beyond it, the desert abruptly stops and the ocean begins. It’s a wild coastline, with cliffs and small secluded beaches, sometimes with a shipwreck slowly being broken down by the elements. It stretches on for more than a thousand kilometers, and apart from three small cities, a few tiny settlements and the odd fisherman’s shack, it’s completely deserted.
‘How long will you stay in Nouadhibou?’
‘I think just one night.’
‘Do you know where you’ll be staying?
‘Not yet, there’re a few options in the Lonely Planet that seem okay…’
‘You can sleep at my house if you want?’
He says it casually, as if it’s nothing special. Considering that I’ve known him for all of six hours, and we’ve spoken no more than fifteen minutes during that time, I find it incredibly generous. His name is something difficult that sounds like (but probably isn’t exactly) Boumalniène. He tells me to simply call him Boum, just like the Dutch engineers from Mammoet Salvage did when they were clearing shipwrecks from Nouadhibou’s harbor, and he was their local fixer. For now, my soon-to-be-host is still my taxi driver. He’s taking me, five other paying passengers, and as much cargo as will possibly fit his Hyundai van from Dakhla across the border to Nouadhibou, Mauritania’s second largest city.
I feel the urge to pinch myself; am I really going to do this? The train isn’t here yet (although it should be), and the madness of what I’m about to do hasn’t really sunk in either. Finally, more than two hours after its scheduled departure, the train arrives. Three diesel locomotives chug by; five minutes later, the lone passenger car, at the very end of the train, becomes visible. Inbetween are somewhere between 1.6 and 2.3 kilometers of open-topped freight cars. This is Mauritania’s economic lifeline; the iron ore train – one of the longest trains in the world – on a continuous journey back and forth between the mines of Zouerat, deep in the Sahara desert, and the port of Nouadhibou.
What follows is a short description of the process involved with sending a package in Atar, Mauritania.
Asking around to find the unmarked post office of Atar: 5 minutes. Knocking on the most obvious door, hearing no answer, walking all the way around the building without finding an open door, and asking a mailman where to enter the building: 3 minutes. Sticking finger in a hole in the tiny little door right next to the obvious one and pull hard, then making the lady sitting next to the door (who must’ve heard my knocking but didn’t respond) understand that I want to send a package: 3 minutes. Seeing package being passed around by the 5 people working here, while everyone tries to understand Pays-Bas (apparently they don’t know the French name of my country, and my S looks like a 5): 2 minutes. Waiting for the man who knows how to deal with this to arrive: 5 minutes. Waiting for the man who knows how to deal with this to start and then finish doing other stuff, while all the other employees watch him: 10 minutes…
‘About five’ says Cheich, the owner of Rose des Sables, when I ask him how many tourists there’re staying in Chinguetti today. Chinguetti was founded in the 13th century, and it used to be a famous stopover for caravans of salt, gold, ivory and slaves making their way from sub-Saharan Africa to Moroccan and European markets, as well as a major center of Islamic learning.
His voice isn’t a pretty one; it’s rough, dry, and has only a limited range before it breaks. Neither is he a particularly talented singer; he’s off-pitch much of the time (and not in the desired quarter-tones of Arab music either), and changes between high and low notes are never smooth. Still, it’s an evocative sound; full of soul, and with a sparseness that perfectly matches the desert around us. The pale pink light at the horizon announces another day; he just finished his morning prayers. Now he’s singing verses from the Quran, while making tea on the camp fire that drives away the morning chill. This morning is the same as countless desert mornings experienced by his father before him, and his grandfather before that. His name is Salima, and he’s from a centuries-old line of Moorish goat herders. Sometimes he makes some extra money guiding tourists on his camels. That’s why we’re sharing breakfast in the middle of the Sahara desert this morning.
Chez Zaida is run, ofcourse, by Zaida. She’s a veritable powerhouse of a woman; black, fairly muscular, dressed somewhat in between Western and traditional styles, and giving her almost all-male staff orders in a calm but extremely authoritative way; there’s no doubting who’s boss here. Not that Mauritanian women are generally the stereotypical meek lambs; despite, or perhaps because of, the Arab culture and Islam placing much of the power with men, many women here have a whole lot of attitude.
Together we carry the table with the cakes onto the hotel courtyard / parking lot that serves as the wedding reception’s venue. A man with a video camera and a painfully bright construction lamp, whose job is to document every last detail of the wedding, follows and records our every move. This, of course, does nothing to reduce the pressure of carrying a table full of cakes under the watchful eyes of all the guests – about 300 in total, or six times the number that Cora counted on when making the cakes! The upshot is that Justus, the cook and I are instantly guests of honour. This means that whenever I’m looking for a seat, someone else gets told to make place for me, and whenever I try to take a picture, a spot with a good view of the action is cleared for me; no matter who might have been sitting or photographing in that place! Given that I’ve only known the bride for a week, I feel quite awkward about my newfound status, and I try not to abuse it.