Morocco / Western Sahara / Mauritania
Africa, a continent with 54 countries and a lot of languages.
It's possible to apply for a visa to Mauritania in the morning and collect it in the afternoon. It's not an exact science but it works pretty well. I submitted my application in the morning and then I went out to visit the Red Crescent in Rabat while it was being processed. Moroccan Red Crescent was my first meeting with the Red Crescent on this planet. It's really not a big deal because it's the same as the Red Cross...but the emblem looks different. Anyway, to my surprise the head quarters where located inside a palace?! In reality the palace was not as old as it looked but it used to belong to a minister and it has been decorated with extravagant ornaments everywhere.
I did a lot of walking that day. I quite often do a lot of walking everywhere actually. It keeps the budget down. That afternoon I picked up the visa (after waiting an extra 90 minutes siting on the curve) and rushed out to nearby Salé, which is an old city which at some point was a stronghold for pirates. I was meeting Sara there. A lovely girl from Morocco who I had tea with. She is a journalist and had been following Once Upon A Saga for a while.
After sundown we broke up and I went out to find a café which serves nargile (shisha/water pipe). I had been given instructions but I had a hard time finding the café. When I eventually asked in another café I met Mahmoud who is into Bob Marley and being friendly. He smiles a lot. That was the beginning of a small adventure which first led to a short city walk, followed by getting into a car which belonged to Mahmouds friend. A few other people got into that car too. Then they invited me for dinner which consisted of some meat we bought from a butcher which was prepared in a nearby restaurant. Then we drove off to a street which didn't look like much. There was a closed down cinema and a nearby garage. But to my surprise we walked into the garage. It was dark and there were some vehicles inside...and a staircase which led down. And at the end of it there was a secret underground nargile café. You see...nargile is not really legal in Morocco. But it's also not illegal. I do not know what this café was. But we left after 30 minutes.
We now drove off to a new address where another car met us. And everyone went inside the house. I simply followed in good faith. Here 4 of the now 7 men starting preparing joints and lighting up. After 10 minutes Mahmoud, the driver and I left. The driver dropped Mahmoud and I off again and then I was ready to go back to the hostel and sleep. But Mahmoud suggested that I might as well sleep at his place. So I did. That evening turned out a lot different than expected.
The next day I was on my way to Marrakech by train. The northern part of Morocco is gorgeous. It is surprisingly green as I thought there would be much more desert. Beautiful. Traveling by train is such a pleasant travel form.
Marrakech is a really interesting city. But it is also quite touristic. However in a way that had me fooled. I like Marrakech. Especially the Jamaa el Fna which is a huge open city plaza. Thousands of people gather in the nighttime for food, shopping, games, music, socializing and being alive. It's amazing. It has a wonderful atmosphere. Also the narrow alleys which incircle the plaza form an intricate network of market space on its own. Almost like a living breathing maze of shop owners who are ready to sell until you have no more money left. Look out! Have fun ;)
Hanging with Patryk Szczeblewski - a cool guy I met in Marrakech
A bus got me down south towards Western Sahara. Most Moroccans probably do not care. But some are strongly against calling the "southern part of Morocco" Western Sahara. Morocco claims the territory for it self as a part of Morocco. It's a messy story which involves colonialism by the French and the Spanish. In 1974 the Spanish were ready to make the region independent and leave. But Morocco and Mauritania both made claim to the territory. Mauritania eventually backed out but Morocco continued forward. Winding the clock forward a UN sponsored cease fire ended the struggles in 1991. The UN continues to regard Spain as the authority for the entire region while Morocco claims it as a part of its kingdom. Letters dating back to a sultan 500 years ago clearly state that the sultan did not regard what is now Western Sahara as a part of his land. So as I mentioned...it's messy. It is regarded as the last unresolved colony of Africa. Once Upon A Saga counts it as a country.
As I left Marrakech and approached El-Aaiun the landscape had shifted to desert. Sand and sometimes stone desert. Extraordinary beautiful in its own way. El-Aaiun is the capital of Western Sahara which is a region larger than the UK but only holds a population of about 500,000 people. Military checkpoints became more and more common and I seemed to be the interesting passenger for those checking the bus. At the last checkpoint before El-Aaiun I could see El-Aaiun in the background. The inspector climbed onboard the bus a headed straight for me! "Are you Danish?" he said before he saw my passport. That I am...and word had clearly traveled ahead of my arrival. They were expecting me. The bus was held back a full 20 minutes before I was cleared. But no one on the bus seemed to mind.
El-Aaiun is charming in an outpost kind of way. I made a booking for a bus heading south the next day and was given directions for a cheap hotel. As it got dark I ventured out to the market to find some food. I walked a full length up and back down the market street without anyone offering me anything. I wasn't invisible. But I clearly wasn't their target. I had left the tourist zone.
The next day a bus took me much further south through a completely deserted landscape. I looked at the long straight road as I though about Charlie. Charlie is a fellow viking from Denmark who is about to embark on a walk from Denmark to Tanzania!! His noble cause is to bring attention and large donations towards a region which is in dire need of drinking water. He will be walking through this very desert on his estimated 2.5 year walk. What a man. Check him out here: http://www.walkingforwater.dk
The wheels on the bus kept rolling. Desert, desert and more desert. It's beautiful...but it's a long way to walk. Charlie is tough. That's what I was thinking. More desert and more checkpoints. That is Western Sahara. A beautiful coastline, white sand beaches, an ocean with plenty of fish, prospects for oil, lots of sun and desert.
Eventually we arrived to Dakhla. A fisher mans village with an international airport and some kite surfers. Charming. Many still speak Spanish in Western Sahara. And it is really close to the Canary Islands if you look at a map (also if you do not look at a map). Another bus left in the evening towards Gargarate which is at the border to Mauritania. The man next to me in the bus was from Mauritania and opened up conversation with we. Which was hard because his English was limited. But we got along. Around 01:00am we had arrived. A lot of wind was filling the air with sand and Naj, which is his name, suggested that we would find a room for the night. I agreed. So we walked over to a hotel. They offered a 3 bed room for the two of us. And we had to pay for all three beds. Naj didn't negotiate at all...so I did. After some solid negotiation we only had to pay for 2 beds.
The next morning we walked across the border where we met Mohammed and Jamal.
This was desert. It was somewhat cold, very windy and very sandy. There was no proper road to follow and there was 4-5 kilometers from leaving Western Sahara until the Mauritanian border. Mohammed and Jamal where also processing their passport when we met. A lot of different taxi drivers where trying to get me as their next client. Jamal turned to me and told me what "the right price" should be. It was a lot lower than what I was being offered. From there on we all walked together. We walked about 1/5 of the way and a taxi brought us the rest of the way to Mauritania. Once inside Mauritania Mohammed took responsibility for me. He was born in Mali, grew up in Cameroon and now works in Morocco. But he has friends in Mauritania which is why he was heading there now.
Mohammed told me to check all my decisions with him as most people at the border would try to cheat me. So he helped me get a better exchange rate for my leftover dirham and all 4 of us (plus another guy) got into a shared taxi and headed to Nouadhibou, which is only 50 kilometers inland Mauritania. Here they took me to Caritas Catholic Mission. As they said: "You can get a free bed there and perhaps a few meals too". And they were right. The father of the mission gave me a room for the night and a sister showed me around and told me about the 220 children they have at their school. The children come from all different backgrounds. The mission provides education, health checks, medicine and meals. But they are struggling with finances. The sister who showed me around had been there for 12 years.
As I have mentioned before I am not particularly religious. Some would say I'm not religious at all. And as goodwill ambassador of the Danish Red Cross I do my best to be neutral. Standing "outside" and looking "in" at such a mission I do wonder what possessed a group of Catholics to settle for so long in a 100 % Islamic country? It sure demands a lot of faith on their part. And huge balls!! But religion set aside they are doing some good humanitarian work and that I commend. I almost gave them some money but then remembered I'm on a mission of my own.
Muhammed came to pick me up together with Jamal. They wanted to show me around town. It was a dusty, simple desert town as far as I could determine. But people where friendly and in no time I had met people from at least 7-8 different African countries. I was invited inside the home of a Mauritanian family who buy fish and dry it for sale. The father of the family was tearing up a cardboard box into small pieces. Food for the goats...
The next morning Mohammed came to get me and walk me to the bus. As he said: "That is how we do things here". He has a real strong mind for business and personal development. He wants to achieve something with his life. He used to play football and travelled to different countries with the team. But that. Is in the past. I really like him.
A really long bus ride brought me to Mauritania's capital Nouakchott. Which sounds a lot like Buckshot :) Desert, desert, desert....and plenty of checkpoints along the way. The minibus got very hot as the sun climbed the sky and although I was the only pale skinned passenger I could see that the "locals" were struggling. In some cases a lot more than me. Keep in mind, Charlie is going to walk though that desert. I don't know how he will do it. But I would walk during the night and the morning and rest during the day. I guess we will need to wait and see when he gets this far.
Nouakchott is pretty dusty too. The roads look good. But the sand on either side blows across the roads and there is no grass in sight anywhere. Trees are pretty scarce too. If you like desert, heat, sand, dust, friendly people and endless beaches...then I think Mauritania is the place for you. But bring your french parlor if you want to make yourself understood ;)
Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - rapidly learning more french.