Fes, Morocco to Nouadhibou, Mauritania
23.01.2010 - 29.01.2010
Catching some football on the rooftop terrace at my hotel, heading over in a few minutes to catch an overnight bus to Marrakech. After the 05:30 prayer call from the mosque right next door (I'm convinced the AM prayer calls are much much longer than those during the rest of the day...), got a couple hours more sleep then awoke to crappy conditions - today has been cold and rainy for most of the day, but despite the weather, wandered around to take in more sites. First, I decided to avoid as many faux guides as possible by walking around the outside perimeter of the medina and entered the eastern gate to check out the tanneries district of animal skin & dye shops making all kinds of clothing and accessories.
There was only so much of that smell I could take before I bolted! So, next headed to the spiritual heart of Fes, Qaraouiyine mosque. Built in 859, not only is it one of the world's oldest, but also most elaborate with the colorful fountain and seemingly endless columns.
Next, after getting lost and wandering in circles in the medina, got my bearings and found the Nejjarine museum, housed in a restored palace that once served as a resting point for traveling merchants,
but now an interesting collection of wood crafts.
I wandered further west to Dar el-Makhzen (Royal Palace), and saw an entirely different Fes from the crazy souq area - the locals here totally calm, relaxed, and non-harrassing.. perfect end to the day!
Marrakech is everything I had always pictured Morocco to be - jugglers, snake charmers (who demanded 200DH for photos I took of them... yeah, right! I offered them 2DH), monkey handlers and other street performers,
along with the seemingly ubiquitous Moroccan scammers and drug-pushers, all crammed into the Djemaa el-Fna square in the heart of the medina. Spreading out from there are the narrow alleyways lined with hotels, cafes, shops, souqs and motorscooters, carts, bikes and occasionally small cars going full-speed both directions with only a random horn or bell warning. When I arrived this morning around 7 am, the streets were still empty so I was pleasantly free of scammers for a couple hours as I made my way from the bus station into the medina. The cheap hotel I settled on has definitely seen better days. I spent a couple hours in the Djemaa el-Fna at a cafe taking in all the sites before they became quite repetitive, then wandered around some of Marrakech's other sites - Koutoubia mosque with its enormous minaret,
then got lost on my way to the 12th c. Ali Ben Youssef mosque. Caught some of the next round of African Cup of Nations football, then back in the el-Fna at dusk for more of the spectacles - the food stalls were now open, but as I was a bit weary to try anything for fear of becoming seriously ill, settled for pizza.
At the bus station waiting to take my overnight down to Tan Tan - no idea what will be there, as my guidebook doesn't provide any information, but it seems a pretty close 1/2 way point between Marrakech and Dakhla further on south. Today around Marrakech figured I'd seen enough of el-Fna and spent a majority of the day getting lost around the rest of the medina, occasionally stumbling on a site or two like Saadin Tombs (very cool, actually),
and nearby ruins of Palais el-Badi (now just some walls where storks are nesting....).
Also found the Sidi Bel Abbes tomb and mosque where the city's blind and lame were congregating in the center square.
After I shopped around a while, found a money exchange place with the best Dirham-USD rate, since some of the places I'm heading next are supposedly without ATMs. One of the US$100 bills looks suspect... I really hope I wasn't just scammed....
Tan Tan, Morocco
I'm at the bus "station" here in Tan Tan (storefront building used as a ticket office), with a couple men; one is calling his pharmacist to see if they have any anti-milaria pills, while the man's wife (I think) is just sitting waiting in the car. How this came about; this morning after arriving here on my overnight from Marrakech, I stopped by the second man's store (pharmacy) and asked about anti-milaria pills that I'll need to start taking heading further south, but he didn't have any. So I just went on my way and spent the day here wandering around this dust bowl of a town,
killing some time until the second consecutive overnight bus (eek!). But I must say the southern Moroccan atmosphere is very different - relaxed pace, locals looking at me more as a curiosity than dollar $ign$. The full-length robe women are wearing are colorful patterns, not the drab black ones up north, and the skin tone is surprisingly light, almost olive (I think this stems from Spanish ancestory?). So fast forward, here I am at the bus station outside having a cafe, and the pharmacist from this morning stops the car as he's driving by and now he and his friend are trying to track down someone in town who has the anti-milaria pills - very genuine and very very cool.
I'm at a campsite, "Camping Moussafir", about 8km from the Western Sahara city of Dakhla, listening to a bald, stocky Austrian man with a 1/2 meter-long gray/white Santa Claus beard sitting around in his bikini briefs in the blazing sun, telling stories of how he's Saddam Hussein's nephew. No TV available for entertainment here?.. no problem! Arrived in Dakhla this morning on the overnight bus from Tan Tan (nothing quite like 2 consecutive overnight busses....), and wandered around a bit, had a coffee and croissant waiting for the sun to come up (which it did, over the Atlantic - strange to witness from the Western Sahara, but possible since Dakhla is built on a peninsula).
I got checked in the campsite, not too bad - cheap private room and hot showers (of course, I did ask they change the bed sheets... normally the cheapies will at least remake the bed to mask dirty linen, but this was still unmade from the last guest!), and then started making inquiries with other travelers staying there who had space for an extra passenger to the Mauritanian border, as Dakhla is the last point south for public transportation (but still about 375 km from the border). There is a Dutch-based convoy heading down to The Gambia to donate items to schools that is a possibility, but they're waiting for a runner - the campsite owner's son - to return from Rabat with their Mauritanian visas (as they weren't aware the visa is no longer available at the border... fortunately I did my research!). Meanwhile, its now 18:30 and I've got a ways to go for catching up on sleep, so I'm calling it a really early night.
Day 2 in Dakhla... I had figured it may take a few days to get that ride to the border, but hopefully not much longer - while Dakhla is nice and relaxing with the beach,
not terribly exciting. And the campsite is a long way from the city... one hour's walk (I tested that by walking back this afternoon... didn't feel like haggling/getting ripped off by the taxi guys). I got a ride into town this morning from a Senegalese man who now lives in Paris, and is making his way south but now also stuck temporarily here without the Mauritanian visa... apparently this change of visas no longer available at the border was just recently put in place. So he's even considering flying back up to Rabat to visit the Embassy, so that could be a backup plan if I'm not able to score a ride with the Dutch humanitarians (since the runner hasn't yet returned with their passports, causing some understandable anxiety over there). Meanwhile, I am meeting some other characters at this campsite, like a German woman who travelled south in Morocco this far but afraid to go into Mauritania because of the overblown rumor/scare stories of kidnapping/abductions from bandits. Same story with the 2 French men who actually entered into Mauritania but turned around after two days because they were so afraid... whatever! Some people are so easily influenced by overblown sensationalized stories... while there has been about 3 or 4 reported kidnappings, it is over the span of about 5 years - I'm sure much worse has happened in both Germany and France during the past 5 years but not reported in the news (I have a feeling these folks would never consider visiting places like Syria or Lebanon)... Anyway, while in the city today I stopped in a few cafes and also a restaurant for lunch - my first proper meal after 2.5 consecutive days of cookies (on the busses, plus no restaurant at the campsite). I ordered this chicken pastry - flakey crust sprinkled with cinnamon and powdered sugar - bizarre way to eat chicken, but really good! I enjoyed the (nearly) hassle-free environment of the city compared to the north.. only incident was with a group of young boys who came up asking me for money - I responded that they should move up to Marrakech if they want to grow up begging... Now, to mark 11 months on the road, I'm going to watch a DVD I picked up on the street (US $2) on my laptop, while the generator is working at the campsite (only 4 hours/night!).
Well, I made it into Mauritania, and getting ready for bed in the campsite tent I'm staying in at the border town of Nouadibou. The 2 Canadians (father and son, Conrad), who are part of the Dutch humanitarian group, stopped by my room late last night letting me know they finally received back their passports w/ visas and had room to squeeze me in one of the 4 vehicles of the convoy. I rode most of the way to the border in the red van with Jan and Chirak, crazy tall Dutch man wearing this flowing white robe and colored head scarf,
Along the drive, the landscape of the Western Sahara seemed to be about as desolate as it gets... "They're really fighting over this?", I was asking myself...
So Chirak really liked to drive most of the way on the shoulder in the dirt, despite the road being paved the whole way. And let's just say also he isn't the fastest driver/in a hurry, so it took quite a while to make it to the border, and once there passed through 4 different Moroccan exits posts, each one of them staged with a guard asking for bribes. I will give credit to Chirak, he handled the harassment well - asking the guards if they were Muslim (they were), and then looking them in the eye, nodding and touching his chest, saying, "Its in here". Then would just start the van up and drive on to the next checkpoint... hilarious! So after getting through the Moroccan side, we were met by some guide working at this campsite in Nouadhibou, who "escorted" our convoy through the 3km long no-man's-land to the Mauritanian border. This area has no real road, just tire tracks to follow (closely, as either side is filled heavily with land mines), and countless piles of garbage and abandoned vehicles.
At the Mauritanian border, we sat for quite a while in the blazing sun - 6.5 hours total - finding different ways to entertain ourselves to pass the time.
And the guide here at this campsite is a total scammer - saying each vehicle costs 10 Euro insurance (even though the convoy already purchased insurance to cover all these countries), and asking for an extra 10 Euro to help speed-up the border crossing process (it didn't). And he totally screwed me on the conversion rate to change USD, saying, "Dollar no good. Euro good, Dollar bad." Yeah, if the Dollar is bad, what does that make the Mauritanian Ouguiya?!?