Across the Sahara

We’re not quite clear on when we left Morocco. It was somewhere during that 24-hour bus ride between Marrakesh and Dakhla, the windswept town on the edge of “civilization” as we had come to be comfortable in. It was difficult to leave Marrakesh and get on that bus. But we had to do it.The sweat started dripping the moment we left our hotel. Clean and comfortable only minutes before, by the time we and our backpacks had traversed the streets of the medina and crossed Djemaa el-Fna to find a taxi to the bus station, this was all forgotten. We didn’t really know what to expect ahead in Mauritania, and this really bothered me. Right before the bus crossed into the Western Sahara (we think), the sun set and there was a moment of collective relief as we all took water bottles out and took a sip. The bus stopped for the ftour in a place with croissants and harira and clean bathrooms. Then, as the journey continued, strange characters began to get on the bus: a man who immediately had a shouting match with the driver (who started driving erratically), two ladies who smelled of fish and spoke in cackling voices. We peered out the window, but could only see darkness as the hours passed. The next time the bus stopped, for the midnight meal, people were eating fried fish with their hands.

The vacation ended, the adventure began again.

Our next hotel was the “Hotel Sahara” in Dakhla, the Moroccan town transplanted into the Western Sahara, where we slept a few hours that afternoon while trying not to touch anything. Then there was the express bus to the border, where we slept across the bus seats while crossing more of the desert in darkness. Then the next morning (between 5am and 8am, while waiting for the Moroccan-administered border to open), there was the “Hotel de la Frontiere” where we slept fully-dressed on bare mattresses in tents using our backpacks as pillows. Surprisingly, it was cold, and the wind was fierce.

The sun rose, and it became hot. Crossing the border, we entered a minefield – literally. The 3km no-man’s land between the Moroccan and Mauritanian borders was cluttered with garbage, abandoned computer parts, the burn-out shells of old vehicles, and land mines. (Perhaps the last two items are causally related.) It wasn’t dangerous though, apparently, as long your car stuck to the worn dirt tracks. Upon entering Mauritania, our driver immediately wrapped his turban around his face and donned sunglasses, in the fashion usually associated in the West with al-Qaeda. Really, though, the style is rather practical; there is a lot of dust and wind in the desert. The border guards greeted us, almost elegant in their movements and gesturing speech. Bienvenue en Mauritanie!

Approximately 40 hours after setting out from Marrakesh, we arrived in Nouadhibou. We checked into the “Auberge Chez Abba”, whose idea of a campsite was an empty lot of sand, bare of anything to provide shade from the sun except a giant shipping truck. Tired from the journey, we decided to take a room so that we could sleep through the day. There was not much to see in Nouadhibou, anyway. The main tourist attraction had been a graveyard of shipwrecks, but we were told that the ships had recently been cleaned up. So sleeping and eating were the order of the day.

We were invited for lunch by a group of Senegalese traders, their fast-talking exuberance providing a glimpse of what lay ahead. Dinner that evening was at the Chinese restaurant next door, where we met two Italian men working at the port. Our sleep that night was slightly disturbed by the bites of bedbugs, lining up in rows on my freshly healed body. Anxiety mixed with anticipation. The road across Mauritania and into West Africa awaited us.