Monday, February 25, 2008

A desert by any other name

Maps lie. That’s one lesson you’ll learn driving around the world. They paint solid red lines to indicate paved roads that aren’t there, they ignore topography and send you switching back over mountains they failed to mention, or they sprinkle names evenly within the blank spaces as if to deny that some of those spaces really are blank.

We learned some more specific lessons about trusting maps today as we crossed from Morocco into Western Sahara. Western Sahara may or may not be a country and may or may not be a desert depending which map you trust. Morocco insists its part of Morocco (as does the map in the lobby of our hotel) and our experience today indicates that Morocco intends to keep it that way.

Western Sahara doesn’t look like the desert in the movies; what we saw today was mainly flat and littered with scrub brush and plastic bags. There were sections of golden dunes and packs of camels to satisfy expectations but even on those occasions we’ve taken few pictures.

That’s because Western Sahara—aka Morocco—is effectively a police state. We packed up our camp overlooking the Atlantic this morning and headed into the disputed territory but were stopped before we made it to the border. Then we were stopped again. And again.

After the second stop we all guessed how many more times we’d be held up at checkpoints during the day. We figured three or four more.

But along Africa’s northwest coast there are eight spiral notebooks to tell you I am Brook Silva, an American computer programmer. After asking for our passports, the guards would always ask our profession and computer programming seemed harmless enough.

It’s fair to assume they wrote not only our names and phony professions but also our passport numbers and favorite hobbies because our eight stops each lasted about 15 minutes. One especially deliberate stenographer took a full 30 minutes to write down the information from our four passports. He wasn’t jerking us around, we saw him there sitting on a park bench filling up a page of lined paper.

Google Maps does not account for two hours at checkpoints on the 400-mile drive down the coast and our map failed to mention the most important pieces of infrastructure along the road.

It was at a checkpoint just outside Boudjour where we found a Moroccan military man dressed like Saddam Hussein who shook us down for whatever he could get. Mark spoke some French to him and was invited into the concrete barracks marked “Policia.”

While Mark joked with some other guards, Saddam came out to the Tundra and asked Bouey and I for some “gifts.”

“Whiskey. Beer?”

After we gave them some Polaroid pictures of themselves, Mark offered Sadaam a cigarette and he went ahead and took the pack. Mark opened the back of the Sequoia to find some TWBR t-shirts and Saddam swiped a stuffed gorilla when he thought no one was looking.

He did not gas an ethnic minority but Saddam in Boudjour seemed to grasp some of the rougher outlines of the character he had dressed himself up as.

“Traveling has made me more patient in some ways,” Bouey said in hour ten of our drive down the desert. “But in other ways I’m less patient. Like with the guard today, I was just like, ‘Enough!’”

I thought Bouey could be forgiven for being annoyed with two hours of passport checks culminating in a stolen gorilla. Whatever political change the sparse population of Western Sahara may want from Morocco, the guards along the one real road in the territory could have guessed we weren’t a part of it.

The map’s most ironic lie turned out to be the line it drew between Morocco and that funny patch of sand below it. We pulled into Western Sahara almost without knowing it. There was no checkpoint at the border, only on the map.


A^2 said...

Who's the dude in the picture behind you guys?

Brook Silva-Braga said...

That's the king of Morocco and that picture of him is everywhere

Noracon said...

How lovely to know that you can get screwed over at any border, anywhere! Three days to cross from Brownsville to Mexico anyone? Computer Programmer eh? Sounds like an idea for my trip.

Kate said...

too funny Brook.

Brendan said...

Whoa there, your Earth must have been lying cause Google is infallible.

Lisa said...

I saw most of your movie on MTV tonight. Wonderful job. It's seriously making me re-think my whole life's "map."
And yes, Google maps is questionable at best. It even gave me wrong directions in a suburb of Philly!