Friday, February 29, 2008

Western Sahara

In Western Sahara I’m a computer programmer, not a journalist and I don’t know enough about what’s happening here to write with authority. But no one is here to write accurately and freely about the tension between Morocco and the land it administers so it seems useful to at least bear witness to the situation.

Dakhla has received a fresh coat of paint these last days in anticipation of the music festival here that began Thursday and runs until March 3. There are flags on every lamppost, freshly cleaned streets and a big concert stage in the middle of town. There are military checkpoints heading in and out of the peninsula, but that’s nothing new.

From the beginning, Dakhla struck me as a city with too many buildings and too few people and in recent days it appeared there were more people cleaning the streets than walking them. Even before I knew anything about the details of the conflict here it struck me that Morocco was making a concerted effort to plant roots in the barren sand of Western Sahara.

That makes sense since after Spain vacated the area in the 1970’s Morocco lost it’s bid to formally annex Western Sahara in part because it couldn’t demonstrate a strong enough connection to the area to its south. Instead, international powers dictated a referendum to determine Western Sahara’s future, but the vote has been stalled for decades amid debate over who gets to vote.

In the meantime thousands of Moroccans have been “shipped in” to Dakhla in an apparent effort to extend Morocco’s influence and population.

Military instillations make up a very large chunk of the buildings here and there’s an officer on nearly every street corner. You’d have to dig much deeper than we have these last days to know how the people who live here feel about the government’s tactics or the rebel Polisario’s cause. But for better or worse Morocco is populating the desert with infrastructure, people and music to create an oasis of development in the infertile sand or to scam ownership of something that isn’t theirs.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Lunchtime pranks in Dakhla

Sammy, Muhammad, Osama and the other guy came up to me as I sat on a bench along the water here in Dakhla a few minutes ago. It’s a sunny, windy day in the peninsula and I walked from our hotel into town, bought a few oranges and some bread with cheese stuffed inside and sat on an empty bench.

It took us a while to exchange names because their English is as limited as my French but eventually we managed. With time I learned they were 12 years old and on break from madrasa for another 45 minutes. They wore slightly tattered, brandname knockoffs and had minor cuts and scrapes that had been very badly cared for and were festering a bit. Sammy bumped his scabbed pinky toe and had to compose himself for a minute before busting out an impressive handstand on the wavy tiles along the shore.

There is a concert in the plaza at eight tonight and they like boxing.

They saw an opportunity to have some fun and tried to get me to repeat a certain phrase in Arabic.

“God is great,” I said knowingly in English, to Sammy’s disappointment.

“He knows Arabic,” he said in Arabic.

But there are other phrases that don’t turn up in stories about radical Islam and they tried some of those out on me too. I knew they were naughty bits of Arabic because they would look behind us before they said them and if someone was walking by Sammy would shush Muhammad until they passed.

I offered them my last orange and they ate it graciously and hungrily. When it was time to go they asked me for some money, took no for an answer and headed back to school or wherever the afternoon was taking them.

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.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Osama in Fez

In room 11 of the Cascade Hotel the gigabytes of footage I shot today are copying from one hard drive to another. The 0s and 1s are the first I’ve committed to memory card for my new documentary project, tentatively titled “One Day in Africa” which will follow a day in the life of various people throughout the continent.

My subject in Fez, Morocco is Osama, a 25-year old whose textile shop I was led to yesterday while I was letting myself be led places in search of an interesting subject. Osama’s brother started talking to me in the street and somehow led me to his shop. It was only much later that Osama conceded that he and his “brother” were of no biological relation.

Such is the freewheeling world of the Fez markets where for the all the slight of hand and white lying, there is no maliciousness and fairly little hassle. It’s not the constant barrage of touting you find in India but it is a community of sales people pretending not to be sales people. They’re all just good friends who want to learn English and show you a good shop.

I met Osama this morning at his home in the new city, a 15-minute cab ride from the old medina. A giant projection TV presided over a giant living room next to an absurdly large sitting room. It was not the home I expected. His modest bedroom is shared with his brother. As we cruised towards his job in the medina talk turned to dating, which is a complicated thing for a good Muslim. “If you talk to the girl then you want to touch her too and that’s a problem,” he said.

It was a fairly relaxed day for Osama, and I wondered if it was because he didn’t want me to see him in action, since only official guides are allowed to show people around and there has been a crackdown of late. Just as likely it was a slow, cloudy, low season day, spent drinking tea, shooting pool and playing cards.

Osama was quite worried about being seen in public with me and my camera so I trailed him private-eye style from the parking garage through the medina until we reached a café where it was safe to meet again. During the day he wore a wireless mic and I camped out 100 feet away trying to shoot him through the constant foot traffic.

He was an accommodating, friendly subject, which only made the last bit of the day stranger and more interesting. Yesterday he had introduced himself by saying ,“My name is easy to remember. Like Bin Laden.” Today, as he closed up his shop I mentioned that introduction and asked if he saw good guys and bad guys between the U.S. and the other Osama. “Osama is not a bad guy,” he began. “He is reasonable but no one will talk with him.”

He didn’t want to say much more in a language that he speaks haltingly but eventually he went on. Bin Laden is a rich man who tries to help the poor, he’s not a terrorist.

Was 9/11 terrorism?

He didn’t have anything to do with that, it was the U.S. government. On that morning the Jews didn’t go to work

I was in New York that day and I have Jewish friends who were in the towers, so that’s not true.

But many didn’t go to work.

How do you know this?

We have news here too. Al-Jazeera.

There was no malice towards me as an American because I’m not running the government. But there needs to be peace and the U.S. isn’t helping. He locked up the shop and we walked back through the narrow streets with fifty feet between us.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Overmatched in Morocco

Tonight just before 8pm, the WGT was riding his motorbike here in Fez, Morocco. We first spotted him—or rather he spotted us—as we arrived on the outskirts of the city center after riding the smooth, empty highway from Casablanca to Rabat to Fez.

This isn’t the story of arriving in Rabat yesterday to discover consular services were handled in Casablanca, or the story of driving to Casablanca and learning this morning that the Mauritania consulate has been shuttered for a year and the American consulate was no help either. If it were one of those stories it would have a happy ending of sorts, since we drove back to Rabat today, did some business and drove on to Fez, where we arrived at 8pm and encountered our story.

The WGT pulled up along our truck and smiled and waved and shouted through our raised windows. We first ignored, then waved off the WGT. When he tapped on our window at a stoplight we rolled the window down and said “no” in two or three languages. We did this, obviously, because we didn’t yet understand we had stumbled onto the WGT among the other mortal beings of another Moroccan night.

He told us to follow him left and we went right and that was little obstacle. He performed several inventive navigational maneuvers and was soon on our hip again as we cruised, some would say aimlessly, through Fez in search of the old city.

Fez is a difficult city for the first-time, non-Arabic speaking visitor to decode and the WGT had ample opportunity to tap on our windows. Finally, Mark rolled his down.

“Hello. I am the president of the tourist office,” the WGT said, quite improbably.

From that point forward the man on the motorbike was known to us as El Presidente and we discussed him on the CB radios between the trucks as we ran tangled circles around the city with no idea where we were, where to go, or how to get there.

The streets were balmy and exhaust-choked in Fez this night and as we headed in one direction or another he came up on me again to regale us with the ancient African story of a good hotel he knows with a cheap price. Just ahead was a very narrow archway and Craig encouraged me to continue the conversation at least until we passed through, but the WGT would not be squashed.

We pulled to a stop, not quite defeated, at a small square near what we thought was the old city and the WGT stopped at our side with the smile of a true friend who only wants to show you this hotel “for pleasure” because he is the president of the tourist office.

“Actually, my brother is the president, he speaks very good English. Do you want to talk to him?”

Mark, with roughly equal sincerity, said he would like to talk to him and spoke for a patronizing moment on the WGT’s cell phone before a bus pulled up to the square and we needed to move on.

“What should we do, guys?” Steve asked on the radio.

“He says he can get us a hotel for 150,” Mark answered back.

So we followed the World’s Greatest Tout along the walls of the medina, sinking down the slope of a winding road to finally reach the edge of the old city. He brought us to his hotel and the rooms seemed nice enough.

When it seemed the WGT would follow us to hell and back, he stopped. As we walked up into the medina to find another place to compare his hotel to he just stayed in the tiled courtyard out front. The WGT knew we wouldn’t find anything up that hill and there was no danger to his sale. He sent some young boys up to follow us just for his pleasure but in the end, of course, we were little or no match for the skilled, relentless, expert work of the World’s Greatest Tout.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Sitting on the dock of the Straight

There’s something really annoying about that moment in any story about a model where she’s doing something very tedious backstage and turns to the camera and says, “See, its not so glamorous after all.”

We’re in the equivalent of the endless make-up session here in Algeciris, Spain, the part of Europe that seems ready to kiss Africa on any map. The peck on the cheek best be worth the wait because we arrived at the ferry terminal just before 1pm and are currently in line for a boat which will leave sometime after 6pm. Then we’ll float to Ceuta, a tiny sliver of Spain which has been misplaced on the African side of the Straight of Gibraltar. We’ll drive into Morocco-proper and no doubt clear customs in a matter of seconds before being magically transported to Asilha for cous cous, hookah and other delicious clichés.

World travel isn’t very glamorous or romantic or exciting in the fifth hour sitting in a stationary car waiting for a ferry to come back from its last trip. But for a splash of romance Steve fired up the camp stove, cooked pasta and opened a can of lychees. Some bars of Swiss chocolate functioned as a second dessert and have slowly disappeared as the hours tick by.

Like a model getting her hair done, the reality of it isn’t so arduous or uninteresting if you think about it. There are a lot worse things to do than sit around doing nothing on your way to the runway. But that’s easy to look past now as the clock clicks over to 10:00pm. We’ve been here more than ten hours now and though it looks like they’ve unloaded the ferry and might soon let us on we’re not counting on it.

“We’re getting ready to rock here?” Bouey said hopefully just now as some more trucks rolled off the boat.

“There’s still a whole ‘nother level of stuff to be unloaded,” Craig said, having just come back from a chilly reconnaissance mission.

We’ve passed time chatting on the CB radios between the two trucks, first freestyle rapping, then fashioning a game of Africa trivia. We’ve watched two pixilated episodes of Flight on the Conchords on my computer. We’ve moved a few hundred yards a few times and guessed what time we’d finally leave the dock. The guesses were all too optimistic.

As it turned out the ferry pushed off just after 11:30 and rocked sickeningly all the way to Africa. The walk to the bathroom wasn’t impossible but it was quite an adventure on the churning deck. There was no point going there though because all the stalls were filled with men who weren’t going to the bathroom. The heaving ended after an hour or two and we cleared customs within another hour or two and then spent a final hour or three getting lost in the Moroccan dark on the road to Asilha.

Morning came some moments later and a man asked us for $5 for parking overnight along the city wall just up from the beach. We spent another $5 on six cups of pea soup, sweet mint tea and bread. We’re in Africa.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

On the first night of my time away

In class when we were very young they started with our school and then explained our city and then our state and our country. The picture expanded until it included the whole world and except for science class and Star Trek, that was as far as it went.

We filled in the gaps between geography textbooks and the ground at our feet, between colonial independence and the realities of our democracy. And as we learned something about the differences between books and experience we got a better understanding of what the world outside our experience must be like.

This is the high-concept explanation for the sense of joy around the long wooden table of a Barcelona wine bar on the first night of my time away. In our textbooks Espana became Spain and there are no greater gaps we can fill than the ones around this table.

Maybe that’s why travel makes us feel so alive. It takes us as far into the space around us as we can go and the thrill of discovery doesn’t require some grand revelation but just a series of tiny tweaks to our assumptions about language or food or music or temperament.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Halfway to jetlagged; our path through Africa

I don’t feel much like writing but I don’t feel like much anything else either. It’s 6am in Dublin and the plane to Barcelona leaves at 7:10 and if I had any better ideas I’d be doing that instead. There’s a bar 20 feet away serving Guinness and I’ve found in the past that the cliché is true and Guinness tastes much better in Dublin but I’ll refrain even though my New York body clock is just now striking 1:00am.

On my yearlong trip I boarded 30 planes and it strikes me here at gate A4 that I’ll be on a different kind of trip these next four months. From Barcelona, where I’m meeting the boys from The World by Road, we’ll drive to Spain’s southern tip, ferry to Morocco and head south until we run out of land.

Gate A4 is a lousy place to fly to Barcelona as it turns out. They’ve just told us to go to A11 instead. I could stay here and try to get on this plane to Paris and sip a café au latte along a drizzly Sein but that’s for another time I think. Now I’ll walk to A11.

Now I’m here and they’re serving coffee instead of beer but I’ll skip that too and sleep on the way to Spain.

This seems like a good time to pull out the African map and specify our best laid plans. Go get your map and meet me back.

From Morocco, where we hope to square away the rest of our African visas, we’ll drive through Mauritania and into Mali. We’ll head for the coast through Burkina Faso and into Ghana; then east to Togo and Benin. We won’t keep on into Nigeria because that wouldn’t be safe so we’ll probably drive up into Niger and then back south through the less-dodgy quadrants of Nigeria.

Then there’s Cameroon and Gabon and a sketchy bit of both Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. By then we’ll be in the southern hemisphere and in Angola I’ll learn just how much Portuguese I’ve lost in the two years since I left Brazil.

By then it’ll be April or so and we’ll figure out if there’s time to head east towards Kilimanjaro or not. Either way, by the end of May the TWBR boys will have to pack up the trucks for Argentina and it will be getting warm in New York.

It strikes me that no day on this trip will move me as far as the last six hours, but here I am on a new continent with people who speak the same language and use the same electronics and share the same complexion. My UPS man made a delivery yesterday and when he did he left a cart of other packages unattended on the sidewalk. “I can do that here, but four blocks north you can’t do that.”

Four blocks north are more rich Upper West Siders so maybe he was just wrong or maybe change can’t be measured in distance but my second and final flight of the next four months should be boarding any minute in the pre-dawn bustle of A11.

Monday, February 4, 2008

On the road again

I find blogs, like long trips, very hard to start and much easier once you get going. So here I am trying to start both and bogged down in confirming insurance, securing travelers checks, running errands, packing, shopping, and saying goodbye.

I haven’t boarded a plane for Europe yet or hopped in a truck bound for Africa. I haven’t waited a week in Rabat for my visas to come through or had lunch on the side of the road as the sun sets on the Atlantic. I can just sit here guessing at what I might write about these next four months and say ‘hello’ and invite you to come back when I’m all moved out and packed up and on the road again.