Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Road to Timbuktu 4: Meeting Mali's Ladies of the Night

There are two routes from Nouakchott, Mauritania to Bamako, Mali. The best route follows a good road southwards to Dakar, Senegal, after which a 3 day comfortable train trip eastwards completes the journey. The hard route heads directly eastward by road through the desert for 1000 kms, stopping for some 30 or so police and military checkpoints, each manned by someone asking for a "gift", before turning southwards for 500 kms over unpaved bumpy, sandy roads, where breakdowns are common and the heat is relentless. As I didn't have a visa for Senegal I took the hard route. It was a gruelling 4 days of travel to Bamako, the capital of Mali. Timbuktu is in Mali and all things going well I will be there in a few days.

I hitched a ride with a French man who was transporting an old French van to Mali to sell it. An American girl and her Canadian boyfriend also rode in the same van. The driver was born in the Ivory Coast, and he was almost a perfect blend of African and European. He knew how to use the perfect combination of humour, deception, and argument to avoid giving "gifts" at the checkpoints. He helped us negotiate good deals on accommodation and money changing. And despite the hassles, the heat, the breakdowns, and getting the car stuck in sand, he never lost his cool.

The four day drive had some fascinating scenery and transitions, which partly made up for the difficult drive. The first two days was through pure desert and the villages were far apart. People were predominantly Moors, Arab-looking desert dwellers. Men wore light blue robes with white scarves wrapped around their head, while women each elegantly wore a single piece of bright cloth, from neck to ankle, and which also covered their hair. They used a loose end of the cloth to hide their mouths when they talked to me. As we turned southwards, the desert gradually turned into Savannah and then light forest. We started seeing black Africans in greater numbers, until by the time we crossed the border into Mali, all the villagers were completely black. Women wore bright patterned dresses with matching material used for a kind of hat. A piece of material wrapped around their back and tied to their chest might carry a sleeping baby like a backpack. Women collecting water from the local well balanced their water container on their heads as they walked easily along the roads.

On the first day of the trip we drove until to midnight, so we saw the desert come alive at dusk. Groups of men in the desert all face Mecca and make their sunset prayers. Camels and goats are herded up and driven without warning across the dark road, leading to a lot of roadkill. The villages, composed of small rectangular windowless clay huts, lifeless during the day, have their doors thrown open, animals are cooked on fires by the roadside, adults recline under canvas coverings, and children run around, enjoying the chance to hassle tourists stopping for an evening meal. We stopped for the night nowhere in particular, so I got out my sleeping bag and slept coiled around the van seats with both the doors open and a cool breeze blowing through.

Things didn't go well on the third day. The road was so bad we only drove 100kms, getting stuck in sand, often going only at walking pace, over bone crunching roads. We stopped in a town where we heard there was a nice hotel with showers but when we checked it out it was full. It was already getting late, almost 11pm, so we gladly took a bare concrete room with one thin ragged mattress at the next place we tried, to share between three people.

If I wasn't so tired I would have noticed earlier that there were a few women wearing particularly revealing clothing hanging out in the courtyard of the "hotel" - and one particularly unfriendly man. If I wasn't so tired I would have wondered why the women greeted us so flirtatiously. If I wasn't so tired I would have been certain what this place was when one woman stopped me as I passed by and said in nonsense English, "You may sleep me?" But when the same woman came in our room, and in French told the French-speaking American that she would sleep with us, four in the room, the penny dropped. With some trouble we explained that, no, we would only sleep three in this room and she must sleep elsewhere. Sure, travel is a time for new experiences, but a foursome with a Malian prostitute is not high on my list of things to do before I die.

Hopefully my next entry will be from Timbuktu.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Road to Timbuktu 3: Slovenians with Big Potatoes

I'm in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania. It is a dusty, dirty, poor place where goats wander the streets amongst the cars, everything happens at a slow pace, and the only thing to do is find the quickest way to leave. A border dispute in the 1960's between Mauritania and Senegal was resolved badly, leaving the Mauritanians without a capital so they built this one quickly. It's a dirt-poor (but sand-rich) country that mostly consists of the Sahara. The only foreigners here are aid workers, oil company employees, and a handful of travellers who foolishly thought crossing the Sahara overland would be a good choice for a trip.

In the south of Morocco, where I last wrote, I met up with two Slovenian guys who had decided on a whim one cold Slovenian afternoon to do the Sahara crossing, and early the next day took a flight to Morocco and hightailed it southward. I also met a Japanese guy who has travelled by ferry, train and bus from Japan to China, through Mongolia, Russia, Europe, to here. None of us had much idea about how we were going to find our way into and across Mauritania, where to stay, or how much to pay. None of us could speak Arabic or French, the two main languages around here. But the Slovenians told me a Slovenian saying: "The dumbest farmer has the biggest potatoes". I had no idea what that meant, so they explained that it means that somehow things go well for the ones who least deserve it.

We set off together and well, we had very big potatoes in an area where things can get very difficult for travellers. A Mauritanian guy gave us a lift in the back of his van on the 8 hour trip to the Mauritanian border and beyond. The van was way beyond being in usable condition and we expected to have a breakdown and get stuck in the desert. But we only had one tyre blow out, the repairs took half an hour and we got across the border 30 minutes before it closed for the night, which could have left us camping in the desert close to nowhere. Once we were across the border safely the driver and his wife were so happy to be back in their poor, hot, desert country they broke out into loud African song and started dancing while we drove past the car wrecks and abandoned pieces of less successful journeys.

Early the next day we found a driver with a reasonably good car prepared to take us onwards for the next 500 kms to Nouakchott, where I am now. My potatoes are still big - a couple of hours after arriving yesterday I found a couple of French guys, a Canadian, and an American going in my direction inland along the hopefully well-named "Route of Hope", and leaving in an hour or so from now. It's going to be the toughest part of my journey and will take three or four days until I am in a city worthy of the name, by which time I will be out of the Sahara.

The Sahara doesn't often look much like the postcard pictures and the scenery from "The English Patient". It has a surprising amount of variety. Sometimes it has lots of sparse shrubs, 100 kms later it might turn into a flat and barren sea of sand, then perhaps for 200 kms eroded rock formations dominate. Only sometimes do the classic yellow dunes make an appearance. Large herds of camels occasionally appear, or a solitary robed person can be seen walking from nowhere to nowhere. But mostly there is nothing to see, no activity except for a handful of drivers going along the only sealed road that crosses the Sahara from north to south.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

The Road to Timbuktu 2: The Country That Doesn't Exist

Since I last wrote I visited Marrakesh, one of Morocco's major drawcards, where plenty of rich French people come to hibernate for the winter. Like the Medina or Old City in Fez I described last email there is also a Medina in Marrakesh, which has a large central square where in the evening all sorts of entertainment takes place - dancing monkeys and snake charmers, child acrobats somersaulting and landing on each other's shoulders and crazy guys rolling back and forwards, impromptu drama shows and drum bands playing desert music.

I stayed in a hotel in Marrakesh modelled on a typical Moroccan home. Amongst the madness and chaos, it was a refuge, and now I see how Moroccans can live in the Medina without having nervous breakdowns. I followed instructions that led me through an archway, down a narrow lane, and around the corner to the entrance, which turns sharply and leads to a beautiful and private courtyard, unable to be seen from outside. The walls and floor are decorated in dark blue and white patterned tiles, the floor is covered in rugs and where there are no rugs, there are low divan-style sofas, covered in cushions. The courtyard is covered and only lets in low lighting, as do ornate but dim lamps. It feels like a harem, although unfortunately it lacked beautiful women massaging my feet and feeding me grapes. Bedrooms on two levels come off the courtyard in every direction, which are also decorated a la Arabian Nights.

I left Marrakesh intending to start the long, long journey south through the desert to Mauritania, but due to overbooked buses, I got stuck for two days in a resort town where old Germans, Scandinavians, and Brits come for a week or two of sunshine. Being in such a place after the real Moroccan cities was a bit surreal. As soon as a bus was available heading south I got on it, on an epic sleepless 24 hour bus journey to a place not worth knowing about in the Western Sahara, called Dakhla.

I had a two hour wait between buses and got talking to a couple of locals. They asked me where I was from, then made a point of saying they are not Moroccan. They are from Western Sahara. The problem is, there is no such country. It was a Spanish possession until they handed it over in 1970's. But Spain neglected to say whom they were handing it over to. Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania all claimed it, and a lot of the people actually living there, desert nomads I think, claimed independence. So what's the logical thing to do with a huge chunk of empty desert that people can't agree over? Fill in with landmines, of course. So this is an area where you stick to the road. Fortunately there is no reason to leave the road, because it is just endless repetitive desert. Although there is no official resolution, it is controlled by Morocco. Over the last 500 kilometres I lost count of how many police checkpoints we went through where as the only foreigner on the bus, I had to trundle off, get my passport details recorded, and board again, to the annoyance of the other passengers.

Whereas people in the north of Morocco tend to wear robes with pointed hoods that remind me of some costumes from the original Star Wars movie, here some people go for the Lawrence of Arabia look, white-ish robes with white linen scarves coiled around their head then draped around their necks and over their shoulders, with that tough-guy hard defiant stare.

All things going well, tomorrow I'll cover the last 350 kms to the Mauritanian border.

Monday, January 16, 2006

The Road to Timbuktu 1: Oceans of Blood

It's been a bad week for sheep in Morocco. I'll tell you why in a moment.

A couple of years ago while gazing over maps, dreaming of places to visit, I noticed that I could reach Timbuktu from Europe by travelling overland (and over sea), passing through Spain and Morocco. I made a note to myself to actually do the journey someday. Well, now I am on the way.

I started from Spain, where I took a ferry past Gibraltar, over the 20-odd kilometres to Africa. From the ferry I could see Europe in one direction and Africa in the other, and I was quite disappointed that both continents looked identical. I don't know what I was expecting...churches and castles on one side, elephants and giraffes on the other?

Upon arriving in Morocco I hightailed it down to Fes, one of Morocco's major tourist drawcards. The centre of Fes (and every Moroccan city) is the Medina, the old city, an enormous maze of narrow streets too small for cars, contained within giant walls, where thousands of people - and the occasional animal - crowd and press together, pushing you whatever way. This area, only a couple of kilometres across contains 400,000 people and it seems like every one of them has something to sell. Many women wear hair- or head-coverings, and many men wear brown gowns with pointy hoods. Streets are lined with stalls selling aromatic spices, fresh fruit, dried fruits and nuts, ceramics, carpets, carpets, carpets, sheep, and all sorts of clothing and trinkets you can think of. There are no straight streets, and from the moment I entered through one of the dozen main entrances, I was lost, at the mercy of street urchins to guide me to the nearest gate. There is no way to tell whether going down a crooked lane will lead to a dead end or a major road. I felt like a rat in a giant science experiment, and failing miserably at finding the cheese and the path out.

I loitered on a street so narrow I could touch both walls with my outstretched arms, working out whether I had already seen this street, and whether the ceramic shop I was standing outside was different from any of the others I had already seen, when a man tugged at my sleeved, and said in French "Attention, attention". I thought he was yet another person trying to sell me stuff I didn't want, so I ignored him. Suddenly he grabbed me harder and threw me into the shop, just in time to avoid the sorry-looking donkey, loaded with gas bottles, and coming down the street at a mean pace. After that experience I paid more attention to people's warnings.

The travel literature likes to say how the medina in Fes is a medieval city, unchanged in centuries. I'm no expert on medieval cities but I am pretty sure they didn't have electricity, internet cafes, bootleg CDs for sale, men sitting inside their shops watching European football on TV, and Wham's greatest hits blasting out of apartments.

Plenty of sheep were being sold all around the Medina, wherever the paths were wide enough, because a big Islamic festival was about to happen. For this festival people travel from all over the country to be with their families, and then together the family slaughters a sheep to celebrate...something...I don't know really. The day before the festival there was sheep bleating all day. The next day, a sinister silence... As I have long believed, the family that slaughters together, stays together.

During the day of the sheep massacre I travelled to Rabat, the capital of Morocco. When I walked through Rabat's Medina in the afternoon, the gristly remains of the sheep could be seen. Teenage boys were grilling sheeps' heads on improptu fires, in preparation of stewing the heads to make a Moroccan traditional dish. Piles of bloody sheep fleeces were stacked along the street. I had to be careful not to slip on blood.

On my stomach's behalf, I soon left the Medina and went down to the ocean. Unfortunately I chose the place where the city's sewerage enters the ocean. Around the sewerage pipe a large area of water was a strange pink, which I guess was from the gallons of sheep's blood. Nearby a brave - or foolish - man was surfing, ignoring the unsanitary conditions.

Amazingly the medinas don't smell, and the next day everything was scrubbed clean, all garbage removed, and any trace of sheep and blood had disappeared. Except that the restaurants had lots of sheep dishes on the menu.