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.

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