A Journey Around the World
II. Africa: Nomadic Wonderings
(warning: raw thoughts, rough draft, to be plundered for more polished pieces; facts, spelling, piquancy not checked)
Air France has once again done me wrong, and the result, along with some vague nervousness and lots of (mostly purposeful) taking umbrage, is a one-day layover in Paris. There are worse fates. So traveling impressively light (my luggage being trapped in their hopeless system), I alight upon "my" hotel in Paris (as if I were the type of person who had his hotels): Hotel de la Sorbonne. It's still there. It ain't as cheap as I hoped. I succeed in restricting my nap to a couple of hours and then am free -- after a successful visit to a favorite bookstore, Shakespeare & Co. -- to do what I like with this city. What I like (or at least am capable of coming up with), as usual, turns out to be to walk -- to walk until I have seen what I seem to need to see; until I am, without a jacket in early March, warm; until I feel as if I've been in Paris; until the muscles at the top of my thighs burn. I give myself various assignments: trying to divine the secret of the success of the dazzlingly appropriate and unobtrusive pyramid within the U of the Louvre, seeing the richness and taste that the well-trained if not widely traveled eyes of my father-in-law saw in this city, seeing the ugliness that was once seen in that overgrown paperweight, the Tour Eiffel (looking as if it were surrounded by water and glass and as if snow would start falling if you shock it). March 5.
And I walk a few blocks out of my way to search for the hotel (certainly not mine) I stayed in on my last visit a few years ago. And I almost walk all the way to the spot from which I first presented my daughter, then two and a half, with the Eiffel Tower, and she began to twirl in joy. For all the pleasure of first times and seeing new, it is hard to beat the doubled, time-travel pleasure of revisiting and remembering. I'm sure there's a fine quote from Proust on this subject, which I'd locate if I had Proust. And have I succeeded in bragging that I have been to this city awfully many times before (even if it was usually August)?
It doesn't take much seeing and reseeing of Paris to get even this jetlagged, been-off-the-road- for-a-little-while, spell-broken traveler once again wide smiling -- "on," as Joseph Conrad puts it, "the wide grin." I would even have done some of my walking in a museum, of all places -- Orsay -- if it weren't closed on Lundi. I even locate and, more surprisingly, direct myself to the right cafe for my beer: Les Deux Magots. Though I have, less surprisingly, directed myself there a couple of generations late.
News of the French (based on my one day's observation): Yes, there are fewer men carrying handbags, fewer (I have the statistics) cafes, and a Gap has opened on the Place de la Sorbonne. But I see a sufficient number of signs of the culture's resiliency in the face of the global/American onslaught: (1) closely cropped trees; (2) young men whose heads tend not to be closely cropped (bagginess seems to have a similarly limited impact on their jeans); (3) multiple cheek kissing (I believe the currently appropriate number is: two); (4) unusual density, in many neighborhoods, of bookstores; (5) "homeopathie" signs in the windows of pharmacies; (6) the absence of signed photos of Picasso and Sartre with their arms around the owner in Les Deux Magots.
So I left America, found a day in Paris, then it's on to Africa. I'm often lost in thought, lost mentally. On this trip -- where a city, or even a country a day (if not normally a continent a day), has often been my pace -- I've felt lost in place, lost physically. I experience it in the same dizzy, excited way. I like the feeling.
March 6, my mother's 81st birthday. I land in Dakar, Senegal. I have never before set foot in Africa. Is it safe to walk out on the dark street late at night to look for that Internet cafe, I ask at the hotel? The guidebook had given my reason to wonder. It is safe.
Sweeping speculations. I'm moving around -- a visa for Mauritania, cash machine, a couple of sights, bar, restaurant -- trying, typically, to get my mind around this new thing I've found: Africa -- tall, proud (to my eye) Wolof; women and men in long white or colored robes, in this partly French city, in the year 2001; with streets full of cars and sellers and beggars and hustlers, moving (to my eye) stately-slow, crowds without bustle. Africa. Africa? Where humankind begins. Most primary. Most stubborn. Most energetic. Most troubled. Can't get your mind around the world without getting your mind around this. But I realize, astute fellow that I am, that there is insufficient information upon which to base such wide-angle conclusions, given that it is my first day in Africa, March 7. And then I'm thinking -- and this, alas, is also typical -- that there is never enough information, whether on the thirtieth day or in the thirtieth year, to enable a mind to find its way around things so large and human, which, of course, is convenient, since I don't even have thirty days for Africa.
Three things happen on my first full day in Africa that highlight the limits of my powers of understanding, or at least my power to find a point:
Pointless story #1, I step out on the balcony in my underwear to hang up some laundry (didn't take me long), and quickly realize that I have locked the door back into the room. What to do? First alternative, trying to get someone in the street to get help in the hotel, is unattractive. But, miraculously, I come up with a second alternative: I put on the pants I had just washed, climb around to a neighboring balcony and go through an open door back into the hotel. Then, in my sopping-wet pants, I find someone to open my door. Lesson?
Pointless story #2, I am being damned careful, since Dakar is supposed to be awash in thieves and robbers. I have my funds secreted in five different places. But mixed in with that laundry was my money belt, carrying four hundred-dollar bills. They got wet. I lay them out to dry. I visit a bar. I realize, after the bar, on my way to a restaurant, that the bills are still laying there in my room -- entirely exposed. I rush back. I learn that not only had I not put the money away, I had not succeeded in locking my room. Everything is still there, though. Meaning?
Pointless story #3, I leave the restaurant and see a fellow on the sidewalk with his legs folded under him. Car coming. I stay on the narrow sidewalk and walk in front of him. Suddenly I feel him grab one of my ankles. "Hey!" I yell. We look at each other. I see no sign of imminent danger. Had I been insufficiently respectful of a Moslem praying? The correct understanding of this incident is...? (See Asia journal.)
Okay, boy. Down from the ozone. Narrow the focus. Report. What, for example, do the women here do with their hair? Quick survey of streets of Dakar on March 8, 2001. Some African women cover their hair with fabric. Some pull it back tightly in a bun -- as so many young women in the states today disappoint middle-aged men by doing. Many weave it into numerous thin braids? Many conk it flat. Some conk it but leave a lively wave. There are no afros today in this part of Africa. Lesson? Meaning? Correct understanding?
Here's another possible understanding of globalization, whether correct or not I still do not have sufficient information to determine: Maybe we're not losing traditions. Maybe we're losing a tradition: a less-analytic, nature-centric, god-fearing, ancestor-venerating, agriculture-based way of looking at the world that folks from Guatemala to the Amazon to the Sahel all have in common. It would be a harsh, though optimistic, understanding -- if I ever come up with enough information to support it.
While on the subject, my ostensible subject: Next time I hear someone from France or England or Spain or Holland or Portugal complain about "Americanization," I'll consider reminding them of countries like Senegal or Peru or Brazil and asking them three questions: What languages are being spoken in these countries? What religions are being practiced in these countries? Why? Somehow a brand of soda seems less significant than a language or a religion or, for another example, capturing young, strong men and women and shipping them to America as slaves. I know this sounds defensive. It's not.
I take a ferry out to Goree Island, which is, as promised, strikingly turned out in bougainvillea and in pastel, fixed-up-by-UNESCO colonials. But I'm alone, and among the almost entirely French and paired-off boatload of tourists, I'm not getting any less alone. And I got to negotiate my own guide; smart, educated man but still a hustler, and the taste of that unfriendly haggling lingers. The Maison des Esclaves is the most visited site on the island. Mandela, Clinton and the Pope have all gotten emotional here. You worry, as at a concentration camp, that you won't feel enough. But you see the small rooms where were kept large crowds. You hear how families were routinely broken. And you feel, as at a concentration camp, plenty. But the Lonely Planet says this really wasn't a major shipping point for slaves after all. How does that make you feel?
This evening I'm meeting people -- in the hotel restaurant of all places. They include three young Swiss/French folk, two of whom are studying film, all of whom have driven to Dakar from Geneva and are on their way to Burkina Faso. (Upper Volta to those of us who don't always check page A4.) Cool.
The most expensive of the Lonely Planet's methods for traveling from Dakar north to St. Louis on land is a "Seven Place" Peugeot 505 (And you thought they were only sold in one country!) -- a bush taxi.The final three places are on a jammed-in third seat in the rear. A Swiss/French reggae musician and his girlfriend occupy two of those places. I stuff my tush into the third. You stay in one position until it becomes really uncomfortable, then you switch or try to switch. I have one desire, an uncommon one for me, when we arrive in St. Louis: to swim. The hotel I know has a pool on a quay over the Senegal River. Cool. March 9.
St. Louis -- pretty, also pastel, also colonial -- is spread over the mainland, an island, a peninsula (connected to Mauritania). We foreigners are concentrated on the island. My first task is to find a tour of one of the two bird-reserve national parks for the next day, my only full day in St. Louis, Saturday. Having, for a change, studied up, I go right to the top tour folks in town. They have a group going out, maybe Thursday. And to arrange a trip for one would be very expensive. Not cool. Depressing, in fact. It is bad enough doing all this arranging alone; it seems unfair to be punished for being alone. "Try the tourist office." I do. The price to go alone comes down. And he'll keep his eyes out. I leave. Internet. (I should note that there's been an Internet hour on each of these Africa days, so far.) I return. Yes, he's found some French folks who want to go out to Djourdj. Feels like that ole luck again.
Spend that Friday evening drinking and eating and walking and talking to fellow foreigners -- the term I use is fellow "Europeans." And end up watching a drum/dance performance -- chairs set up on a street -- called, in Wolof: "sabar" (short a -- quite the linguist aren't I?). Men drum. This sort of drumming I've seen before -- in Central Park, for example. Women dance -- a turn-taking, robe-raisin', bare-foot-stomping, high-stepping, oddly-syncopated dance. And this sort of dance I have never seen before. It ain't no "world" dance. We're securely in the realm of traditional, Wolof (the dominant tribe in Senegal) culture. Is Africa, and thus the world, somewhere inside this dance? Wide smile until about one a.m.
Part one of a first-rate day, March 10, day of the jackal: Parc National aux Oiseau du Djoudj. Birds. Two French young men with whom I don't particularly hit it off. A guide, Ousamane Diallo, also a young man, who has a scholarly love for birds. The four of us and a driver make our way into the park -- about an hour from St. Louis -- seeing, along the way, various feathered species, including an eagle and a couple of flamingo, and a wild boar galloping across the dirt road. (Only reason this large mammal has survived is that Moslems can't eat it.) French and English alternate from our guide. Then on a small motor boat we tootle around the river for a spell -- an enchanting spell. I see an ibis, later I see the sacred ibis of Egyptian mythological fame, herons, various species of cormorant, egrets, spoonbills, various ducks and geese, and most famously and most numerously, pelicans -- pelicans floating, pelicans fishing, pelicans flying (to digest), pelicans feeding their young (predigested fish out of their large beaks), pelicans being stalked by a jackal. Long duration for that wide smile.
Part two of that first-rate day: That enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide happened to mention, when I noted the subject of my reportage, that they do tours to local villages. I had in mind maybe a swim or perhaps a nap after we got back. But, dutifully, I ask about a tour. Same problem: all costs divided only by one. But we shave those costs down to a manageable, for work, 25 bucks and me and that same guide set out, by taxi, south, to the Gandiol area. Its a Fula (third largest tribe in Senegal) village. And Ousmane Diallo has a surprise: He is a Fula, Fulani was his first (of four) languages. Paved road turns to dirt and sometimes back again. Twenty minutes from St. Louis we get out of a taxi and follow a sandy path -- there is no road cause they have no cars -- to the small village of Dell. Along the path we see the classic sign of the Fulani: cattle dung. Former nomads, they keep (and keep and don't sell) cattle/cows. They milk them and sell the milk and use the money to purchase rice, vegetables and fish. Such is the Fulani economy. Wealth is measured by the size of your herd. ("They would let someone die rather than sell one cattle to buy medicine," my guide mutters.)
I've spent time in four "native" villages on this trip (Zapata in Mexico, Maya in Guatemala, Iquito in Peru and now Fula in Senegal). They have been successively more primitive. I have now spent time in all three of the kinds of houses that the wolf, with considerable huffing and puffing, tried to blow down.
There are six married males -- and presumably six families -- in this little Fula village. The adults are all gone -- to a market in a larger village. We sit for some time on the floor of a straw hut -- quality time -- with ten children, ranging in age from about four to twenty-two. These kids speak only Fulani. Their feet -- all of their feet -- look more used, older than mine. They have no plumbing or toilets of any kind; they use the bush. They have grown up without TV, though they all have occasionally seen movies on TV in another village. They have grown up without telephone or electricity, though there are flashlights hanging on the wall and a battery-operated radio/cassette player on the floor. (None have heard of Madonna; all say they know Senegal's top musician: Youssou N'Dour.) Their parents own no motorized vehicles, though they all have ridden in one at one time or another. And none of these children, a first in my experience, have gone to school. The boys memorize, without understanding my guide says, passages from the Koran. But no real school. "We would like to," a teenage girl says through the translator, "but it is not a concern of our parents." One of these girls stands barefoot in a Nike, "Just do it!" T-shirt she cannot read.
What do they do during the day? "Nothing," the older kids answer. I ask again. "Nothing apart from fetch water and fetch wood." Those are the girls' tasks. They also help cook and do dishes. The boys "follow" the cattle. What do these children play? "We just reproduce" -- my translator insists this is in fact the word one of the girls uses, twice -- "everyday life in our games. We play daddy, mommy and baby." A couple of the girls bring me dolls they have fashioned out of cloth, with plastic hair. Another shows me a kitchen scene she has assembled, with a busted flashlight and plastic bottle combining to serve as table and various plastic scraps and and old battery as plates and pots. Later she turns the same set of objects into a small shop. Enterprising. Creative. Resourceful. Nonviolent. Respectful of tradition. A perfect example of the ways of a non-global childhood. But I keep thinking of something a cafe owner in Oaxaca, Mexico, had allowed about the global culture: "It frees the imagination." These children certainly have great stores of imagination. Is there a sense in which their imaginations have not been set free?
The two oldest girls here, fifteen and sixteen, were both recently married -- more or less arranged marriages. "But more and more parents are being open and understanding about whom their children are able to marry," one of them explains. The girls will be leaving the village to live with their husbands for the first time sometime soon.
I do some videotaping and find myself stooping to a cheap trick: letting the kids watch each other and then themselves on the camera's little screen. Great giggles and excitement. My smile widens with theirs. But I soon find I can achieve a smaller but still substantial version of this effect simply giving each of them a chance to make some wavy lines with my pen in my notebook. None of the children in the village of Dell can read or write.
(See the video experiment: "Fula Kids")
My guide tells a Fulani story of his own as we follow the fifteen-year-old girl to the well. It is one of those stories that makes most other stories seem small. "My parents didn't want me to go to school," he explains. "My father wanted me to follow the cattle." But Ousamane, who is now twenty-nine, grew up in a larger village, which also had some Wolof families, even some people who worked as administrators. "I saw other kids going to school and starting to speak French. I was very jealous." He began trying to pick up some French words on his own from the other children. "Then one day I met the teacher on the way to the market, and I said, 'Hello. How are you?' in French. He responded and asked me, in French, where I was going? I told him I was going to the market. He asked me what I was going to buy at the market, but I didn't know how to say that in French. Then he asked me if I had ever been to school. He ended up taking me to the school himself."
Ousamane began sneaking off to the school, but whenever his father would find him there he would punish him and make him go to the bush with the cattle. This went on for four years, until finally his father acknowledged and acceded to the strength of his desire to learn. That desire eventually took him all the way through university in Dakar -- almost always at the top of his class. (It is difficult for me to write or say this without tears forming in my eyes.) He's never left Senegal; nevertheless, he's traveled much further, with more courage than I ever will.
I asked that fifteen-year-old, recently married Fula girl whether she would allow her children to go to school. "Yes," she responded. Why? "Because school is good. It helps them be open to the world."
We flag down a car for the ride back to St. Louis. I tell Ousmane some of the other primitive places I've been and am planning to go, and I fear it sounds as if I'm talking about visiting zoos. I'm not satisfied with my rap. I'm worried whether it was, or appeared to be, condescending to let the kids play with the camera and the pen. I have a little of that voyeuristic, geeky feeling to which the rich peeking in on the poor are, deservedly, vulnerable. I'd put those kids under observation. I'm not sure about my methods. I'm not satisfied with my attitude. But I loved smiling with those kids. I loved watching those smiles, as human smiles do, bridge chasms, shrink distances. I saw far. I learned a lot. And isn't that, in a nutshell, what we're zipping round the planet for? A first-rate day.
March 11. The normally old Peugeot Seven Place headed my way is full. I end up not-quite-so-cramped in an abnormally ancient version. Leather, plastic and significant amounts of metal have all been lost to erosion. The back door doesn't quite close, making for a cool breeze. Is that breeze carrying carbon monoxide? Bit of a worried mind on the road to Rosso and the border with Mauritania.
Then, with typical suddenness, I'm out of the car and enveloped in border chaos. I succumb to to a guide, who has me exit-stamped and on a ferry and paying or, occasionally, not paying for tickets and baggage and who-knows-what and then we're across the Senegal River and in another country.
Mauritania. This border was drawn after the French fled. A new capital had to be constructed after St. Louis ended up on the other side. Yet, this border feels as real and profound as any I have crossed since Tex/Mex. Suddenly sand and camels and all the men in blue or white robes. Mauritania. My desert is waiting.
My Senegal guide is still hovering. But I've also acquired a couple of Mauritanian handlers who keep whispering that that Senegalese fellow is "no good." Whom do you trust? No one who wants money to guide, of course, at this stage in my travels. But since we're in Mauritania, it seems wise to pay and shake the guide from Senegal. The others find me a Seven Place and a toilet. But when I try to pay and shake them, previous to departure, I hear something I haven't heard in a long time: "You don't have to pay us." They get a commission from the taxi driver, they admit. Man, something like that -- and I know why it doesn't happen more, why it can't happen more -- makes you feel good.
And this "Grand Taxi" starts moving and guess who has the shotgun seat of a not-bad Mercedes all to himself? Made in the shade! Until sandy streets lead us to a couple more passengers, and I learn that said seat must be divided by two. You don't realize how well designed a car seat is for a human body until you squeeze more than one human body into it. Discomfort. Pain.
But also desert. Real desert. Sahara desert. And I'm counting the colors of sand. In one vista I see red, white, off-white and gray. Bit toasty, don't you know. Bit dry. I'm generally not a just-jump-in-the-pool kinda guy. But if I lived in the desert, and if there were more places to swim in the desert, well, I could see myself doing some serious splashing around. We stop for a while in the heat, and I'm invited into a breezy tent. First offer of their sweet, strong tea.
And the guy I'm sharing the front seat with speaks English, and is going to help me out. In fact, we get off at his house. I meet his mom and dad. Together with a friend he takes me to change money, and checks what I receive, and finds my hotel. One of the pleasures of travel is giving strangers the opportunity to be kind. He is kind. I am in that hastily constructed, sand-covered capital: Nouakchott. It feels like another planet.
Next morning, March 12, I'm visiting the Moroccan embassy and then finding my new Mauritanian friend who sets me up on another Bush Taxi for the ride out to the real heart of the Sahara: Atar, the Adrar region. "If you're only going to visit one place in Mauritania..." Another Mercedes. This time I'm in the back seat, with another man, two women (and I read that girth is connected to female beauty in Mauritania) and two young children. We're like this for many hours, until Akjoujt. I lean back; guy next to me leans forward. We stop for prayer. We stop for tea. I'm asked, by one of the women, for some American money as a "souvenir." Kid's as aggressive as she is. But, along the way, the desert displays some more colors: brown, yellow, green, black.
I make the mistake of letting the taxi take me to a hotel. Turns out not to be the one I asked for. I end up overpaying. Someone ends up with a commission. And I have my first squatter to deal with in the morning. People who run the place are nice, though.
But can't reach a deal with those nice people on an excursion into the desert. The old one-person problem, again. Am about to do it all by Bush Taxi, when Bahal snags me on the lazy main drag of Atar. Bahal is a guide. I ostensibly require guiding. My negotiating stance is helped by the fact that I think I really should do this by Bush Taxi. Bahal comes way down. For about twice what it would cost me to do the taxi thing and arrange the Camel thing myself, I find myself not crowded, for a change, in a pickup with a driver, a cuisinaire, Walid, and the enterprising Bahal. March 13. We're heading, with some cave paintings to view along the way, for Chinguetti.
I like Chinguetti -- an old town, with sand-colored ruins, a deeply quiet town, the seventh holiest city of Islam, an even more sand-swept town. I like the sun and shade of the courtyard of the Auberge where Bahal has us spending the afternoon and night. I like its real toilet. I like the fact that three French professors are also spending the afternoon there. The afternoon of the four professors. We talk. We eat and drink tea.
But I have a problem with the Quranic library we visit in town. Ancient manuscripts should be a historian of communication's thing. But it's not just that I decided to hang with the French folk, and am receiving, consequently, an obviously wise tour of the library in too-fast French. It's the fact that there are camels slow-pacing through this town, and desert sands blowing, and men and women dressed in a fashion that can only be captured by the cliché: biblical. And in the midst of all this strangeness, all this vestigial, out-of-era, time-tripping exoticness, well those venerable and indeed lovely Muslim manuscripts seem -- actually the term for it is French -- de trop (too much): A skateboard at an amusement park. Coal to Newcastle. I'm happy to get outside and walk across the now totally-dry wadi, which makes this an oasis town. I'm happy even to return to the sun and shade of that courtyard. I don't require that library.
This is an important evening. (I try to alert you to things like this.) It is important, to begin with, because it is actually rather wonderful. Bahal, Walid, me, the Auberge-keeper and some buddies of the Auberge-keeper are lounging around on mats in the middle of that courtyard. Yeah, there is some television in this town. The Auberge guy has offered to show me what he can pull in on his satellite dish. But the cooperative-supplied electricity, produced by a diesel generator, is only on from eight thirty to ten thirty. And we're outside, under the stars, lounging and talking, not watching celebrities talk. The tea is poured back and forth, from a height, from little pot to the little glasses -- to give it a nice head of foam. Couscous. They take it by hand from a shared bowl. And life is looking pretty good here in Chinguetti except for the fact that there are no women around, the fact that most of the fellows lounging here explain that they want desperately to leave this life for one in America, and the fact that the 16-year-old very dark skinned boy who has been helping serve, without being thanked or joining in the conversation, may in some way be -- and I use this word with great trepidation and tentativeness -- a slave. I will, of course, explain.
But now, "my desert is waiting."
March 14, my trip into the Sahara. Yeah, I buy a turban (black, of course). Walid wraps it around my head. Yeah, it's a totally touristy thing to do. On the other hand, I feel like this shaved head of mine was made to be wrapped in a turban. I feel warm and cool at the same time. (Has the desert sun already addled my brain?) And we -- Bahal the guide, Walid the cook, a camel man, a large one-humped camel (with no name) and moi -- start walking, following that wadi, from Chinguetti out into the desert.
The sand is soft, and I'm worried it's going to be like making 63 trips from the lifeguard towers to the refreshment stands at West End 2, without the diversion of scantily clad bodies. But the walking ain't so bad. A cool breeze is blowing, sometimes sprinkling a bit of sand on the horizon. (Make this trip in June or July, I'm told, and no breeze will manage to seem cool.) Occasionally, we can spot a long-robed character, sometimes leading a camel, approaching. And I have -- ain't this the place for this kind of thing -- a revelation here in the anti-fog: The desert (new thing, found) -- far from being a raw, ugly place, in which humans just barely manage to survive, a torment, a test -- is actually quite pleasant. (Perhaps you knew this but somehow neglected to clue me in.) It's beautiful. I ain't parched. Those long-robed characters are invariably smiling.
Now this is supposed to be a camel ride I am on, I am paying for. But, there being only one camel, I'm already feeling a little uncomfortable about that. With natives walking, a tourist riding can appear a little soft, a little spoiled. (Of course, since this tourist is funding the whole expedition, it's kind of hard to imagine him appearing like a hardened desert person.) After an hour or so, the camel gets down on his thin knees; the tourist uses a camel leg for a boost and climbs up into the saddle; the camel rises quickly but in stages -- nearly throwing said tourist to the sandy ground; and we begin to clomp along.
That, incidentally, is when I first notice the flies. Some parts of the camel are literally covered with them. Some parts of turbaned me are soon covered with them. Here, I'm thinking, is an authentic desert torment, a plague. But the thing about the flies is that they seem content just to ride along. Adjust your turban and they all go buzzing about. But then they settle down. And as long as you discourage them from settling on your nose or glasses, they produce, despite their great numbers, no particular discomfort. The point is, I guess, that this works -- this desert life works. And I imagine most lives work, in this sense. Humans have, in other words, made themselves comfortable in most of the places where they have settled: the Sahara, the Amazon, Jersey City and, I imagine, the Arctic. Whatever bugs cause major discomfort long ago got smacked and, consequently, eliminated. The spirits of the these people move, as our spirits do, sometimes up, sometimes down. Or I am just basing conclusions, once again, on too little evidence? Was I or am I being naive? It's often so difficult to tell.
I forgot to mention -- though I know people go for this sort of thing -- the big, white, rolling, breeze-rippled dunes.
After an hour the tourist, no softy, gets down from the camel. (This requires another jarring sequence of in-stages camel motion.) From now on that tourist will walk with the others. The camel carries only our food, his small backpack and a box full of twelve bottles of tourist water. (The others are content to drink from wells.)
And we stop -- under a thin squat tree. Monsieur Le Camel Driver begins to collect wood for a fire. Monsieur Le Cuisinaire begins to collect wood for a fire. Fire number one will be used to make tea. Fire number two for lunch. A robed figure approaches. Everybody knows everybody in the desert (excepting tourists, of course). He joins us in the shade for tea and lunch. That's the way it is in the desert. Fire number three will be for more tea.
If Disney did deserts there'd be fewer flies but longer lines. We walk for a couple of hours after that extended lunch & tea break. Visit a farm built around a well. Now there's only one color of sand -- remarkably the same creamy white I remember from Jones Beach. And, hey, my three companions are strong-voiced singing Arabic songs as we walk -- the four of us plus camel -- through the evening-sun desert. Africa: Mind around. Africa: New thing, found.
It's easier, I note, to capture all this desert mysterioso -- the flowing garment, camel-paced pilgrims making their way across the endless sands -- on video than in words.
Dinner under another tree. I'd noticed a small bottle coming out of a little sack and some substance being squeezed onto our food. I ask. Turns out to be butter, which explains certain stomach difficulties one particular lactose-intolerant fellow has been experiencing. The camel driver walks off to look for a camel he'd lost around here on another trip.
And, after dinner, we make our way into an encampment -- fairly permanent, it seems to me -- of "nomad" tents. Bahal has a cousin here. More tea. Sitting around in and out of tents as the pink sun buries itself under the shining, Sahara sands. And there are kids in these tents -- maybe three, four years old -- with flies around their eyes, like in the old UNICEF posters. So I take out my camera, and in a bad moment find myself hoping the flies gather there good for my shot.
One should never be? You're feeling stiff and uncomfortable; these people don't even speak French. One should always be? You're seeing stuff you sometimes think you don't deserve to see; you're seeing farther than you've ever seen. Where one does not belong. Not your place. Not your people. Not your life. You do not belong here, and that's why you want to be here.
Bahal, who comes and goes, announces that he's trying to organize a little party for me -- for me? -- tonight. Okay. It keeps not happening until -- and it guess it is this way with "it"s -- it does, late (no go-to-sleep-when-the-sun-sets for these folks) and outside a tent some distance away across the night-darkened, but still faintly glowing desert. Teenage girls sit in a clump and start banging out a rhythm on something and singing. For me? Well I'm grateful, whomever they're doing this for. And then I'm a little cold. (That's the way it goes with desert nights.) And then I'm a little bored -- eight or so girls singing long, long songs for a couple of hours in the mostly dark ain't exactly the Yankees against the Red Sox. And I'm standing the whole time, cause I couldn't -- being someone who does not belong -- manage to settle myself on the mat. The girls and their audience of fellow teens don't seem at all bored. They live in a encampment without electricity, telephone and, of course, Yankee games. (You can, however, buy a pack of Marlboros here, I learn when Bahal reloads.) I don't normally live in such a place. Soon I'm more cold and more bored.
(See the video experiment: "Desert Songs".)
So I occupy myself looking at the sky. (The stars have mostly vacated the sky above my New York Metro-area house.) North star. So -- since we're in the neighborhood of the equator -- it should be there somewhere on the other side of the sky, near the horizon. Never in my life have I glimpsed the Southern Cross. I see the Southern Cross. Must have seen it in planetariums, cause I sure do know that kite (a true cross would have to have a star in the middle) when I finally see it. I look at it for a while. I'm excited, or at least thinking I have reason to be excited. And I look at that pattern of white dots in the sky a while more. Cold and bored. Finally, that sing-along ends. We all walk back to our tents. A late dinner, in mine, of couscous with goat milk and a little goat meat -- scooped, with just-washed hands, out of a large bowl. Did I mention that goats often seemed to be coming or going round here -- usually with someone walking after them? I sleep, with a blanket, on one of the straw mats inside a one-side-open tent. Oh, the places you'll sleep.
Oh, the places you'll go. Did I mention that they have no toilets here? Off among the dunes.
I wake up feeling for my possessions -- as usual. But something unusual has happened: I have lost something, two things: a pen and a folded piece of paper upon which I had been scribbling notes. Not things of great value, mind you. But when, even more unusually, I don't find them, I start to wonder, despite all pretenses to a lack of superstition, about my vaunted luck. March 15.
We walk, I walk with no help from the camel, eight kilometers back through the desert to Chinguetti. Monsieur Le Guide is huffing and buffing a bit, lagging behind. Not the tourist, despite his advanced age. Along the way we meet a group of men, one of whom is skinnier, more weather-beaten, more shabbily dressed and blacker than the others. The slavery question arises again.
And things are starting to get -- it takes me a while to realize this, since things do not often head this way by me -- a bit crazy. Maybe it starts with that question. I had been avoiding asking about Mauritania's alleged slavery because I kept expecting friends of my contact back in the states to knock on the door of my hotel room one night and present it to me. Didn't want to compromise them by making it obvious I had an interest in the subject myself. But no knock comes, and, when allegations of slavery have been made, don't I have a moral obligation, as a journalist, to investigate and report?
So now I ask for the first time -- in French -- one of the darker skinned of my acquaintances: Are there "esclaves" here? He doesn't seem to know the word. Is it possible to buy people? I then say, or think I say, in French. Oui, he responds. He knows this for a fact? Oui, he responds. We talk about "Le Noir" (his words) whom I had seen, and see again this afternoon, at the auberge. We talk about the skinny "Noir" (his word) I saw in the desert. Yes, he appears to be saying, they're slaves. This is interesting, disturbing, maybe important, probably outrageous. But it's in French, a language every French person I've met would deny I know, although it's the language I've been speaking for the past few days. (West Africans, I note, are more forgiving.)
The tensions are increased by a long delay leaving Chinguetti, by a Bush Taxi ride back to Atar (I thought I had paid for private transportation), by my getting railroaded into another out-of-the-way auberge with another hole-in-the-ground toilet, and by Monsieur Le Guide offering to let me buy him dinner. The energy level is increased as I slide into the roll of bit-pissed-off tourist, bit-don't-give-a-shit tourist, bit-I'm-here-it's-weird-but-I-can-handle-myself tourist -- as I slide, in other words, into some version of the great-white-traveler role. The weirdness is increased when I'm told I'm the only tourist in town. (I'm pretty sure it's not true but haven't collected any firsthand evidence to the contrary.) The wildness is increased as half-a-dozen schemers or friends or potential guides or folks who just want to help (I have no way to tell them apart, especially since they often share the same body) chat me up, as I'm offered everything from alcohol (officially not available in this Moslem town) to who-knows-what. Thus tense, energized, weirded out and wild after this strange, tea-besotted, talky (in French), accelerating afternoon and evening, I'm feeling wired -- on edge, charged up. It's not a bad feeling.
And I'm asking what I presume to be the uncomfortable, the unexpected, the moral question -- what I presume to be the most important question. I'm asking a young restaurant owner, a gift-store owner from Gambia, an auberge keeper. And some say "yes" to what they have understood me to be asking. Some say "no." And I feel like an on-edge-but-charged-up reporter. And I'm writing stories about the slavery question in Mauritania in my head. And I go to sleep.
And I wake up at 2:30 a.m., March 15. I hear something that sounds like a recorder shutting off. My video camera!! No, it's right here. They're taping me!! Come on, no one's taping you. Okay, probably no one is doing anything to me. But I'm, maybe, all alone in this town. It took me a full-day to get here from Nouakchott, the capital, and there is no other fast way out. And I am a journalist. And I have been asking questions about the touchiest, most dangerous subject around here. And I've been asking almost everyone. And I could, on the radio, do some real damage to this country. And no one I know knows where I am. And I could get pushed off a cliff, or off the train I'm planning to ride tomorrow, without anyone being the wiser.
Paranoia. The craziness is now -- and I'm hearing Hunter Thompson here -- inside of me. Deep paranoia. Maybe it's not justified. Probably it's not justified. The odds are great that it's not justified. But what if there is even a small chance that someone told the police or military what you've been up to? They have tortured members of the opposition in this country. You read about it somewhere. Is it worth taking a risk? Didn't you promise yourself and others you would take no serious risks?
At about 2:40 in the morning, I pull some pants and a shirt over my sleeping clothes, walk out on the street and into the center of town. I'm looking for a taxi which will drive me -- now, right now -- back to Nouakchott. One driver takes me looking for another. I'm offering a hundred dollars. It's only money. We wake up someone's wife. He's not home. We drive around dark, sleeping Atar. We go back to the wife and ask again. Another place. I get into another car. We're knocking and honking and waking someone else up. We'll need authorization. Various woken up people meet at the gas station. Downpayment. The driver I thought was going to drive me isn't. Car isn't up to it, he says. Another woken-up, still-sleepy-guy with a pretty decent Japanese car, and we're off. Escape From Atar!
I'm trying to be friendly -- oh, am I trying to be friendly. And this guy, somehow, is sailing through the various police checkpoints I feared along the road. We're talking about his job: driving taxis, which Mr. Friendly Passenger once did. But it turns out, in fact, this guy has another job: in the military. Oh. Then he's going on about the pleasure of defending his country. Oh. And we're in the desert in the dark, and he could just pull over anywhere and....
So I'm really trying to be friendly, chatty. You'd have to be pretty patriotic, I figure, to assassinate a professor with three kids who has invited you to stay at his house when you finally do get to visit the United States. And it is getting lighter. And he hasn't yet pulled off the road. Soon I'm mostly really trying to help him stay awake -- by chatting and chatting, in French. Oh yeah, I have instructed him to take me to the US Embassy, where I can be reasonably certain of not dying. Then I can grab a plane out of this crazy country. To hell with drawing a line around the world. I'll fly straight to Morocco.
One of the rather suspicious but kind guards who greets me at the Embassy comments, at some point, "You look absurd." The sand of the desert still on me, my clothes, my backpack. I was going to shower in the morning. I feel absurd, but that's a hell of a lot better than feeling scared. The Administrative Officer of the US Embassy in Nouakchott, along with his wife, a Peace Corps official, eventually arrives. The three of us sit down. We will converse for a couple of hours.
I say, "I did two things within the last 24 hours, at least one of which was terribly naive." I tell my story. They ask me if I have traveled much before. Ouch. They tell me that this whole slavery allegation is too deeply buried in the culture of this country for us to untangle -- especially in a few days, especially with my level of French. (They point out what I had half realized: that some of the people I asked may have thought I was asking about the possibility of buying someone -- perhaps a male someone -- for purposes of sex. Hence, some of that craziness.) They take the position -- the US government position, I have been told -- that what is going on here is so different from what we think of as slavery that it is wrong to use the same word. No one, they say, is being sold or whipped. We're talking about a kind of family servant. They take the position that the problems with this country, as with the rest of Africa, are primarily economic and that whatever inequities may lurk in the culture will ease once money starts to flow.
I like them. I also like most of the people I've met in Mauritania. But I note that while words like "slavery" or "holocaust" can certainly be used too quickly, they can also be used too slowly. I outline what I feel to be my moral obligation: to get people -- in a country that doesn't think about Africa much at all -- thinking about this issue. They caution about the dangers of quick-look journalism. I note that I'm good at helping my audiences understand the limits of my understanding.
But am I in any danger? Nah. Almost no chance, they say, that this country could or would want to do anything about me. So which of the two things I did was naive? They're too polite to say so, but the answer is probably both. My inquiries about slavery, in French, were probably kind of dumb and ineffective. But I also had no reason to flee.
Do I mind having been doubly naive and foolishly paranoid? Not really. I just like feeling safe. I go to the airport. It proves almost as difficult to manage as the other forms of transit with which I've been dealing -- complete with a friendly young man who turns out to be another money-seeking "guide." But eventually I get on an evening flight not to Morocco but to Nouadhibou in Mauritania -- where that train would have taken me.
It is hard to indicate the end of a story in a journal organized only by date. The day has not ended, but this story -- the story of my paranoid "escape from Atar" -- has ended.
Nouadhibou. More sand. More flowing robes. More taxi-price haggling. But also some other travelers. As I'm checking in I meet a Russian (that's right Russian) couple. We agree to meet for dinner. I'm hungry, the young woman says, in serviceable English.
Hadn't realized exactly what she meant by "hungry." Turns out Daria and Igor (Their ages together, he quickly calculates, add up to mine) have made it to Mauritania from Moscow with no -- zip, nada, zero -- money. Looks like I'm paying for dinner. They travel by "auto stop" -- hitchhiking, and, where unavoidable, by begging money for a boat, bus or short plane ride. They live, mostly, off the kindness of strangers. A restaurant sounds too extravagant to them. Soon they're strolling, excitedly around a supermarket. I pay. They return to the large, open flat at which they've been staying -- thanks to the kindness of a large, spirited woman who makes her living dispensing spiritual and psychological advice. They, mostly he, cook. Food's great. Their "business card," printed on a piece of paper and cut by hand, reads: "Akademy of Free Travel: Hitchhiking Expedition Around the World." They've been stalled in Mauritania by visa problems. (It's not just money that makes it a lot more difficult for people from certain countries to travel around the world: a great, if understandable, unfairness.) I love travelers.
Mind around. New thing, found. More insufficiently supported conclusions on Africa: Do I see people starving? I do not. But I'm getting only a tiny glimpse of a few countries. Is the absence of scenes of starvation at least a good sign? There's a chance, though I suspect that the statistics would support other conclusions. Mostly I feel the ache, the sometimes desperate ache, for some more money, for a reward for labor -- the labor of guiding, driving, begging. In almost every encounter I have with a citizen of these countries the wealth is unequally distributed between us. The dollars in my wallet would mean much more in theirs. I feel, consequently, the wind of demand, of need, blowing between us.
Want to leave today, March 17, for Morocco, but it's Saturday and no Bush Taxis are going. I could really use a ride north across the border, so it becomes my policy to stop foreign looking people on the street. I meet, consequently, more travelers: a group of Polish people, who have driven here from Germany and are heading south to Nouakchott on what is surely among the world's worst roads. They introduce me to a Japanese couple, going north, after having waited here four days for just the sort of ride I'm trying to score. They speak some English but no French. We decide to team up in a Bush Taxi or whatever. I -- catch this -- I can serve as a translator into French. I have people, almost too many people, with whom to hang this evening.
This, you should be informed, is the beginning of another story: the story of our border crossing.
The Bush Taxis, it is becoming clear, cannot take foreigners across the border. They can drop you -- for the same money as the complete trip all the way up to Dakhla -- walking distance from the Mauritania side of the border. The Japanese couple, Yoichiro and Junko Ueda, have found someone who'll do that for somewhat less than that money. Whatever. If only they will leave. We began trying to leave before 9 a.m. We don't get going until after noon.
And it is the worst road I have ever been on -- even in a four by four. A hardened, very rocky sand track much of the time. Sometimes the eroded, hopelessly pitted remnants of an asphalt strip ("the old Spanish Road"). Sometimes just desert. Sometimes blowing sand. We move at Tres Petite Vitesse. Two Mauritanian police checkpoints along the way. Two, for a while it looks like three, requests for brides: "How can I let you pass when you don't have receipts for all the money you have changed?" I'm getting angry. "All I want to do is get out of this fuckin' country," I end up muttering to the Japanese at some point. The bribes, I argue (successfully in the end), were supposed to be included in the price of the ride.
We have a guide along, fortunately, who knows this road, who used to lead people over it to Morocco in the days -- just a few months ago -- when it was illegal to cross in this direction and you had to avoid not only the deep sand and the land mines that have been planted near the contested border but the police. The guide is constantly yelling at the less experienced driver. He wants him to get up more speed before we tackle sandy patches going up hill. We make a couple of wrong turns and have to go back. We get stuck in one of those sandy patches. We're outside the vehicle -- digging, pushing.
My name, I'm kind of pleased to report, is now "Américaine." (Clearly, not that many of us pass this way.) "Américaine you push here." "Americaine can you drive?" (Actually, I'm not very comfortable with a stick.) "Américaine dig over here now." (I do prove an industrious sand pusher.) It takes a long while before we're finally moving again.
Guide and driver let us off in the desert (everything now is in the desert) about a kilometer from the Mauritanian side of the border. This is quite a place to be let off: sand all around, a wispy road we're instructed to follow, a little border post just discernible in the distance. And it is already after five in the evening, almost dark. We walk. Eventually, we see a fatigue-clad figure on a hill of sand looking at us. We approach. I try to explain our presence, in French. We are essentially inviting ourselves to spend the night at their "place." He asks us to follow him across the desert (I assume he knows where any mines might be) to the "poste" -- a shack closed on three sides, where more fatigue-clad fellows are sitting around. These men, we learn, live out here on the frontier for fifteen days before returning to Nouadhibou for a month. They seem content to have us as overnight "house" guests.
Their "chief," when he shows up, seems more than content; he seems quite interested in this little lost delegation from America and Japan. This seems a throwback to the traditional traveler-host relationship. He invites us to share their food: a noodle dish, scooped up by hand from a large bowl; he finds a little hut where the Japanese couple can unroll their sleeping bags; he finds a blanket and pillow with which sleeping-bag-less me will be able to sleep (with five shirts and three pair of pants on to keep out the desert-night cold) on one side of the floor of this crowded "poste." In return we offer tales of faraway places: I note that the Japanese have made it here from Capetown and that they're planning to make it home without recourse to airplanes. I get out my map so that they can point out the amazing route they have already followed up and across Africa. The chief keeps asking the price of a ticket from Paris to New York. They pass around our passports trying to figure out all the countries we've been to and not trying to get a bribe. We -- less me than the others -- play with words in each other's languages: Arabic, Japanese, French and English. At one point I watch the bearded, bright-eyed chief beaming as he watches Junko gently fixing Yoichiro's hat. I also beam. I love this fuckin' country.
I fall asleep with the men -- they're police not military, they make clear -- chatting and joking around me. Between shifts at night there is more talking. I'm warned to stay on the road when I go out to use the non-facilities. Land mines.
We -- Yoichiro, Junko and Mitch -- are up and moving by eight on the morning of March 18. The plan is to walk from Mauritania to Morocco, following what's left of the Spanish Road across no-man's land -- land mines presumably on either side, an eight-kilometer walk, with backpacks on. The desert shines bright; the rocks and hills make long shadows under the still-low sun. A breeze blows. We can do this. We do do this in a couple of hours, with just one rest stop and lots of water.
But a funny thing happens when, tired but satisfied, we finally reach the barrier fifty meters from the Moroccan guard post and begin to wave. What happens is nothing. The guard orders us, with hand signals, to stay on the other side of the barrier and just stands there. I try to sign back exasperation. No response. Occasionally we see people walk from the fort up on a hill to near the guard post. They ignore us. We wait. And wait. Finally, a delegation moves in our direction. They look over our papers, but politely inform us that crossing this frontier on foot is not permitted.
Okay. All right. We've just walked eight kilometers across the desert. It's getting hotter. Our food and water supplies are running low. What now? You'll have to wait for a car, we're told. And not just any car. We can't cross with Mauritanians. We can't cross with Moroccans. And we have been passed by a grand total of no cars of any nationality all morning. I wave around my business card. I ask to call the US Embassy. It doesn't help.
We are told to walk back about a kilometer and wait by "the burnt out car." We walk. We wait. No cars pass. I figure by four I'll walk back to Morocco and beg and plead, or yell and scream. But then we hear something. It's a caravan of three Land Rovers -- two with French couples, one, ours, with one French man. They stop and smile. Turns out they had met the vehicle that dropped us off yesterday evening. They were expecting to find us. Hop in. We do, joyfully.
And pull up with them to the same barrier feeling good. But again nothing happens. The French, in French style, busy themselves with putting together lunch. I see baguettes and tomatoes. They are clearly unfazed. They've all been around here before. In fact, they seem somewhat disappointed when the delegation slowly walks down and begins checking our papers. Lunch has been interrupted. We can now enter Morocco.
But not too far. We drive past the barrier to a "campsite" a few kilometers down the road. Ain't no store here. Ain't no water or toilets. I mention to the guards that I'm running out of water and food and that I have no sleeping bag. Nothing to be done, I'm told. But soon the guards bring me a couple of bottles of water. They find a messy old tarp upon which I can sleep. They then arrive with a container of milk. Then a bag full of bread. And, hey, Monsieur Le Américaine, here's some more water. It is very difficult to stay angry at border guards in this part of the world. The French spend the night in their Land Rovers. The Japanese couple and I sleep in an incompletely whitewashed structure.
March 19. Once in a while, in order to give the writing even more of that old present-tense, you-are-there-feeling and to show fellow travelers I'm not just a dork without a sleeping bag but a dork without a sleeping bag who writes, I whip out the old laptop -- in the open air. And you're in luck, cause this time I and it are stationed in the sandy, garbage bedecked courtyard of that primitive, mostly-white structure in Morocco, just a few kilometers from the Mauritanian border. Sun's finding its way above the hills. The pastel colors and the desert glow are giving way to a more traditional light.
We're in, as one of the officers insisted on reminding me, a "military zone." I've never before been in a military zone. In fact, I expended some energy exactly thirty years ago to make sure I wouldn't have to visit one. And sure enough there are plenty of green-fatigued soldiers around. They hang out in jeeps, even forts. And I saw a real cannon. You'll want to be reminded that this, the southern part of Morocco, used to belong to Spain and be called Western Sahara. When, in 1975, Spain got tired of fighting with the rebels who thought it should belong to them, they let Morocco step in. The rebels weren't exactly pleased with that solution. Hence the need for military. There's been a cease fire since 1991, and people around here have pretty much learned how to avoid the remaining land mines. But the Moroccans are being cautious. We're at this "campsite" here -- actually just a sandy parking lot surrounded by more of these crumbling buildings, lots more garbage and, further back, human and animal waste -- awaiting permission to join a military-supervised convoy heading north.
You'll want more color. Okay, the French guy with the venerable Land Cruiser -- by far the car of choice round here -- the guy who saved us from the desert yesterday, is currently brewing what I would expect to be coffee. Other French people, in other four by fours, are just rising and devoting themselves to their first meal. I've had my usual bread and water. A pack of dogs, which had the grounds to itself for an hour or so, is beginning to settle in the shade. Inside the building my two Japanese traveling companions are reading tour books about Morocco.
Just about everything here is difficult. I'm pleased when the Japanese, who have hit a good percentage of the countries in Africa, and one of the Land Rover people agree that this is the toughest border they have faced. We are living without toilet, running water, stores, phone, shower. We wash ourselves by pulling up what we have been warned is "bad" water from a well. We swat away the flies and try to find a place to relieve ourselves among the garbage, far enough to be private but close enough not to involve any land minds.
Just about everything here is interesting: the way the sand glows at dusk and dawn; the opportunity, in fact the obligation, to attend dusk and dawn; the soldiers; their fort in the distance; the military mind, which chooses to form only two convoys a week south (the heavily traveled direction) but a convoy a day north, which decides it is necessary to record the number of children each of us has and our mother's name two or three times at the same border. And I have great interest, as always, in fellow travelers: the Japanese, the Land Rover types, the French -- always, everyone of them, intrepid, always open, always uncomplaining, though we will end up stuck here for twenty-eight hours. (Maybe we need a few more traditional tourists -- French or otherwise -- to pass through in order to get this border functioning better.)
But just about nothing here is dangerous, though this is not always easy to comprehend as we look at maps, read newspapers and look through guidebooks in New Jersey. There are no dangerous animals. No one was going to let us starve in no-man's-land. The land mines are far enough from the road. I never feel threatened.
Which is the way it is, I'm learning, with most of the world.
So we wait. I take a nap (Okay, it's not always that difficult), with turban on, to keep off the flies. I'm asked my mother's name one more time. A German couple pulls up to wait for tomorrow's convoy; they report having a mother offer, I don't recall exactly where in Africa this happened, to sell them her four-month-old baby.
Our convoy, five SUVs with a soldier sitting in one, eventually forms at about six in the evening. We start driving north, stopping frequently at check points. I'm straining my brain trying to talk real French French with the driver. My Japanese friends sit in the back of the Land Rover. We wait about a half hour just outside of Dakhla. Africa is a school for patience, the driver tells me. We arrive at a hotel at midnight. Restaurant, telephone-facilities, Internet facilities all now closed. (I have been completely out-of-touch for three days.) Later I meet a couple who had been in the previous day's convoy; they didn't arrive in Dakhla until eight in the morning. I sleep in a bed.
March 21. Call home. Receive and send email. Check bus schedule. Bus leaves at noon. Too-quick bath, rushed packing, and I just make it.
Okay, I may have found the perfect form of transportation -- even if you get no exercise and have to follow their schedule. This tall bus has seats on top of the driver. I get the full, panoramic, straight-ahead view! No curtains. Some dismiss the scenery between Dakhla and Laayoune as just desert.
The perfection of the transport is lessened a bit by the fact that we have to stop at two checkpoints outside of each town in the former Western Sahara for the three foreigners on board -- myself and two nice fellows from Mauritania -- to register with two different kinds of police. Number of children and mother's name, again and again and again. The whole bus waits while all this information is written down by hand. Another negative is that the ride from Dakhla all the way to Marrakesh takes 25 hours. I'll spend my third night out of four without a bed.
First American music since Dakar when we stop for lunch. Satellite dishes on a large percentage of the houses. Someone actually reading a newspaper on the bus -- first public reading I recall seeing in Africa. Morocco, after Mauritania, feels like Europe. But I've still got "the desert in my toenails." March 22.
I go "um" a lot. When the food tastes good (as in "What About Bob"). When the bus turns from the coast and Agadir toward High Atlas mountains. Um. Red-dirt hills, green (argane) trees and the usual blue sky. Um. Hills change to tan, even a kind of yellow; trees and sky remain the same color. Um. Red Marrakesh. Um. A raison in the couscous.
When's the last time I was in a kingdom, where the king really ruled? Monaco? King here seems to be proceeding toward democracy with all deliberate slowness. I hate kings.
Marrakesh, March 23. I note that men hold hands here. I wander skinny streets. I observe that this is the last redoubt not only of the Renault 5 but of the Renault 4. I call Marketplace and chat with David B. from the wide plaza: talking Mauritania, talking -- limits of understanding we hope acknowledged -- slavery. I conclude -- off air -- that the range of life is wider in these countries: plenty of cell phones, also plenty of donkeys pulling plenty of loads. I eat at a food stall in that plaza. I find a place that serves beer. I talk with two Peace Corps kids, one of whom is living alone in a mud hut. I talk with a former librarian who now leads walking tours in Morocco and teaches the Dutch walkers that it is possible to go on after your stomach gets sick and who, when asked what there is to learn here, replies that Islam translates as "surrender." I could have done more, hard as this is for me to admit, with Marrakesh.
"All aboard the train." March 24. Marrakesh to Tangier. I am, once again, ready to move, ready to fast see. And this is indeed a pretty country I'm gliding, quick-riding through -- with its pinks and whites, with a beauty that does not require much in the way of overlooking or deeper seeing. The return of agriculture -- "wheat fields waving." Where are the beggars? A few older people, with whom I deal poorly. Africa: Mind around. Africa: New thing, found.
The first train of my trip. Jiggity, jiggita. It speeds up. Da dum da. Da dump. Trains have gaits like horses. (I won't succumb to clickity clack.) Faster still. Da dum dump. Da dum dump. Train, desert people, skirt-raised dancers: SING ME AN IDEA OF THE WORLD! Of the woefullest continent; of endless poverties and fogless beauties; of old ages everywhere you look, everywhere you point your lens; of the liveliest continent; of long-robed, proud-walking, hand-holding Africa; of the first humans, of the last. Monsieur Le Américaine, with a presumption characteristic of his kind, asks the right to know you. In three weeks. And, of course, permission has not been granted. But can he, at least, be allowed to keep trying. Rh rh rhhut. Rh rh rhhut. What idea of the world can squeeze this continent in? What idea of the world can avoid beginning here? I want to listen. Sing me an idea. I want to learn. I am not sure I know how.
Have about 20 minutes, between trains, to tour Casablanca -- by foot, avec backpack. And to think it takes some tourists days, even weeks, to get to know a place. Still, may come here again, man.
This long, long train ride. Compartment companions come and go. I'm worn out from territory covering, worn out from reading poorly organized, surface-hugging books on culture and global politics, worn, worn. And now it's black out there. Can't see a thing 'cept the occasional forlorn light. Hard to know you're moving. I need to know I'm moving.
"Drifting in a daze." Tangier. March 25.
No one I know knows I'm here. Yet this hotel room is crowded with so many of them. Old paradox: The more alone you are the more voices you hear. "Me and my shadow." A night of parading. Bustle in the street.
And, incidentally, am I learning anything? Beatniks once came to Tangier to accomplish that. I look for their books, but it's Sunday and all I can come up with is one by Jane Bowles. Is it possible to learn without illicit sex and morphine?
I lose it again. Odd. I'm not the sort of fellow who loses it often. But once I convince myself that the man at the "Information" booth at the ferry terminal, morning of March 26, has in fact given me false information -- designed to get me to buy, from him, a ticket on one particular ship -- I start carrying on. Patience. Surrender. The gift of delay. All I have presumably learned is suddenly lost. And I'm just another pissed off tourist complaining loud and fast -- too fast in English to really be understood -- about the presumed sanctity of an information booth. I was told the ship for which I was sold a ticket would leave at eight, maybe eight thirty; the other ship at ten. For a while, I'm convinced the opposite is true. In fact, I can't even get on my ship because there's no policeman around to stamp my passport. And traveling up the side of West Africa hasn't been easy. And I didn't get much sleep. I'm worn. And who cares if they think I'm just another pissed off tourist. I just let go. In fact the other boat leaves at nine thirty; we depart fifteen minutes later. By then I've calmed down.
The language situation had grown complex enough in Tangier, with its Arabic, French, Spanish and a bit of English. You never knew what language it was that you should be making some effort to communicate in or were failing to understand. On this ship? Worse. Now in Spain my recently resuscitated French is completely blocking whatever Spanish I might produce. "Merci. I mean gracias." Or I just stand there, mute.
Just when you think that the world is hopelessly large, you hop on a ferry from Africa to Europe and feel its nearnesses. Just when you think you can get a handle on this large world, you end up someplace like Africa that is, in the end, beyond your powers of comprehension. An idea of the world, a way around it. It is as if the world -- by which I mean human experience -- teeters just at the edge of my/our capacity for understanding. Pieces that never quite form a whole. Wholes never quite encompassing pieces. I lose them. Yet I find this failure somehow almost satisfying, as well as convenient. Are too steady -- or too unsteady -- understandings tyrannical, like kings?
There's a big lump at one end of the harbor, across from the ferry landing at Algeciras, Spain, that ought to be Gibraltar. It doesn't look like Gibraltar. I trudge over to the bus station. I get a bus to La Linea, the Spanish town on the other side of the border (The Line) from Gibraltar. I walk, across a runway, towards this oddly sunny English town. From this angle, Gibraltar sure does look like Gibraltar. That's fortunate, since I have neglected to account for the time difference between Morocco and here. That difference turns out to be two hours. No time for the tour of the rock I was about to take. Have to rush to make the bus to Malaga. But I can say I saw Gibraltar.
I get a nice look, from that bus, at the Costa del Sol, too. At first it looks clean and white and, of course, sunny if a bit touristy. Later just crowded and touristy. And there's also Spain to ponder -- or at least the European-holiday version there of. Spain, here, looks well off. I've seen it when it wasn't. Construction everywhere. Hard to find a man without a gut. Guess I can say I saw Malaga too.
It occurs to me as I clomp around Malaga -- backpack on, trying to find a hotel, trying to say that I am trying to find a hotel -- that one advantage of moving slower, of getting to know one country at a time -- is that you actually develop some facility in such tasks as finding hotel rooms. I assume this has occurred to others.
Home for a short while, via Paris. March 27.
About the Lexus: You still have to grab the handle, squeeze and then pull open the door -- manually.
The Journal Continues....Europe: The New World
Beginning of the Journal: The Americas: Signs and Wonders (Part 1)
Beginning of this part of the Journal
"...Because there was nowhere to go but everywhere," J.K., On the Road.