Eagle and serpent

explorations and philosophy: in the world, of the world

Month: April, 2009

Let the man sleep

Our new driver was a man in about his seventies, and a loud one. After starting his car, we drove about three minutes before it was time for eating, evening prayers and just hanging around with his mates in a highway ‘diner’. I took the time to gaze at the desert by night, and it undeniably looked very cool indeed. When we finally continued, I fell asleep for a short while, waking up when he pulled the car over once again, stretched his legs and started to snore. My neighbour helpfully shouted to my ear in Berber/Arabic that our driver needs to rest a while.

After a half an hour or so, I seriously suggested to the man to continue driving, which proved to be a bad, very bad mistake. He agreed and started driving. Once again I thought that things are finally going on just fine…and fell asleep.

I woke up to the snoring of our man, while moving about 80 km/h in a completely dark highway in the middle of Sahara! Driving in the middle of the road, falling asleep time and again, only to wake up to the headlights of an encountering truck and tilting to the right just before hitting was his style. Shouting of French/English/Berber/Arabic (+ swearwords in all the languages spoken in the car) filled the 1970s Mercedes for few minutes. Despite us now agreeing that he can sleep, he insisted of lasting to the next city of Boujdour. He (and us) made it; once again he stretched his legs and started to snore.

After two and a half hours of very tired sipping mint tea and communicating with the locals without a common language, we decided to continue and wake up our driver. At this point the clock was somewhere around three in the morning. He woke up and off we went! This time he lasted one hour, before the roulette started all over again. We pulled over to sleep (at this point I was approaching a mental state of ‘accepting harmony’; I think Zen Buddhists talk about it). After an hour of sleep he was able to continue, being able to remain somewhat awake… Just few times we had to do something silly with his non-functioning radio, the activity of which he would reproach loudly (I think he never realised it was our tactic of stimulating his blood circulation).

We reached Laayoune after twelve hours, at six o’clock in the morning. The guy gracefully drove me two blocks to my hotel.

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Crawling back from Dakhla to Laayoune turned out to be one of the most stressful experiences of my life.

The RAM clerk helpfully noted that the next flight to Laayoune takes place in exactly one week; the advice was to take a bus. However, all the buses were fully booked for the evening and the coming morning. The only option left was to take a shared taxi.

Already the thought of crossing the endless desert with six other people in an age-old Mercedes invoked some preparatory mental exercises. To get and idea, just stuff seven people into an old Mercedes, add some local entertainment (clerics citing Qur’an or local youth listening to music from their mobiles without headphones), kiss your knees and you have the atmosphere! In my naivety, I assumed the drive to take approximately six hours (less than 400 km), thereby arriving around midnight. How wrong I was.

The journey started with a thorough search through nearby villages after some other taxis and exchanging empty and full gasoline canisters. Then we discussed with the military why I was already leaving the city, as I had arrived very recently. Then we again hunted some cabdrivers, for perhaps a half an hour. When we finally got on the road, I admit I actually developed a feeling of ‘everything going just fine’. And everything went fine until about half-way, when our driver told us to step into another taxi with our stuff. He would turn around and go back to Dakhla with the people from the taxi we swapped with.

Changing plans in Sahara

Sometimes one has to change plans with a few minutes notice. Being in Sahara makes it much more interesting.

Earlier during the day I was replied by the helpful Canaries-based travel agency that “yes we do have flights from Nouadhibou to Las Palmas, no problem”. I had already booked a seat in a 4wd towards the border to take off early in the morning to cover the last stretch across the desert. I was already about to change my fistful of dirhams to euros, when I decided to double-check.

Marta told me with a surprised voice that “we don’t have flights between Mauritania and the Canary Islands”. When inquiring the purpose of the email stating the complete opposite, she simply noted: “oh yes, all flights were cancelled later today, sorry”. Oh yeah, thanks for keeping me updated.

Of course, all parties having an economic interest in me reacted angrily. Moors are not that nice people when you’re cancelling something. Two guys (one I never seen before) started shouting and telling complete lies about the availability of foreign currency, flights and other stuff across the border. When they couldn’t persuade me to stick with my original plan, they tried an even more aggressive approach. Only “what are you going to do about it” ended the conversation.

Having burned the bridges, it was time to find means to get out of town, quickly.

Tourists and travellers

One of the most prevailing topics in hostels and guesthouses during the evening hang-out is the classic distinction between us travellers and mere tourists. Sometimes you meet outspoken and even proud (?) tourists, but usually the narrator himself is a sailor of the uncharted seas.

Whereas it is undeniably lucrative to tag oneself as ‘brave’, ‘explorer’ and ‘free spirit’, one should perhaps take a moment to really put it in the context. True, there are the poles of the ‘samsonite-herd-animals’ and those that have totally abandoned (or been abandoned by) the organised society possessing only flip-flops, sarong and attitude. Although these extremes exist, there are lots of shades of gray between them.

I don’t like advance payments to strangers, let them be travel agencies or airlines. Despite this, I admit that I have a blueprint or a rough idea of my near-future whereabouts (subject to change) while travelling. If a tourist is defined as a person booking flights or buses more than a day in advance, then I fall in the other category. On the other hand, I’m far away from the extent some people are willing to go, one example here and another here.

One should perhaps balance one’s own ambiguity avoidance / adventure ratio.

Backlog

As my trip went further, the availability of high-speed Internet connections within reasonable distance and cost went pretty close to zero.

Therefore, the following travel-related posts are built on my experiences and reflections on the road, nevertheless typed from the comfort of my flat.