Boujdour, Western Sahara * October 16, 2008
It was perhaps the longest, straightest, flattest and most desolate road I have ridden in my 120,000 miles of motorcycling. The lone route south from Tan Tan Plage to Boujdour, from Morocco into Western Sahara, lay unceremoniously atop the Sahara, a manmade ribbon of asphalt across a harsh and unforgiving wilderness.
Once in a while, the road edged west and afforded a view of the Atlantic and its waves crashing against the rocky coast. Along the sea, fishermen lived in small huts of concrete or mud block and fabric tents. Ten or 20 of these dwellings might be assembled in a given location, and as I passed them I grew more and more curious about the people inside. Finally, I stopped.
The wind was still. The silence was utter. It was as if the great emptiness has crushed all the sound out of things. The Sahara sprawled to the east, vast and rocky and barren and peppered by scrub-brush plants hardy enough to survive these punishing conditions. A man was eyeing me from outside his mud hut. Slowly he approached.
He extended his hand and we shook. He eyes were such an inky black that it seemed to me they had been burned by the sun. Equally as black were his eyebrows, his mustache, and his turban. His teeth were white and his smile was large. He called himself Zahib.
I am reminded in these situations how dismal my ear for French is. I can express myself adequately, but understanding what others say eludes me. My ear is so poor, in fact, that I have difficulty distinguishing whether I am being addressed in French or Arabic or Esperanto.
I ask that they speak more slowly. Sil vous plait parle mais lentement. I explain my French is poor. It rarely helps.
He was, of course, a fisherman. Bon poisson? I asked, rather like an idiot. Good fish? He nodded enthusiastically. I asked if he had children. He appeared to be in his mid-30s. He did – five youngsters, he said, proudly. They were nowhere to be seen, however, and I was left to wonder whether they were fishing. There was no town within many dozens of miles; I couldn’t imagine that they were in school.
I tried to learn how he and his family procured fresh water, but it ended in comical confusion of botched words and ribaldly bad pronunciation. Finally, I offered him a cigarette and we stood and smoked in silence, looking out at the sea.
I have been sick for two days. I blame the spaghetti Bolognese from a five-star hotel called Hotel Idou Tiznit. It was an outrageously fancy place with a grand staircase and marble floors and a lovely outdoor swimming pool with reclining chairs. It had a proper bar with actual beer (rare in Islamic countries) and free wireless Internet and was one block away from the municipal campsite in Tiznit, where we tented for $4 USD a night.
Appearance is half the battle. I strode into the Hotel Idou Tiznit around 9 a.m. with my IBM ThinkPad x40 in my tankbag and settled down. I was on the Internet in five minutes and, because I had strategically selected a seat in the corner of the bar, which wouldn’t open until afternoon, I was barely noticed. When a hotel manager finally did approach me, it was to inquire whether I would like a coffee or a juice.
Back at the campsite, Geoff and Migo wrenched on their motorbikes. Geoff cleaned his chain and Migo troubleshot a coolant leak and they both changed oil. I returned in midday to scrub clean my laundry in the hot shower with the detergent and scrub brush I carry and repaired to the Hotel Idou Tiznit around 5 p.m.
The restaurant prices were surprisingly affordable. The spaghetti Bolognese, $4 USD, was quite good. But it (or perhaps the salade nicoise, in all fairness to the spaghetti) also awoke me in my tent at 4 a.m. with vomit squirming in the back of my throat and my sphincter clenched in urgency.
I puked I immediately, and managed to slip on my running shoes and hie myself without incident to the stand-up squatter, where with my shorts around my ankles (the urgency was such that I could not properly remove them) I most skillfully eliminated from three orifices simultaneously without soiling myself in the least.
It went downhill from there. From Tiznit I vomited, crapped and labored through the day. I perspired heavily and blew my nose a couple dozen times. My body was trying to rid itself of whatever poison I had ingested. I was running a low fever, and droning on at 72 mph through the desert in the midday sun, dreamed of a nap. In Tan Tan Plage, on the Atlantic coast, we met according to plan Peter Cullen, the same Irishman of Britain that Geoff and I had encountered at the Ceuta border crossing.
My hotel room was large and clean with a television with one English language station, and I was fast sleep by 5:30 p.m.
The vomiting persisted through the next day, as did the exhaustion. I kept my chin up as we took an 1½ hour in midday to change Migo’s rear tire at a gas station; his rear was growing dangerously bare. When the job was done, Geoff found two pieces of loose steel wire in the old tire, sheared evidently from the belt. It was to Migo’s good luck that they had not caused a flat, perhaps at speed.
We crossed the border from Morocco into Western Sahara without a hiccup; Western Sahara retains its name but is governed by Morocco. Police checkpoints, frequent here because of the Al Qaeda terrorist presence in Mauritania and Algeria, were a blessing and a curse. I could relax for 10 minutes and drink water, yet those were 10 minutes in which I was not where I belonged, which was in bed.
“Pain in the arse, they are,” Geoff said of these frequent checkpoints. At each, we have to show our passports and explain our occupations and where we have been and where we are going. “But it’s good for us, all these police means the roads are safer from the bad guys.”
What was perhaps the longest, straightest, flattest and most desolate road I had ever ridden helped to ease my discomfort. I sat back on autopilot and enjoyed the Sahara scenery. Some camels stood about here. The wind had sculpted a huge and majestic dune there. Don’t push, I told myself. Let the bike do the work. Some 300 miles south from Tan Tan Plage was a town named Boujdour.
The tiny typeface used for the city on my Michelin map suggested that Boujdour was a dusty and primitive outpost.
The farther south we proceed, the fewer vehicles we see. I can ride 10 or 15 minutes without being passed in the opposite direction. The great emptiness fosters communality. People wave to each other out here, as if to express -- we’re here together. Men in vehicles wave as they pass us. Trucks flash their lights in greeting. Any person alongside the road is more likely than not to wave, or offer a thumbs-up.
I recalled having witnessed the same phenomenon while riding the long and lonely stretches of Ruta 40 in Patagonia. Virtually everyone waved to me, and, I assume, to each other.
Yet once I arrived in a town, or traffic densified, the waving diminished.
Late in the day, we rode nearly straight into the setting sun. My helmet faceshield and sunglasses were dirty and dusty and generated a surreal glare in the harsh sunlight – a sort of phosphorescent yellow that resembled, I imagined, the aftermath of a nuclear detonation. The effect was almost surreal, and with the blinding glare and my own fatigue I had to concentrate to keep my eyes focused on the road.
Running off the road in the Sahara, son, I told myself, is no way to end the day.
I felt suddenly better in Boujdour. At first glance, it resembled a Wild West town, missing the bar and the brothel. Donkey-led carts click-clacked down the dusty streets. The long, broad main boulevard was lined with colorful cafes and teleboutiques and clothing shops and Internet joints and a couple of pool parlors, most advertised in Arabic.
I stood by my motorbike with Geoff waiting as Peter and Migo hunted for suitable accommodation. As I looked around, it struck me: My God! Look how happy these people are!
Nowhere on the ride had I seen so many smiling faces. Men walked down the streets holding hands, an expression of friendship in Islamic culture. People laughed amongst each other, not just a couple people, but most everyone.
The phenomenon seemed to be contagious. Everywhere I looked, people were smiling and laughing. It almost felt like an episode from the Twilight Zone.
Geoff had spotted a sign down the street. “PUB,” it said, promisingly, and beneath it hung another sign for a sort of German beer. I checked it out, and found two young men roasting chickens on a rotisserie at a little restaurant. They laughed and smiled and invited me to sit for dinner. They laughed even harder in telling me that, contrary to the signs, they did not have beer. No one did in Boujdour, they said, and that seemed cause for even more laughter.
I walked away chuckling myself, despite being misled by something of a desert mirage.
Boujdour was not the primitive, dusty backwater town that Mister Michelin had led me to expect. It was full of mirth and animation. Neon signs advertised a café and a teleboutique, which I used to phone my parents for about $5 USD. I don’t believe I’d seen a neon sign outside of the largest Moroccan cities. Too, Boujdour had streetlights, another characteristic unusual to a mid-sized Moroccan town.
An old man walked by with a goat on a leash. He was short and hunched over and attired in a traditional Islamic robe and turban. His face was pinched and dour and seemingly humorless. The goat went, “Mah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.”
I went, “Mah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.”
The old man looked at me and went, “Mah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.” It was as hilarious as it was improbable, and I laughed and laughed.
For the first time on the trip, women in veils said something to me. A group of three came by, asked something in I believe Arabic, pointed back and forth around the bike, and laughed and laughed. Stumped for a reply, I said, “So ladies, who do you like in the World Series? The Rays are up on the Red Sox in the ALCS. I’m rooting for them – the underdog.” They laughed even harder.
Hotel Taiba had clean rooms with TVs for $15 USD. The owner helped me carry my luggage up and did not linger for a tip. “This home is your home,” he said, genuinely, it seemed. Then the hotel switched its satellite to capture BBC for its English-language guests, and I was delighted to learn that one poll showed Obama with a lead of 14 percentage points over McCain, and that the Tampa Bay Rays were up 3 to 1 on Red Sox.
Things were looking up.
I awoke at 6:30 a.m. feeling terrific. My affliction had passed. I showered and was downstairs before 7 a.m., eager for a cup of coffee.
The same veiled, dark-eyed young lady who had tended the desk last night was still there. The café is right around the corner, she said. It’s open? I asked. This early? Of course.
We had parked our motorbikes on the sidewalk in front of the hotel. An old man was tasked to be their guardian. He was seated on a blue plastic chair, as he had been when I retired the night before. ”Guardian!” I greeted him. He leapt up and extended his hand. His grip was strong. Come on, I said, I’ll buy you a cup of coffee.
His name was Salah. He was in his late 60s, if not early 70s, and wore a soiled navy blue robe. Beneath his bristly mustache was a toothless smile, which flashed irrepressibly. Salah refused a coffee. Nor would he sit for a juice or a croissant. The one gift he would like (besides the dirham I had paid the night before) was a cigarette.
I watched Boujdour come to life. Happy and nicely attired children with backpacks walked past on their way to school. An impossibly cute girl with big black eyes and a ponytail smiled at me. A young boy of about 10 named Mohammed, who along with a friend, also named Mohammed, had tagged along with me for 20 minutes the night before, spotted me at the café. He stopped and greeted me and shook my hand with the confidence of an adult and declared, buoyantly, “L’ecole!” School!
Sitting there, I reflected that it was in this very area that a U.S. merchant vessel had shipwrecked in the late 1800s. The crew had been taken hostage by desert nomads and enslaved. I had read about it in a book called Skeletons on the Zahara. The men barely survived (I had thought about their grueling ordeal, too, in contrast to my own pissant little bout of illness). It was one of dozens of such incidents in that era.
Boujdour had been rebuilt not long ago, it seemed. The broad main boulevard and newish facades suggested that the old town had been ripped up and replaced. I asked the café waiter what economy sustained this little blossom in the desert. What’s the main industry? How do people make money?
I had seen nothing that would account for such apparent prosperity – no large banks, no visible industry, just the ordinary, if relatively upscale, collection of cafes and shops we had seen in far poorer, broken-down Moroccan towns. The waiter told me fishing was the principal industry.
Fishing, I thought to myself, cannot by itself generate such relative wealth.
Peter Cullen joined me for a coffee. Peter is a smart and articulate man. He understood that the Moroccan government subsidizes these distant southern outposts under a program called the “Green March” to fortify Morocco’s foothold in its nethermost regions. That made sense, as I couldn’t imagine that many people would otherwise choose to live here. The girl clerk at the hotel confirmed Peter’s understanding.
“The government pays people to live here,” she told me. “It is OK. But people stay in their houses all day or sit at cafes. They want to work a job, but there are no jobs. They sit and do nothing. They are bored.”
Boujdour was indeed a Twilight Zone of sorts, one propped up by the government. I remained confounded. How could bored people seem so happy?
Then again, my ride through the desert that day, 300-plus miles to Dahkla, might have been considered boring. And yet I was as happy as I had ever been.