Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Tale Of The Unexpected

The best day of my trip so far began rather inauspiciously: I arrived in town after a gruelling 24 hours of travelling, and the town was just supposed to be a rest stop between overnight bus journeys - it has no sights to speak of and is at least 1000km from the nearest UNESCO world heritage site. What the hell was I going to do in Laayoune? But first, how did I get there, and where is it even?

I got up early on the morning I wanted to leave Nouadhibu as it was the last day before my visa expired and I didn't want to get any hassles from the Mauritanian authorities. I scurried over to the transport garage where bush taxis leave for Dakhla, the first town of any note on the other side of the border, made my intended destination known and sat down to wait. [At this point I think I ought to point out that to the north of Mauritania lies Western Sahara. It was a Spanish colony until 1974 when they finally moved out, but instead of leaving the Sahrawis to themselves the Moroccans and Mauritanians moved in to annex the newly vacated territory. The Sahrawis managed to repel the Moors but not the Moroccans and so the territory has effectively been annexed by the latter which has also sent a wave of settlers to occupy the territory, effectively making the Sahrawis a minority within their own country. The UN has been on the ground for the past 18 years trying to get the sides to agree to a framework for a referendum but so far to no avail. Naturally the status of Western Sahara is a touchy subject in Morocco and is officially referred to as the "Saharan Provinces". There are distinct parallels with the Palestinian situation, but oddly enough the Saharan situation doesn't elicit a similar response from the Arab community.] And wait I did. And then some more. Despite turning up at 8am the taxi didn't leave until 2pm. We were a motley collection of passengers: a Senegalese tour guide heading north to meet his French girlfriend, a Guinean off to see his brother in Casablanca, a portly Sahrawi woman (for Moors and Sahrawis traditionally the plumper the lady the more beautiful she is) and her hyperactive 5 year-old son, an old Moor and myself, bringing up the rear. The authorities on the Mauritanian side are notoriously corrupt and my black-African travelling companions had to shell out cash at several checkpoints (of which there are many throughout the country), but once their greed satisfied we got through quite quickly. Between the two countries the no-man's-land is just that, with no side claiming responsibility for it, and so the 4km stretch between the two borders isn't even graded, let alone sealed. Cars, and even large, articulated lorries, gingerly pick their way through the desert and pray they don't get stuck. A good half hour later we reached the Moroccan border and the difference was immediately evident. Here there was order, respect, rules. There was also a tight adherence to them and a thoroughness that was lacking in their their counterparts to the south. Unfortunately this meant paperwork and bag-searching, which lasted over two hours. By 6pm we were on the road and heading to Dakhla and we reached the police checkpoint on the outskirts of the town at 11pm. As the police were taking our details a bus heading north trundled along and I (and my Senegalese companion) jumped at the chanced and hopped on for another 8 hour jaunt to Laayoune, the regional capital (by all accounts Dakhla doesn't have particularly much to keep the curious visitor busy).

So I arrived in Laayoune at 7am. The bus dropped us off in the central square just in front of the nicest hotel in town, used as a HQ by the UN. I could tell because there were over 25 UN vehicles (most of them new Landcruiser Prados) in the parking lot. I had little information about Laayoune and that which I had read something like this: "there's nothing there". Armed with this information I planned to to spend the day there before taking another night bus north to the coastal city of Essaouira. My only ray of hope was the number of a CouchSurfer who may or may be in town. I waited until 8am to call Ali. Luckily he was in. Unluckily I had woken him up. Once this little faux pas was ironed over he said that he'd come over and meet me in town. He took me to a pleasant cafe to have some breakfast and a conversation - he turned out to be both an informed and eloquent individual and it was fascinating to get his views, not just on the Sahara question, but on life in Morocco in general.

We then returned to his flat to drop off my rucksack and check on the plumber (he was having his bathroom redone). The town struck me as being neat and clean (though Ali reminded me that I had just been in Mauritania and that all things are relative), the houses, though rather boxy, all painted in a not unpleasant combination of rose and white, but it all seemed unfinished and missing something.

"So there you have it," said Ali once we had arrived at his place.
"Laayoune. There isn't much to see. To get a real taste of Western Sahara you need to go out into the countryside with a car. But ... my friend is getting married today so we can go round and you can see a local wedding, if you want."
"Sure," I said, "as long as it's not imposing."

So we went to his friend's house which was nearby in a residential part of town, an unremarkable building except for the people spilling out onto the alleyway. My meagre Arabic, which was stretched enough as it was, broke down underneath the onslaught of the multitude of elaborate greetings; instead I just shook hands with my left covering my heart (a sign of goodwill and friendship) whilst beaming manically. The fact that there was a random foreigner at this most intimate of celebrations didn't even seem to raise an eyebrow (I try and picture the reaction if our roles were reversed and I brought a stranger to a wedding in Britain). We penetrated deeper into the bowels of the house until we reached the groom who was holding court with his friends. The small room had a low table in the middle, piled high with dates, nutty, bite-sized pastries and drinks (UHT milk and fruit juice) and around the outside sat the young men leaning against a series of cushions (the youngest was in charge of making the tea, a purely male task). The groom was lounging on some mats dressed in a white boubou and white leather sandals next to a suspended cotton sheet which separated a small corner from the rest of the room (it was so innocuous that I didn't notice it at first). After greeting the groom and paying my respects I was given a couple of light lashes to my back with a small, tasseled whip that dangled from his wrist. Only bachelors get whipped and it is supposed to bring about their marriage more quickly. Then I was liberally sprayed with not one, but two different eaux de cologne.

I was very lucky: not only was the groom happy to have me tag along, but he was an English teacher as well so communication was easy (I also think he appreciated the opportunity to talk to a native speaker). Having an in-depth, varied conversation with a local who isn't trying to sell you something is one of the rarest, and most rewarding experiences when travelling and trying to learn about and understand a different culture. And when that conversation is during such a joyous occasion and punctuated with liberal doses of sweetmeats and tea, well that's just the icing on the cake.

After about 20mins the groom partly pulled back the sheet to talk to someone on the other side. I was more than a little bewildered to find out that the bride was in the same room but hidden, which caused no end of amusement for the others. Later I was asked if I wanted to eat. I looked at the pile of date pits, sweet wrappers, nutshells and remains of sweet millet porridge in front of me and wondered if this was some sort of Sahrawi joke. But no, apparently the main meal was happening elsewhere. There were about 200 men in the small hall, elders around the outside on chairs and the others in small groups on the floor. To get us in the mood more dates, cakes and sweet tea were passed around. An elder then spoke, at length, about various topics - like most weddings most people weren't really listening. Then, announcing the imminent arrival of food, a group of waiters went round dousing the guests with a variety of pungent perfumes. I don't think I have smelt so good on this trip as I did then! The first main course was composed of whole, roast chicken sprinkled with olives. This was then followed by slabs of roast camel (the hump, which was diced up, is solid fat, but tasty nonetheless). The Sahrawis, living a nomadic, desert lifestyle as they do, don't have much room for vegetables. Being a bit of a novelty at our table I was bombarded with questions about religion and politics, which I have learnt, over the years, to diplomatically answer without lying.

I was holding my stomach for the rest of the day for fear that it may burst. And although I was invited to attend the evening festivities (Sahrawi weddings go on for several days) I knew that I wouldn't be able to and keep to my schedule (my flight home is in a few days and I still have a couple of stops on my itinerary). So it was with a heavy heart that I said goodbye to Ali and set off for the night bus to Agadir. Despite just passing through and not even staying a night, my time in Laayoune will stay with me as long as my other, more illustrious, destinations on this trip. Which goes to show that amazing things can, and do, happen in the most unlikely places - you just have to keep your eyes open for them.


Jean-Marc Knoll said...

'the opportunity to speak to a native' - Allah only knows what he thought of your Aberdonian accent, I am certain that will live long in his memory too. Did he smile and nod a lot?

Erik said...

I'll have you know that the dulcet "Doric" tones are famed and prized throughout the world for their clarity and comprehensibility. Now that you mention it he did smile, and wink quite a bit too...