Language, linguistics and travel. A blog that tries to bring them all together.

Friday, January 26, 2007

The Road South

The foothills of the Anti-Atlas finally leveled out south of Sidi Ifni. From that point on the scenery becomes as flat as a plate with only the suggestion of mesas darkening the eastern horizon. On our right was the coastline of the Atlantic, an end-of-the-world place where the sparse, even earth ended abruptly in death defying cliffs that jutted out over a crashing, scooped out shoreline that has become the final resting place for many an ill fated ship.

The road was asphalt and just wide enough for two lanes of traffic if blowing sand hadn't nibbled away at one of the margins. It was much busier than I thought it would be. Many of the vehicles were trucks bringing supplies south to the desert towns of Layoune, Dakhla and the few spartan hamlets in between. A good proportion of the others were the drab green Landrovers and troop carriers of the Moroccan army who continue to make their presence felt in a newly conquered land. And then there were the Trans-Saharan Brigade, amongst whom we count ourselves. So many people make Morocco/Mauritania journey these days that every second car was a four wheel drive plastered with stickers and weighed down by sand ladders and spare tires. Even more off putting were the grey haired retirees sedately driving their RVs deeper into Africa. Somehow their presence struck a death blow to any thoughts of exploring unknown territory.

For comic relief, intermittent, triangular road signs warned us that itinerant camels might saunter across the road at any moment, while on a slightly more serious note we found ourselves being flagged to a halt with alarming frequency at one of Western Sahara's ubiquitous road blocks. Here we were asked to produce our "fiche", a piece of paper documenting all our particulars from nationality to mother's name. The grey uniformed police were invariably polite and professional, though I did start to wonder what offense they must have committed elsewhere to land them in such isolated, barren surrounds. Shortly afterwards we'd be back up to speed and surrounded once again by the unrelenting desert landscape. Sometimes the monotonous horizon was mercifully broken by the familiar form of a single sand dune. For some inexplicable reason it had decided to park itself on that particular spot, though any other would have worked equally well. Other dunes had decided that clustering together was a better idea and, as a unit, created enormous undulating, golden fields that ended as mysteriously as they'd started. For companionship, an endless convoy of electricity pylons journeyed through the desert along side us, its head and tail forming vanishing points at the boundaries of the horizon. Kilometer after kilometer, hour after hour it went on and on.

Three hundred and forty kilometers from the southern extremity of Western Sahara the road split in two. We took the right fork to the peninsula town of Dakhla and, after passing the final road block, suspended our southern passage for a couple of days rest and recuperation.

Dakhla is the final meeting point for groups going south into Mauritania and taking the coastal route. We've lagged so far behind our own group that we now threaten to be lapped by the one coming after us. They're on the so-called Bamako Run and will be taking a left turn at some point and heading toward Mali. We've now hooked up with them for tomorrow's border crossing and beach route. Our story may change once we arrive in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania and start gathering information. As the car is now properly equipped, we're considering joining the Bamako Run then turning tail at its completion and heading westward toward the Senegalese border. If possible we'll then go on to Gambia then link up with group 4, who'll be coming out of the Sahara around that time then auction off the car in Banjul along with them. This is, of course, assuming that the Volvo will be able to make it that far and that the border regions of Mali aren't bristling with bandits.

Thursday, January 25, 2007


Driving through the Anti-Atlas in southern Morocco gave us our first peripheral glimpse of the Sahara. Continuously tortured by the elements and almost stripped of vegetation, the landscape retains a stark beauty that left me speechless. As words simply cannot express the intensity of this desolated region, I've decided to let it speak for itself through images, even though they are at best a very poor recreation.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Zagora to Foum Zguid

I got it wrong. The town of Tazenakht was not on the way to M'hamid, the last town before the Algerian border. It was, in fact, in another part of Morocco entirely. This put a serious cramp in our plans as the road we we'd planning on taking to Foum Z'guid was supposed to be "goudron" or asphalt. I studied the map quickly and discovered an alternative route. It ran west from Zagora, the market town we'd just left, and was "piste" (a dirt road) for the first twenty kilometers or so.Then there'd be a fork in the road where we'd go right and immediately join goudron. The left fork promised only piste that, according to a French Internet forum I'd been perusing the previous evening, was only suitable for four wheel drives. We'd rejected the latter out of hand the previous evening but as the former now seemed like a viable alternative, we doubled back to hunt down the initial turning off the main road.

To be certain we were going the right way, we stopped at a nearby tour guide office. There was a large hand drawn map of the region on the wall and using it as a reference, Mustapha, the capable manager, outlined the best route to take. He assured us that the direct piste we'd dismissed the day before, was the best option as the road to the right, that looked so good on the map, was in fact much worse.
"Will our car be able to make it?" I enquired tentatively, pointing through doorway at our Volvo.
"No problem. Go at only ten kilometers per hour. You will be fine," he assured us. "Just be sure you stay between the mountains and always go straight. Don't go left or right, just go straight and always stay between the mountains," he emphasized.
We thanked him profusely and set off.

We got lost almost immediately when the piste broke itself into several rutted tracks within a kilometer of our starting point. As we sat trying to figure out which route to take, a crammed white van passed us, its roof liberally carpeted with passengers. They appeared to be taking a path that would go "between the mountains" so we decided it best to follow them. Just to be on the safe side we also stopped a passing motorcyclist to ask if it was indeed the right route. It was.

The road was at best a collection of earthen, ruts and tire tracks. We bounced along it like two sailors in a storm. It was amazing that the passengers on top of the van weren't continuously tumbling off. We tailed their dusty wake for several kilometers until the track branched into three distinct directions. The van took the right fork toward some distant adobe buildings; after some deliberation we decided that going straight was best. All on our own now, we sallied forth continuously adjusting to the terrain's shallow rises and falls. The going wasn't bad but it was confusing when the route would periodically double itself in an amoeba-like fashion. More often than not these diverging paths would come together again. Obviously drivers before us had been testing out different routes.

It was late afternoon by this time and the drooping sun was etching the landscape with shadow. Although this was our first time we were actually entering into the Sahara with our car it wasn't as forbidding as I dared think. On both sides rose the blackened mountains of the Anti-Atlas; completely devoid of vegetation and as abrupt and harsh as a Martian landscape. They gave way to the very gently undulating valley we were now driving across. In all directs sturdy acacia trees had put deep roots in the rock strewn soil, each at an appreciative distance from its neighbor. And as always, whenever I thought about these hardy trees, I was reminded of a salient piece of advice I'd picked up from a book about driving in the Sahara - "Don't park under an acacia tree. They drop large, menacing thorns on the ground that will almost certainly give you a puncture."

The sun dropped further and beamed in through the window shield with the force of an invading army. We were almost ready to call it quits and find a camping spot when we suddenly came upon a village in the midst of that desolated landscape. Half the houses had been abandoned, their adobe walls slowly dissolving back into the earth, the other half, evidently, were home to the tilling farmers we now found ourselves waving to. Channels had been cut in their fields to aid irrigation but try as I might I couldn't see where they found their water. On the other side of the village we entered another stretch of desert and stopped for the night.

As we started setting up, a farmer and his wife went zipping by on their moped. Seeing us they doubled back. Trygve raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips. "Don't invite them to stay, whatever you do," she warned. While his wife stood at a distance, her husband came over to exchange greetings. He was excited to meet us and smiled deeply, displaying a full set of tea and tobacco stained teeth. Although he spoke no French beyond "ca va" he made us understand that he lived nearby and asked if we'd like to spend the night at his place instead. I was looking forward to spending the night under the stars, so I declined by thanking him profusely in Arabic, then said "Bghrit nshuf hada" - "I want to see this" and with a grandiose gesture raised my arms to heavens. He understood immediately, smiled his stained smile and bid me farewell, much to the obvious relief of his wife.

The stars were immaculate.

Mustapha had given us the idea that the piste was better after passing the village. Instead it got worse. I, of course, had been airily throwing around my opinion over supper; "Those people with their 4 x 4's," I'd sneered, "if a road's a little rough they always think it's only possible for them." They may well have been right this time. Trygve, who had been reluctant to take any piste in the first place, sat fuming in the passenger seat as our slow and unwieldy progress occasionally brought great thuds to the bottom of the chassis from rocks I'd unintentionally disturbed. Each bang brought to mind a vision of our horribly exposed gas tank. Eventually the way became so bad I had to periodically ask Trgve to walk ahead and clear the path of snags. I sneaked a short video of her doing it; she's dressed in bright red and orange clothing that would be better suited to an Indian wedding but still works well in a desolate Saharan landscape; each time she bends down to pick up a rock and toss it aside is like watching a New Yorker flip off a errant cab driver. I exchanged places with her shortly after that.

We came across occasional habitations of mean tents whose denizens came running out toward us to beg for gifts. One girl ran along beside our slow, bouncing vehicle screaming for chocolate. When she gave up the chase she let out a piercing scream that raised the hair on the backs of our necks.

To speed up our painfully slow progress, I adopted a new method for dealing with the snags by seating myself on the hood of the car with my feet firmly planted on the bumper. In this way i had a much better view of the road ahead and didn't have to get out of the car every time a rock needed to be move or the precipitous path through a wadi evened out.

A white van suddenly appeared on the road behind us. We let it catch up and introduced ourselves to the French couple in the cab. They said they'd come from Foum Z'guid and had tried to drive to Zagora along the same piste we'd just taken but had decided it prudent to turn back. I wondered why we hadn't seen them earlier in the day. We let them go ahead of us and stood watching as they slowly and unevenly disappeared into the distance. Shortly afterwards I started discovering rocks with spots of fresh black, liquid on them. The van must have taken a hard hit at some point.

Like a mirage a herd of heavily laden camels appeared over a rise. I motioned for Trygve to stop and reached inside to grab my camera. I tried taking a short video as we lumbered along. The results are like the ships of the desert during a particularly bad storm at sea. The leader of the camel train deliberately ambled toward the edge of the piste. He wore a white burnoose that framed a face as deeply wrinkled as the surrounding mountains. Instead of greeting us he thrust his hand toward his mouth and growled "khoobs", the Arabic word for bread. I said we didn't have any - which was a lie. He put his finger and thumb together and again made a motion like eating but this time he said "floos" - now he wanted money.
"Well you did take pictures of his camels", I heard Trygve insinuating.
He was obviously a very tough man who led a life so different from mine that we had nothing in common. He fixed me with eyes that were as foreign and forbidding as those of a shark. I showed him my camera and took his picture. I don't know if he even understood what I was doing. He couldn't have cared less anyway. He wanted something from us and would be damned if wasn't going to get it . I grabbed four dirhams from inside the car and gave them to him. He spat out a harsh, guttural cascade of words.
"What d'ye think he's saying?" I shot at Trygve.
"That you're a cheap bastard and that he should be given more," she said leaning toward him and putting another coin in his claw of a hand.

After several more arduous kilometers, we finally closed in on the far end of the mountains and like a miracle the stones and sand suddenly leveled out to become smooth, two lane dirt road.

Ait Ben Haddou

One of the joys of having a car is being able to change your route at whim. It was in this manner that we arrived at the village of Ait Ben Haddou. Noted for its ancient adobe casbah, it has become not only a UNESCO protected site but has also the backdrop for many a Hollywood movie.

Surrounded by a profusion of oasis greenery, the casbah rises like a natural outcrop that erosion has formed into softened, straight lines, crenellations and incised geometric patterns. Behind carefully kept up towers and walls, the casbah's buildings crowd as though seeking comfort from one another. Their shared walls create a befuddling maze of intermittently roofed passageways that eventually lead to ruins at the top of the hill. These once formed the last line of defense against marauders. Along the way artifacts from the non-too-distant old days have been unartistically laid out to help give the masses of tourists passing through a sense of antiquity. Deeper into the casbah the buildings have been taken over by the commerce of tourism complete with predatory salesmen lingering out front with all the languages of the world falling from their lips. One was dressed in the blue truban of the Tuareg and said he rode his camel into the desert to pick up "the beautiful things" he had hanging from the walls and covering the floor. If anyone believed that line - there's a bridge in Brooklyn...

The view from the ruins was awe inspiring. On one side a barren desert of veined foothills slowly lumbered across the landscape; on the opposite side a wide stream flowed, bringing with it a lengthy, ribbon of foliage. Huddled adobe buildings edged the fields and trees, eventually giving way once more to the rich sienna and umber tones of the desert. Along the horizon, the snow capped peaks of the High Atlas dominated all below them like a purpled, elongated crown.

Thursday, January 11, 2007


Examining a map of Marrakesh quickly becomes an exercise in socio-political cliches; the western side of the city is dominated by rectilinear boulevards and avenues that are obviously based on a large scale, pre-arranged plan. The eastern side, by contrast, is a living organism of tangled alleyways and ill-defined streets that haphazardly lead to plazas or simply become dead ends. In search of a hotel, we drove into the latter at night with its famous square, the Jamaa il Fna, in full swing. It was like waltzing into a bee hive. Knots of robed pedestrians unceasingly spilled around our moving car as we vied for limited space amidst a chaos of donkey carts, taxis and itinerant vendors. At times the idea of individual sides of the road became wishful thinking. Navigating our lengthy Volvo further into the Medina only made it worse. Even in first gear we were afraid we might run someone over or destroy their sidewalk stall. After winding through several claustrophobic alleyways and arriving at one of the Medina's ubiquitous cul-de-sacs, we wisely decided to beat a retreat and head back to the modern quarter.

As we still needed to provision ourselves for the journey ahead and buy some useful equipment for the desert, such as water containers, another spare wheel and sand ladders, we decided to devote the following day to these ventures. The obvious place to start was in the enormous market behind the Jamaa il Fna. Arabic souqs (markets) are always interesting places but the one in Marrakesh is supreme. Its narrow lanes and pint -sized stalls boast a cornucopia of everything that Morocco produces from filigreed wooden furniture to musical instruments to carpets. It was in the realm of scents, perfumes and incense that we lost our way. Trygve is a dedicated scent junkie who has wisely turned her addiction into a successful business in New York. Being with her is like having a dog's nose for a companion. All thought of trying to achieve our initial aims vanished the moment she saw the first perfume shop. At first the dealers assume she's just another tourist without a clue and pull out the cheap oils, then little by little come to realize they are talking to an expert. Then the good stuff comes out. For my own part, I'm not a big fan of scents and spent most of my time trying to absorb the swirling ambience of the souq while being intermittently swabbed with perfumed concoctions or having jars of dried flowers thrust beneath my nose.

Despite the all consuming hubbub, the Medina is calmer than it used to be, at least for foreigners. The last time I was here, fifteen years ago, wandering through the souq meant stepping from one hassle into the next one. Trying to extricate yourself from a carpet shop without buying anything was an exercise in both patience and perseverance. We've been told there's been a big crack down by the authorities and that the touts who used to make life hell for the tourists now receive healthy fines and/or prison terms. I suppose we should be grateful.

That being said, exploring the Medina was a delightful adventure with every turning offering something entirely different. On one street your nose suddenly alerts you to the subtle, green smell of cedar wood. Following the scent trail, you discover a small workshop where planks are being made. Around the next corner a long table is laden with mounds of patisseries swarming with bees. Neither the people working there nor the those buying their goods seem to pay the insects the slightest attention. The touts come up to be sure. "Monsieur, you want to see the tannery? Come. I show you," but then leave as easily as they came. For me the weirdest experience was to be taken into a carpet shop for a cup of mint tea, getting engrossed in conversation with the owner and then leaving without having been shown a single piece of merchandise. By the end of the day the only piece of equipment we'd bought for the journey ahead was a single forty liter water container. There's always tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007


It took thirty-five minutes to cross the Straits of Gibraltor from Tarifa to Tanger and arrive in a colliding world of casbahs and apartment building, the call to prayer and pop music. With customs cleared and money changed we immediately left Tanger and headed south on Morocco's only toll freeway; destination - Casablanca. Thanks to the eponymous movie, the city's name conjures up images of exotic locals in which suave characters delve into intrigue over mixed drinks. Modern Casablanca is noted for its ugliness and pollution. We arrived in the city with a map that proved to be almost useless and with the glare of the setting sun cutting through the windshield like a knife. Invariably we found ourselves utterly lost in the city's mad rush hour with pedestrians flooding continuously around the car like a lapping tide. Trygve rapidly modified her driving habits to fit in with the maelstrom while trying to follow my blind directions to turn left or right or go straight ahead. We didn't have the faintest idea where to find a hotel and, with mounting stress, almost abandoned the city. Whether we could have found the way out at that point is debatable. Finally we settled on trying to find the Place Mohammed V, a large green area in the center of the city, according to the map. This seemed to be the only way we'd be able to get any bearings. Directions elicited from passersby began with concerned grimaces followed by labyrinthine explanations involving splits in the road and remembering to turn at certain neon signs. Eventually we succumbed to the classic stop-at-a-gas-station-to-find-the-way scenario. By the time we had parked the car and got a hotel room, Trygve looked like she was in a state of shock.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Chatham to Tarifa Challenge

When thinking about the Plymouth-Banjul Challenge back in Santa Barbara I always thought about the African portion of it, forgetting all the while that we'd have to drive down through France and Spain to get there.

The trip itself began under auspices that boded well. The rainy weather had broken and picking up the car had proved to be as simple as using an ATM card. When we saw the blue Volvo with its cheeky California license plates at Chatham Freight Yard it was like opening a Christmas present. Now it's four days later; I'm tired and bedraggled and haven't made it out of Europe.

Leaving England was easy: two roundabouts, turn south, keep going till you pick up the M2, then follow it to Dover - lots of lovely signs in English saying "Ferry this", "Ferry that" and off we went to France.

Northern France, as seen from the Peage (their pay-as-you-go freeways), is as interesting as a drive through the San Fernando valley on the 101. All the on ramps lead to slab roofed, brightly lit gas stations complete with mini-marts offering plastic wrapped sandwiches, candy bars, ice creams and large, throwaway cups for sodas or instant lattes. Many of the same chain stores illuminate their road side existence with identical signs to those found in America, "Toys R Us", "Ikea", the golden arches of McDo (pronounced McDough), perhaps the most popular restaurant in modern France. It is disturbing to see the country becoming a Franco-American mass market culture, though perhaps it is just the culture of all expressways.

At Limoges, we left the Peage to join Route Nacional 21 toward Perigueux. It was a welcome relief from the faceless, homogeneity of the freeway: small towns replete with the essence of France: "tabac" signs, boulangeries and boucheries. Parts of the road were so straight I could hear my mother's voice saying, "Oh! This must be a Roman road." This was the region where the French still hunt for elusive truffles with trained pigs and force feed their geese to the hilts in order to create the richest foie gras. The landscape was as rich and subtle as a well crafted cheese.

At the Spanish border and we made a decision to stay in Donastia, a Basque town I'd stayed in some years earlier. There's a big difference between arriving in a town afoot and quite another by car. Apparently the city's cacophonous labyrinth of streets was exclusively designed for miniature horse and carriage teams that seldom made left turns. Once we found a hotel, and the irritation of navigating the city streets had subsided, we strolled to the center of town in search of bars. Donatia's bars are, as far as I'm concerned, it's crowning glory - not because of the drinks, as they're quotidian to say the least, rather because of the tapas. They line the bars on little plates and each of them is a gourmet's delight. One of our delicacies was an eggplant/anchovie combo that would have had even the most picky connesieur lipping his lips.

It was the Epiphany the following day and Catolico Spain was on holiday. With everyone huddled in their houses with friends and family the going south was made easier, even in traffic mad Madrid we traveled straight through with the smoothness of a goodbye handshake. It helped alot. The two previous nights had been difficult. Trygve was still nursing a hacking cold she'd picked up in New York and netiher of us had had much sleep. The stress of constantly driving and then finding our way around clogged cities in search of elusive hotels was taking its toll. Several times the journey erupted into button pushing arguments based on trivial matters. With superhuman effort we smoothed out the wrinkles crossed the
Spanish plain, then the Sierra Nevada by night and finally made the Costa del Sol and its inelegant profusion of overabundant tourism.

Now we are at Tarifa, the southern most Spanish city with tickets for tomorrow's ferry to Morocco and the start of our African adventure.