Daily and Weekly emails from West Africa

Less than 24 hours in Morocco W1.2.4
Sat, 16 Feb 2002 09:04:40 -0800 (PST)

Dear friends and family,

I have been in Morocco for one day and I am scared. Or, I was scared and now I am extatic and still full of adrenaline.

I have never had to type by hunting and pecking, but Morocco is a different country than I am used to. Here, see what I mean.

Only qb out five ,inutes qgo I zqs ql,ost ,lugged; I shouldnłt hqve been so stupid; but then Ił, not stupid: Ił; qn experienced zorld trqveler; hqving gone qround the zorld qnd spent lots of ti,e in plqces such qs Turkey qnd Inidq; very si,ilqr iut see,s to ?orocco:

What I said was that I was just attempted mugged, in broad daylight by a crazy "Hippy-chippy" youth. He punched me in the head with a rock and kicked me and shoved me and spit on my face as I walked away, refusing to give him any money.

I could write three emails, but I can hardly type out one.

First one: I arrived in Fez last night at 1:30 am. This morning got hassled by many tour guides, but it wasn't a big problem. The problem was Morocco. I need to learn French or Arabic. Why didn't I think of that before I left? Also the problem is Fez. The old city is crazy. I was more lost in Venice, but that was only because I wanted to go to a specific place. Here I wander the streets not caring where I go but also not really seeing anything. It all looks the same to me: concrete buildings either dirty white or tan, crumbling, leaning towards each other at the top, making it quite dark in spots. Lots of little children (mostly boys) running around. Sometimes an elaborately tiled water fountain around a corner with women filling their water jugs. Market vendors selling the same old things, with a couple noticable exceptions. I saw a man with a tiny table selling edible organs, "Here, buy my liver, buy my kidneys, take my heart," I imagined him saying. What else was different from India or Turkey? I can't remember. The immensity of the old walled city was different from anything I have seen before, but the intensity was less than in India. Colorful, but not the buzz of colors.

E,qil tzoM I zqs (Email two: I was) just trying to get out of the old city, or back in it. There is a place to see near to a place I know (a main gate into the old medina). I had been trying to get there without asking directions. First I don't feel comfortable with my French to ask anything. And second, I don't want a guide.

Anyway, I finally make it out of the tiny streets to somewhere. I am carrying my expensive digital camera, 380 dollars cash, 200 dollars Moroccan money, and my passport.

A good-looking guy with cool sunglasses and snazzy dress saw me and opened his arms in greeting, then his hand for a gansta handshake. I fell for the trick. He pretended to know me, saying, "Remember me from earlier blah blah." His friend laughed and said I didn't remember him. Anyway, I stopped and shook his hand. After a second I knew I had never met him, but I was already talking to them. With everybody else (except for the first 'guide' this morning) I say one word, "No" or "Non." I might repeat it, but I do not explain why I won't speak with them, I don't tell them my country or my language (Why is it only the annoying touts speak English?) One guy was walking slowly in front of me asking if I wouldn't talk to him because, "You think you king?" He would stop and back into me, really belligerantly, like trying to block my way, "You think you king so you don't speak with me?" He was the only person who raised my ire the whole day (including recently). On this trip I do not want to get angry, so I refrained by pushing him into the passing donkey or spice seller.

Fez city 

Outside city wall, Fez

Back to the cool guys. There were three of them. The guy with scars on his face (he was 22) wanting me to give the cool-looking guy 5 dirham (50 cents). I asked why. It was because they had three girls and no money and enough hashish cost 5.

Anyway, anyway, I was lost, these guys were friendly and spoke some of the best English I have heard here. I wanted to get some directions but without the accompanying guide.

Long story shorter, I stood with the three on a busy street for five minutes while they tried to get me to give them just a little money, a gift. The guy with scars on his face also had knife scars in rows on his arm, along with cigarette burns. He always asked me why I didn't want to give him money or why I didn't want to employ him as a guide.

I finally walked away, with only scarface following me.

Some more relevant details. Scarface had been jokingly getting aggressive in asking for a gift. He pointed at my digital camera (just a block in my shirt pocket) asking for it as a gift. And he had all sorts of scars. I mentioned that right? Lesson number one of Africa: don't talk too long with agressive people with scars.

Lesson number two: Don't let people with scars follow you down a medieval street.

Lesson number three: Stay calm, let your natural confidence get you through tough situations.

Lesson number four: When the guy (with scars) starts pushing you and demanding money and says things like, "You want to give money or you want problems," don't keep walking away from the busy streets.

Lesson number five: When he picks up a small stone and trys to cut you with it, it's a sign of desperation on his part.

Number six: When he hits your head with the stone, and you want to ask for help, it really doesn't matter what language you use. I asked the old lady, "Merci. Merci." I was trying to say please.

I walked faster back towards the busier street (no cars but lots of pedestrians). He kicked me and spat on me but I just continued walking. I didn't even wipe the spit off until I thought I was out of his sight because I was still trying to be manly cool throughout the whole situation. It all happened at 3:30 in the afternoon.

I walked a ways then saw this internet cafe. I figured why not? It is the first internet cafe I have seen in Africa. It's really cheap, but a big hassle to type on.

Email number three:

The first message I read (Sorry for not reading more of your replies, I wanted to write this email while my head still hurt) was from a professor at Duke. I had written to him to mention that I got an increased offer at UWashington. His reply was that the timing of my email was interesting because just that day he learned that I had been awarded some prestigious Duke fellowship which means no teaching duties for the first year, and 4000 dollars extra each year for four years.

I don't know if he thought he needed to up Duke's offer, or if I got it independently of UW. But anyway, it made me very happy. It's not the money. "Money comes, money goes. It's about friendship." Now Duke wants me, and that's nice.

Before, I wanted to want to go to Duke, but I didn' neccessarily want to go there. My brain wanted to go to Washington. My heart wanted my brain to want to go to Duke.

Now I want to go to Duke. Case closed.

Okay, I hope I don't miss my bus to Meknes. I was already planning to leave before the physical violence. I need to meet other travelers, so I'm going to the Meknes youth hostel.

Au revoir,
Eric Vance

(PS a few hours later)
Sat, 16 Feb 2002 13:40:50 -0800 (PST)

Sorry to everybody who already got this. I'm sending this especially to the new people on my list.

Heck, if you're reading this, don't worry about me, just send your prayers. I will be fine in Africa. I am followed closely by my guardian angels.

And now I am in Meknes at the International Youth Hostel. I'm the only foreigner there. That's no good. Hopefully a miracle will happen and I will meet some woman who can teach me French and who doesn't want to travel alone either.

But if not, I will manage fine. I am choosing to do all this, the good and the bad.

Meknes D1.1.3
Sun, 17 Feb 2002 07:53:35 -0800 (PST)

Dear Mom and Dad,

I've been in Meknes all day and I haven't been mugged once, or even hassled. I walked into the old part of the city from the empty youth hostel with the aim of meeting some people (other travelers) to hang out with. Basically, I am stalking people, preferably women. I saw a solo female in a juice/pastry bar, so I went in. I was looking for food too.

I got some fried bread thing with a topping and a banana milk shake. The girl looked too at ease to be a solo traveler, but I started talking with her anyway. Conversation in French lasted as far as "Bonjour. Ca va?" "Bien. Do you speak English?" "Yeah."

Mim was from Australia. She had been in Morocco for a week, traveling with a guy from Quebec, who was in bed sleeping from too much stress. I told her about Scarface from yesterday. Then she left, just before I did.

It was nice to talk with someone, but I really wanted to walk around Meknes with her. She was about 50 meters ahead of me. I really wasn't following her, her way just seemed a good way to go.

Then she popped out of a shop right in front of me. "Hey," I said. "Hey," she said. Then we walked through parts of town for an hour or less.

It was nice to get my bearings like that in the morning when not many people are out. The only people who talked with us were people who were friendly, like old women and shopkeepers we approached.


children taking a sheep home
Preparing for the festival of the sheep

I walked all around by myself after that. No hassles. And now I have a plan for the rest of the afternoon. High stress travel is when I'm all alone and have no plan (and don't speak the language.) Mim taught me how to say "No thanks," in Moroccan. And I am confident in asking people how much something costs. I still have problems, like with the garlic seller woman. I asked her "How much?" and she didn't answer. So I picked out three heads and asked again. She made it clear that I had to buy more, at least as much as the spark plug and lead weight weighed. I didn't have the words to tell her I only wanted three. So she added six or seven more, weighed them, and asked for my money. She took 9 Dirham. No way. I took my money back. I'll try someone else later today.

I got up the nerve to eat street snacks while walking through the medina, but I'm still too scared to eat in a regular restaurant. I've already had bad experiences. Yes, an indication of how scared I am is what I had for lunch.

I had the McSahara at McDonalds. Two all beef patties special (oriental) sauce, lettuce, cheese, on naan bread. In India there was a certain 'McDonalds' bubble which I found necessary to enter after a couple months there. In Morocco it took two days, and it wasn't a bubble. Lots of Moroccan families with little kids running around, and youths checking everybody out. And I didn't feel as if I had earned my McDonald's break, so the experience wasn't so good.

And now I'm at an internet cafe. But soon I will go to the palace museum or something. I've already walked through the old city and stuff.

Eric Vance

PS I have a new numbering system.

First day Rabat D1.1.4
Mon, 18 Feb 2002 12:59:13 -0800 (PST)

Dear Mom and Dad,

I am now in Rabat. I didn't plan on traveling through Morocco so quickly, but then I also thought there would be more to see. All the museums I have gone to see have been closed. Probably no loss. Morocco has never captured my imagination. What's so special about Morocco? Nothing.

The old medinas are a little cool, especially Fes. It has 9400 streets and like 240 neighborhoods each with its own mosque. Jailsalmer, India was a little like that, a medieval city in which people actually lived. So I see donkeys being loaded with cases of Coca-Cola, and children dragging sheep down the streets, and men lying on top of a pile of salt under a tent (they're the salt vendors).

In the markety places it's just like a shopping mall: women's clothing, shoes stalls, belts for sale, spices (but I haven't seen any saffron), some carpets. Mostly it's just shoes and western clothing. And it's not that interesting.

Last night in Meknes I walked to the internet place without feeling in danger of being mugged. Maybe it was because I was just happier that day (due to having spoken with someone, Mim from Australia); or maybe it was because I left my 400 dollars plus Moroccan money back at the empty hostel.

But on the way back I was scared again. I had taken the wrong street and only dodgy people were about, loitering on corners. But I got back safe no muggings.

The train to Rabat was like a normal German train. Buses have been nice. Taxis are cheap.

I finally got my garlic yesterday. I don't know what it's good for, but I like it and it keeps the vampires away.

Tomorrow I will go get as many visas for the next countries as possible. It might take a few days so I will stick around here. I went to the hotel listed in the Lonely Planet as the best one for travelers. I've seen all the people in the rooms on my floor. They're all four Moroccan. There's a mosque next door. I will try to make a videotape tomorrow morning at 5 am when the muezzin calls out the prayer. It sounds pretty cool. The calls for prayer have been the best thing about Morocco so far even though everybody ignores them.

Video of 5 

call to prayer
Rabat muezzin, 5 AM (video)

I'm going to say whatever comes to mind to all the foreigners I see. If I don't meet anybody I won't worry. I can travel around fine on my own.

Eric Vance

Day trip to Casablanca D1.1.5
Tue, 19 Feb 2002 14:39:29 -0800 (PST)

Dear Mom and Dad,

First, next time I'm physically hassled by someone without a weapon (small rocks don't count) I will fight back. Well, it depends on how much money I have on me and if I am wearing my backpack (I was with Scarface). I don't know how it is with other Africans, but with the Moroccans I will not take any more shit. I wanted to go through Africa without getting angry, and really the only time I was angry with Scarface (rather than exasperated) was when he started pretending that I hadn't paid him for the hashish. I don't know, I think I did all right though. I didn't lose any money and I kept my cool. Scarface was the one who looked like an idiot.

Dinner tonight for me was two courses. First was a triple scoop ice cream cone in Casablanca, then in Rabat I just had a bowl of snails, cooked with lots of dirt and leaves and some very good spice (or maybe that's just how snails taste, earthy and salty.) I pulled the snails from their shells with the bent straight safety pin provided. I think I'll try them agian tomorrow night, as another dessert.

This morning I went to the Mauritanian Embassy. The guy told me to come back tomorrow at 9 AM (it was 9:45) for the visa. I don't know if I was too late today, or if they really were closed.

On the way back, out on the street. A group of Frenchmen stole my taxi, then kicked me out of it after the driver let me in since they were going in the same direction as I. The Frenchies had cars outfitted for the Sahara Overland trek, but they weren't very nice. I hope there are more people driving from Morocco to Senegal through the Sahara. I need to find a lift with someone.

So my whole reason for the day, to get visas, was shot. I decided to take the train to Casablanca. There I got lost in the medina, then found my way out in time to get to the Hassan II Mosque for the English tour.

The mosque was completed in 1993 after six years of construction. It's the third largest religious building in the world, don't know what the other ones are. The minaret is 200 metres high, and the mosque is 200 metres long. Two-thirds of it is built over the Atlantic Ocean. It has a retractable cedar roof, and the doors are made of titanium bronze so they will resist the salt air. I forget exactly how many faithful it can hold, something like 80,000, with another 300,000 praying in the plaza outside.

Out of the 150 tourists on tour, ten were in the English group: 3 from the US, 2 from England, 2 from Poland, 2 from Spain, and 1 from Germany. I had tea afterwards with the Americans and the German, Christine. I had spotted her before as a lone female. Maybe I'm just like the Moroccans seeking out vulnerable female travelers, but my motives are altruistic. If I'm walking with a girl and we get hassled, it's not a hassle for me since I'm sort of there to take the hassle and show them who's boss. It's like chivalrous or something.


Casablanca with Christine
Dinner in Casablanca with Christine

Christine is meeting me here in Rabat tomorrow and we'll see what little there is to see here. If she weren't meeting me she wouldn't get out of Casablanca because she hates the Moroccans. She came to visit a friend of hers who is working in Casa for six months, and she really, really does not like to go out by herself because of all the hassle. I don't like it because it's often violent threatening hassle. I can imagine how much worse it is for a lone female.

I bought an "Instant French" book. My French grammar book (in French) starts off by saying, "For speaking and writing we employ words. The word designates a sound or a group of sounds (word pronounciation), additional letters (written words), which posses a sense and a function from the phrase." It continues with other nonsense. I hope my new book is good. All I want to do is get my questions answered with a Yes or a No. I doubt I'll ever be able to understand anyone in French. Reading will be easy.

C'est tout (That's all?)
Eric Vance

Everyday in Morocco W1.2.5
Wed, 20 Feb 2002 13:24:56 -0800 (PST)

Dear Mom and Dad and weekly friends and family, So yesterday, foiled in my attempt to get a Mauritanian visa, I went to Casablanca for the day. There I met solo female traveler Christine from Germany. She's in Morocco visiting a friend who works, so most of the time Christine is on her own, and she hates it. She hates especially the Moroccan men because they're nasty to her. I believe it.

After walking around Casablanca together for the afternoon and evening, I invited Christine to join me in seeing the sights in Rabat today. So this morning I went again to the Mauritanian embassy--no problems--and met Christine at the train station.

Let's see. She's 5'10", short red hair (I think she dyes it), vegetarian, going to university to be a social worker, 20 years old, and she's German.

We went to Rabat's most famous landmark, the Tour Hassan, an unfinished mosque from the 1700s. There are some pillars and some remains of the outside wall, and then a big tower (150 feet) that is maybe one third the intended height. There's a mausoleum for an old dead king on the site too. It's not very exciting, but it was free, and not many people hassled us.

Walked around more, to a beach, to an old casbah fortress. I picked up my Mauritanian visa (I'm hoping to get a ride down to Senegal through Mauritania and the Western Sahara territory where the mine field is). There's really not much happening for the tourist in Morocco, but at least it wasn't a hassle for me.

Christine and I didn't have anything to do, so our lunch lingered forever, and then we walked around some more. Very boring. But then we heard some shouts and saw a big crowd of people across the street and dividing park, near us at the train station and up the street from the parliament building. Then several police vans came wailing through. It was a demonstration. Maybe thirty or forty people were lying in the central dividing park, surrounded by police in blue uniforms.

At some signal the police advanced on the lump of people with their batons and started swinging. It was like a big rugby scrum, with those on the outside of the scrum of protesters getting the painful whacks and sheltering those on the inside. The scrum broke apart and I saw police chasing down the protesters and beating them. It was all very tense and exciting, but traffic was still flowing, and cars were still honking.

About 50 more blue policemen ran right past us to join the fray. I scowled at as many of them as I could, to show my disapproval of their excessive force. Soon ambulances came. Christine wanted to take a picture. The police started on crowd control, telling us to move back or to disperse. We didn't. We were standing in front of the train station not doing anything. Then some police came up specifically to us and asked Christine if she had taken a photo. I saw one guy in the crowd behind us pointing down to her, like telling the police, 'Look, she's got a camera!'

Christine said she hadn't taken a photo. She hadn't. But then she really wanted to. We moved back more into the crowd almost inside the train station. One Moroccan guy said to be careful of the camera, that he had had his camera taken away by a plain-clothes cop because he had taken a picture. I asked what the demonstration was about. "The students, they have their diplom, but no job. So they demonstrate here all the time against the government because they want a job. This happens almost every day. This is not bad. Sometimes people die."

I advised Christine not to take the photo because we were too far away and it wouldn't have come out. She still wanted a picture for herself, to remind her, but she was nervous because her camera always flashed and she said she had seen Moroccan prisons.

So I pulled her into the train station and said I would take the photo because I could turn off my flash. But I was nervous too. And we were definitely too far away.

So I said we should get closer. The police tried to divert us and motion us away and all, but we just ignored them (we're good at ignoring Moroccan men) and walked to where the injured lay writhing on the street. Many were being carried off into the ambulances, some were given water to pour onto their wounds. We stood just nine feet away from the protesters.

Now it was really exciting. Men in suits wanted us to leave, "Perdon, s'il vous plait..." trying to push us away, or asking us to leave, but Christine said No. She wasn't going anywhere, and I had decided to just stick by her. If she wanted to stay, I would support her.

There wasn't so much to see (the beatings had been long since over) except for people lying on the ground, some in obvious pain. We were more of the show, with the police insisting we leave and Christine insisting we stay and me just standing around. One police (in a suit with a walkie-talkie) told me it was "cinema". He told us they were just acting. That was after I asked what had happened and he said, "Nothing. There's nothing to see." I thought maybe he was saying that they were filming a movie, but he meant that the people in pain on the sidewalk were just faking it.

That got Christine really angry. So she got out her camera. Several blue cops and suit cops insisted she not take any photos, putting their hands in her camera and pulling and pushing her. They pleaded with me to tell her to stop, but I let Christine do whatever she wanted. They weren't going to beat her, and they weren't trying to take her camera. The protesters held up their hands in peace or victory signs.

I was a little embarrassed to be there. I ordinarily would have left by then, but I was going to stand with Christine. She was crying and stuff, but not in any danger. It was emotionally stressful for her to have five men with their hands in front of her camera.

So she got a couple shots of cops' hands. And once she put her camera down the police lost most of their interest in us. They said, "Please leave. We have work to do."

But we didn't leave. We just stood right there, waiting for something more to happen. The students re-assembled and started chanting. They had a banner, but I don't know what it said. One of the students told us in broken English that they were students for four years and they've graduated, and now they want jobs but there are none. So they protest regularly and get beaten regularly.

The police told us, "There's nothing to see here. This happens everyday. This is just shit."

Christine said, "No, you're shit."
"Please, show us respect."
"Respect? Where's the respect? Look, he's not dead yet," pointing at a man writhing in the gutter. "You should beat him 'cuz he's still alive."
"You should go away now, s'il vous plait."

Another time a police talked with me, trying to get me to get Christine to leave, but I told him I didn't speak French. "You espeak Anglais?"
"Where you come from?"
"Je suis Americain."
"Oh, American. Welcome to Morocco!"

Some protesters came up to us, asking if we were journalists. They weren't interested after we said we were tourists. I thought about telling them that maybe if they had studied English at their university they would have gotten jobs already. I can see protesting the restrictive government, but because you don't have a job?

Some puke-green uniformed police with battle helmets came onto the scene, maybe because the students were chanting too much. So then I wanted a picture. We had decided if they started beating people again (we would have been twenty feet away from the action) I would take a picture and then run away.


Police in riot gear, Rabat

As we waited for the second round of beating to commence, well, nothing happened. I think we had been watching for over an hour. So I took a picture and we left. The picture unfortunately wasn't any good. By that time all the injured had been carried off in ambulances.

A half hour later we sat in an upscale cafe eating French pastries, the earlier excitement nearly forgotten.

It's everyday in Morocco,
Eric Vance

Marrakesh D1.2.6
Fri, 22 Feb 2002 09:02:17 -0800 (PST)

Dear Mom and Dad,

There is an email bias, and there is a journal bias. When I am doing lots of stuff and having fun, I don't have the time to write emails or write in my journal. When things are boring I spend lots of time in the internet cafe. So anytime I send an email it means there's nothing better to do.

There probably are more interesting things to do and see in Marrakesh. But I'm staying here tomorrow too, so I can't just see everything in one hour and have nothing to do the rest of the time.

Yesterday off the train I couldn't get a taxi so I walked to the medina. On the way there I passed a group of tourists. I was going to say something but then didn't, but then stopped and turned around and did say something. Good thing, because now I have eight new friends.

They were cinemology students in London on exchange in Seville on exchange in Morocco for two weeks, in Marrakesh for a few days. They were recommended an expensive hotel so they followed me to a cheapie (but a good one, finally with other tourists not all of whom speak French). We had a cool communal lunch at a couscous dive in the market, and walked around and stuff. The guy (sort of their teacher) brought out his guitar for some Spanish music on the hotel terrace before dinner.

Marrakesh is what I imagined Morocco would be. The central plaza is incredible, with snake charmers, other musicians, con men with monkeys, witch doctors, twenty juice salesmen, mafiosa henna hags (who extort money from foreign women after they've painted their hands with poisonous chemicals), male belly dancers, magicians, men beating each other with sticks (consensually), beggars old and young. I like it.

Marrakesh square
Marrakesh snake charmers

So yesterday I met someone from England, Greece, Bulgaria, Spain, Germany, New Zealand, Yugoslavia, Japan, Ireland, and Switzerland.

Today I went to a hammam with a whole lot of gay men in their underwear splashing themselves in steamy rooms and cleaning each other. Well, maybe they weren't gay. I got the regular bucket self-treatment, forgoing the Moroccan massage and scrubbing. I think tomorrow I'll just pay for the shower in my hotel.

I have been learning some French from my "Instant French" booklet. I've finished chapter four, "Where is/Where are...?" Yesterday on the train from Rabat to Marrakesh I completed the "I am..." "I have..." "I am not/I don't have..." chapters.

Also today I walked around the most famous landmark in Marrakesh, the old mosque with big tower. It's closed to non-Muslims.

Eric Vance

Going to Dakhla W1.3.6
Sun, 24 Feb 2002 05:15:21 -0800 (PST)

Dear Mom and Dad,

In an hour I will be going to Dakhla in the Sahara Desert. I'm not sure if there will be much email there or in Mauritania. My plan is to take the 25 hour bus south to Dahkla, then ask around for a lift across the desert and the minefield to Senegal. I'm not sure how long that will take.

I have spent the past three days in Marrakesh. It's the best city I've been to in Morocco. Undoubtedly the villages and the mountains and desert are the best places in this country. I've just been hitting the Imperial cities. Marrakesh is how I imagined Morocco would be. The main plaza really comes alive in the afternoon, full of locals and snake charmers, acrobats, men beating each other with sticks, witch doctors, musicians, men with monkeys. I haven't really seen much else of the city besides the plaza and the market because I've just been sticking with my friends: nine lovely international cinemology students in London on exchange in Sevilla on exchange in Morocco for two weeks, and the male Spanish theater director assistant.

I met half the group walking away from the train station three days ago. They looked like they could use some direction, so I led them to the hotel I had been recommended.

Some of 

the international cinemology students
Shopping with the international cinemology students

So mostly I've just been sitting in cafes or shopping with the girls or sitting on the terrace listening to flamenco on the guitar. So, there was an Indian from England, Bulgarian, Greek, Spanish, Irish, two English, Yugoslavian, and Japanese, and me the California man.

Next time I'll tell you about crossing the Sahara,
Eric Vance

First day desert D1.3.7
Mon, 25 Feb 2002 11:34:28 -0800 (PST)

Dear Mom and Dad,

They do have internet in the Sahara Desert. I don't know how, and it only costs 1 dollar an hour. I met dos chicas locas espanolas. They were on another bus and we met at each rest stop.

Tomorrow we will go to the camping place to look for a ride to the border of Mauritania. I definitely will be careful of the mines. I'll try to keep the driver awake and on the main track through the sand.

In the Lonely Planet they say that Mauritania might be the one place in the world to avoid as there is nothing there except a national park for birds. Supposedly there are still slaves there, the 1980 emancipation proclamation not having been proclaimed very loudly.

I saw lots of camels from the bus and a goat sheperd with a gun, or maybe it was his staff.

Eric Vance

Preliminary email D1.3.8
Wed, 27 Feb 2002 04:02:48 -0800 (PST)

Dear Mom and Dad,

Nouadhibou, Mauritania shacks
Nouadhibou, Mauritania shacks

I am in Nouadhibou. Look for it on your map in the west north corner of Mauritania. It's not a big place, but any place in these parts gets a mention on the map. Coming in to town one first notices the squalor. Huts are made out of rusty bits of sheet metal, maybe some plastic or shreds of old tires. Then more into town it's all concrete block buildings, pharmacies, and internet cafes. I can understand internet in the middle of the desert in a shanty town for the rich tourists who pass through with their cars to sell in Naukachott or Senegal, but internet cafes on every street? charging less than a dollar an hour?

My first leg across the Sahara was from Marrakesh to Dakhla, on a bus on a paved road. It was not the typical 26 hour bus journey. I had the entire back row to myself. For most of the trip there were only six passengers.

Along the way at various rest and police stops I met Eva and Jessi from Spain, also wanting to go to Mauritania.

So I have three emails I could write.
#1 Men with facial scars from Fez, part 2.
#2 Riding with German missionaries
#3 Across the desert minefield in a bus.

My options for the rest of the desert are to take the 4 km long iron ore train (it's a very long, slow, hot, dusty train across hundreds of km of desert), then stop off at some oases before taking a bush taxi to the capital Naukachott, and bush taxi and canoe to Senegal.

Or, the two French guys might be driving their bus along the coastal track to Naukachott. Only very well-equipped 4WD's are supposed to go on that route.

I have been taking lots of pictures with my digital camera, but I think the lens is dirty. Some of my photos have spots. Recharging has not been a problem. I have a travelers' electrical attachment which accepts my recharger. I have not been able to download my photos because one needs a computer for that and the software. When you come to Tanzania please bring the software so I can download onto Suzanne's computer and send (I don't know how that would work) or burn onto a CD if possible. Also, could you bring the cords which plug into a TV. I will probably have access to a TV sometime and it would be nice to see my pictures on the big screen so I know which ones to delete.

I'm going to write one more email,
Eric Vance

More men with scars from Fez D1.3.9
Wed, 27 Feb 2002 05:27:49 -0800 (PST)

Dear Mom and Dad,

So the two Spanish women Eva and Jessi had a friend Sandro from Quebec who was supposed to be in Dahkla. They had met him in another place in Morocco and were going to meet him in Dahkla and try to go to Mauritania together. I had the same plan so we could all go together together, or at least arrange separate rides together. I like being around other people in Morocco.

Trouble was Eva and Jessi were on a different bus than I, and they didn't know where Sandro was. I got a hotel by their bus station, and later saw them from my window. They got a hotel by my bus station.

We drank coffee and tea at a restaurant overlooking the Dakhla bay, and asked some people if they had seen Sandro. Then we went to email. Then back to the restaurant to have dinner with a Spanish priest and three Spanish filmmakers. The priest is making the rounds, performing Catholic rites for the Catholics in Western Sahara and Morocco. There are two Catholics in Dakhla.

Jessi and 

from Spain
Jessi and Eva

During the meal several people came to our table. One guy was Italian and spoke excitedly about Sandro. I didn't understand anything he said, but everyone else said he was crazy, like something wrong with his head. He seemed friendly to me, but I wasn't watching or listening.

Then a Moroccan came to the table, speaking in Spanish to Eva, that he knew where Sandro was. She just needs to take a taxi with him. Eva asked "Where?", he said, "A taxi."

"No, where is Sandro?"
"Come with me. We can take a taxi there."
"Where would we take the taxi?"
"To Sandro!"

She dismissed him as crazy too.

Later, after we were stuffed from the appetizers and salads and parts of the Spaniards' meal, our food arrived, and then so did Sandro with the same Moroccan.

As the Moroccan sat at our table, I finally got a look at him. He had a knife scar above his left eye, the same place as the other Scarface in Fez, and this new guy was also from Fez.

Each time I travel I like to learn life lessons, little tricks that make things easier.
Lesson #1 Don't trust Moroccan men with knife scars on their faces who approach you on the street.

So I was wary of the man, but he seemed nice and Sandro was really friendly with him. I didn't now how Sandro had met him, but the guy did bring us and Sandro together.

But still, I went with Sandro, Eva, Jessi, and Scarface2 into a Land Rover driven by another Moroccan man. I don't know where he came from, or what was his relationship to Scarface2. I assumed he was also a friend of Sandro.

The plan was to go out to a deserted beach and all get drunk and have a bonfire [not to mention wild sex with the tourists]. No, wait, that wasn't our plan at all. We were going to the Camping place where Sandro was staying in order to check out the situation for a lift to Mauritania in the morning.

On the way out of town to the Camping we stopped first at my hotel so I could put away my 9 litres of water, and then at the girls' hotel so they could get sweaters, then at the driver's house so he could show us the nice house he lived in, and at the General's house so we could see what house the General of the Moroccan Army in Western Sahara lived in.

As an honored American guest, I got to sit in the front seat (so Scarface2 could sit with the girls and Sandro in the back). I declined their offer of their French alcohol mixed with orange drink. I don't know if that was a good move, it just meant more for the driver and Scarface2. Of course the women and Sandro didn't drink either.

We finally got to the camping. It was late, 11:30 PM, though some people were still up doing late night preparations for the trip across the desert. We didn't meet anyone with free space for four people, but Sandro had met a guy with space for him. Our plan was to arrive early next morning and try to get a space, if not we'd be well positioned to hook on with that day's arrivals. The only problem would be to ask the new drivers before the crazy Italian man did. He was also staying at the Camping (that's how he knew about Sandro) and scared off everybody he approached. They said he was drunk, had no supplies, and wanted a ride across the desert.

So, it was time to get back to our hotels. The Moroccans had been talking with other people, maybe (hopefully) sharing their orange alcohol.

I again sat in the front. The Moroccans didn't speak English, but they knew enough to say "You are American? Welcome. Welcome to Morocco. It's like your country. Your country, my country, the same, friends." This they repeated everytime there was a lull in the conversation. Fortunately, Eva was a good talker.

Eva was also beautiful. The driver had to continually talk with her, looking at her. He'd get insistent if she didn't pay attention to him while he was turned around talking to her. Like if she'd break eye contact to look at the road ahead, he'd talk louder and touch her or something to regain her focus. And if I looked nervous in the front seat he would repeat the thing about "My country is your country. Welcome."

We made it back into town, but then the detours. First down this street for whatever reason. Then to the driver's house so he could let his dogs run around the car a couple of times. Then past the General's house again, stopping to chat with the army guards.

Then we stopped at the house next to the General's so we could meet this one guy, Sharif, who spoke English, so I wouldn't be bored.

Okay, the story is really complicated and I still don't understand half of it. Sharif came out and I was introduced as an American and he was introduced as a friend who spoke English and also the head of the army or something. So he shoke my hand, "Good afternoon." Huh, "Good afternoon, nice to me you. Yes, je suis Americain." Then the repition of the whole, "Oh, Americain? Welcome. Welcome to Maroc." Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Just one moment, Sharif had to go back inside to put on a new shirt and get his bottle of whiskey. He got into the back seat and we drove past the General's house again, stopping to chat with the guards, again. "Oh, American? Welcome. Welcome to my country. It's your country."

Jessi started complaining about being very tired and she definitely had to be back to the hotel by 1 AM since that's when they shut the doors. But first we went to my hotel. Of course Jessi got out first, and then Eva, and then me, and then everybody else. Sharif wanted to go with me to Mauritania. I really didn't understand anything. He wanted to leave at 12:30 pm, if I had a place. He definitely didn't act like a high-ranking army official. Then he wanted us to sleep at his house with him and his wife.

Anyway, after much insistence (to the Moroccans) I walked Eva and Jessi to their hotel, then woke them up less than six hours later to go to the Camping together.

Eric Vance

Quickly 1.3.10
Mon, 4 Mar 2002 11:16:13 -0800 (PST)

Dear Mom and Dad,

I am in Saint Louis, Senegal. Only have time to say I made it through the desert and please send rejection letters to Stanford, Harvard, Berkeley, UWashington, and UCLA. And accept for me at Duke.

when I get to Dakar I will write all about crossing the Sahara.

Later, Eric Vance

Saint Louis D1.3.10
Wed, 6 Mar 2002 04:57:00 -0800 (PST)

Dear Mom and Dad,

It's a new numbering system again, with the last email not counting.

I got off the bus in Saint Louis and am now in Dakar. I will go to Mali on Saturday hopefully.

It was very nice to arrive in Nouakchott, Mauritania after several days in the desert. But then it was very good again to leave Nouakchott in less than 24 hours because the city wasn't attractive. It was a village of 600,000 people.

In Nouadhibou (Mauritania) the camping was owned and run by Sengalese. My one mail meal there was especially prepared by a Sengalese woman there. It was good food, but it wasn't Mauritanian. At the camping were several French people. One man, Dominique, recommended to the people I ended up crossing the Sahara with, a hotel in Nouakchott, Le Pili Pili. It was a Cameroonian place, very dirty, expensive; and the food there was Cameroonian, not Mauritanian. The only redeeming factor at Le Pili Pili was the African prostitutes in the restaurant. At least that's why I assume Dominique recommended the place.

My only real taste of Mauritanian culture was when I hopped off the bus on our way out of town at a small shop and bought 1.5 litres of camel milk. First time I've ever drunk camel milk. Tastes like (chicken) ordinary lowfat cow's milk, but it had pictures of camels being milked on the carton.

In Saint Louis I spent two nights at the camping on the beach, and only a few hours in Saint Louis itself.

Saint Louis is an island in the Senegal River. And it's true, some of the buildings looked like those in New Orleans French Quarter, with women flashing their breasts from the French balconies. I don't know about the flashing. I stayed in the hotel camping at night.

Saint Louis 


Some people really like St. Louis. That it's a great city, very unusual with French architecture. And lots of music and night clubs. Maybe. I didn't experience it. I'm still not really sure how to be a traveler in West Africa.

I'll write more later,
Eric Vance

Senegal W1.4.10
Fri, 8 Mar 2002 06:32:55 -0800 (PST)

Dear Mom and Dad,

So I am in Senegal. I made it across the Sahara Desert, first on top of an Izuzu Trooper driven by two German/International missionaries, and then on a bus the rest of the way through the minefield and the sand dunes and the deep sand on the beach. I'll write about that later.

Unless I have a plan for the next day before I go to bed, I end up wasting too much of the morning. So my plan for today was to buy my train ticket to Mali, see the Dakar museum (and practice reading about the customs and culture of Africa in French), and pick up my passport and Mali visa at noon. In the afternoon maybe I'd go to a market just to look, but probably I'd spend a while at internet writing about the Sahara.

The thing about the plan for the morning is something I've learned about myself. Something I've learned about Africa is your plans must be flexible and you've got to accept waiting. The train ticket office opened over 3 hours later than it was supposed to. But I didn't mind waiting. I talked with a Canadian girl Amy (with green eyes) who had been waiting longer than I had. She told me a few things about Senegal and Africa which is very good because I know so little. Some Europeans I have met were a little embarrassed that they had forgotten the names of African countries and their places on the map. I never learned anything ever in school about Africa. And any movie about Africa is about the olden days when men were men and shot lions and women worked the fields and ran the plantations.

Amy told me to drink "zhu d zhin zhahm" (ginger juice in French) and on no account should I take the train second class. So I got a 1st class ticket leaving tomorrow evening, 35 to 48 hours to Bamako, Mali. That just means I have a wider seat and less cargo piled at my feet. I opted not to get the expensive couchette. I want some adventure.

So anyway, I didn't go to the museum today. Tomorrow. When I travel I want to see the sights and the museums (I've had enough of the markets) unlike some people I've met who despise anything in the guidebook because they want to see the "real" Africa. Maybe.

Yesterday I went to the Ile de Goree, a small island just 2 miles from Dakar (the capital of Senegal). The island was beautiful and funky and historic. Bougainvillea in pink, red, orange, yellow, white, and purple surrounding old colonial buildings (buildings painted nice colors or crumbling in ruins and always with balconies or fancy windows), plus grand boabab trees along the streets/walkways.

Ile de 

Ile de Goree waterfront

The funk was up at the castle fortress where Muslim rasta-types hang their artwork over the old cannons and artillery.

The history was at the musuem (an old French or English fortress). I bought a book in English about the island, so I read a lot, but not much of it stuck. The island was first claimed by the Portuguese, then settled by the Dutch, then conquered by the French with the English taking control depending on which wars in Europe were happening. Some slave trading took place there, which is really the main attraction of the island. There's the "Slave House" with a door from the groundfloor rooms/dungeons opening out to the sea. It is called the Door of No Return. The house says that slaves were shipped out of the dungeons through the door to the slave ships to sail to the New World.

House of 

House of Slaves ambushed by French tour group

Really, not much slave trading happening on the island since it was so small and didn't have much drinking water, and no boat could have gotten close enough to the door to actually use it to ship slaves. I'll see the real slave trading centers when I visit Benin and Ghana. The House of Slaves on Goree is, from the historian's point of view, merely symbolic. And from my point of view it was a hole in the wall out to the sea with some stuff around it written in French. At least I bought my English guidebook, so I did actually know what I was looking at.

Dakar is one of those scary cities along with Fez, Caracas, New Orleans, and Colon-Panama. At the stop where the taxi from Saint Louis let me and the two Francophones I am traveling with off in Dakar, we witnesses madness. The three of us were besieged by angry taxi touts trying to intimidate us into paying high taxi prices. If we tried to talk to the individual taxi drivers we were physically blocked from the taxi. It's kind of hard to explain.

It was night. Fabian, Kristin, and I got out of the taxi. Just unfolding out of the car I could sense the mayhem, so I told them to get their backpacks on and stand over there to collect our thoughts before talking or looking at anyone.

Once calm and collected with five Senegalese shouting at us, we told one where we wanted to go. We were quoted a high price. Then we sort of split up to talk to other people to negotiate a better price. Lots of shoving and yelling and shouting and we were in a cab at a reasonable price. I was surprised by all the aggression.

That's enough,
Eric Vance

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