Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Taking A Break

I'm taking a break from this blog for a while, but don't worry. I'm just moving my posts to for the duration of my round-the-world trip.

I'll blog here again when the trip has ended.


Touring Naughty-Boo

Two guys leapt to their feet in the guard house at Camping Chez Abba. This popular backpacker/overlander place had been sold out when my friend Anne Marie tried to go here some years back, but I'd hit it at a slow time.

"Do you have a nice room for me?"

The older of the two (and by older, I mean about 32 years old) nodded. "Of course."

They showed me an exhausted hostel type room that had about six beds in it, and an attached "private" squat toilet (if you don't include the giant cracks that showed into the kitchen). But the price was right. I could have the whole room and toilet for $11. The shower block was around the corner. And that's when I realized I was poorly prepared for showing down the hall. I had a mini-towel (quick-drying) and a skimpy nighty.

I didn't think I could shower, though. Towels didn't come with the room and I was reluctant to travel with a wet towel.

The younger man, Musa, offered to help me with anything I needed. He told me where I could catch the "taxi brousse" in the morning (a jitney) and where I could get some pasta for dinner. Then he gave me instructions on how to get to the place of shipwrecks.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Border Day

Bamba was trying to tell me something. He kept motioning at things. The glove compartment. The dashboard. He wanted me to do...what? He'd speak to me in French, because he'd gotten it in his head that I understood French, though I'd repeatedly said that I did not. Perhaps saying this in perfect French isn't a good strategy.

I fumbled around, trying to help him out. He kept putting one hand to his ear. I dug around in the glove compartment and produced some earbuds.


He pointed to his ear again.

Oh, there was a rattle! He wanted me to find the rattle. Bamba was deputizing me. Co-driver.

Friday, March 18, 2011


I was at the Hotel Sahara at 7:30. But there was no car in front. I walked up the stairs and surprised the guy at the front desk.

"I'm meeting a driver..?" I was hesitant. I didn't have my road legs yet.

He nodded. A minute later, I heard a horn.

I looked out. There was the early nineties Renault mini-van I'd seen the night before. But the man in the gallibya and head wrap thing was gone. This guy wore trousers, a gray hooded coat, and a shirt that buttoned down the front. And he was packing stuff into the vehicle. Including...was that a 32" flatscreen TV box he was piling into the back?

"Is that him?" I had doubts.

"Let me see." The front desk clerk looked out the window. He smiled and waved at the man in trousers.

"Yes, that's him. Go on."

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Car or Bus?

My dehydration-illness had vanished in the night, and I approached my morning dose of bread and coffee with enthusiasm, then typed away for several hours in the part of the lobby that the hotel wi-fi reached.

I was working on a new invoice-and-pay system for the job I'd just left. I had been the check signer, and there wasn't anyone else to do it, so I had spent a lot of time gathering up info and sorting out a digital system. It was working out well but taking a lot of time as I made various screw-ups along the way of instituting the new set-up.

Fortunately, I had nothing else to do in Dakhla, which is a dusty Saharan town seemingly at the end of the world. My only real mission was finding onward transport. Not so long ago, tourists were required to travel by military convoy to the border of Mauritania, then recently it was done by private hire, and now, rumor had it that you could just catch a daily CTM bus.

After carefully copying down the French I needed from Google Translate, I walked to the CTM office in early afternoon to inquire about this rumor.

Yes, there is a daily CTM bus from Dakhla to the border. It leaves at 9 a.m. It had been running every day for about two or three months now. It's 160 dirham.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

To Dakhla

Four days of tartine in a row. Gah.

Tartine is like toast, but it's baguette bread, not sliced bread. I'm not a big bread-eater, but it's all that's keeping me going these days. Every day, I get tartine and cafe au lait (lots of lait, unfortunately) for breakfast. Ever since I hit the Africa continent, it's been bread, bread, bread for petit dejeuner.

This is not all over Africa, of course, This is purely a French influence thing. I'm pretty damn sick of bread. Though I must thank the French, as at least the bread is, without fail, delicious. And the coffee is generally decent. I didn't bother carrying my own coffee works this time, just put some little packets of instant into my pack. The Nescafe guys were handing out free samples on the street one day, and my tenant gave me a Starbucks sample, so I have at least eight days worth of potential caffeine in my pack.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


Couscous. I'm over you.'re lovely but please leave me alone. Chicken schwarma? You're pushing your luck. Mint tea? We're still friends.

In the end, I lazed around an extra day in Essaouira. There wasn't much in the way of formal sights. I wandered the ancient medina, walked around the city walls, visited the fish market, bought fresh-squeezed orange juice, and sipped coffee at a little coffee shop beneath the ramparts. My riad was cozy and comfortable. My laundry came back stiff and not particularly clean, reminding me that I needed to start doing my own laundry in the sink. My search for a manicure and the
rumored 200 dirham unlimited data SIM led me outside the medina and into the buzzing modern city which was, with its open storefronts, streetside kebab vendors, and small businesses, a good deal easier to comprehend than the ancient chaotic city of tiny rambling alleyways.

I chose the post office at the center of the medina for mailing home my souvenirs I'd picked up in Marrakesh, thinking they were used to tourists sending home silly crap. They were, and the clerk zealously ushered me through the process, barking orders at a subordinate who was charged with putting my package together. Easy.

One afternoon I wandered down to the pier where the fishermen bring in their catch. I paid 10 dirham to climb up onto a preserved city wall, where I had the view of the Atlantic on one side, and could surreptitiously snap shots of fishermen on the other. My reward was a seagull shitting on my head, so I did get punished for my attempt at photos-without-asking.

And I wandered into the spice market, where a young man tried to sell me perfume in the shape of soap. That seems like a good idea, and it did smell good, but I don't even wear perfume in the shape of perfume. He also presided over pyramids of spices.

"How do you get the spice to make that shape?" I have long wondered how this is possible.

"Magic," he whispered. Then laughed and showed me that the pyramids of spice were window dressing, made of glue and some stuffing covered in spices.

I stayed an extra day in Essaouira, because I was still wrangling the new banking system for the job I just left, and trying to figure out how to pay freelancers remotely, and still processing pages for comic books. And because I'm a little lazy, and I doubted I'd see such a comfortable 20 euro a night hotel again for a long, long time.
And in the end, I bought a coach ticket for Essaouira-Agadir, then connecting Agadir-Dakhla, the southernmost major city before striking out into the desert en route to Mauritania. I'd be traveling for over 24 hours. HELL. But I thought I'd just get it over with instead of breaking it up into shorter legs.

I arrived early at the Supratours bus terminal, where I was able to leave my bag for 5 dirham. And I went to the nearby coffee shop and turned on my Kindle's wireless, and this week's New Yorker magically appeared on my Kindle.


Saturday, March 12, 2011

On to Essaouira

My night in my warm sleeper passed well, and the tap-tap on the door in the morning meant that the conductor thought it was time for me to get up. My iPhone had told me the same thing, of course, so I was already up and waiting for my 40 minutes overlay in Casablanca.

I grabbed a cappuccino in the train station, tried the wi-fi (as broken as the Beni Nsar Internet had been, so maybe it was system-wide), then moved onto one of those glamorous new first-class trains that Morocco acquired a few years back. I flopped into a big, cushioned seat and relaxed for the 3-hours-and-change ride to Marrakesh. So fast! The trains are good in Morocco.

My final destination for the day was not Marrakesh, but it was the end of the train line. From here to the end of Morocco, it was all buses and shared ("grand") taxis.

But I did want to stop in Marrakesh. I had a mission, to go buy a few trinkets, some folk-art on wooden slabs for the souvenir program I'm developing. But I didn't want to drag my luggage around town. I walked into the information office at the Marrakesh train station.

"Is there left luggage here?"

"No." Ah, okay. So it's more like a US train station than a European one.

I walked to the Supratours bus station around the corner. Not only did they have no lockers or baggage storage, but they also had no tickets left for today. This wasn't surprising—the guidebooks all point out that Supratours is considered the top bus company in Morocco, and you must always buy your ticket the day before. But I had been hoping to get lucky.

I considered my options. I could go to the main bus station and try again. Or forget the trinkets and head to Essaouira on a different bus or in a shared taxi.

But first, one more try.

In the end, I begged the bellhop at the hotel next door to hold my bag for me. I did tip him handsomely, but he seemed to do it out of pity.

Now luggage-less, I walked to the street and hailed a taxi. Good. The guy used the meter without my asking. He didn't know where the hell we were going, but I named the nearest sight (the Kasbah) and that go us close enough.

I negotiated heartily for my trinkets but paid much more than I'd planned too. A British woman overheard the transaction and grabbed the same deal. The artist thanked me for the additional sale, and then the British woman thanked me for the deal.

I walked over to the Djemaa El Fna, the touristy center of Marrakesh. This is what most people think of when they think of Morocco. Snake charmers, vendors, hustlers, henna, and magicians. For me, I was interested in the four dirham freshly squeezed orange juice. And maybe some lunch.

The juice was perfect, but it was too early for lunch.

I got into a taxi to go back to the gare, but the driver demanded fifty dirham.Hey, where's my commission?

"No. Meter."

"Okay, 40."

"No. Meter."

"Okay, 20."

"No. Meter."

He shrugged and motioned me in. He started driving and then said "20."

Whereupon I let loose on him a stream of anger, demanded he stop, and got out. First taxi driver argument of the trip. Not bad.

The next guy used the meter without my asking. Ten dirham back to the gare.

I got my luggage, grabbed another ten dirham ride to the grand taxi station, and bought two places in a Mercedes bound for Essaouira. The usual number of passengers in these cars is six. That's four squished into the rear seat and two into the front seat. This is as uncomfortable as it sounds, so I wanted none of it. I bought the two seats in the front, but my plan to be safe and comfortable was thwarted when I realized there was no seatbelt.

The four teenagers who had bought the back sheet shot daggers at me. They also "entertained" for two hours with their mp3 players on their phones. Joy.

The driver sped to the coast, and just a few hours later, I pulled my pack onto my back and wandered around, hugging the coast for direction, and found the medina, and then my riad.

In off-season, rates plummet. So I'd gotten a gorgeous riad for 20 euros a night. I settled in, showered, then raced up to the ramparts for sunset.


Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Hunt for the Gare

I walked into Morocco following my memory of a Google map I'd looked up the night before. The rain had left muddy the wide, main boulevard that led from the border, and so I walked along the potholed sidewalk instead of traversing the street, which I'd usually do, since I try to avoid climbing curbs and stairs when wearing a heavy backpack.

Lessee, train station should be just down there and to the left.

There were two train stations in the town of Beni Nsar, or Beni Ensar. (Arabic doesn't have standardized English-equivalent spellings, so it's just phonetic.) One was, according to the Moroccan trains website,) "Beni Nsar Port" and the other was "Beni Nsar Ville." The Port one, according to the Google map, was close enough to walk to from the border.

But I try not to be too stupid, so I stopped and asked a Moroccan man in front of a coffee shop.

"Pardonnez, ou est la gare?"

"Du train?"

"Si. I mean, oui. Train."

"Taxi." He waved his hand to indicate a large distance. A second man, next to him, sagely nodded.

Just then a third man, with somewhat bloodshot eyes and James Dean-style hair (in gray), leapt out of the coffee shop.

"Non, non! Train ici!" He pointed around the corner to the left, where the map had indicated.

The three men then had an animated discussion that seemed to end in agreement. They motioned me up to the left, indicating that "Oh yeah, the train is there."

I followed their instructions, which exactly matched my memorized-map. The wide street I turned onto was line with new buildings, advertising money-changing services and travel deals. I crossed the end of the rail line, located behind a large fence, and stopped, puzzled. Ahead, perhaps another kilometer, were the giants lifting cranes of a seaport. Everything seemed right, except that there was no train station. At least the rain had stopped.

An ATM presented itself, so I got some Moroccan dirham—realized too late that a bunch of large-denomination bills wasn't going to be that helpful, like presenting fifty-dollar bills for a pack of gum back home—then headed back, reversing direction and crossing the tracks again. I went into the next building I saw, which seemed to be official. At least, it had an open door and a Moroccan flag on display.

I approached two men at the reception desk. One of them wore a uniform, which seemed promising.

"Ou est la gare?"

"La gare? Du train? Deux kilometers. Two. English?" He waved his hand to indicate a long distance.

"Oh. Can I walk?"

One of the men replied yes, but the other looked at my luggage.

"No. You should take a taxi. It is only ten dirham. Catch it right over there." He walked me to the door and pointed at a gathering of petit taxis. (In Morocco, little taxis take passengers within town, but grand taxis—Peugeots or Mercedes—travel long distances and cost more.

Defeat. I thanked the nice government officials and caught a taxi.

"Gare du train, s'il vous plais." I said it with confidence, as if I had some notion of where I was going.

The driver nodded and set off. Partway there, I realized I didn't have any small bills to pay the fare. Shit.

But it worked out. When we pulled up to the brand-new, sparkling Beni Nsar Ville station, I offered him my one-euro coins—two of them. That's twice the fare in dirham, so the driver was quite happy with this. And as a bonus, I didn't have to carry euro change around anymore.

I walked into the station and was surprised to see that the gare was bare. I mean, really bare. Like it had just been finished yesterday and no one had moved in yet. The kiosk had no occupants, the counters were mostly unoccupied. There was a security guard, bored on a bench, and one ticketing agent, chatting on his phone behind glass over a counter.

He hung up when he saw me, and enthusiastically undertook my case. Here was a good chance for me to remember the French I'd taken in ninth grade. I'd unfortunately not gotten around to picking up a Lonely Planet French phrasebook in my rush to get through everything at the end of my time in NY/NJ. I was going to regret that repeatedly as I traveled on.

"Je vais a Marrakesh. Un billet, s'il vous plais?"

Eventually, we established that I could have a sleeper on the overnight train to Casablanca, connecting there to Marrakesh. There were no couchettes (shared four-berth compartments) on this train, but there were private rooms.

"May I have one?"

"Of course."

He made a few calls. "The Internet is down." I heard him ordering my ticket, and then the phone cut out. He called again. Near the end of the process, his cell phone battery ran out. He reddened. He removed the battery, clipped it into a charger, and plugged the charger into the wall.

"We wait."

We waited.

After a few minutes, a friend of the ticket agent dropped by. A process was initiated, in which the friend's phone was dismantled, and the SIM swapped out with the ticket agent's SIM. The agent finished the booking process on his friend's phone, and then they swapped back.

I had my ticket.

For four hours hence. I've arrived early so as to have the best chance at booking a sleeper. But the station had no services—no left luggage, no kiosk selling water, nothing but a few toilets. So I sat, bored, appreciating the situation of the security guard and ticketing agent, who sometimes sat together staring at the wall, and sometimes apart.

And eventually, when I got onto the train, I knew I'd be helpless. Where was the right car? Who worked here? I'd been through this on Moroccan trains before. In time, I'd find my cabin and nestle into my tiny closet, alone, warm, and safe for the night.

But first, one more thing.

"I tried to leave from Beni Nsar Port..." I'd told the booking agent.

"Ah, the station that only exists on the Internet." He'd given me a mischievous grin, but no further explanation.

The mystery of the reputed Gare of Beni Nsar Port shall remain a mystery.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Crossing the Border

I rose to meet Melilla with a cheerier mood than I'd had when I went to sleep. Hotel breakfast was a few slices of toast, a coffee, and some orange juice. Oh well, it was free.

I went straight to tourist information, looking for info on where I could get the meningitis vaccine. I'd balked at the $140 they'd wanted in the States. My last had been in Kampala in 2005 and had long since expired. I'd intended to get it in Malaga, but had been overcome by crushing weight of responsibilities and it hadn't happened.

The tourist information woman looked at me blankly, so I went to two places I'd looked up online. En route, I gazed up at the architecture along the main street. A man named Enrique Nieto, a disciple of Gaudí, had designed many of the art nouveau/modernisme buildings.

Unfortunately, the nice surroundings had little bearing on my mission. Which was a failure. The two places I'd looked up were closed and deserted. The clinic I found on my map sent me to a private clinic, which sent me up a hill. Halfway up, I quit and went back to my hotel for lunch.

In the afternoon, I got antsy. Time to go to Morocco.

I caught the #2 local bus to the border for .75 euros. It started to rain as I walked across the border. Three men tried to sell me the free forms that I needed to go through passport control, but I waved them off and hurried on, eager to get out of the rain. A security guard directed me to the passport control point, where a man asked: "Have you been to Morocco before?"

"Yes, but not on this passport."

He punched a few buttons on his computer.

"Three times you have been to Morocco."

Astonished, my mouth gaped. I recovered. "I didn't know you could see that on the machine."

"The machines know everything," he said. "One day we will not even need borders, because it will all be on the machine."

He stamped me in and I walked through the mud onto the streets of Beni Nsar, Morocco.

Saturday, March 05, 2011


I felt a tiny jolt of excitement as my ferry pulled into the port of Melilla. A crowd of women in headscarves buzzed about the exit door, anxious to disembark after eight stir-crazy hours on the Mediterranean.

I was jetlagged and exhausted, but this was significant. Setting foot onto the African continent, even the Spanish part, meant that my trip had started. (It also means I'm really far behind on designing my site, but one thing at a time.) And Melilla was new to me! I'd never been to a Spanish enclave on the African continent before.

Following the crowd onto the gangplank, into the ferry terminal, and down an escalator, I soon found myself in front of the old city walls.

The road alongside them curved along and led me to my hotel. I'd booked somewhere decent, knowing I'd still be playing catch-up on the wi-fi in my room.

I checked in and got a room number. #328. The hotel room stunk of old sewers. I don't know if you know what that means but it's common in old cities that never quite updated their plumbing. The bathroom had new tiles, and the floor was covered in fake wood veneer, but Hotel Anfora shows it age. I wrinkled my nose a little. I don't mind this in a cheap room. But a 45 euro a night room?

It could have redeemed itself if the internet had worked. I noticed that the signal was locked, so I traipsed back to the elevator and down to reception for a password. Back upstairs. The signal was one bar. I couldn't get on. Back down to reception. I got a new room, where the signal would work better. Okay, now we're getting somewhere. I got off the elevator on the third floor and had to laugh. The room was about five doors down from the old room. Needless to say, this scheme did not work.

Never mind. I was hungry. I threw the laptop in my bag and rushed out to find dinner. It was 10:30 p.m. but people eat late in Spain.

In short order I learned that Melilla was and wasn't Spain. Almost no restaurants were open. How could this be? In fact, almost nothing is open. Why, it's against the Spanish constitution!

After rushing around searching for a cafe (I foolishly hoped for one with wi-fi), I went back to my hotel and caught the elevator upstairs to the restaurant.

The waiter told me (I think--my Spanish is pretty limited) that the restaurant closed in 15 minutes. My voice cracked as I said "So I can't get food?" It had been a long day.

He took pity on me. "Sandwich?" I nodded. "Y papas fritas?" "Si, por favor."

I didn't know what kind of sandwich but I didn't care. Then, just to see if it would work, I pulled out my laptop.

Moments later I was downloading my email while munching a toasted ham-and-cheese sandwich with fries.

Melilla could have a second chance. Manana.

Thursday, March 03, 2011


I threw my old jeans and purple sweater into a bag and went down to the used clothing bin I'd seen outside the El Corte Ingles department store, in front of the Citibank.

I tossed in the bag. That had been my plan, to wear old clothes on the plane to escape the New York winter, then to ditch them in Malaga, Spain.

For a moment, I hesitated. My plan had also been to throw out my winter coat there too. I'd selected carefully, choosing a thin coat I hadn't worn in years. And it struck me that I'd bought this coat from Mango in Barcelona in November of 2004, when the nights got chillier than I'd expected while living there for a few months. From Spain and back to Spain. I'd had to buy an XL size, which had struck me as absurd. In 2004, I was thinner than I'd been since I was 17 years old, due to eating like a Spaniard and living on a sixth-floor walk-up in Barcelona. But Spain has inconsistent sizing.

What if I needed my coat tonight in Melilla, the Spanish enclave I was boarding the ferry to in a few hours? What if it was chilly on the ferry?

I took off the Mango coat, checked the pockets, and tossed it in the bin. I heard it slip in, the gentle slide of fabric against steel. There. No turning back.

I got my daily max out of the Citibank ATM…I was stocking up, knowing I'd go through cash quickly once I got to countries with no ATMs. Then I crossed the street into El Corte Ingles and went up the elevator to the sixth-floor post office.

After spending all morning laying out my possessions and discarding bits and pieces, I'd come to what seemed like a tolerable weight for my backpack. In my rush to make the plane on time, I'd brought too much stuff and much of the wrong stuff. The Pumas I'd opted for weren't working out—too thin, no support. This was bad when I had on my pack, but I hadn't run across anything better during my afternoon whirl around Malaga yesterday. I'd be in sandals soon anyway.

I'd also brought the wrong messenger bag. My old one wasn't quite big enough for my MacBook (I covet the MacBook Air, which is light and sleek and powerful, but I don't cover it enough to buy and ruin a new one on this dusty trip), and so I'd bought a new one. A Crumpler brand named the "Considerable Embarrassment." Seemed like a good idea at the time. A built-in padded compartment neatly swaddled my MacBook, and there were all kind of zippered and Velcro pockets. I'd left my laptop sleeve at home and brought the Crumpler.

By the time I'd arrived at Newark Airport, I regretted the shoes and the bag. The bag was too heavy, the shoes too weak. By the time I got to Spain, I knew I had to do something about both.

The shoes are still on hold, but I'd purchased a new laptop sleeve at El Corte Ingles and now headed up to the post office to mail Michael Kraiger a gift. A nearly new Crumpler bag, conveniently full of my office key, my office access card, and my car and garage keys and door opener (that's not part of the gift).

The post office visit, like any post office visit anywhere, was excruciating and took ages. I started to worry at about 12:15. My ferry was scheduled for 2 p.m. The postal workers didn't seem phased by my anxious checking of my phone for the time. (I'd look at my watch, but I hadn't worn it. Come to think of it, where was my watch? I'd gone to the trouble of cleaning up my 2001 Timex Expedition and getting a new band. But I was still telling time with my phone. Where did I put the watch?)

Eventually, the package went and I hobbled—rushing as much as one can when hobbling on thin soles—back to the Hotel Ibis to pick up my backpack. It was nearly 1 p.m. How early does one need to arrive for a ferry? At least it's from Spain to Spain, not from Spain to Morocco. Officially, I mean.

I hurried down to the port, noting that my backpack was still much too heavy and my shoes still a problem. I ran through my possessions in my head, wondering what was going into the used clothing bin next. Or could the problem be me? Was I weak after five years of sedentary desk-job living? Was my weakness the reason I couldn't carry a reasonable amount of clothing and Doxycycline around the world?

Sweating, I arrived at the port.

Construction blocked the way.

So I made a big loop around and got into the port. And boarded the ferry with 45 minutes to spare.

The ferry was skankier than I'd expected. Not like the catamaran I'd been on a few years ago out of Algeciras. A cockroach scurried around the ladies room. The cheap seats, which I'd booked, were mostly broken, stuck in the reclining position.

I settled in for the eight-hour journey to Melilla. The fast ferry runs in the summer but this was low season. The ferry was barely populated. And this was my first downtime in days. I'd been frantic for so long, winding down my job, getting my possessions out of my apartment, chasing my passport which had just arrived in the nick of time from the Embassy of Mauritania, and here I was with eight empty hours ahead of me.

I fell asleep instantly. My last thought being this: I know where my watch is. I'd had it in my Crumpler bag. I mailed it to Michael Kraiger.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Too Much Junk

The last few days were a whirlwind of no sleep, frantic day job working, and panicked packing. In the end, the kitchen faucet broke and I had a nice visit with the plumber (who replaced it), I contributed $42 to Jersey City by spacing out on the alternate-side parking times, and I threw everything into my car which I parked in my garage. I called a taxi to take me to Newark Airport and carried way, way too much with me.

A night on a partially empty plane (empty seat beside me!), a transfer in Zurich, and a scramble to try to find the Ibis since I hadn't had time to look anything up left me showered and ready to go hunt for a meningitis vaccine in Malaga.

But I have way, way too much stuff with me. Must cull.