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Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Fellowship of the Sahara

In the last post, we were heading towards Guelmim with two other cyclists. On the approach I realize that people were not kidding when they told us of an important military presence in Western Sahara. Just before Guelmim there is an airport where jet fighters take off every five minutes. For a second, I thought we were back in the UK. But being in a politically sensitive area, I've decided to refrain from taking videos.

In Guelmim we find a hotel. The guy gives us a nice price, so we decide to take it. The rooms are big with a large bathroom. It's clean ... so I thought. More on that later. After unloading all our stuff, another guy calls me over. Apparently we were given the wrong price. The new price is more expensive. Strange, I thought he was going to tell me that it's cheaper. Philippe is furious. Speaking a little Arabic, he lays into the guy, bringing god into the picture. He tells them "shame on your honour" and that they stood before god when they told us the original price. But the guy, probably not very religious, remains diplomatic. The new price stands. Well, we had a good time giving them shit, so we end up taking the rooms. An hour later, I reach over for the complementary towel as I exit the shower. I unfold the towel and let out a scream. It appears that someone decided to use it to wipe their ass. The towel is nicely laden with a wide, brown crayon mark several inches long. Michèle is nice enough to take it down to the manager. She returns with a clean one and washes her hands. Michèle comments: Other than finding that completely gross, I also found it confusing. Who would wipe their ass with a towel? And then fold it so neatly that the cleaning staff wouldn't think of replacing it? It doesn't make any sense. Philippe thought it must have been a foreigner because Moroccans "ne se torchent pas".

The best part about this hotel is that it has a bar. I head down with Philippe for a cold one. The music is good, but if it had been coming from a record player, the needle would have scratched across the vinyl. All heads turn towards us. The place is more like a saloon than a bar. People are not there to socialize. They're all sitting alone with their beer and cigarettes. Yes, you can still smoke in public places in Morocco. There is not a single woman in sight. The whole place is a sausage party. I feel like standing on a stool and yelling "Please leave the drinking to the infidels". But screw this, I need a drink. After all, beer always tastes better in sketchy places. We find out that everyone in there is a truck driver. Probably hauling fish across Western Sahara. We sit down and one of them leans over to talk to us. He's mumbling words in Russian. The guy is wasted and he reeks. Philippe is so nervous that he downs his beer in 30 seconds. By that time I realize that the place is a bust. I finish my beer and we leave. Michèle comments: I didn't even bother checking out that bar in the hotel in Guelmim. The bar near the beach bungalows where we stayed in Sidi Ifni had been enough for me, when we  had gone in that bar just to buy a bottle of wine to go with our tajine dinner. Watery-eyed lingering stares followed us as we walked in. The kind of stare that makes you wonder if you forgot to put clothes on.

At 5:45 in the morning, we get ready for our longest ride yet. A 130 km desert traverse all the way to Tan Tan. The road is fairly flat with a tail wind by midday. Lots of huge trucks. Despite being drunk or severely hung over, most drivers were giving us plenty of room. The traffic can also be entertaining. You see a lot of pickup trucks carrying camels. One guy stopped in front of us to run out into the desert to perform his prayers. Like good tourists, we all stop to take pictures.

Many people call this leg of the ride monotonous. I guess it is. But to see the open desert and knowing that you are in the Sahara is quite a rush. You really feel that you are out there and on your own.

The last few kilometres were difficult but we made it to Tan Tan. From far away, the town looks like a zit on a smooth ass. At the gate of the city, two giant sculptures of camels greet the arriving traveller.

Michèle comments: I did find the road from Guelmim to Tan Tan monotonous. It's along a major road with not much to see. My notes of the day were: "police checkpoint, another police checkpoint, view of dunes!, yet another police checkpoint, Tan Tan". The dunes were way in the distance. A teaser of what was to come.

A hundred metres later, it's passport control time. At the check point, one officer is in civil clothing. The other has the stereotypical look of a corrupt official. Impeccable uniform, cap at eye level, 70's style Ray Bans and sporting a thick moustache.

The police officer finally finishes scribbling the info on a piece of paper. By this point we are knackered. Tired to the point of feeling high. I am finding it hard to make decisions but we end up finding a hotel. The bed in our room only has a few mouse droppings. Great! We'll take it.
Tan Tan is a lively place. This is the first time we see Morocco's Spanish influence. Some of the women are uncovered and look pretty good. There are also many Chinese people who were definitely not on vacation. We never found out what they were doing there. Probably something to do with the fishing industry.

Michèle comments: Perhaps a small Korean community in Tan Tan too? The photo above shows the Snack Seoul in the background. We also heard of a Korean restaurant near El Ouatia, a.k.a. Tan Tan Plage. One of the few places around with a liquor license.

We were told that one of the hotels serves beer. After wandering aimlessly for an hour, we find the hotel. It does serve beer but it's only for the military. That doesn't stop us from asking if we can go in. After all, we are only tourists. We get the confirmation, it's only for the military. In Guelmim, the binge drinking was for the truck drivers. Here, it's for people who carry guns. Not too reassuring. While all this is happening, Philippe and I are being held back by a woman who talks too much. Giving you a detailed description of this person would take too much disk space. After telling her that I'm from Canada, she tells me that her husband has been there seven times and that he loves it. Apparently, her husband never used to drink, but after going to Canada he became an alcoholic. He can't say no to beer she says. Neither can we, I guess. She takes us on a wild goose chase for a restaurant. Telling us about a million things that start with bla bla. She is telling Michèle that she's going to steal me away from her. It's all very funny but I am dead tired. Time for bed.

Several days later, we pedal out of town, hoping to take a quiet road to a town called Smara. After 3 or 4 km we realize that the head wind is too strong and that a sand storm might be on the way. The decision is made to turn around in the direction of Tan Tan Plage. Michèle comments: The road to Smara, also written Es Semara depending on the sign, was going to be our chance to get off the main road with all its traffic. It would be a longer route to take to Laâyoune, but we didn't care.

There, in Tan Tan Plage, we spend a few days waiting for the wind to be in our favour. Relaxing at the beach.

One evening, Philippe and I take a ride to the port. The first thing is another passport control. The place is dirty and smells like something fishy is being processed. No surprise there. Attached to the docks are hundreds of rusty commercial fishing boats. So uninviting, the place looks like a map from an apocalyptic video game. We were hoping to buy some fresh fish but there isn't any in sight. The catch goes directly from boat to truck. 10 minutes later, it's hauling its ass down the road hoping to catch last call in Guelmim.

To be continued...


  1. Waw, the picture on the beach is just gorgeous!!
    I hope you're enjoying the beauty of it in the middle of all the shitty stuff (literally!)....
    Michele, belated Happy Birthday!
    Are you not going to the Canary Islands anymore?
    I guess you have to make a plan to go to a country where you can drink beer in peace for a while!!
    xxx Caroline

  2. super le coup de la serviette ! (S)

  3. Nous vous souhaitons de bonne fêtes de fin d'année et continuez a nous faire rêver en racontant votre voyage que nous suivons assidument sur votre blog. Josiane et Jean-pierre (cyclistes normands rencontrés en Irlande)

  4. Bonjour Josiane & Jean-Pierre,
    Nous sommes vraiment contents de savoir que vous suiviez notre blog. En Islande, nous avons pris cette route qui menait de Möðradalur... 32 kilomètres de torture... la route que vous nous avez conseillé de ne pas prendre. On aurait dû vous écouter!

    Hey Caroline! Do you mean the picture of the man and boy walking on the beach? If so, we have to give credit to Thomas for taking that fabulous photo. He has some pretty wicked settings on his camera. Thanks for the belated birthday wishes. Yes, we made it to the Canaries and to some easily accessible beer and wine.

  5. Salut Seb. Parcour plutot scato jusqu'a maintenant. J'espere que 2011 apportera moins d'caca. Bonne annee.