Africa, Asia and Europe - To Africa

Africa, Asia and Europe - To Africa

KlimaGram 31: Truckiní

The last couple of weeks in Morocco have been a good time for us to get know one another and familiarize ourselves with the Dragoman vehicle and the day-to-day operation of the expedition. We are one Japanese, one Australian, one Northern Ireland, three American, and seven British, eight blokes and four birds, ranging in age from 18 to 47 with an average probably between 25 and 30. Our trip leaders are British as well, one male and one female, aged 29 and 33, respectively. Since we shall all learn a great deal about each other during the course of our journey, I will defer further comment until later.

The vehicle frees us from having to worry about our possessions - always a concern in places where the locals have a much lower standard of living. Although valuables are locked up in a safe, truck security is everybodyís job. Every compartment, each piece of equipment, and all the bags are secured by padlocks. We get the bags out in the morning and in the evening for people to retrieve what they may need. Nothing is left in a tent unless that tent is occupied and even then it is just sleeping gear. In the remote areas where we are going, we cannot replace items which may get stolen or lost, so vigilance is always necessary when we stop for a meal or to spend the night. In an abstract way I canít really fault the perpetrators - petty theft against rich-looking tourists who earn more in day than they may earn in months does not seem much different from office workers taking home pens and paper from large corporations.

The vehicle is marvelously comfortable by my standards but cleaning it as well as cooking and camping chores is the responsibility of the passengers. Each person has an assigned job - mine is cleaning the windows, floors, and refrigerator. The Unit is a member of the bar management team. (We collectively buy beer, sodas, and snacks and everyone keeps track of their personal consumption.)

The thirteen passengers have been divided into five cooking teams. When your shift comes up, you are responsible for lunch and dinner that day and the next morningís breakfast. The truck usually stops during the morning in a village so that dayís cooking crew can buy supplies. Occasionally, in big towns, we do a meal or two in restaurants.

Springtime in Morocco has been good for fruits and vegetables, especially wonderful, sun- ripened oranges. The butcher shops all have refrigerated meat lockers so we have not been shy buying protein. Beef is the same price, a little over three dollars a pound, no matter what part of the cow you get. And, of course, bread, both French and Moroccan, is readily available in abundance.

The food kitty to which we all contributed at the beginning of the trip doles out 200 dirhams to each dayís cooking crew. Thatís about fifty cents per person per meal. Figuring out how to cook for a group of fifteen has been a bit challenging but it is really just a matter of buying ingredients by the kilogram.

The Unit and I have formed the BARF cooking team: Bad, American, Renaissance Food or Bloody Awful Retro Food. We hope to introduce our mostly British compadres to a blend of American truck stop grease, momís home cooking, and some of our own fix-it-quick recipes. The Brits have a few odd tastes like mushy peas on bread, sandwiches full of french fries, baked beans on toast, and, can you believe this, batter-coated, deep-fried globs of mashed potatoes between a couple slices of bread. For the moment, I have turned them on to peanut butter, honey, and banana sandwiches. The BARF team has also made spaghetti with meat sauce, vegetable basil soup, french toast, and pancakes - solid Americana. (We splurged on imported parmesan cheese to jazz up the spaghetti but it disappeared on the cold, windy night that we prepared the pasta. Current speculation has it that Ben, one of our younger members, mistook it for laundry soap. The source of this speculation is best left unsaid.) Tomorrow night the BARF team will offer Moroccan soup with popcorn.

There have been a couple other meals worth noting:

- Stuff In A Pot which was concocted by Emma, our full-time vegetarian, and buried everyone in lentils. The directions are easy: gather edibles and clean as needed. Place everything in a pot and cook it up. (A second member of the group has been exhibiting vegetarian tendencies after viewing the local meat markets. Butcher shops like to advertise what has been freshly slaughtered by displaying definitive remains such as goat heads on a string or cow hooves neatly stacked on the sidewalk in cute little pyramids.)

- Starch City - the night Tom and Angus dirtied every single pot and pan on the truck making garlic bread, white rice, mashed potatoes, and stir-fried veggies (sort of). Dessert consisted of mint tea and burned bananas.

All the produce is soaked in a potassium solution which gives us salad capability, something the Unit and I usually avoid in our travels. Nevertheless, more people in our little group are concerned about constipation rather than the opposite. Perhaps it is the prodigious quantities of eggs and tomatoes we are consuming.

We have also sampled some traditional Moroccan fare:

- couscous: piles of steamed semolina with vegetable or mutton sauce

- harira: a rich, bean-based, spicy soup thickened with macaroni, lentils or, hopefully, popcorn

- tajine: a stew much like pot roast containing fatty beef, potatoes, and carrots cooked very slowly in an earthenware pot over charcoal

And because of all this good food, we remain healthy although it is worth noting that nine days out of Dover the first discussion of bowels and all-you-can-eat buffets occurred, remarkably on the same evening.

Traveling on an overland truck is a great way to get off the beaten track. When we bush camp in the desert under an endless canopy of stars ringed by an absolutely flat horizon in all directions and the wind dies away to yield absolute quiet, it is a moment of great solitude and beauty. Forgoing running water and electricity under such circumstances is a trivial concern. And doing so at the edge of the Sahara desert where only the nomadic Berbers wander with their flocks of sheep and camels is extraordinary. On our first night in the wild I played my Lawrence of Arabia tape on the truckís stereo and all was glorious. Later we camped among the red buttes and brown wasteland where the film was made. I shall undoubtedly have much more to say about this unique way to explore the less-traveled.

Copyright (c) 1996 Jet City JimBo All rights reserved

For more information, contact the following in the USA. Please, please, please mention my name and the home page where you read about my trip in your query. Thanks. JimBo

The Adventure Center 1311 63rd Street Emeryville, CA 94608

email: fax: (510) 654-4200 telephone: (510) 654-1879 toll-free (800) 227-8747 URL: coming soon

For the UK, contact Dragoman as follows.

Dragoman 96 Camp Green Debenham, Stowmarket Suffolk, 1P14 6LA

fax: 01728 861 127 telephone: 01728 861 133

KlimaGram 32: Marketing, Marrakesh Style

According to the Lonely Planet book "the focal point of Marrakesh is the Djemas el Fna, a huge square in the old part of town. Although itís a lively place at any time of day, it really comes into its own in the late afternoon and evening. Almost without warning, the curtain goes up on one of the worldís most fascinating and bizarre spectacles. Rows and rows of open-air food stalls are set up and mouthwatering aromas quickly fill the square. Jugglers, storytellers, snake charmers, magicians acrobats and (even) benign lunatics quickly take over the rest of the space. In between the groups weave hustlers, thieves, knick-knack sellers and bewildered tourists. The outer edges are delineated by the fruit and juice stalls. Overlooking one end of the square are the huge, eerily-lit Berber tents on the terrace of the Club Med hotel, while down below, the medieval pageant presents its nightly cornucopia of delights."

All remarkably true but just a bit more commercialized than I had naively expected. The street hustlers and performers excel at squeezing dirhams, the local currency, from unsuspecting tourists visiting the square. If you join the ring of onlookers around a dance or musical group, you will immediately be assailed for a ten dirham donation. The tenacity and persistence of the man with the hat skyrockets if you momentarily establish eye contact with the veiled eyes of a belly dancer. Likewise, the snake charmers, water sellers, and phony street dentists gladly pose for pictures but heaven help the poor tourist who fails to pay one of these colorful characters.

Marrakesh has long held the reputation of a hippie haven with cheap, readily-available drugs. Although much good dope allegedly is produced in Morocco, the free and easy days are long gone. In fact, not once was I offered anything illicit despite hours spent browsing the main square. Thatís not to say there wasnít plenty to buy - the souks or native markets overflowed with carpets, jewelry, brass, ceramics, leather work and so forth. Along with the merchandise comes high pressure sales tactics and very annoying guides, or "touts" as they are called in India, who offer endless amounts of unsolicited help for hire. It all adds up to hassles unless you know what you are doing or mindlessly fling wads of foreign currency about like a rich American tourist.

Sometimes, however, the guides can be useful if you canít find what you want. The Spousal Unit and I were searching for a djellaba, a garment which looks like a nightgown with a peaked hood. Depending on the weight of the material, the Moroccan men wear them over their regular clothing year round. I though a djellaba would be great for lounging around the house on chilly days.

The shops in the clothing souq didnít seem to have the color and pattern I wanted. A young man spotted my frustration and offered to take me to a "factory" where djellabas were made. Off we went through narrow, covered passageways until we arrived in front of a dark doorway, totally disoriented. Entering we discovered a warehouse full of souvenirs. We were whisked up a skinny winding staircase to the second floor where more showrooms laden with merchandise waited. Finally we were ushered into a narrow room lined to the ceiling with stacks of djellabas - we had found the mother lode. At the far end of the room were several low cushions and a small coffee table. A large Moroccan man shooed the clerks aside and introduced himself. "My name is Abdul."

I pointed to several djellabas that I liked. Abdul snapped his fingers and his assistants immediately began pulling samples down. The Unit and I settled into the cushions with Abdul and exchanged pleasantries. We told him we were Canadians from Manitoba - always a good line because no one in Morocco knows where Manitoba is and Canadian citizenship seems more politically acceptable than American. Everybody knows that tourists from the USA canít bargain their way out of a paper bag.

Getting in and out of basically a dress required unfamiliar skills which I was unduly taught. After wrestling my way into several djellabas, I found that most were too small. "Have some mint tea. We have more." Abdul laughed. We sipped and talked about our ages and jobs. More djellabas appeared in the style and color I preferred. I wanted a medium weight material suitable for indoor use; Abdul pushed hard for a heavier, more expensive wool model that, in my mind, was probably designed for tending a flock of sheep during the winter.

Eventually I settled on three djellabas that were acceptable. Unbeknownst to Abdul, I wanted two of them, one for myself and one for a Jewish friend in Seattle who loves Arabic stuff. "Which one is least money?" I asked. "Oh no, you must pick the best and I give you price," responded Abdul.

I pointed to one and Abdul smiled. He drew a pattern of six boxes, three rows and two columns, on a scrap of paper. "I write my price in the top box in left column and then you write what you can pay across from it in the top box in the right column. Then we do again two more times to bargain." Abdul scribbled on the paper and handed it to me.

I looked at his figure and almost fainted - 1600 dirhams! Remember the exchange rate is 8.5 dirhams to the dollar. I began making apologies for wasting his time; that I did not know real quality was so expensive. "Put a number down on the paper," he insisted. "I will not be offended." "Oh yes you will!" I said, jotting down a counter offer of 100 dirhams.

Abdul looked at what I had written and began chuckling in a high pitched tone. Perhaps at that point he knew he was dealing with master hornswaggler and that his commission from this sale, should it reach fruition, was likely to cover only the cost of renting a video rather than buying a new television. "This is not serious price," he said, scratching out both numbers. "What do you really want?"

I considered my position. We had spent almost an hour locating exactly what I wanted in his warehouse deep inside the ancient medina. The street shops did not seem to have the quality and color I was seeking. I concluded that Abdulís djellabas were worth going after. I would not bother looking elsewhere if Abdul and I could not come to terms. But first we had to perform the time honored ritual of haggling, a practice that does not come easily to a man from a fixed price world. But I had an ace up my sleeve - I had seen a similar garment in a government handicrafts shop with a price tag of 385 dirhams on it. Of course, not a single item in any room of Abdulís factory had a price sticker on it.

"OK, how much for these two? I asked, holding the pieces I wanted the most. "Special price for two," Abdul replied, jotting another number on the sheet of paper. I looked and saw 2000 dirhams written there. Countering with an offer of only 200 dirhams elicited another long chuckle from Abdul. "This is joke. How you expect me to make money?" I pleaded poverty and made up bogus excuses for it but Abdul was not impressed. He and his ancestors have been playing this game for centuries.

The next round found the numbers 1000 and 300 staring at each other across the scrap of paper. An interesting side note here is that the Unit and I had less than 200 dirhams on us.

Finally Abdul put a disgusted look on his face and said he must have 500 dirhams. It was his final offer. Unfortunately I had decided I would pay no more than twenty dollars for each djellaba, about 170 dirhams. So it was time to see if 500 really was his rock bottom price. We put aside the lovely djellabas and put on our coats. Abdul left us so we threaded our way back out on the street. A half block away our tout caught up to us and pleaded with us to return. I said 500 was too much and tapped out 450 on my calculator. He nodded and back we went to Abdulís.

Various employees met us when we returned. I re-iterated my offer of 450. Abdul came over and gruffly said 500 or no deal. Then he stomped off, laying a magnificent guilt trip on me for being so cheap. The guy was really good at it - I am still feeling its effects.

"OK, 500 it is if we have enough money," I said. Heads nodded and up the stairs we went with the clerks who suddenly became very fluent in English. Abdul disappeared, preferring to have nothing to do with us. Back in the djellaba room, all the merchandise had been put away except the two pieces I wanted which lay exactly where I left them. Coincidence? I doubt it.

The Unit and I each extracted an emergency, solve-any-problem, American twenty dollar bill which together were worth 340 dirhams. Adding another 160 dirhams cash made the coveted djellabas mine.

As we left, one of my traveling companions, who had endured the lengthy transaction, remarked: "Wow, itís finally over." "Not quite", I said, eyeing the tout who had delivered us to Abdulís in the first place. Tipping him ten dirhams left us with just enough money to buy celebratory glasses of fresh-squeezed orange juice in the square.

Lest you think I outsmarted a master shopkeeper in the souks of Marrakesh, let me just say I have been driving used cars for a long time but no used car salesman ever made me feel as stingy as Abdul. The man could have taught my marketing classes in graduate school. And my skills do not even compare to those of the Unit who bargained the price of a pair of earrings down from 250 dirhams to 25. I think it takes a special kind of buyer to offer the seller one tenth of the asking price. Try it the next time you buy a used car.

Copyright (c) 1996 Jet City JimBo All rights reserved

KlimaGram 33: Bits of Drama and Humor

Dave, our fearless leader says he thrives on the challenges associated with crossing international borders, negotiating with and, if necessary, outwitting petty bureaucrats who can make life hell for one stranded at an isolated outpost. Well, soon he should have some fun then as we are approaching a "bit of drama" as he refers to it - the border between Morocco and Mauritania.

Mauritania is the only country for which the Spousal Unit and I had to get visas in advance. And it was not easy since the country does not like foreigners crossing its borders by land. But with the able assistance of The Adventure Center, our passports are now appropriately stamped. But procuring a legal visa is not the only obstacle to entering Mauritania overland. The northern border is mined - the result of a dispute with West Sahara which Morocco has inherited. Complicating the issue is the fact that neither side wants to own up to mining the border, making it considerably harder to know who to trust should you need to cross it clandestinely.

At present southbound vehicles hook up with a Moroccan military convoy which guides them to the border. From there it is a simple jaunt down the road through the minefield to the Mauritanian border post. If you arrive from the north, the Mauritanians let you continue onward because they donít want to send anyone back through the minefield.

Northbound vehicles have a bit more difficulty because the Mauritanians wonít do squat to help. In fact they consider the border closed and will not let anyone go north. You have to become creative in finding ways to reach the Moroccan side of the border and hook up with the military convoy.

As we huddle in the truck at night trying to stay warm, Dave regales us with tales of disaster that have befallen overland trucking companies at this border in the past. For example, one truck hired a local man to lead them through but it hit a mine anyway. Fortunately only the front wheel on the passenger side was blown off. The ingenious crew took half the bolts from the wheel on the other side, re-attached the wheel, and proceeded to the border not too much worse for the wear.

Another overland truck coughed up a 2000 US$ bribe for a pseudo-legal crossing. Read Jeff Greenwaldís book, The Size of the World, to get all the hair-raising details.

The occupants of a third, northbound truck, confronting the prospect of either a huge bribe or an illegal transit chose the latter. They left in the late afternoon to avoid Mauritanian border patrols. Reaching the tarmac road which defines the actual border, they followed it, slipping off to one side whenever their guide warned them of mines buried in the road. Shattered Land Rovers offered graphic testimony to the guideís veracity.

Suddenly there was a strange noise from the rear of the truck. "Oh (expletive deleted)! A flat tire." They quickly replaced the tire and headed north into the desert, headlights off to avoid being seen. Being a black night, however, made driving without lights hazarderous in its own right because the driver could not see the small hills and valleys dotting the desert. The truck pitched about on the uneven terrain, tossing the paying passengers about like ping pong balls.

"Stop here," the guide commanded. "We must wait until dawn before going further." So the unperturbed crew and passengers, seasoned by the long haul from Nairobi, broke out the cooking gear and made dinner right in the middle of the mine field.

Later a light was spotted approaching in the distance. "Oh (expletive deleted), a Mauritanian border patrol!" Thoughts of despicable conditions in a disgusting Mauritanian jail filled everyoneís mind as the light grew larger. Being caught red-handed in the middle of an illegal exit transcended everybodyís definition of good adventure. At the last minute they realized the headlight belonged to a train chugging toward them on the railroad track paralleling the border road.

Dawn arrived and the truck threaded its way past the remaining mines to safety. You really have to hear Dave tell this story in his own words - I canít remember all the details that he seems to relish repeating in his understated way.

My current travel mates are taking this aspect of our journey in stride despite potentially serious consequences. Rolling with the punches is as much a part of adventure travel as it is of life itself. We rely on the judgment of our leaders and keep our spirits high.

To maintain those spirits, the group often uses humor to offset any obstacles, disappointments, and discomforts that we encounter. Take, for example, the big D - diarrhea. What are the chances fifteen of us will survive five or more months camping in the most disease-prone continent on Earth without suffering the runs? Try zero. Personally I prefer to get it over with as soon as possible to build up my immunities.

Before I go further, let me say that the trucking companyís standards for hygiene and sanitation are beyond reproach, the best I have ever seen, surpassing what I impose upon myself during backcountry outings in the USA. The first pieces of cooking equipment set up are always bowls of soapy water for washing hands before preparing food or eating it. And every time one returns to the truck from "watering the flowers," a spray bottle of disinfectant waits for him or her by the door.

My group of jolly good spirits have gone so far as to form a pool on who will be the big Dís first victim. The exuberant, light-hearted approach toward the inevitable is quite positive. As I said earlier, one should try not to lose oneís sense of humor or the ability to laugh at oneself under unflattering circumstances. Joking about an unpleasantness is a much better method for coping than moaning or whining about oneís discomfort.

So each person pledged a dollar and drew a name from a hat. If the person whose name you drew gets diarrhea first, you win the pool and split the winnings with the victim. Actually the proceeds are subsidizing the snack fund. If you win, you get credit for future munchies.

Of course, we had to develop quantitative criteria to know when the contest, if you will, is over. The victim must have a certifiable case of the "real thing," what our trip leader, in his best British accent, refers to as "the sheets." Certification is dependent upon compliance with any one of the following:

- five bowel movements in a single day
- two emergency vehicle stops on a driving day
- any soiling of oneís pants or sleeping bag on a non-driving day

Use of immodium, lomotil, or the equivalent to suppress symptoms is strictly forbidden.

Do not be appalled. We are on holiday and levity helps us manage the challenges a road trip in the third world entails. Be it diarrhea or minefields, we will roll onward in search of warmer weather. With luck, my merry band should join a military convoy in Dakhla on Tuesday, March 5, which will escort us the remaining 363 kilometers to the border. At that point our fearless leader will get his chance to realize job satisfaction.

Like I said earlier, a southbound crossing should be a piece of cake although I hope to heaven I donít win the pool for one of my mates on that particular day. If my karma is that bad, you can bet I will not deviate an inch from the tread marks left by the truck during any unexpected excursions!

Copyright (c) 1996 Jet City JimBo All rights reserved

From: Shirley Bowen
Organization: University of Durban
Date sent: Tue, 30 Apr 1996
Subject: message from Jimbo

Klimagram 34: Moroccan Summary

SYSTEM ADMINISTRATOR'S REPORT: Internet on a Shoestring by SueBee

Were we ever naive to think it would be easy to locate internet connections on the road in the third world! In each big Moroccan city, Rabat, Fees, and Marrakesh, it was the same scenario. Hunt down the nouveau computer store and attempt to communicate in extremely bad French. Then we would march to the fanciest hotel to see if it had a business center. IBM business cards were good for starting conversations but they always ended with eeno internet, Monsieur.' Even the big Sheraton Hotel in Fes lacked internet capability despite being connected to their corporate email system.

I suspect the universities are wired but the truck's schedule and workload do not leave much time for making appropriate contacts. This regrettably was not done in advance. The only possible internet access I can see would require dialing up Compuserve in Europe or the States either using a local computer or an acoustic coupler with my laptop. However, the transmission speed would be very slow, assuming a stable line could be found, and the cost would be exorbitant. There simply are no local servers available to the public.

So electronic mail is beyond our grasp for now and unlikely to improve as we plunge further into Africa. Updates will have travel by snail mail.


Halfway through Morocco one of Jim's molars began to ache when he chewed on that side of his mouth. Dental problems away from home can be frightening. Contending with one in west Africa was an exceptionally scary prospect.

We decided to seek relief in Marrakesh since we were staying there for three days. It was the last major city before heading south to Mauritania which, in hindsight, would have been a dental nightmare. However, after an encounter with a crusty, laughing street dentist, Jim went floss- mad and his molar recovered on its own. These phony odentistsoe pose for tourists with a large tray of loose teeth, jars of old fillings, and a big pair of pliers.

The coughing crud circulating about our truck caught up with Jim in Marrakesh. Given the close quarters on the truck and the communal activities of its passengers, it is difficult to isolate contagious diseases. Of course, I slapped his mouth into quarantine to save myself. It was a bummer since we had the luxury of a private room with a double bed in Marrakesh. The cold centered in his chest, causing other members of the group to allege that he sounded like a camel in heat when he tried to clear the congestion in his lungs.

I, as usual, remain in perfect health. [JimBo - Hah! Read the next Klimagram.]

ADDITIONAL WEE BITS from JimBo: Afrique at last!

For the geographically-inclined, here is where the Spousal Unit and I went in Morocco. Consult your favorite guide book for descriptions of the touristy things one can do in these places; I document only the anomalies here.

We sailed from Europe in the shadow of the Rock of Gibraltar to the Spanish port of Certa on the African coast. The acrid smell of burning tires in the town dump wafted acr oss the bow of the ferry as we entered the harbor. After cramming the truck with duty free food and drink, we then spent the afternoon in agonizingly slow queues clearing Moroccan customs and immigration - a sign of the times to come. Afterward we drove to Asiah, just west of Tangier, to camp.

On our first morning in Africa our leaders took us into town so we could get used to being hassled by local peddlers, mischievous children, and official as well as wannabe tour guides. Then it was on to Rabat to apply for visas to Mali, Ivory Coast, and Cameroon. Not a simple task when you cannot read, write, or speak French but our Dragoman leaders did all the actual legwork. I occupied myself getting a new pair of glasses to replace the ones I lost in London.

Ramedan, the Islamic equivalent of Lent, was in effect so the Moroccan towns were pretty quiet during the day. During Ramedan good Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset. A couple days after we arrived, the first sliver of the new moon, signifying the end of Ramedan, appeared. The next morning 5000 Muslims gathered on a couple football fields of prayer mats outside the campground. Us foreigners were penned inside the campground to prevent any interference. My shutter finger twitched but the camera remained in hiding - the odds were too unfavorable in the event I committed some religious impropriety.

It was in Sale, across the river from Rabat that I learned my first Arabic words: popcorn and peanuts. Leaving Sale we encountered gray skies and cold rain amid the green rolling hills. Our lunch stop was at the ruins of an ancient Roman city called Volubilis, famed for its mosaic tiling and crumbling columns. The clouds continued to spit so we rolled onward to a cold, muddy campground in Fes.

We hired a guide in Fes and toured its medina, the oldest part of the city enclosed by ancient fortified walls. Over 200,000 people live and work in the medina, one of the few surviving medieval Arabic cities. I am usually pretty good at urban navigation in foreign cities but the labyrinth of narrow passageways, crowded markets, tiny shops, and blind alleys were completely bewildering - and wonderful. To quote the Rough Guide for Morocco, Fes is oa place that stimulates your senses with haunting and beautiful sounds, infinite visual details and unfiltered odors, and it seems to exist suspended in time somewhere between the Middle Ages and the modern world.

We spent another day exploring Fes and its plethora of carpet shops but the real highlight for me was visiting a hamman, a public bath. For sixty cents you can sweat up a storm, get scrubbed down and massaged, and finally doused with buckets of hot and cold water. Sexes are, of course, segregated and a surprising amount of modesty prevails. For example, the men bathe in their underwear or swimming trunks. Unlimited quantities of scalding hot and icy cold water was available but being without glasses in the steamy rooms, I kept getting the buckets mixed up. I did enjoy being spread-eagled on the floor by an attendant and thoroughly soaped from head to toe. Being warm to the core and totally clean felt exquisite after several nights in the tent where the condensation on the rain fly froze by morning.

We drove inland across the Middle and High Atlas mountains to get peak at the Sahara. The passes were filled with snow which was about the last thing I expected to see in this part of the world. The dry side of the mountains resembled Colorado: rust-colored buttes, twisting rocky gorges, and barren plateaus dotted with scrub brush. However, Colorado does not have mud villages with mosques and shepherd boys herding flocks of goats.

In Lawrence of Arabia country we bush camped for the first time. Those of you who live where every square foot of land is fenced and exploited may not believe it but there are vast tracks of open land in the third world. Sometimes it is the common property of villages or tribal peoples. Other times the land is of so little value that only governments lay claim to it (and are willing to fight over it).

When we camp in the wild, our driver simply looks for a track leading off the road into the emptiness. When we are out of sight of the road, they check the wind and position the truck accordingly. Cooking in the midst of blowing sand is almost harder than doing so in the rain despite a large kitchen fly we use to keep the elements out of our food. When he is satisfied with the truck's location, our captain turns around and says: oThat's it, chaps.oe

Our first night was in an area so flat it was not hard to imagine why earlier civilizations thought the entire world was flat. Saharan horizons tend to appear infinite. Only rocky outcroppings and the occasional black tent of a nomadic family disrupted the skyline. We spent the second night in the Todra Gorge where parts of Lawrence of Arabia was actually filmed. I was pleased to have the original movie soundtrack on tape with me. The third night was in a Berber village called Ait Benhaddou where my camera took a close look at mud architecture. I don't think it will work anywhere in the USA except maybe Death Valley.

We drove back across the Atlas Mountains on more snow covered roads, taking great care to avoid oncoming Moroccan buses. You know they are pushing it when you can smell the asbestos burning on their brake pads. Knowing that their drivers also adhere to a philosophy of inshalla, God willing, didn't help. After a long series of hairpin turns we descended to green fields and drove into Marrakesh.

Here is a final episode from the Moroccan experience of my band of travelers, the story of Emma and the Berbers. A shopkeeper in Ait Benhaddou told Emma her hand in marriage would be worth 8000 camels and two Mercedes. He was a Berber man who adhered to traditions re- inforced by centuries of practice when it came to affairs of the heart. The Berbers were early inhabitants of the Atlas Mountains who pursued subsistence farming in the valleys or raising camels and goats in the foothills.

This appraisal impressed Emma, a former bond trader in the UK, so much that she and the Loud Ones began fraternizing with the locals that night in a restaurant where we did not eat but were planning to sleep. Fortified by orange juice and vodka, the Muslim men broke out their drums. Meanwhile, the Quiet Ones retreated to the dark side of the room and unfurled their sleeping bags.

Some time later one of the local fellows, a man called Sayed, invited Emma to an exclusive tour of his carpet shop. Another member of our group, Angus, went along as chaperone. To the relief of the Quiet Ones, the Loud Ones disappeared into the night, much to the excitement of all the dogs in the village.

Sayed woke up his sister who made mint tea for all. Then the two of them painted Emma's hands with an orange dye called henna. The resulting patterns are supposed to represent one's future. Continuing with his fortune telling, Sayed asked his guests to draw a picture containing a road (symbolizing life), three mountains (obstacles), a river (love), and four people (relationships).

Emma drew two people lying beside the river and two people playing frisbee. Looking at it, Sayed predicted a happy life for Emma although they disagreed over what the two people lying by the river were doing. Emma said they were sunbathing; Sayed had a different interpretation. Later Sayed invited Emma outside to look at the constellation Orion. Details of the story become unclear at this point but Emma claims Sayed leapt at her and Angus swears he had to grab Emma about the waist to free her from Sayed's farewell embrace.

One final comment regarding Moroccan romance - one of our group who prefers to remain anonymous received a marriage proposal from a Berber woman he met in the central square of Marrakesh. He has a knack for wandering off by himself and breaking through cultural barriers. I don't know any details of his methods beyond keeping a very open mind but the rest of the group presumes he has some extraordinary opening line like ohow's your mother's goats?oe

Copyright (c) 1996 Jet City JimBo All rights reserved

This Klimagram submitted from the University of Natal in South Africa courtesy of Shirley Bowen who briefly joined the Dragoman trip in Ghana.

For more information on Dragoman trips, contact the following in the USA. Please, please, please mention my name and the home page where you read about my trip in your query. Thanks. JimBo

The Adventure Center 1311 63rd Street Emeryville, CA 94608

email: fax: (510) 654-4200 telephone: (510) 654-1879 toll-free (800) 227-8747 URL: coming soon

For the UK, contact Dragoman as follows. Don't forget to mention my name.

Dragoman 96 Camp Green Debenham, Stowmarket Suffolk, 1P14 6LA fax: 01728 861 127 telephone: 01728 861 133

From: Shirley Bowen
Organization: University of Durban
Date sent: Tue, 30 Apr 1996
Subject: message from Jimbo

Klimagram 35: Full Moon #1 - Diarrhea in the Minefields

Spanish Sahara or West Sahara as it was known before Morocco inherited it is a dry, bleak area of sand, dirt, and stone. In this emptiness trash blows unimpeded for miles until it becomes impaled on small bushes. Over time these solitary bushes become festooned with stray bits of blue plastic bags much like Christmas trees. I wonder if I could send a letter across the desert, like a message in a bottle tossed into the ocean, on a scrap of paper flung into the wind..

Mile after mile of the void slipped by as we followed the Moroccan coast to Dakla, our jumping off point for passage through the minefields on the Mauritanian border. It was there that we joined a military convoy which escorted us to the Moroccan border post. The convoy consisted of our Dragoman truck, two vans, two LandCruisers, two cars, and three motorcycles. Our trip across the border was exciting although not in the manner the Spousal Unit and I had anticipated. The story is best told by regurgitating entries from my diary.

Tuesday, March 5: Our First Full Moon

We are keen to be off but officialdom rears it head and engages us in a chess-like game of hurry up and wait. The police and army people look at us and we stare back at them. Then we slowly pass through checkpoints on the outskirts of town and wait once again for our escort who turns out to be a lone soldier who rides in the lead vehicle. There is much confusion about the order of the vehicles in the procession. The Dragoman truck winds up well back in the pack which suits me just fine. Who would want to be the lead vehicle through a minefield? Despite being ready at 8 AM, the convoy does not leave Dakla until 2 PM. The lead vehicle promptly gets a flat within sight of the last checkpoint. The border is 300 some kilometers to the south.

We drive through a moonscape of stony desert with fierce winds sandblasting the unlucky few who venture out during potty breaks. It is worse for the women as the landscape is extremely flat with no place to hide from the string of vehicles. Gray and brown and a myriad of shades in between are the only visible colors in the spectrum. The coastline is stark and uninhabited. This would be a very bad place to be shipwrecked.

Then at last - we see our first big sand dune straddling the road like the corpse of a gigantic whale. We detour around other solitary dunes inching their way inexorably across the desert. Each looks as unstoppable as a glacier sliding down a mountain slope. The sun sets but the convoy keeps driving, finally arriving at a temporary campground about a kilometer from the border around 10:30. The moon is full but the Unit and I are too busy and too tired to enjoy its beauty. Instead the moonlight reveals a grubby area with zero facilities where many other transient campers have obviously spent a night or two or three.

Wednesday, March 6: Fame and Notoriety for the Unit

In the morning my suspicions are confirmed - we are camped on an ugly patch of hard sand littered with scraps of torn plastic and charred tin cans. The rock outcroppings around us are equally contaminated by human excrement and shreds of toilet paper. This is definitely not my idea of a romantic setting for celebrating the full moon. The tent is covered with dew and filled with sand. Packing it up is a sure fire way to start out the day dirty.

Oh no! The bowels are unstable. I visit the rocks twice and the Unit makes four contributions before the truck gets underway. Keenly aware of the Sheets Competition, all eyes are covertly upon her as she requests that a shovel be kept in the truck for emergencies.

My ribs are sore from coughing and I have a rash on my chin. Water usage is restricted to drinking, cooking, and essential washing. That means hands yes, face no. Everyone on the truck is feeling a bit ododgyoe with loose stools and gut aches. Perhaps last night's potato salad (which was left over from lunch) is the culprit. The sight of someone trudging through the sand, toilet paper in one hand, shovel in the other, is becoming common. At one point the Unit and I pass each other going in opposite directions and pass the shovel between us like a baton between two runners.

As instructed the truck is packed for departure by 8 AM but our military escort is nowhere to be seen. We are totally at the mercy of the border officials and, like most petty bureaucrats, they relish the power. What can you do when the area is militarily sensitive, the border is officially closed, and the guards have all the passports? All the alcohol is carefully hidden away. It is illegal to import it into Mauritania and if the Mauritanians discover even a single discarded can, it will trigger an exhaustive search of the entire truck. Having seventeen cases of beer confiscated would be a disaster of epic proportions.

Eventually the convoy reforms and we are led to the border. There the road just ends with tire tracks leading off into the desert. We deflate the truck tires for sand travel and launch out, each vehicle carefully following one another. I wonder if our driver, who always savors a bit of drama as he calls it, is disappointed not to be in the lead. On the truck everyone chooses their seat with care. What is the safest place in case the unthinkable occurs - in the front, in the back, or on the roof?

A car gets stuck in the sand and we rush forward to help, delicately stepping only in its tire tracks. Then we are stuck, forcing us to remove the heavy, perforated steel mats from the side of the truck. We shovel sand away from the wheels and place the mats in front of them for traction. Sometimes the sandmatting process must be repeated several times until firm ground is reached.

This eight kilometers of no man's land is a real travel-at-your-own-risk proposition. Dave loads up Wagner's Ride of the Valkeries on the tape player, his favorite music for muscling the truck over difficult terrain. The convoy regroups whenever the sand disperses the vehicles so the stronger can help the weaker. Everyone appreciates the thirteen eager beavers from the Dragoman truck.

I occupy a roof seat in the rear for its panoramic view, hoping to spot a mine poking out of the sand but no such luck. The flat, dry scenery extends for miles in all directions. How could anyone even remember where they put the mines against such a featureless backdrop?

We reach the remains of a single lane blacktop road and follow it to the first Mauritanian checkpoint. Along the way we pass the blown up hulks of a couple predecessors who were less successful in their crossing. Mauritanian soldiers in camouflage fatigues stop us for a preliminary visa check. The game of hurry up and wait escalates. Nobody smiles and nobody takes pictures. I stand beside the truck with a firm hand on my ball cap. If it flies off, there is no way I can run after it to retrieve it. The checkpoint itself is nothing but a stack of stones on either side of the road guarded by soldiers with AK-47 automatic rifles. Behind one pile of rocks sits an officer at a tiny table - quite an incongruous sight in such a desolate environment.

We nibble on lunch. Holding at four bowel movements, the Unit sits quietly, avoiding food altogether. Other members of the group wander judiciously up or down the road and gingerly tiptoe a few feet to either side to wee. If privacy is needed. one must go under the truck (which has pretty high clearance) or between the rear wheels (if one's backside is not too wide).

Suddenly the Unit sighs and rises from her seat. Hoisting a shovel on to her shoulder with military precision, she marches down the road past the soldiers bolding displaying her white flag, in this case, a roll of America's best tissue. A hundred meters or so across the border is a low ridge behind which she becomes our first ace - the winner of the crap-o-rama contest. When she returns, I meet her at the border and raise her hand in triumph. The soldiers are like totally mystified. It is regrettable I could not capture this moment of glory on film. Certainly the drama compensated for the lack of romance on the preceding night although I am probably alone in this opinion.

Despite the obvious high point, the day was not over for us. After a couple more hours of spinning through troughs of sand and bouncing over clumps of rock, we arrived at Mauritanian customs: a small, unpainted shack made of plywood bits and tar paper. Our leaders negotiate and a bag of rice and a liter of cooking oil changes hands. The final checkpoints cost us nothing but a bit of pride as we sit quietly in our seats like they were church pews while the guards swagger about.

The transformation of a third world man when he puts on a uniform can be remarkably unappetizing. Dealing with such people is precisely why the Unit and I signed on with pros like Dragoman. Their leaders seem to have just the right blend of insouciance, patience, and travel savvy to handle these guys and their guns. Even Helen, our co-leader, kept her cool when the customs official noted how her skin color, blended with that of a black man, would produce a lovely mulatto. Ditto when the local police chief in Nouadhibou surveyed all the women's passport pictures, declaring that none were suitable although Helen might be good enough for his brother.

Postscript: Later on we learn that a LandCruiser in the convoy prior to ours deviated from the track in no man's land to avoid a patch of sand and hit a land mine. Of the two Frenchmen inside, one died instantly and the other later in a hospital.

Copyright (c) 1996 Jet City JimBo All rights reserved

This Klimagram submitted from the University of Natal in South Africa courtesy of Shirley Bowen who joined the Dragoman trip briefly in Ghana.

From: Shirley Bowen
Organization: University of Durban
Date sent: Tue, 30 Apr 1996
Subject: message from Jimbo

Klimagram 36: The Sahara

Mauritania, where the entire country is off the beaten track, is three quarters desert or near desert and the level of desertification is growing. As a result it is the world's second least populous country (Greenland is number one). When you travel there you will see towns half- blanketed in sand, nomads sipping tea under colorful tents, and vast desert plateaus that resemble the moon. Even people who have lived in this eegodforsaken place' and would never do so again agree that it's a truly exotic and unforgettable place to visit. Or so my Lonely Planet guide book says. But a traveler's experiences seldom match any guide book.

To appreciate Mauritania you need to know a bit about the Sahara which occupies most of the country. Here are some amazing facts and figures ungraciously stolen from the oSahara Handbookoe by Scott Glen.

The Sahara Desert is a vast region that extends from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Red Sea in the east, and from the Mediterranean in the north to a semi-desert zone in the south called the Sahel. It is a monster desert ... that occupies an area equal to that of the USA.oe It is characterized by extreme aridity. In the Sahara it is possible to drive for three days at 175 kilometers a day and not see any vegetation or animal life whatsoever - vast areas, totally devoid of life, larger than the state of Oregon.

In July temperatures in the shade typically reach 45 C or 113 F and it is not unusual to go into the 50's on hot days. 80% of the Sahara gets less than 100 mm of rainfall annually. Oases routinely go a decade or two without any rain at all. Farafra in Egypt received rain in 1945 and not again until 1973. Imagine growing up never seeing water fall out of the sky and then seeing it for the first time!

Geological features of the Sahara, according to Mr. Glen, include things you just don't see every where else, particularly on such a grand scale.
- hammadan: flat or undulating plateaus of rock
- reg: endless flat plains of sand and pebbles
- serir: plains of fine sand and pebbles
- erg: large areas of sand dunes or sand seas

It is the last one that I find fascinating. Dunes of all sizes can be found, some stationary enough to be used for navigation, others relentlessly on the move, engulfing anything in their path. For example, the Great Erg Occidental, one of the smaller sand seas in the Sahara, extends for 450 kilometers without a break or any sign of plant or animal life.

The image most of us have of the desert - an infinite expanse of peaked dunes with rippling waves of sand on their convex side and dark shadows on their concave side is magnificent, especially when the rays of the late afternoon sun slant down upon it, but the big surprise for me was the sand itself. It is not a grainy beach sand but a fine dust like talcum powder that can and will penetrate any crevice or orifice. I had to learn that the only defense against the sand was to become one with it. I shall have more to say about sand later.

In the Sahara all wildlife is activated by the never ending struggle to obtain and retain water. All plants and animals have evolved ingenious methods for maintaining adequate water supplies. For example, the addux antelope gets all the moisture it requires from the scattered vegetation it feeds on - it never drinks.

Camels are the very epitome of desert adaptation. oThey have very fat toes that provide floatation for walking on sand. Special blood vessels at the base of the brain keep it at a tolerable temperature even while the rest of the body rises as high as 45 C. When a camel becomes dehydrated, it adjusts the volume of the vascular system to reduce the load on its heart. Kidney filtration is also reduced 20%. Thus, a camel without water will lose only a thousandth of its body weight through daily urination. It hardly sweats at all. For contrast, a man can sweat up to three liters an hour walking in the desert which can amount to over 10% of body weight in a day, leading rapidly to circulatory collapse and death. A camel's stored body fat can keep it fed for up to six months (if it doesn't have to work). A camel can also withstand up to 1.8% salt in water, a fatal concentration for man. Perhaps the ultimate desert adaptation a camel has is its limited ability to combine hydrogen with the oxygen it breathes to produce water.

Driving in the Sahara can be daunting - distances are great, heat and dryness can be intense and exhausting, the roads vehicle-destroying, the dust choking, the sand seemingly endless and bottomless. You must learn how to cope with corrugations, broken-up and washed-out roads, and getting a bogged vehicle out of the sand. Similarly, there are logistical problems to overcome like obtaining fuel, food, water, spare parts, and mechanical repairs as well as coping with the bureaucratic conditions of African border crossings. One also has to come to terms with relating to people of totally different cultures and economic backgrounds.oe

It was remarkable how much of the above applied to my trip across Mauritania. Read onward in this travelogue to find out how:
- the truck broke down, stranding us in the desert
- the Unit and I were nearly suffocated by a shifty sand dune
- the police in a remote village hauled me off for improper photography

Copyright (c) 1996 Jet City JimBo All rights reserved

This Klimagram submitted from the University of Natal in South Africa courtesy of Shirley Bowen who joined the Dragoman trip briefly in Ghana.

From: Shirley Bowen
Organization: University of Durban
Date sent: Tue, 30 Apr 1996
Subject: message from Jimbo

Klimagram 37: Mauritania Diary (Part 1) - Marooned

Thursday, March 7: Bush camp just outside Nouadhibou

Nouadhibou, a fishing town of 45,000, sits at the tip of a finger of desert poking into the sea at the border of Mauritania and Morocco. There are no roads connecting it with the rest of the country, only a railroad to the interior. From here we must cross 535 kilometers of desert to the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott. It is roadless, open country where you must rely more on a compass than intuition. Although our Dragoman leader has traversed it before in the opposite direction, he hires a local man to guide us.

Nouadhibou is our first black town, filled with exotic desert men in turbans. The women's clothes demonstrate that virtually any color, even chartreuse, looks good on black skin. On our way out of town we stop in the shantytown on the north side to pick up our guide. A multitude of children emerge from the shacks and surround the truck. Despite much laughter, they pelt us with small stones when we leave because we ignore their requests for gifts.

Beyond the last check point are gravel plains, rocky escarpments, and treacherous patches of sand. We are tempted to use existing ruts but the wind deposits the softest sand in them and who knows where the ruts really go? Periodically we bog down and everybody gets off to shovel sand and drag the steel mats around. The fine sand sticks nicely to our sweaty skin and soon everyone is coated with it.

Wednesday, March 8: Stranded 50 kilometers northeast of Nouadhibou

The truck resumed our desert trek early to exploit the greater cohesiveness of cool sand. But a depression of deep sand makes the transmission clunk ominously. Our drivers determine that the shift mechanism which switches gear ranges between high and low is malfunctioning. With nearly 500 kilometers of unmarked desert facing us, they decide to return to Nouadhibou.

After a short distance in retreat, the gearbox refuses to shift at all, leaving us stranded. A truckload of local extortionists comes by and offers to help for 750 pounds (over a thousand US dollars). We spurn their legalized highway robbery and wait for something to happen in the middle of nowhere.

Around 3 PM our leader, Dave, puts on the mantle of responsibility along with a big bag of water bottles and sets out on foot with our guide. The rest of us are not worried about water - the tank on the truck holds 100 liters (roughly 25 gallons) and there are five 20 liter jerry cans for emergencies. We also have an enormous quantity of food on board although it is reserved for Zaire where nothing is allegedly available to buy.

The group settles into being marooned in an endless expanse of hot, windswept nothingness. When cabin fever starts affecting individuals, they hike off in all directions except north (where the minefields are). No one, however, goes out of sight of the truck - too easy to become disoriented when there are few distinguishable landmarks. The Unit and I sand bathe in the lee of a low hill. The wind whistles over us, depositing a film of sand but, since it also wicks away moisture from our skin, it is easy to flick off the sand.

Sand is absolutely everywhere in the truck. My job as truck cleaner has become futile - it is impossible to keep the Sahara at bay. In spite of the difficulties the cooking crew produces baked potatoes and chili. By now all of us are getting used to the occasional crunch from sand that inevitably blows into the pot. Unlike salt, the grains of sand do not dissolve. You must either swallow or spit.

We wait until dark, hoping the wind will abate. If a rainfly gets loose in this hurricane, it may be miles before we can catch it. The wind doesn't let up so we go to it by flashlight. As a result the Unit and I do not see several large stones covering our site. The tent comes with ten inch spikes for tent pegs. Pounding them into the rocky surface makes full use of the baby sledgehammers we have been issued.

It is a good night for sleeping. The stars are brilliant and the tent flaps madly as we drift off, confident we will be rescued soon.

Thursday, March 9: Campground in Nouadhibou

Dawn brings a return of the wind. We sit aboard the truck like shipwreck survivors in a lifeboat, surrounded by rock and sand for as far as the eye can see in any direction. The little refrigerator emits a powerful odor, causing much speculation about its source.

I amuse myself by quoting desert survival statistics, much to no one else's amusement. Then I discover an illustrated description of a device called a urine still. Not quite like what Kevin Costner used in Waterworld but the input and output are the same. First, save all your urine by peeing into a container of sand. In the evening dig a cone-shaped hole in the sand and pour your urine soaked sand into it. Place an open tin at the bottom of the hole. Put a plastic sheet over the hole and weight it down in the center so that condensation from the evaporating urine runs down the underside of the plastic and drips in the tin cup. Then you simply boil or sterilize the collected water. I am unable to generate any enthusiasm for a pilot test.

Around 11 Dave re-appears with a rescue truck. He apparently flagged down a train after walking ten kilometers or so. We slink back into town, ignominiously being towed down the main street. Then we must manhandle the dead beast though the campground gate.

Question of the Day: How many Dragoman passengers does it take to push the Dragoman truck? All of them, every time.

It was quite a scene which the locals gathered to watch. We were hot, tired and dirty as usual. The wind swirled around the gate, creating little whirlwinds of plastic trash bits. The powder fine dust and clouds of flies descended upon us as we struggled behind 16 tons (unloaded) of truck. But we were impervious. When did I last change socks or underwear? I don't remember. Everything is so impregnated with dust and sand that cleaning up seems hopeless. It will just get dirty in an hour.

Do not misinterpret my words - we are proud for this is what adventure is all about: unpredictability. Who wants a trip where everything goes exactly according to plan?

Copyright (c) 1996 Jet City JimBo All rights reserved

This Klimagram submitted from the University of Natal in South Africa courtesy of Shirley Bowen who joined the Dragoman trip briefly in Ghana.

From: Shirley Bowen
Organization: University of Durban
Date sent: Tue, 30 Apr 1996
Subject: message from Jimbo

" Spent the night sucking electrons out of a power point in the lobby of a fancy hotel in Abeoketa, Nigeria. Fell into deep, open sewer at 3am during walk back to the tent. hard drive has committed suicide and i am considering the same or at least a terrorist campaign against the local water deapartment.

So it is on to adventure computing until i locate a Compaq repair hut in the jungles of Zaire.


Ps. Do not reply to this message as I am not at the other end. It is being forwarded by a good samaritan "

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