[Note: First of all, MERRY CHRISTMAS! And then, sorry for the delay! Enjoy.]
After our host picked us up from the camping trip in the Mauritanian desert, we spent the night helping him cook dinner for a few friends that were coming over. Into a large pot went a grand mélange of vegetables simmered in soft but hearty spices and juices from the large and impenetrable chunks of meat that the kittens drooled over.
On Thursday the 5th, we left Nouakchott in the afternoon on the bus north for Nouadhibou with a friend of our host, who happened to be a Spanish lawyer who now works in Mauritania (dealing in Mauritanian law, not Sharia!).
After a comfortable bus ride up through Mauritania, watching sand and camels passing by as the sun set, we arrived in Nouadhibou in the dark and followed our new guide on a search for dinner. We assumed we’d be getting something like a simple shawarma sandwich as we all had to get up early in the morning (buses, business meetings). But we walked down the dead, dark, sandy street, turned left at an indistinctive building, and walked up some steps, found ourselves in a restaurant. It was a warm, lively place, filled with the faces of relaxed toubabs, Spanish music, the smell of frying peppers, and the distinctive clinking of glasses used for illegal alcohol. It turned out that we were visiting our second restaurant on this trip run by a Swiss expat woman. But this one had wonderfully spikey silver hair, a leather vest, and sprightly cowboy boots!
As per our host’s request stemming from Spanish homesickness, she served us baguette slices spread with smashed tomatoes to eat with our tapas plates of chorizos, Brie cheese, and chicken croquettes. With this we drank red wine that was probably Spanish and tasted nice to our untrained taste buds. Exclaiming on how good the wine was, we bemoaned our history with wine in France:
“We went to France and all we drank was bad boxed wine, because we were all too cheap for the good stuff.”
We were told that many Netherlanders frequent this establishment, as they are employed to clean up the harbor because there are too many sunken ships in it to operate.
“Mauritania, it used to be a wild place, it was so far west, much unregulated. When boats were nearing their insurance expiration date, people would take them and sink them out here to get the money. And now they’re wanting to open the harbor back up again…”
Nouadhibou is on a peninsula held in half by Mauritania and half by Western Sahara (which is held by Morocco). In this city, as in all of Mauritania, pork and alcohol are illegal, but Nouadhibou is a place of its own, and the expats in Mauritania come to the city to enjoy delicious illegality…
To prove this, our host said “We need something to digest this! How about a whisky?” — and so we sipped that toxic golden liquid. One of us (guess who, maybe the one who didn’t grow up in the country with the highest rate of teenage alcohol consumption) couldn’t quite stomach it and so was persuaded by the more experienced ones to man up and get a Coke to go with it.
The day after, we were up early again in the morning for another transport day. Off to the gare routiere, choose between a whirlwind of taxi drivers, and somehow end up in a car that looks like a sept-place from the outside, but only with two seats.
We gave our driver our passports to give at the police control stops. We noticed the Mauritanian driver flipping idly, curiously, through our passports. His Senegalese friend motioned to him that we were watching. Our driver put it back sheepishly. Then he looked at Laura and beamed proudly. “We are born in the same year!”
After a bit, they asked, “So, are you married?”
To which we replied, not even bothering to keep a straight face, “Yes! We both are married! To the same man! A Senegalese man!” We died of laughter in the back, high-fiving each other and slapping our knees. The Senegalese man nodded and chuckled.
Off to the border to Morocco!
But no–we stay in Nouadhibou. Our driver keeps stopping the car, getting out, and disappearing for long periods of time. “What is he doing?” we ask his friend each time. And, apparently, he had plenty to do besides being concerned with our transportation:
“He’s talking to someone.”
“He has to fix his phone.”
“He needs to get money from someone.”
“He’s buying meat and vegetables.”
– “Why, is he going to barbecue for us?”
“No, it’s for someone at the border.”
Finally, after about an hour longer than we needed to spend in the same city we started out in, we leave Nouadhibou and head to the border between Western Sahara and Mauritania. The driver mysteriously disappears at the border but his friend drives us on through the hauntingly desolate no-man’s land marked by bumpy caked-sand roads and deserted old vehicles left behind as trash.
At the border, he drops us off and we walk through customs. As per usual, we are asked where we are from and what is in our luggage, and as per usual the customs officer also drops a “Denmark, huh? You take me with you?”
Louise (trying out a different strategy this time): “SURE! Yeah!! Finally I get married! Of course you can! I will have to ask my parents! Should I call them now? When should the wedding be?”
Officer (very confused, possibly scared): “Ooooh it will never work…. I am too old for you!”
We then wander into a bus station eatery and eat our first tagine and Moroccan round bread. In theory, welcome to Western Sahara, but in reality, welcome to Morocco.
On the other side of the border, we catch the bus that will be taking us across the Sahara. The seats are comfortable, the bus has aircondition and we’ve stocked up on snacks. And as bus rides go (and we’ve had quite a few of them), this was one of the more enjoyable. The bus stops every five hours or so to let us all out for fresh air or food, and when the bus honks, we all hurry back as children running home for dinner.
And 28 hours later, we arrive in Agadir, Morocco.
With no couchsurfing host planned or hostel booked, we spend the evening in a café and try to decide whether or not we should sleep at the gare routiere (bus station). The waiter at the café hears of our plan and talks us out of it, and shows us a cute little hostel instead.
OK then, at least other people can worry on our behalf if we don’t.
As towns go, Agadir is not the most fascinating. It’s surrounded by hills and has beautiful beaches, and is a major attraction for national and international tourists. But having seen quite a few beaches and hills on this trip, we left the touristy town in the morning.
Next stop: Essaouira.
Apparently a quirky little coastal town where people do art and smoke a lot. On the bus ride there, we had a first encounter with a local from Essaouira. He stuck his head between the seats and attempted to engage Louise in a conversation on Islam, spirituality, and astrology. Not succeeding, as we were both trying to sleep. But as he proclaimed “You know, we need to do good, or we’ll end up in hell!”. Laura couldn’t help asking:
“So, is there hell in the Islamic faith, and if so where is it located?”
“Oh, about 25, 30 kilometers away.”
Oh. He thought we were asking for the remaining part of the bus trip.
Having caught our attention, he proceeded to read our palms—predicting big and wonderful things for Laura – and wishing the best and feeling sorry for Louise. Thanks.
We couchsurfed in Essaouira with the manager of a surf camp. He took us for a walk around the harbor, explaining about the tiny fishing village, pointing out the fishermen and their boats bobbing calmly in the water.
Followed by a visit to the local fish market, where we pick and chose fish and seafood as children in a candy store. They gutted the fish for us, and we took the fish to a small restaurant with open air seating that enjoined with the tables of other restaurants whose visitors dined al fresco. They fried and grilled the fish for us, and served it with tomato salad and round bread.
From Essaouira, we continued to Rabat, the capital of Morocco. On the bus trip, we had a lunch break, and seeing as we were used to the long breaks and a nice driver honking to let us know we would be leaving soon, we were very calm. But when eating our grilled meat, our bus suddenly starting rolling out of the station, and next thing we knew we were running through the bus station, shouting and balancing our bags and sandwiches.
Although not the biggest city in Morocco, arriving to Rabat and thus being back in a big city was scary! Lots of traffic, lots of people and lots of life. What?
Our next couchsurfing host was a young female engineer, and she picked us up at the gare routiere in the evening. “Are you crazy? It’s not safe for you girls to be here!!!” Weeell, we guess we’ve toughened up a bit along the way…
She then treated us to salads from a restaurant owned by a man who used to work at Kells in Portland Oregon.
We spent two days in Rabat, wandering through the souks, drinking tea with our host at an old fort, teaching Laura how to deal with curly hair, and tasting Moroccan pastries. We discovered the small streets of the souks on a mission to find jasmine perfume, which we found, along with musk perfume, which, according to the man in the purple shirt mixing things, is the most popularly sold scent in Morocco. Who knows what the statistics are, but it smells alright.
We found yogurt topped with sumptuous amounts of pomegranate, pear, peach, melon, and apple, and it was all topped off with a sweet green frosting that tasted like avocado. It was much more suited to our European sensibilities than another yogurt delicacy we had tried a few days earlier that consisted of a bowl of quinoa-like ‘couscous’ drenched in fermented camel’s milk.
We met up with Louise’s Danish friend Ronja for shawarma and hot chocolate at the fancy train station café. Ronja was in the SIT Morocco program and had given us the recommendations for towns to visit in Morocco (and the ones not to visit, to avoid hassle and scams).
A tiny mountain town, enclosed by mountains and clouds hanging low. With the houses in the medina painted in blue and white, the whole mountain town looks magical and the atmosphere feels like Christmas. The best way to see the town is to wander through the souk and get lost on purpose—even when you think, you know the way you’re going, you’re wrong. It’s beautiful, unique and almost like another time in history.
Louise was slightly carsick from the zig-zag ride in a big bus through the mountains, so Laura dined on her own that evening. For the first time through several months of travelling together, the Ladybums were split. And while Louise worried for the safety of Laura back at the hostel, Laura had couscous “that just didn’t taste the same!!”. Oh, what travelling together (well, marriage) does to you!
But what we also realized was that mountains and foggy clouds mean cold and humid air. We thought we very well remembered what it felt like to be cold despite spending several months in sub-Saharan Africa, but we were wrong. As the hills were covered in the evening call to prayer, we spent the evening under several layers of blankets shivering and discussing which one of us should be the unfortunate one to get up and switch off the lights.
Our new friend in Rabat arranged for us to stay with her friend in Casablanca. His sweet mother served us dinner: cabbage salad, toasted round bread, tagine chicken, spicy ratatouille, and potato fries. Our host is an engineer, but he dreams of going to India to get certified as a yoga instructor, then conducting workshops in remote, wild locations around the globe.
After dinner we saw the mosque, which is the biggest mosque in Africa, and the Casablanca beach, and then went to a club where Moroccan musicians played covers of a wide assortment of rock music.
And then our host got hungry for snail broth. We drove around a bit searching for one of the snail vendors, and found one with a shiny white box cart. Our host preferred the first cup: the briny, salty broth. The second cup is filled with snails in striped yellow and brown shells. You take a wooden toothpick and sear the squishy thing in the shell opening. Out come a lumpy dark brown, shapeless thing. You eat it and it tastes spicy like Café Touba, and has a velvety texture. It is a primordial, squeamish experience.
So spending less than a week in Morocco proved to be enough to bring us back to hectic big city mentality, make us miss the sizzling heat of Senegal and get used to the vast majority of people being able to speak some sort of English—but still encountering amusing bus rides (with interesting and only slightly weird people), beautiful scenery and, of course, new culinary experiences.