Can you guess why I’m doing this? Use a civil tongue http://t.co/xXisaWrE
Another reason a Matrix is awesome: road trip!#hamont http://t.co/sajgBjWZ
back to the world of tweetation – what can I tell the world which you might care about? Invest in downtown and help grow Hammertown!
I’ve done a total disservice to those who were following us on our journey and to those who were kind enough to financially support our goal to raise at least $25,000 in honour of Grace Carr.
What happened? A lot. Most importantly, we all made it to the end of the rally. We met incredible people and we've almost raised the $25,000 we set out to raise. All and all, it was an exceptional experience.
We didn’t we continue to post for a few reasons. After Western Sahara, we simply lacked internet access in most of the places we visited. Where there was net access it was unreliable. What that means is I became discouraged when spending time trying to upload photos or video and the connection would crash or simply never up load. Lastly, we were exhausted. Being in the vehicle for hours on end and working through the numerous daily difficulties we experienced was very tiring. Due to our groups consistent inability to get going early as planned, we would often arrive in an area around 9/10pm and could only focus on finding a place to stay, food and sleep.
The main reason I didn't update the blog when we returned was because I was home. My mindset changed as soon as I got off the plane and landed on beloved Canadian soil. It had to be that way. There was no time to reflect on culture shock, to ask what I had learned to sort through photos and videos in an attempt to better appreciate the adventure we had. I threw myself back into home life. For me, that meantsa renewed focus on my work, volunteer activities and family life. Having only Sundays as my opportunity to spend significant time with my partner Katherine and to run errands made it difficult to focus on blogging despite my best intentions.
So I'm updating now in a bit of a panick as Discovery Channel Canada will be airing 6 minutes of something using the hours of film Garry took while we were travelling. I have no idea if Jeff and I will even be in this vignette, but it encouraged me to get every updated today:
You can see it on Daily Planet, 7pm and 11pm on Discovery Canada, and then it will also be online the next day. Go to watch.discoverychannel.ca (no www) and if Daily Planet isn't the show playing in the viewer (could be another Discovery show), then click on the Library Tab midway down the page, then choose Daily Planet from the list of shows on the left. Then choose Feb. 27th.
Let's see how much more of the trip I can share today.
December 29th – Border Camping
We had about 500kms to the border of with Mauritania and most of us were a bit freaked out about the prospect of what was to come. We knew we had to camp at the border overnight so we wouldn’t get stuck in the infamous no man’s land between Western Sahara and Mauritania. This was a 4km stretch we had received many warnings about – bandits, minefields and hustlers were said to abound. What would that be like? What would the impoverished nation of Mauritania be like with alleged rampant corruption, frequent kidnappings and desperate lawlessness? What would the customs and police officials treat us like at both borders? Finally, what about the minefields we were about to face? Brains were thinking too far ahead and many were worrying (especially me). All of these fears were momentarily set aside to focus on the task at hand; rounding everyone up to start the next leg of our journey.
As we moved through what is effectively Morocco’s Western Sahara, we enjoyed the change in the landscape from nutrient rich soil to rock soil to a rocky moonscape to fine sandy desert with the largest sand dunes we would witness our entire trip. We were loving all the camel warning signs and then came upon a herd mid way through the day. I really can't remember what happened next but a disagreement broke out and Eric decided to walk over to the camel keepers for tea; out of the blue. The other two cars really didn't know what to do. We were on a tight timeline and needed to meet up with the rest of the drivers as we were to meet a guide at the border who was going to help us navigate a minefield. Our two Toyotas went forwarded for about 2kms and then guilt set in. What were we doing? How could we be leaving some behind? The frustration and heat and tiredness was getting to all of us. We turned around and soon saw Eric and Mauricio's matte black van hurtling on the road towards us. We all pulled over, made up and moved on.
Remembering that fuel was about to get really scarce we stopped at a sketchy gas station as we neared the border. I describe it as sketchy for a few reasons: the paint was peeling off all the signage, there was a tanker permanenlty parked there and we didn't see a sole using the same station. Even the dog was unimpressed that we were visiting. In retrospect, I'm not sure if that dog was even alive! Anyway, we filled up all of our fuel tanks and the two jerry cans on the roof of our Upper James Toyota Carina. We even put the right type of fuel in the right vehicles. We were moving forward prepared!
And off we went into the sand preparing ourselves for another long drive. About 1 hour later we hit another gas station and by good fortune met up with all the other teams. I can't explain the feeling of relief that I felt from seeing everyone. It was a morale lifting reunion and Jeff’s proven ability from the previous day of craziness spread like wild fire and was hailed by all. Here we made a tactical error. Thinking we had plenty of gas and recognizing we had very limited Moroccan funds, we decided to use the rest of our money to buy snacks instead of gas. The unleaded tanks of the two Toyotas were almost full and we had a jerry can back up. We would regret this tomorrow. All nine vehicles set out for the border where we arrived by late afternoon to figure out what to do next. Dennis and I spoke with the officers on the frontier who encouraged us to pass. The group responsibly declined as we may have been able to get through the Moroccan border but we could have gotten stuck somewhere in the 4kms of no man’s land that everyone had warned us about. All of us lined up our cars for the following day’s crossing and set up camp right next to them.
We sat around eating dinner and discussing what Mauritania would bring. The consensus was we had had it easy so far and Mauritania would present many complications due to traffic mayhem, corruption and poverty. Many of us climbed up a hill to take photos of the sun set. We were surrounded by large boulders and fine light brown sand and had a great view of the Moroccan border and, further into the distance, the Mauritanian border. Garry, Mauricio and Jakub started taking photos and we were soon met by a man in plain clothes introducing himself as Mohammad and claiming to be a border patrol guard. Mohammad explained taking photos of the border was frowned upon. Actually, I think he mentioned jail. Jakub and Garry shared a drink with him and we soon had a personal tour of the border by an exceedingly nice man. We spent all evening with Mohammad who took us into a complex with berber tents inside. We spent most of the evening with him smoking apple shisha (super aromatic tobacco in a water pipe which is a social experience in many arab countries) and listening to pop tunes Mohammad was rocking out to. We were all into the expereince expecially as most of us were drink the reminader of any alcohol we still had left. Mauritania is a dry country and many of us didn't want to risk being thrown into jail for trafficing alcohol. It was an enchanted evening and one I will never forget. Garry and Mohammad traded t-shirts. Garry was now wearing a shirt with an image of Ibrahim Fall and Mohammad explained this would bring us luck with the people we were to meet in Senegal where Ibrahim Fall is revered. With a bit of a buzz from a couple of drinks, shisha and exhaustion I made it back to my tent late at night and settled in for about 5 or 6 hours of sleep.
Again, thoughts abounded about what the border experience would bring the next day. What would Mauritania be like? Would anyone still think Mauricio was Moroccan….
Jeff, Dennis and I shared a “suite” at a dodgy “hotel” last night in Layoune, Western Sahara. Western Sahara is contested territory under Moroccan control. My use of quotation marks is to let you know both words were misnomers. I would call our "suite" a stink hole and our hotel an ant trap. Anyway, after a rough night of little sleep I woke with a minor cold and my persistent tooth ache. Oh well, no time for being a suck as we had a long, important drive to Dakhla to meet with the rest of our group. The idea was to form a proper convoy with all of the nine vehicles involved on our crazy run.
Eric had decided to spend the night in another hotel with two British guys who were driving a BMW. Tom and John are realtors in London and I thought they were very funny. I say, I thought, as it took me a whole day to adjust to their thick accents and understand what they were saying. Turns out they are not only funny, but incredibly nice guys. We were lucky to know them. They were not lucky to have chosen to travel with us though. They spent most of the day shaking their heads at the crazy Canadians.
We headed out for the day with our four vehicles; the white 1998 Toyota Avensis station wagon on point, the Carina with Jeff, Dennis and I in the middle, Tom and John in their 1994 BMW 328i and the 25 year old Dodge Caravan turbo Diesel that would enjoy many issues during our trip.
Our vehicles fueled up for the trip ahead and about 10 minutes later the engine of the 1998 Toyota Avensis just stopped operating. Jeff and Garry had switched cars at the gas station and Jeff immediately deduced the issue: had the team filled up their unleaded gasoline vehicle with diesel fuel? Yuppers! We all went into emergency control mode. Dennis and I hoped in my car to get jerry cans and fill one up with unleaded gas while the rest of the group towed the disabled Avensis station wagon into the desert so we could remove the fuel and place the correct fuel in. Garry filmed the movie magic. Tom and John pointed and laughed.
Dennis and I went on a wild goose chase before a local garage owner took pity on us and asked one of us employees to help us find jerry cans. Everyone was so kind to us, it was a great experience. We filled up the can and doubled back to meet the rest of our crew. By sheer good fortune they had found an abandoned gas station that had large truck bays with pits and John and Tom had written a little reminder on the car by the gas tank. Perfect! Jeff pulled out the fuel pump from the rear seat and we siphoned out the diesel which took about an hour. He then cleaned out the spark plugs a few times and finally brought the Avensis back to life. He was in his element and we were all glad he was with us. While this happened, Eric sat in a lawn chair, Allain made coffee, Tom put on a Santa Claus costume, Mauricio tried to prove it wasn't his fault the wrong gas was in the car, Jakub disagreed and I helped Jeff as best I could (which wasn't very much) and the rest of us took photos or just watched Jeff work with breath abated.
So Jeff had done it and we were on our way towards the feared border with Mauritania. As we were leaving the abondaned gas station and feeling great about overcoming the mechanical challenge, Jakub and I decided to horse around with our vehicles. End result was part of his rear bumper got stuck on my front bumper and it came loose and dragged on the ground. The British guys were aghast and laughed a nervous chuckle that seemed to ask themselves "What have we done? We will never finish this race with these Canadians." Jeff moved into action, this time, with duct tape. The newly resdesigned bumper was ready to roll and we were off again with two incidents for the day behind us.
We were making great time towards Dakhla and stopped off for a bite to eat and a bio break. Eric, in a moment of exuberance, reefed open the side door of the van he and Mauricio share and pulled the entire door off the track. He had done serious damage to the door and the window.
Again, Jeff was the star of the show. With a pry bar and some elbow grease he got the door back on track and duct tape was used to secure the window. No one's getting into that car,… we hope! Amussing aside: with the change to the structure of the sliding door, the van now had two functioning entrance and exits; the rear hatch and the passanger door. The driver side door didn't close properly so we had to slam it into place so it wouldn't open on it's own. My guess is this issue came from a combination of metal fatigue and Eric beating on the door. And so, our third issue for the day was defeated and we were certain no more bad luck could come to us this day. We were wrong.
With yet another issue put behind us, we set off for food. We had a delicious meal of roasted chicken, salad, and fries which ended with us watching 5 boys stealing bread from the table as we were paying. These boys were particularly sketchy, but we thought nothing of it as they hung around our cars before we headed out towards Dakhla.
We didn't get very far when we were pulled over by a police checkpoint as we were almost out of the town. Apparently, Jeff, our hero for the day, was caught speeding and the police would not let us pay at the check point. They insisted on having the one vehicle and its occupants go back to the station with them despite my attempt to keep us together. The fact they were seperating us made me very uncomfortable and a I tried "negotiating" with the officers but they wouldn't accept anything but a return to the police station by Jeff and the occupants of the wagon he was driving. The rest of us hung out on a cliff over looking the Atlantic and waited anxiously for the wagon's return. About one hour and a 300 dihram fine (about $45 Canadian) we were on the road to Dakhla. That sucks because it is difficult driving in the dark here. The highways are worn away at the edges, sand drifts sometimes encroach, there is no soft shoulder and the lanes, one going each way, are tight. We had no choice but to push on through as we had to get to the border b y tomorrow so we could meet up with the other 7 vehicles and enter Mauritania as a convoy. The theory was we'll either be safe in numbers or we will offer a really large target.
As we drove through Western Sahara we noticed the changing landscape and people we had seen that day. People's skin tones were getting darker and darker and the scenery was going from the lush, fertile soil of norther Morocco to rocks to rocks and sand to sand to sand dunes.
With Christmas informally celebrated we now had to focus on moving south through Morocco and passing the Atlas Mountains. With exuberance we made our way to the parking lot storing our three vehicles and started to drive.
I was excited to leave Marrakech. I had enough of all the weird dudes. They were everywhere and I really don’t know what all of them did. Some would try to earn money by getting you drugs or alcohol. Some would show you places to stay for a finders fee. Others wore vests and seemed to provide security. For whom, I’m not sure; tourists or locals, or were they even security? I have no issue with any of this as these are people just trying to find a way to survive. What I didn’t like were the guys that just watched you. They didn’t offer anything and did not seem to have any officious duty. They just watched. It was creepy and I felt unsettled by these folks. What were they really up to?
First issue of the day; where's Eric? We were all to meet at the parking lot where we stored the cars and all of us were ready but Eric wasn't there and either was his car. Long story short, he thought we were playing atrick on him and had left him there. Through a number of texts he finally circled back around to pick up Mauricio and our gear in their van. We lost about an hour with this little misunderstanding and were really anxious to get going.
So we were off and it felt good to be on the road; for a little while.
Using our GPS devices which seemed less and less useful since leaving Europe, we ventured away from the way we thought we would be going to the shorter route the GPS suggested. Guess what? The GPS was wrong; way wrong. What gave it away? Looking at a 90° turn made of mud walls while people were banging on the hood of our cars in anger. Turns out, we had very, very wrongly gone into the souk (the place Mauricio, Jeff and I walked yesterday) during morning rush hour which meant there were scooters, bicycles and walkers who were super angry at us for significantly slowing down their commute. All this because of our blind trust in the GPS recommendations. We were in trouble. Jeff, Dennis and I were following the white station wagon with Garry, Jakub and Allain. We looked behind us and realized the van with Mauricio and Eric were gone. The Toyota wagon was trying to make an impossible turn while Moroccans were freaking out that we’d gone too far into the small market area. Did I mention we were in trouble? We were facing many angry faces and I didn’t see a way out. A middle aged man and his son got off their scooter to help us navigate the super tight spaces we were confronted with while moving us towards a highway. After a great deal of shouting and ruining Canadian relations with the Moroccan government (I’m joking, we told them we were British) we made it to a clearing. I got out of the car to scout out our options and realized it was almost 10am and shops were opening for daily business. This meant the streets were about to get impassable as shop owners displayed their wares on the coble stones. We had to move and we had to move quickly. During this moment of desperation I met a European couple who volunteered to help. We asked for directions and received the following response “We’ve only been here one day, but we can show you where you are on this map.” They unfolded the map, pointed out our location, and I turned white. We were exactly in the middle of the souk. We were surrounded by tight passageways full of small retail shops. Panic set in as we began to wonder if we would have to leave the cars for the rest of the day and try to get out again early the following morning as the streets were filling up. Tired of Marrakech and frustrated with not moving forward toward our goal of getting to the border of Mauritania and enjoying real adventure, none of us liked this option.
Now what? We parked the cars in the clearing and I ran about trying to figure out which of the three directions we still had available to us we might be able to fit our vehicles through. As I was jogging back to the cars a tiny white two door car drove by us and Garry quickly suggested we chase the “white rabbit to get us out of Wonderland." So we did, but in our version of the Lewis Carrol story, we were rewarded with open air, a large thoroughfare and an entrance to the road out of Marrakech. Yeah!
Getting in the cars and leaving the city behind felt great. It was like all the stuff we didn't like about Marrakech was left behind. Our next move was to get into the Atlas Mountain range. This was Jeff's only request so far on this trip and we were all good with the idea. I'm glad Jeff made the suggestion as the driving was super fun and the scenery was stunning. As we drove through the range we enjoyed tight switch back roads and snow capped mountains.
In a bizarre turn of events, we noticed a strange structure up ahead as we were nearing the end of our descent . We pulled over to examine what looked like a gas station out of a David Lynch film. It was so out of place and the structure itself was so strange that we just had to check it out. We then forced on into the night despite our fear of driving at night and made our way into Western Sahara. The gas station was a great divergence from our conversation of what we were anticipating in Western Sahara. More police check points, bandits, more poverty. We simply didn't know. For now, it just felt good to be driving.
Jakub, Mauricio, Jeff and I woke to the call to prayer at about 5am. In Marrakech there's just no blocking it out as the number mosques are astounding and each with a distinct voice. Given that it would seem odd to get more than 5 or 6 hours sleep, we slowly got up and went to look for the proprieter of our apartment as he promised us breakfast at bakery he worked at a few doors down. Jakub thought he would take an early morning shower and quickly discovered there was no hot water. Jakub and I worked on the water heater to no avail. Jeff than took a turn and got it working without a hitch. I think there is something to be said for the fact that Jeff just has a better way with all things mechanical. I'm still looking for what I have a better way with.
Anyway, we went for breakfast and were treated like royalty with a great to do caused by our waiter (and landlord) who brought tables and chairs out on to the street for us because his bakery was packed. The bakery was right on tourist row which allowed us people watching time. We saw people from all over the world, locals with and without headscarves and young couples holding hands and beggars and glue sniffers and that not so pleasant stuff too. But, that's the raw truth. While unpleasant, there is no escaping when traveling as we are.
Jeff, Mo and I decided to check out the souk of Marrakech. The souk is a series of small shops lining seemingly endless corridors. This is where you get a chance to get your shop on and enjoy the back and forth of negotiations so both parties win. Jakub had spent some time in Marrakech in the past and warned us people would pull at our clothes and pick pocketers would abound. To my surprise and dissapointment, things were quite tame, orderly even. It seemed like a lot of the same stuff was being offered in numerous shops with different shop owners. While there was some really cool stuff such as lights and pendants and artwork, there was no way it would survive our trip through the Sahara and back home.
A couple of cool things did happen. First of all, Jeff had a snake thrown around his neck. Not a small snake garden snake, but a full on cobra about 4 feet long. This is done often where people are encouraged to take pics for a fee. We didn't want to pay for the pic and I don't think Jeff enjoyed the snake experience much. Jeff was convinced the thing smelled of pee; we're not sure if it was snake pee of Jeff's (joking). With the snake removed uncerimoniously, we ventured further into the market in seach of back gammon boards. After checking out three places and engaging in some intense, but fun negotiations which took about an hour, I was two boards richer. I'm an avid player and one was for Phil as a thank you present for his generosity when he put us up in London at the beginning of our trip. While the souk was fun, I couldn't help but feel it was a somewhat watered down experience. But, perhaps I wasn't in the right frame of mind.
It was Christmas day. While I don't celebrate the holiday, it's a day I get to spend with my partner Katherine and I was missing her dearly. My mind was stuck on home while I was trying to enjoy what was in front of me. I was missing family and my animals and the comforts of home.
All eight of us got together for a late dinner to mark this Christmas together. Eric decided he wanted to lead the way. None of us approved of the first place he, and some helpful? Moroccan hangers on, had chosen for us. We were then led to one of the most incredible places I have ever enjoyed a meal in. The ceilings were vaulted about 30' in the air with wood and tile work that must have been done by artisans with severe obsessive compulsive disorders. The workmandship was incredible. We all came together and enjoyed the moment while discussing our next route and trying to anticipate when we thought things might get dangerous.
It was an awesome way to end the night.