I'm sitting atop an enormous sand dune in Erg Chebbi, a sea of sand in southern Morocco. This is exactly how I imagined the Sahara. A deep blue sky, a setting sun, golden yellow sand dunes as far as the eye can see. Here and there, gently swaying palm trees. It doesn't get any more exotic than this.
But... I'm not the only one enjoying the view.
I've been sitting here now for half an hour, and in that time four "caravans" of camels have trudged by. Loudmouthed French tourists in shorts sat astride the beasts. Later followed ten roaring motorcycles driven by tattooed men with flapping hair. A Swiss family arrived in a squeaky-clean Land Rover and settled on the dune opposite mine for a picnic. And just now two bright red motorized hang gliders flew over.
I console myself with the thought that the "real" desert is yet to come. Soon, in Western Sahara and Mauritania, I'll be rid of all these phony desert travelers.
But why, actually, do I think that? Why do I have to have the desert all to myself? Why is my experience spoiled by sharing it with others who are after precisely the same thing as me?
It all has to do, I think, with the objective every traveler pursues: an authentic experience. The traveler looking for an authentic experience is looking for places that have retained their "character." In practice, "authentic" often means untouched by modern life, by tourists and commerce. So it would be superauthentic to trek through the Sahara with a band of nomads and a camel caravan. There is a famous sign not far from here that appeals to that Western longing. It reads, "Timbuktu 52 Days." But modern nomads aren't stupid. They abandoned the nomadic existence long ago and now hire themselves out as guides and make good money putting tourists on camels. So that they can buy, say, a Mercedes and never have to ride a camel again themselves. Or, to put it another way, wherever you go in the world, sooner or later you run into other people, and then the party's over.
In his book The Tourist Gaze, John Urry argues that traveling is primarily a means of acquiring status. The longer and more exclusive the trip, the more status you acquire. The traveler is condemned to the desperate search for the last unspoiled place on earth, where the authentic experience—and the status—he so sorely craves repeatedly slip through his fingers. He journeys ever deeper into the world (West Africa) and goes to ever-greater extremes (driving an old car through the desert) to escape those annoying "others" and thus ensure his authentic experience. But what happens there on top of a sand dune in the Sahara, the most inaccessible, inhospitable, inhuman place in the world? The traveler fancies himself in Central Park on a Sunday afternoon. He sees his authentic experience—and his status—vanishing into thin air. That, then, is the real reason I'm sitting here fuming: my status has fallen.
Where did I go wrong? Where should I look for that authentic experience? Perched atop my sand dune, I page yet again through the Lonely Planet. The guidebook didn't warn me about this relentless desert commerce. Worse, it's mainly because of the Lonely Planet that I've come here. Wouldn't I have been better off leaving it home?
Well, no. Years ago—I was in my early twenties—I spent my summer vacations hitchhiking through Europe. Guidebooks were for tourists, I felt in those days. Books like that tell you where you should eat and sleep, what you should see, and then what you should think about it. But I wanted to figure that out for myself. No, I didn't need any guidebook. Consequently, I invariably wound up in either too-expensive mediocre hotels or cheap, horrible boardinghouses, ate bland meals, and visited the least-interesting museums. I squandered my time, and my quest for authentic experiences came to nothing.
Then I discovered the Lonely Planet.
If you wanted to have that authentic experience in three weeks, then you had to prepare yourself—that much had become clear to me. The Lonely Planet seemed made for people like me: young, individualistic adventurers on a tight budget. But above all for people who were wary of "tourism" and "really" wanted to experience a place. The name alone said it all. The lonely planet— that was exactly what I was longing for. But of course the Lonely Planet only exacerbated the problem it purported to solve: as soon as an exotic place, an affordable fine restaurant, or a cozy hotel was included in the guide, it was overrun by other Lonely Planet readers. Lonely Planet travelers could no longer be distinguished from Lonely Planet tourists. Goodbye, authentic experience—and, Urry would add, goodbye, status.
There seems to be no cure for this authenticity syndrome of the modern traveler. But there is. First of all, you can abandon the pursuit of authentic experiences. Stay home, in other words. Or, if that doesn't appeal to you, you can always become a tourist. But neither solution is very satisfying. And the urge to travel doesn't go away.
The best answer is to broaden the definition of what constitutes an authentic experience. Why should authenticity be equated with "untouched by modern life"? In The Art of Travel, a highly comforting book for any traveler, the author Alain de Botton looks for the exotic—which, I believe, is the same as the authentic—in the arrival hall of Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport. He describes enthusiastically how the sight of a sign there is enough to evoke a feeling of exoticism. Exoticism at Schiphol? The word "exoticism" sooner evokes associations with the things I see here in Morocco—palm trees, minarets, camels—than with a seemingly plain yellow Dutch sign. But exoticism is, in fact, nothing more than "different from home," and that sign at Schiphol was decidedly that for the Brit De Botton. The double a in Aankomst (Arrivals), the letters u and i next to each other in Uitgang (Exit), the use of English subtitles—all of which the Dutch themselves and so, well, prosaic—De Botton found it all exotic, or, if you will, authentic.
Authenticity isn't the same as "unspoiled by commerce and tourism." Exoticism isn't just veiled women and a camel caravan to Timbuktu. Authenticity is perhaps something more like Pirsig's Quality: you know it when you see it. It's not something you can believe in but something you experience. Authenticity has to do with the essence of a place or culture. The romantic in me says that the search for authenticity is not, as Urry would have us believe, a thirst for status but rather a longing to grasp the essence of a place. I know one thing: nomads on camels no longer belong to the essence of Erg Chebbi.
But then what does?
The Lonely Planet doesn't waste any ink on "Sahara Services." The tour guide Abdelkhalek—call him Abdul—thinks that's outrageous. Exulting, he shows me the latest edition of the Rough Guide—the Australian Planet's British competitor—in which he is mentioned. However sparingly, his services are praised. It makes no difference to me. They're all annoying—the local tour operators who offer fully equipped desert camel excursions. Intrusive to the point of being aggressive, without exception. Abdul is a man with large brown stains on his teeth. He sits uncomfortably close. But he does speak decent English, and, more important, he knows what Western tourists want. I'm enticed by the tour he proposes: we'll drive a little ways into the desert in a Land Rover, travel farther by camel, and eventually spend the night in a nomad's tent.
That all sounds rather exotic.
Of course, the reality turns out to be a bit more prosaic. Our guide drops us off at a semipermanent tent camp. Diesel generators drone; a truck, SUVs, and a few tour buses are parked nearby. At nightfall, beneath that overwhelming starry Saharan sky, I see sparkling little lights on the horizon. Stars, I think for a second. But they're the campfires and electric lights of the dozens of other tourist groups that have settled here.
Abdul pokes at the campfire. Tea's on. Your hosts begin telling tales about their ancestors' legendary camel caravans. How the people trekked through the lonely desert for days on end and almost died of thirst.
Abdul launches into a soulful ballad.
But, hey, what's that? Beep beep, beep beep. Abdul's cell phone is ringing.
We're in the middle of the desert, but his cell phone is working as usual. It's a guy from his office, wanting to know when Abdul thinks he'll back tomorrow morning. A new group of tourists is ready.
Has my authentic nomad experience vanished for good on account of that phone call? On the contrary. This is the authentic experience of Erg Chebbi. Abdul is the modern nomad from head to toe: he's out in the desert, under the starry sky, in touch with his roots . . . and with his office. I decide to throw some more frosting on the cake of this authentic experience. In the soft pinkish light of daybreak, I climb to the top of a dune, use my cell phone to take a picture, and then send it by phone to a few friends back home.
Of course, they are there, the minarets, the veiled women, the palm- covered oases, the bearded men in djellabas, the mysterious medinas, the boys on donkeys, the timeless souks, the wily rug merchants, and the pushy snake charmers. The old-fashioned, authentic Morocco—you need never look long for that. Nor for the modern Morocco, either, for that matter, although modernity still comes as a shock here—perhaps because the Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide don't write about it. Take Moroccan consumer society. Most of the visible economy is small-scale and informal, and brand names are still not common. You won't see a Wal-Mart, Sears, or Motel 6, and though every café serves the same espresso, no one yet seems to have a need for a Moroccan version of Starbucks. But there are exceptions. Gas stations and cell phones belong totally to the modern, Western world—you'll find a Shell gas pump or an outlet of the French cell phone company Méditel in even the smallest hamlet. And in downtown Casablanca, which looks like a drab 1950s public housing project in some Rust Belt city in America, I can't believe my eyes: there are roller skaters and bareheaded Moroccan women in tight jeans running around.
I'm in Casablanca to apply for a visa to Mauritania. The line at the embassy begins outside at the gate. I take my place at the end behind two Canadian girls, one with a pierced nose and upper lip, the other with bright red dyed hair. I also notice three lighthearted French fiftysomethings who plan on driving old Peugeots to Mali, a backpacker whose look betrays lots of Ketama, and a swearing, wildly gesticulating British tour guide who is getting herself extraordinarily worked up over the lack of efficiency among the Mauritanian diplomatic corps. Though the boorish Brit annoys me, I can't disagree with her. When my turn comes, after a two- hour wait, I learn that my black-and-white passport photos are no good. Photos have to be in color. Come back when you get them, I'm told. I'm still not used to it, the vaunted African rhythm, the patient waiting without knowing whether or when something is going to happen, the taking life as it comes without getting excited. I'm still too Western. It seems you can buy a visa at the border for fifty dollars. It's 1,240 miles from Casablanca to the Mauritanian border. I get in my Mercedes and start driving.
The plan is to follow the coast for 1,550 miles—through Western Sahara and Mauritania to Senegal—and then to travel overland into the West African interior. The Moroccan coast is green. Sloping fields, grazing sheep, orchards—it looks like Europe. Only after leaving the coastal town of Essaouira behind, do I notice the desert slowly approaching again. The brownish red soil is poor. Only the thorny argan trees thrive here. The trees are famous, and popular with tourists, because there are always a few goats in them. The goats climb to the top, eat the tree's fruit, and shit the indigestible argan nuts out again. The nuts are then made into delicious oil that little boys sell by the side of the road everywhere here.
Just before the resort city of Agadir, in a bay surrounded by dark red rocks, dozens of surfers dash wildly to and fro, riding the breakers. It looks inviting, the tanned bodies gliding effortlessly over the tumbling waves. A tall young man with curly blond hair stands onshore taking a break. He wears knee-length pants and has a pair of fashionable sunglasses stuck loosely in his hair. His muscular upper body is bare. Peering out over the sea, he leans casually against his surfboard.
"You shoulda been here yesterday," he volunteers. "Much higher waves."
He's from Australia, and his name—I'm not making this up— is Bruce.
"Hey, Bruce," I say.
"Hey, dude," Bruce replies.
Within five minutes Bruce has told me his life story. "I live to surf," he says. He's been roaming the world for ten years, in search of that one "perfect" wave." He gets a job now and then—he's just spent a few months as a bartender in London—but quits as soon as he's save' enough money to surf. "The English weather was driving me crazy," he says. "Someone told me they had good waves and warm weather here, and I left." He's staying here, near the little village of Taghazout, until his money is up. Another month and a half yet, he figures. And then? He'll see. Maybe South Africa. He explains patiently and at length how to surf, but when I ask why he surfs, he falls silent. "You know," he says after a while, "you'll have to grab a wave sometime yourself; then you'll have the answer to that question."
The waves are a few feet high today. Bruce, who is used to the waves in Australia, isn't particularly impressed. The village of Taghazout is a real surfers' colony. There are shops where they repair surfboards and sell surfer clothing—Billabong, O'Neill, Von Dutch. Jimi Hendrix echoes through the main street. Girls in bikinis sit in outdoor cafés. Bruce says hundreds of surfers live here. Like him, most stay a few months and then move on again. For the time being, Bruce, together with a couple of Germans, is renting a place hewn out of a cliff. Costs him a few dirhams. A villager provides dinner every evening. There's plenty of hash. There are waves. There's sun. What more do you want?
Indeed, what more do I want?
I'm jealous of Bruce.
"Relax, dude," he says. "Come along; I'll introduce you to my friends. You can see my cave. We'll smoke a joint..."
It sounds great. But I politely decline. My mission lies elsewhere. Not in this groovy Moroccan surfer life, but in the square, barren, lifeless desert.
And that's coming fast now. First, the grass disappears; after that, the trees; then, the bushes. Until only sand and rocks remain. Gone is the old- fashioned, authentic Morocco: the centuries-old casbahs have given way to gray concrete houses. Gone, too, are the symbols of the modern Morocco: the billboard cell phone ads adorned with seductive women have made way for giant portraits of King Mohammed VI.
Just past the little town of Tan Tan begins Western Sahara, the former Spanish colony occupied by Morocco since the 1970s. The United Nations thinks that the Sahrawis, the original inhabitants of Western Sahara, should decide for themselves if they want to be independent of Morocco, but it doesn't look like that's ever going to happen. The once so militant guerrilla movement Polisario, which is fighting for an independent Western Sahara, is hardly heard from anymore.
Morocco leaves no doubt at all as to who is in charge. At a distance of more than a mile, I count five enormous signs with royal portraits, including Mohammed VI as a soldier (in full-dress army uniform), Mohammed VI as a playboy (with cool hip-hop sunglasses and a big smile), and Mohammed VI as a serious statesman (looking dignified in suit and tie). From here on, Moroccan army checkpoints are as numerous as tollbooths on an American turnpike.
Two larger-than-life-size concrete camels on either side of the road into Tan Tan form an unofficial town gate. They seem to want to call to me: here is where it finally begins, that desert you've been looking for.
The two-lane highway turns off toward the Atlantic Ocean; the view now consists of endless arid plains to the left and endless sea to the right. The first sickle-shaped dunes appear on the distant horizon. So, too, the first free-running camels. Countless dead grasshoppers litter the shoulder. The penetrating stench of putrefaction makes me gag. Here, on the edge of the continent, the plague of locusts that has destroyed harvests in large parts of West Africa the past few months has come to an end. Wedged in here between water and sand, the insects couldn't go any farther and died en masse. There must have been millions of them.
Fine sand drifts over the asphalt in long strands. When I get out, it chafes my bare ankles. The visibility is getting worse and worse. It seems like fog. But it's extremely fine sand through which I can't even see thirty yards. It's the same brownish yellow powder I sometimes find on the roof of my car in the Netherlands—sucked up into the atmosphere by large storms in the Sahara, it falls to earth again only in northern Europe. I stop at a gas pump to protect the Mercedes against the dust, tying an old pair of panty hose around the engine's air intake to keep the sand out. Another driver gives me a little grease to smear over my headlights. That helps prevent the sand from damaging the glass. Dust storms can sometimes be so violent that they scour your car's varnish and glass totally bare.
No one describes the emotions that the barren, lifeless desert evokes more eloquently than the legendary French pilot and writer Antoine de Saint- Exupéry. I'm on my way to Tarfaya—or Cape Juby, as it was called in Saint- Exupéry's time—the place where he worked as the manager of an airfield in 1928. His stay there is reflected in his most famous work, the novella The Little Prince, but also in the nonfiction book Wind, Sand, and Stars.
There was regular air service between Paris and Dakar as early as the 1920s—not for passengers, it's true, but for mail. Because airplanes had to be refueled often then, a lot of intermediate airfields were needed. Such as Cape Juby. Saint- Exupéry had a difficult job here. He not only had to man Cape Juby's tiny airfield; he also had to remain on good terms with the Spaniards stationed nearby, who didn't take too kindly to the French, and was responsible for saving downed pilots as well. Although officially Spain ran the show, the native population took little notice. The Moors shot down many a plane, after which they tortured the pilot to death or, in the best case, released him for a huge ransom. It was up to Saint- Exupéry to see to it that the nomads didn't get their hands on the downed French airmen.
Saint- Exupéry complained about his lonely life in Cape Juby in letters home, telling how he only had someone to talk to twice a week, when a plane on its way to Dakar came by. "What a life," he wrote to his mother. "Like that of a monk, in the most remote place in Africa." He lived in a hut on the beach; his only companion, the constant wind. A thin mattress, a washbasin with no water—those were, more or less, his possessions. The sand was everywhere: in his bed, in his food, in his clothes—that's why he always wore pajamas; all other clothing chafed his skin. Saint-Exupéry must have hated Cape Juby, but from his books you get the impression he'd found heaven on earth here.
Saint- Exupéry is a master at describing not so much the beauty of the desert as the state of mind evoked by its desolation. You feel connected to the earth in the Sahara. There are only three things here: wind, sand, and stars. And, oh, those nights. Saint-Exupéry's evocative descriptions leave you wanting but one thing before you die: to spend one night beneath the starry Saharan sky. "What is going on inside me, I cannot tell," he writes in a letter to his sister after a night in the desert. Saharan nights last forever, rekindling fond memories of youth. They have "a taste of Christmas" about them and engender a "light- hearted feeling." And that legendary love of Saint- Exupéry's for the desert, that passion for the ineffable beauty of emptiness—that began here, in Tarfaya.
I'd like to know more about that.
Tarfaya is an insignificant little town where the sand blows through unpaved streets. There is one restaurant and no hotel. Although Saint- Exupéry is by far the most famous resident the town has ever known, his name doesn't mean anything to anyone here. After asking around a lot, I finally find someone who once heard something about a French pilot who crashed here and never left. Yeah, that's right, he confirms, that Frenchman really liked it here in Tarfaya...
I'll just have to search on my own. The only tangible proof Saint- Exupéry ever lived here is a monument by the deserted beach, next to the former Spanish fort. It's a little green airplane that seems to have been made from some sort of giant Erector set and that stands on the spot where Saint- Exupéry once had his hut. The monument has no name; there's not even a plaque.
A mangy dog walks by.
Two boys in torn pants come begging a gift.
The sun's hot.
Black plastic bags blow across the beach.
I skip a few stones in the surf.
I lie down in the sand. I imagine how I'll fall asleep here tonight on the beach under the heavens and dream the stars from the sky.
Then a Moroccan soldier comes marching up to me. He's stationed in the half- ruined Spanish fort, now occupied by a Moroccan army unit. The soldier asks me what I'm doing here and wants to see my papers. Then he declares the area off- limits to foreigners, especially dreamy types.
Saint-Exupéry's work romanticizes not only nature but also people; he seems to have wholeheartedly endorsed the idea of the noble savage, man not yet corrupted by civilization. The Sahrawis are fierce warriors deserving of our respect. But did Saint- Exupéry really believe that? No. "They are thieves, liars, bandits; treacherous and cruel," he wrote his sister. "They kill a man as if he were a chicken." That "as the case in 1928, and it was also true a century earlier.
In the forgotten classic Sufferings in Africa, Captain James Riley describes at length the atrocities to which the local population subjected him and his crew when they were shipwrecked off the coast of Cape Bojador, 125 miles south of Cape Juby, in 1815.
Cape Bojador, or Boujdour, as it's now known, was the end of the world in the Middle Ages. No ship dared sail past this "barrier of fear." The strong, cold southern branch of the Gulf Stream between the Canary Islands and the African coast inexorably ensured that every ship ran aground in Cape Bojador's shallow waters. It didn't become possible to navigate the rest of the West African coast until the Portuguese discovered a route around the Canary Islands in the fifteenth century. Nevertheless, in the centuries thereafter, countless ships continued to perish off the notorious Cape Bojador. Including the brig Commerce under Captain Riley's comm'nd.
After managing to reach shore in a lifeboat, Riley and his crew were immediately attacked by a group of Sahrawis. Leaving behind nearly all their provisions, they barely succeeded in escaping their attackers by again taking to sea, where they wandered about for a week. Within a few days, their water ran out and they began drinking their own urine—"a wretched and disgusting relief," according to Riley. There was only one thing to do: return to land. And as soon as they did, they were attacked again. This time they failed to escape and were taken captive as slaves. Riley and his crew were divided among several Sahrawi families and repeatedly resold—once for a blanket, another time for a water bag. They received scarcely anything to eat and survived mainly on goat intestines, camel urine, and now and then a little camel milk. Traveling through the desert naked and barefoot, they were horribly burned within days. Their skin hung from their bodies in folds. Their feet lay open to the bone. One evening Riley went looking for a big rock with which he hoped to beat his own brains in.
The desert around Boujdour has changed little since Riley's time. It still looks like a moonscape, a vast gray sand and gravel plain broken only by some pale rocks. A grounded ship, a recent victim of the still dangerous currents here, lies rusting in the Atlantic surf. There is a town now, with an Internet café where the proprietor is looking at a porn Web site when I walk in. But the people still live from camels; the animals are eaten here, and in the market you can even buy the slimy white fat from the hump by the kilo. Just outside of town I see a herd come jogging alongside the road at a trot. The camels are on their way to a well, where a few Sahrawis are watering the animals. The Sahrawis drop a big bucket in the well on a cable and hoist it up again with an old Land Rover. One of them tries to buy some diesel from me; another wants money for letting me watch him work. The wind is relentless. The Sahrawis have their faces wrapped up well in cheches, a sort of turban, but I feel the sand peeling the skin from my face. The sand gets in your eyes and hair—the latter feels like straw in half an hour. I don't yet feel like beating my brains in, but I am beginning to understand something of the despair of Riley and his men. I'm deliriously happy when I manage to retreat from the howl of the scouring wind to the comfort of my Mercedes.
Riley's lot only improved when he succeeded in winning the confidence of the passing merchant Sidi Hamet from Marrakech. Riley convinced him that he would fetch a lot of money in the more northerly situated port of Mogador, now Essaouira. In the eighteenth century, Mogador was the only town on the coast of what is now Morocco with extensive contacts with the West. Countries such as England, Denmark, France, and the Netherlands had consulates there. Hamet bought the captain and a few crew members from the cruel Moors, and together they made for Mogador.
Riley and four of his men were eventually ransomed by the English consul in Mogador. On arrival, Riley, who had once weighed more than 242 pounds, was only 88 pounds, while one of his companions weighed only half that. Two more crewmen arrived in Mogador a few months later; the rest of the crew were never heard from again.
Sufferings in Africa is much more than just an engrossing book that convinces by the perseverance of the characters and the harsh circumstances they manage to endure. It helped determine the course of American history. Sufferings in Africa was a bestseller in its time and made a big impression on the young Abraham Lincoln. It's said that in his youth the future president of the United States had just four books in his possession: Aesop's Fables; The Pilgrim's Progress; a biography of the first president, Life of Washington; and Riley's Sufferings in Africa. Some sources contend that it was this last book, together with a visit to a slave market in New Orleans at the age of nineteen, that formed Lincoln's ideas about slavery. It is, of course, ironic: a book in which whites are enslaved by Africans helped put an end to black slavery by whites.
Copyright 2006 by Jeroen Van Bergeik