Thursday, August 15, 2002

An empty water bottle tumbles past, performing leaps and somersaults across the wasteland of Western Sahara. The earth too, more playful here than in more hospitable parts of the world, dances with the wind, delighting in its freedom of motion. A surprising observation of nature: when the plants are gone, dirt has a party.

Three parallel lines separate the land from the sky; a thin band of the Atlantic Ocean divides the mainland from the cape on which we stand. The ground is rocky, like an old gravel lot abandoned and forsaken. Just dirt, stones, and plastic bottles. There's no sand in this part of the desert, though it tastes the same in your mouth, scratches the same against your eyes, and accumulates the same on your clothes as you wait for a chance to get out.

Getting out is easy for the right price, but we're holding out for what might be called the wrong price; free, if we can find some other travelers who will take us. Otherwise we'll buy a ride from the Mauri with the cheapest seats.

The road is straight. Why curve, is asks. Every car pauses here for a moment to be waved past by the police. The cops are looking for spies from neighbor countries. Since they know everybody who lives less than a tank of gas away, as well as everybody who drives across the Sahara for a living, they only stop the tourists to have them fill out the guest book. Perfect place to find a ride. In fact, they're doing the work for us; they make sure to check each car heading to Mauritania. They already know how much we want to pay for different classes of vehicles, and are happy to negotiate on our behalf. We never met nicer police.

"We drank too much tea earlier," says one of the khaki-clad men in French, "so we forgot to offer you any." He hands us each a small glass of Moroccan tea, explaining that this is a "pays de paix" -- a country of peace. Juliette translates to me, smiling at the irony of the statement coming from these men with guns who protect a military base which was established to defend a recent occupation of the land.

He pulls my notebook out of my hand playfully, and begins reading aloud. His pronunciation is bad and his comprehension even worse, but it reminds me to be careful what I write, just in case. But really, they're the friendliest police I ever met; they even showed us how to tie proper turbans to protect from the wind and sand.

"Here, we get to know everything that goes on in this town," Juliette observes about our vantage point. And since it's the only town for a day in any direction, we pretty much know what's going on in half of Morocco.

So we sit and learn. Against the wall the wind isn't so bad. We meet a few pairs of tourists arriving in buses, and ask them to keep us in mind to share the cost of hiring a vehicle.

Waiting is no problem; we've done it before, in worse conditions and for longer times. Actually, it's a nice rest after this morning's hectic activity.