Scattered along the coast of Western Sahara are a handful of fishing villages - or rather, semi-permanent camps. We visited a few - two because they were walking-distance from towns we were staying in, and three others all in one afternoon as we searched for fresh fish (and someone who could cook it).
On the day we visited the three camps, we were on our way north from Bir Ghandouz, where we stayed after our brief jaunt to the southern border. After less than an hour of driving, we spotted what appeared to be a village right on the coast, which would certainly have somewhere we could get fresh fish. A few kilometers of off-roading later, we arrived at a run-down fishing village in our sand-covered rental car. Well over a hundred small, single-room tent-like structures stood side-by-side in rows. There were two or three old cars parked nearby, and a few motorcycles. Dogs ran barking around our car, and a few men at the opposite end of the camp watched us out curiously.
Still hoping we could get some fresh fish, we parked near the edge of the camp on a hill overlooking the beach and walked down towards the ocean, where tens of fishing boats were lined up in the sand. A few men were working on some of the boats, and looked up as we walked past. We greeted a man standing nearby. He warmly welcomed us, and asked with amusement why we were there - continuing to explain that they never have tourists stop by the village. We explained that our motivation was twofold: One, we were genuinely interested in seeing the fishing villages and the people who live and work there. Two, we were looking for a place to eat some fresh fish. He was touched knowing that we wanted to see what life is like in the fishing villages; places which are obviously so often overlooked by visitors, and seemingly by the occupation government as well (the conditions of the camps are truly shocking). As we spoke with the fisherman, others joined. We asked them questions, and they told us about their lives.
Some days, they send the boats out in the middle of the night to fish, rowing kilometers into the ocean, and returning up to eight or nine hours later. Other days they leave at daybreak, and endure the scorching sun out on the water. Some days the catch is good, other days they return nearly empty-handed. Most of the men at the camp have families living hours away in villages or cities, and they typically only visit them every few months.
After a while of casual conversation, the men invited us to join them for lunch. We thanked them but kindly refused, as we did not want to burden them, and were also conscious of the long drive ahead of us (though after leaving we immediately regretted that decision). As we were saying our goodbyes, one of the men went behind a boat and came back carrying a white sack filled with fish that had just been brought in. We tried to negotiate a price, or a smaller quantity of fish, but the fishermen were persistent, and insisted on gifting us the fish (5 or 6 full-size fish in total). We thanked them profusely, wished them well, and took a few photos for memory's sake before getting back on the road.
I've finally realized - after several years of utterly failing to blog consistently - that the only way I'll ever have time to keep this up-to-date on recent travels is to make my posts short, to the point, and mostly consisting of photos with captions. Though the writing may be less eloquent and the stories less vivid, hopefully the increased frequency of posts will make up for it. That being said, I hope you enjoy the first of a series of soon-to-be-published Western Sahara posts.
After spending a day in Dakhla (Western Sahara's second largest city, with a population of 55,000), we rented a car and embarked on a road trip - the only plan being to head south, towards the border with Mauritania.
We weren't sure if we would go all the way to the border, but as we were making good time (the road south along the coast is straight and flat, and with few cars), we decided to check out the border crossing area.
By late afternoon, we reached the border zone. We weaved around a long line of trucks waiting to pass through the three layers of checkpoints. Right before the first checkpoint, there is an area with several restaurants, small markets, and a barbershop. We parked our car there, and approached the checkpoint on foot. My Moroccan friend who was traveling with me started up a friendly conversation with the guards, who were confused and slightly concerned by our presence (apparently they don't get many tourists visiting the border crossing). My friend explained that we were on a road trip, and wanted to see the border. He asked if we could pass through, just to see the following checkpoint area.
After a bit more small talk, and after the higher-ranking uniformed guard passed us his cup to have us try the tea he just made (which we both agreed was the best we had throughout the trip), he allowed us to go ahead towards the next checkpoint.
At the next checkpoint, we went through the same process (minus the tea), explaining why we were there, and that we were not planning on actually crossing the border. We were met with suspicion, but nonetheless, the guards allowed us to carry onward. When we got to the final checkpoint before the "No Man's Land" area separating the borders, the guards wouldn't allow us passage (unless we paid $100 or so for a Visa - then we could pass with no issue). We turned around and walked back to the car (on the way back we were stopped and questioned for a few minutes as our passports were checked - our visit appeared to be seen as suspicious, and warranted extra security precautions).
A few miles after we drove away, we passed a sign warning of landmines. Western Sahara has the 10th most landmines out of anywhere in the world, leftover from the 1980s when Morocco, Mauritania, and the indigenous Sahrawi independence movement were engaged in a territorial war after Spain gave up its colonial rule of the land. The war resulted in Morocco occupying the western part of Western Sahara, and blocking it off from the eastern, independent territory with a wall stretching hundreds of miles North to South (known as the berm). The berm, as well as the southern border, is fortified with landmines, adding yet another level of threat to any Sahrawi group hoping to achieve independence. More on this issue to come.