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.