Arrival in Timbuktu

Getting off the boat in “Korioume” was like getting a stay of execution. We had been taken advantage in every way imaginable. I knew that my imagination didn’t match those of the river rats when it came to taking advantage of a situation. That left me with several days to ponder what was next, I wasn’t expecting Colombian neck ties or physical harm of any kind, but I thought that opportunities would arise and we would suffer for them. When we got to “Korioume” I was confused that we really didn’t have any real problems.

One of the boat boys led us to auberge and told us to stay there. We said “no”. We are going to catch a ride to Timbuktu. “No, no” said our little friend. “No one is going to Timbuktu tonight and this is the only place in town”. We’d heard that before, but we asked the price before we walked away. “yes, yes, you come with me” said the hotel clerk, we were standing out in a road of sand. “No, no, you tell us the price”, said one of us. “No, you come with me” answered our hotel clerk. We said “no”, some choice curse words, and then walked away listening to their shouts telling us there was nothing else. Obviously there was another Auberge, otherwise they would let us get sick of searching and come back. Of course that was after our boat boy wouldn’t turn loose our hand-woven reed mats that we were forced to buy for the boat trip, but hey, we didn’t want to carry them around anyway.

We did find one other Auberge, but they also would not give us the price. Being the obstinate bullheads that we were, we decided we would sleep outside on the shores of the river. Matt suggested we try to walk or hitchhike to Timbuktu, it was only around 20 km after all and it was night, a perfect time to be in the desert. It seemed like a good idea to me, but Andrew was hesitant. We looked for a comfortable place on the shores of the Niger river where we stood a chance of not getting mugged within 15 minutes but of course it didn’t take long for us to get chased off, citing a city ordained “no white people are to not to pay for lodging” ordinance.

We moved on and walked through the edge of town and found something to sit on. Out of the night came a person rolling down the sand shoulder of the road in a wheel chair along with another invalid. “We have a place you can stay, we just have to make sure it is ok with the boss”, said the two, “he will be back soon”. By now it had been dark for quite some time, we didn’t know where we were going, and we couldn’t say what the people looked like that were leading us through the night. We were happy to finally have gotten some hospitality. We walked the short distance and came to an enclosed, mud walled, courtyard and within minutes, the boss arrived. “Yes, you can sleep here on the ground”, said he. He offered us food, but we didn’t take the offer, knowing that any favors you accept result in a vulnerability that might be taken as an advantage. We gave them some of our expensive tea leaves, which for some reason they put into a cup and set it on the ground. Though our hosts didn’t seem to appreciate our tea, but the courtyard goats certainly did. There went a third of our precious gift tea right there.

That night we would get one thing we had not had for a while, we’d have all the room we could stand and not a grain sack in sight. As the old saying goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. In this case we would trade the v-notch between two grain sacks for a mud floor, and not any mud floor, but one that had soaked up the sun of the Sahara for 12 hours prior to taking the weight of our bodies. I lay down and college physics drifted up from the bottom most reaches of my mind. As I lay sweating on one side of my body and chilling on the top side, the words thermal inertia fluttered through my brain like a deranged butterfly.

Before the sweat but after the goat came the matter of paying. “It will be quatre mille (4,000) cfa, to stay here” the boss man said in French after a goat had eaten all the expensive tea leaves we had given them as a present. Andrew looked at me and I said, “yeah ok, 4,000 cfa is a lot but I just want to get this over with”. “Not 4,000” said Andrew, “quarante mille (40,000) cfa!”. “So he wants us to pay him $100 U.S. to sleep on the mud floor of his patio, with no mattress, no blankets, no bathroom, with the free roaming chickens and goats?”. “Yes” said Andrew. “Well tell him no” I said. Andrew told the man that it was too expensive, too which his reply was “well this is an expensive town”, with a straight face no less. There was always justification for these sorts of situations, no matter how ridiculous, there was always an excuse. He told us “ok, how much you want to pay” and we told him 10,000 which was way too much, but the amount we had agreed upon before getting into this jam. We finally settled on 20,000 cfa with mattresses, but we still had to contend with the goats and chickens and the heat radiating from the sun soaked mud floor.

Only Andrew felt like sleeping in, the chickens were driving me and Matt nuts and the sun was starting to get warm, it was 4:30 am and the floor and the air were reaching thermal equilibrium. We were off to find a man by the name of Yung, who we had met the following evening. Everyone in town that we asked said Yung, Yung goes to Timbuktu. As luck would have it, we did find Yung and he was willing to take us to Timbuktu that night for the sum of 100,000 cfa. I think we had planned to spend 1,500 cfa to get to Timbuktu from Korioume, so 100,000 cfa was out of the question. Instead, he said he would take us for 2,000 cfa in the morning at 7:30 A.M. We wandered over to Yung’s place and waited. It was a desolate place soft sandy paths between mud buildings and not a single foreigner. We thought surely there would be more transport to Timbuktu since this was the main thoroughfare. We spent the hours searching for food and found some excellent soup with meat and bread. By this time we were so used to having so little one bowl of soup between three of us left us stuffed. The greasy meat was heavenly and the bread came straight out of a wood fired oven built against one of the mud houses. Mangos were also abundant and surprisingly cheap and I spent the rest of my money (25 cents) on two big delicious mangoes, which we all shared back at Yung’s place. It was getting hot and sitting around in the street was becoming unpleasant. I was getting thirsty and of the three wells I found only one worked and it had a line. I kept losing my place in line because I couldn’t stand waiting in the exposed sun while women slowly filled their buckets of water. So, no water for me, though we were able to buy some later on.

Aside from basic sanitary practices, I think significant digits should be taught directly afterward. If you don’t know what significant digits are, look it up, I’m sure there is an exhaustive explanation on Wikipedia. The intent of significant digits is to match the precision of your reporting figures with the amount of error in your figure. What does this have to do with Mali, well I’ll tell you. When some says we leave at 7:30, that means that you’re error should be +/- 5 minutes. A more accurate method, and honest for that matter, would be to say we leave tomorrow, maybe. Yung had no intention of leaving at 7:30 and I was getting hot and thirsty. Andrew asked when we’d be leaving since 7:30 had come and gone, “oh we’ll leave at 10 o’clock”, said Yung. In the meantime we tried to find someone else, we asked Yung. Yung said, “I am a business man” meaning he wasn’t going to tell us. We were getting impatient, but I had found a place that sold frozen baggies of gingembre. Though the antidote only lasted a couple of minutes, it was akin to what I imagine injecting heroin is like. I went back many times borrowing the 25 cfa for my fix, promising that I would “have the money’ and that “I just needed a little time”.

Occasionally we would go on a scouting mission but no one else was going to Timbuktu. There were supposed to be 4x4s leaving here, but there was nothing. We asked and asked, but Yung was it. Yung noticed we were getting desperate, so he said “we could leave right now, but it was going to cost 60,000 cfa”. It was Friday, and we had to get to the bank before it closed, so were getting more and more anxious by the second. We were 20 km from Timbuktu, why couldn’t we find anyone who was going there, I kept asking myself. Then something else came to mind. Why don’t any of the store fronts mention Korioume? I had noticed this before, but hadn’t concentrated on it until now. I decided to walk around and look more closely at the signs. The word Korioume was nowhere to be found, but I did see a pattern emerging. The word Dire was conspicuously present, huh. I mulled this over for a couple of milliseconds and then the answer hit me so hard it almost knocked me down. Those bastards dropped us off on time, but in the wrong town. How wrong, I had no idea, but I flipped to the map in our guide book that covered all of Africa to confirm. Sure enough, on a map of Mali, there was Dire. I estimated we were about 120 km from Timbuktu, but in reality it was probably 70 km as the crow flies. I was happy we hadn’t tried to walk/hitch hike. That clarified why we were losing this game so badly. Once again, they had us by the short hairs and knew it. We knew we were in check but hadn’t realized that checkmate was unavoidable, Yung did, and now we did too.

In the early afternoon, we got Yung talked down to 30,000 cfa and three children pushed our van until it came to life. The van had 24 seats and we bought out 20 of them so I made sure that I had plenty of space. At this point in the trip, equality was no longer something I strived for. I was not going to be cramped in that van at mid day in the Sahara after buying out most of it. I made sure my backpack had a seat, my water bottle had its own seat, and I stretched my legs across the aisle so that no one could take the seat across from me, courtesy be damned.

It wasn’t long until I realized that Dire was not on the beaten path and if we had tried to walk and hitchhike that route we’d probably be dead. We busted out into the Sahara sans road and boy howdy how Yung could drive. We followed two tracks across the desert which split apart, rejoined, and often wandered off into the great unknown. There was no set path and we basically just zoomed around in the desert crossing irrigation ditches, passing camels, at 60 km/h. 60 km/h may not seem fast, but if you ever driven cross country on camel trails, you’ll understand. In fact, we’d regularly bottom out the suspension which invariably disengaged the rear door latches. While we were getting knocked around, the back doors would open and people on sitting on the ends of the benches that were designed for ease of entry and exit scrambled to get control of the wildly flapping doors while trying not to fall out. Yung either didn’t notice or didn’t care about the door situation and I doubt he would have bothered to stop in the event that someone really did fall out. I was also in the mood where I really didn’t care either, as long as I made it to the bank on time.

We all know that the Sahara is dry and sandy, but it is also very dusty. Riding with the windows down in the van kept us in a constant dust storm. When the rear doors parted it was like opening flood gates. Dirt and dust rolling onto and over us and I could almost feel the impact. Andrew had a bandana and wrapped it over his face bandito style, I followed suit. Matt, well he was asleep which I thought was a bit odd. By the time we hit a paved road, there was measurable depths of dust on us and we stopped in Korioume to clean up. Yung didn’t slow down on the pavement and we flew into town, a big Coca Cola sign welcoming us to Timbuktu (yes, really). We saw the bank on the way into town and it was just before 3 p.m. and we booked it back down the exposed street to the bank. Unfortunately for us, the bank closed at 11 am, but to our surprise the they had just installed an ATM. Even better, the ATM was in an air conditioned with a beautiful tiled floor which was ruined when our tears turned to mud as they rolled down our dusty cheeks. We quickly realized that we once again out of luck. The ATM was inoperable, the bank was closed, the Western Union was in the bank, and we had 20,000 cfa (50 USD) left, so much for catching a break. Oh and by the way, it would cost us 60,000 to get the closest ATM – if it worked.

Mopti to Somewhere that wasn’t Timbuktu

After our meal, more 50 kilogram bags of millet, nuts, and more millet were added to the hull of the boat. The pirogues are designed to be long, narrow, and carry a large amount of goods. In fact, they are so loaded down with cargo that the sides of the ship only extend several inches above the water line. On top of the cargo they stacked a full load of people that lay over the sacks however they could fit. Once everything was loaded we shoved off, but of course we were grounded. No one thought that if you added 3,000 kilos to a boat that was sitting in a couple of inches of water that it might get grounded. No matter, at this point it was painfully clear but in the end was little more than a nuisance.

Freeing the stuck boat and polling it out into the river Niger was an escape that we wanted more than anything, but it was tempered by the notion that once on the river we were more trapped than before. We got into the current and with the motor chugging, it helped pulled us away from the grasp of Mopti. There were at least 20 people on board and I didn’t know how many of which were the ones harassing us in Mopti. The hearsay was that the trip was to take three days to Kuriome about 20 km from Timbuktu and we were hoping to get there on Thursday hitching a ride to Timbuktu on the same day. We had to to get to Timbuktu before Friday noon so that we could get to the bank. Between not being able to get money and the hecklers and the boat ride and the fact that only one of us could even get money things were looking pretty tight. If we didn’t get to that bank on Friday before it closed, we were pretty much out of luck. That wouldn’t be a problem though, ’cause we had a whole day extra to make the trip than we needed. All we had to do now was sit back and try not to go insane sitting on a boat for three days with nothing to do but read and fight for space.

The first day we were comfortable, though the concept of having to relying on the rations we bought in town had not yet hit us. We looked at our stash and divvied it up and wondered how long the bread would stay edible, certainly not long. The pack of cashews were going to have to wait until we were in dire straits as a shot of energy for the final push. Looking back, I’m not sure how much energy were in that packet of nuts divided by three people, but it didn’t matter then. We had enough sardines to have two a day each for the last two days and then two shares of mango drink mix. We set our minds to ration mode and let the river take us away to our destiny, however horrible it would be. Now, if you don’t know about ration mode maybe someday you’ll learn. Suffering comes from want, as the Buddhists say, so if you tell yourself your not going to get much to eat and you have no control over it then there is no reason to be bothered with suffering. The whole zen thing can be very handy in situations where you’re not going to be comfortable and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. It’s also handy if you’re bull-headed and just don’t want to give the boat owner the pleasure of seeing you break. I’d be in pretty damn bad shape to accept any rice of his, and I think Andrew thought the same.

The grass mats were rolled up along the sides of the boat and the milky way shown into the boat. The light of the moon glistened off of the river’s surface and the mellow drone of the diesel engine made the scene surreal. Rolling over to enjoy the view, I dragged my feet in the water and wondered if I was trolling for crocodiles. I pulled my toes back in and fell asleep with all the others, squished in between sacks of grain and wooden uprights that kept the roof on top of us.

Morning came early and it was more of the same, long, wide river bank, people fishing from their pirogues and boats traveling up and down the river. I knew this was the was the magical time when the newness of the river life was still alive in me and before I went mad from inactivity and boredom. It wasn’t long until clouds gathered in the sky ushering in the rainy season which was permitting us to travel along the river. One minute it was sunny and the next rain was hammering the boat and winds were ripping off the plastic and straw mats that were intended to keep the cargo dry. By the way, we weren’t the cargo, the grain was the cargo. The rest of us were just refugees that they let ride along for some extra cash. That being the case, we all had to do what we could to keep the cargo dry. It took all the strength I had to keep my mat down while holding on to the edge of a tarp over the bow. The wind ripped the coverings right out of my hand time and time again. Rain was pouring down and the wind whipped up waves so big that they rolled right over the sides of our boat. One boy manned the bucket trying to keep us afloat, while the women and children huddled in the center of the boat and the rest of us did what we could to keep the rain out.

After 45 minutes the rain passed and we were sopping wet and surprisingly cold. I had to put on a fleece pull-over in July in Africa! We pulled anchor and chugged onward passing hippopotamuses along the way. By now I started to notice that some of our occupants weren’t the healthiest people I’d been around. One guy sat on the edge of the boat and stared at the horizon for hours, only broken by fits of coughing. He handed me a rolled up x-ray and it showed lots of scarring of the lungs (I think). Not speaking his language I didn’t know what to say. Even if I did speak his language, what do you say to a guy that has tuberculosis and no money. He knew he was dying, I knew he was dying, and there wasn’t a damn thing that could be done about it. I indicated that I understood. I don’t think he was looking for help, but maybe just wanted to explain his situation.

The next guy was moaning and eventually got me to look at him. We had a great med kit that Andrew had assembled over two years in the peace corp so I took a stab and being a doctor. These people were screwed anyway, so how bad could I mess up? Anyhow, I doubted that I’d get a malpractice suite from these folks. I had him open his mouth since his cheek was swollen and with a flashlight and I poked around while Matt looked for a reaction. It didn’t take long to find that he was missing a tooth and that there was exposed bone, I think it is referred to as a dry socket. For that there was nothing I could do, except relieve the pain and make him try to clean it. I gave him a salt wash with some rehydration tablets I chewed up and gave him some pain meds. I knew he had to invigorate the gums to grow back and flossing was the only thing I could think of, but that wasn’t going to happen. It also didn’t help that this people couldn’t even speak the national language, French. Not that I could speak French but at least I would be able to communicate to him that I couldn’t speak French in French, because that I could say.

Those were numbers one and two, number three was a little more obvious with his symptoms. He started off by groaning, none of us ever knew what was going on, so at first this was just another one of those weird things you didn’t even try to understand. Eventually it got worse and before long this man was vomiting over the edge of the boat every ten to fifteen minutes. This continued most of the day and everyone pretty much ignored him. While I lay on my sack of grain reading Morte D’Arthur, our friend took to vomiting. As the filth floated by my head I noticed it was blood. By that evening I was sure the guy would be dead. The vomiting continued and the moaning grew louder. I couldn’t possibly imagine him vomiting as much as he did and thought he has to run out of blood to vomit eventually. Though I toyed with the notion that his death would make him less annoying, I really didn’t want to sleep next to a cold cadaver. I was already having nightmares from sleeping next to strange Africans holding onto my calf while I spooned another in the cramped quarters of the boat. I didn’t think it could get too much tighter, but having a dead man taking up space on my designated grain sack would make for a long night.

By this time Matt was on a steady diet of Ciprofloxacin, using it as a preventative rather than a cure, and any diagnosis he had for us involved Cipro. Andrew and I didn’t have a better idea and Cipro, an antibiotic, seemed to be appropriate if he could keep it down. Ironically, a woman from the back of the boat came to nurse him giving him lots of fluids to drink, namely river water. Obviously, there wasn’t any kind of connection made between drinking water down diarrhea and vomiting blood. Hey, water’s healthy and natural right? I’ve seen Hindu’s drink some god awful water just down stream of a crematorium where the ashes are dumped directly into the river, but they had religion on their side. The logic went something like this: This river is holy, therefore it cannot be polluted because it is a sacred creation of god. Since god cannot be polluted, neither can the river. These people were not Hindu, they were Muslim, with very strict dietary standards. One such standard is the one that doesn’t permit the ingestion of pork. Why, because it is unclean. Am I the only one that sees the insanity? On a side note, a friend of mine, Houman, is Muslim and has eaten pork. One of the Moroccan locals asked him once if it was as bad as it was believed to be. Houman thought for a moment and replied “I’m not going to lie, bacon is fucking delicious”. Needless to say, that did not go over well.

By day three our rations were exhausted, except for Matt’s. Somehow he had two cans of sardines left, which made Andrew and I jealous. “Dear god” I prayed, “please let us make it to Korioume tonight so that I don’t have to watch Matt eat his cans of sardines while I am left hungry”. As we have all been told, god works in mysterious ways. Personally I think he is a bit of an asshole, because he only grants you a part of your prayers and it generally leaves you in the lurch. You have to be very direct with god and if you are lucky enough to get a response, it’s usually off the mark by a bit. I know he’s not stupid, so it must be intentiona, maybe he is just hard of hearing. At any rate it is obvious that god’s communication skills are lacking. Oracles, burning bushes, what the hell, what’s wrong with email? Come on get with times man. Anyhow, this was no exception and one of the reasons I keep prayer to minimum thinking that if you don’t bother god, he won’t bother you.

By now it was getting dark on the third day, the day we were supposed to arrive in Korioume. I was starting to lose hope and setting my mind to “you aren’t going to see any food for a while” mode. Off in distance radio towers loom on the horizon. This has got to be it, we decided. When we got to shore, it was eventually suggested that we got off. “Great” we thought, “this is it, one cheap taxi ride and we’ll be in Timbuktu”! Oh boy were we wrong.

Bamako to Mopti

“You want dinner? That’s going to be another 2,000 cfa per day” said our boat boy, trying one more time to take advantage of us. “You have to eat something” he said after a day of refusing his offers. What the boy didn’t realize is that we were prepared for this and had bought meager rations just in case something like this happened.

It had been a long day and night and day before that. We left Bamako, the capital of Mali and were on our way to Timbuktu, a trip that was historically known for its difficulty. Many explorers had given their lives to get to Timbuktu in the 1800’s and some of those that finally made it never made it back home. I hoped it would be easier for us, but I wanted a bit of the adventure that they endured. I would be definitely disappointed if it was just an easy bus ride across a paved road to Timbuktu, but it also wasn’t something I was ready to die for either. The journey had to justify the reputation of Timbuktu, at least somewhat, and for us it did.

The River Niger flows across Mali and is the traditional trading route of the country. It’s the reason Timbuktu became as famous as it is because Timbuktu is the link between the desert and the river. The river giving access to the rest of Africa and the desert with its trade goods such as salt made it an ideal place for trade between Sahel and the Sahara. Timbuktu isn’t what it once was, but it’s still there and feels like the border of the wild Sahara, go any further and you’re on your own.

Getting to Timbuktu wasn’t all that easy either. We had a plan to take a bus to Mopti, on the banks of the Niger and from there take a long, narrow boat, called a pirouge, to a town called Korioume. From there it was just a matter of catching a 10-15 km ride to Timbuktu. The boat ride was to take three days, the bus 12 hours, and maybe a half hour for the ride from Korioume. We estimated four days minimum to get to Timbuktu and our only time constraint was reaching the bank in Timbuktu for our cash advance, at 17:00 Friday. No problem.

After three days, Bamako was wearing on us. We couldn’t find any good street food and it was pretty boring. Matt was making rounds to the Russian Embassy trying to get a Visa and Andrew was trying to get a real passaport at the American Embassy. They were both getting nowhere fast. Now, Bamako isn’t that bad of a town but it sure isn’t gorgeous. We all went together to the embassies the first time and it took us awhile to find the American embassy. Apparently they moved and forgot to tell anyone. We finally roll up and damned if it’s not the most audacious building in Mali, a true palace. Huge, manicured, palatial! Matt started singing the theme song to the movie Team America. It goes something like this, “America, fuck yeah. Here to save world, yeah!”. The song was a perfect fit for the scene in front of us. If only they had loud speakers surrounding that place.

Ironically, but not surprisingly, no one at the gate of the embassy spoke English, only French and Bambara. They were helpful enough to give us the paperwork to apply for U.S. citizenship, needless to say we weren’t allowed in. What a let down, because I really wanted to piss on a starving homeless person through the fence of the palace. No matter, I’d get close enough to that in Timbuktu.

To pass the time we decided to hit up a bar or two just to see what they were like. We heard that the night clubs were really something, but didn’t have the clothes or the desire to walk to the northern end of town. Instead we decided to take a short walk to a place called the Appalossa known for it’s expatriate crowd and seedy waitresses. Four hours later we found it and were sure we’d stepped into heaven because of their powerful air conditioning. We each ordered a local cheap beer and sat at the bar and we each were assigned an attractive and infinitely attentive waitress.

Now, I like good service, but it gets a little unnerving when you’ve got a girl filling your glass after every sip and staring and smiling at you in between sips. I figured that if we bought them drinks they would leave us alone and that was probably my biggest blunder of the trip, I really don’t know what I was thinking. I guess that I couldn’t think of anything else. Needless to say, they were ecstatic that I wanted to buy them drinks and guess what? The attentiveness did not decline. In fact now they started talking to us and told us they were from Cote D’Voire. It wasn’t but two minutes before I picked up the word marriage in French being thrown around. “Warning, warning, warning” was screaming through my head so loud I couldn’t hear what my girl was saying. I looked at my beer and it was still half full. That was likely the first time in history that “half-full” was a pessimistic statement. Soon my hand was being searched for a ring and not finding one, my girl wanted to know if I had any children. The air conditioning felt good, but I’m not sure if I felt anymore comfortable than outside in the sweltering heat. In fact, I think I was sweating more inside.

We told the ladies about our plans to travel to Timbuktu thinking that would turn them off, but no. They swooned as if I we were talking about going to the French Riviera. These were not the type to enjoy the traveling we were about to embark on, so I was kind of confused. They obviously wanted to be taken along and they didn’t care where. We finshed up and to leave we had to promise them we’d be back the next night, which we had absolutely no intentions of doing. Maybe when I’m sixty five and scummy I’ll go back in there with swank clothes flashing a 20 dollar bill and get my self a hot desperate girl from Cote D’Voire. Of course by then, the dollar will be so devaluated that there will be guys from Africa picking up girls in our bars by flashing a 20 cfa note and promising to take them back to Sierra Leone or Ghana or whatever Podunk country they’re from.

Monday afternoon we attempted to get on a bus to Sevare which was only a couple hundred kilometers away but no buses were going there, is what we were told. However there were buses to Mopti which left at around 15:00 and were to arrive at seven the next morning. Perfect, we thought, now we won’t have to get a hotel room. We were very hungry and decided to spend the time we had looking for food. We saw several stands around the bus station, but none that Matt was willing to eat at. Andrew and I were hungry enough that we didn’t care.

Leaving Matt behind, we walked up to one of the stands and asked for two servings of whatever was in the pot. Someone comes up to us and beckons us to sit. As expected the lady ladles out slop into a plate and Andrew and I wait anxiously. She hands the plate to her daughter, who then starts eating it. Ok, no problem we’re certainly next. Again, as expected she dips her ladle into the mush and loads a plate. Instead of passing it to us, she eats it. Hmmmm…we think to ourselves, maybe she didn’t understand. She continues to ignore us for another five minutes and we get up and leave to go to the next and last vendor.

Unlike our other host, this one is actually responsive. She actively proclaims that she can’t understand us, that she doesn’t speak French. Well, ok, its fair enough that she doesn’t understand French, but this very basic communication. You don’t even need language. The scene is a follows, there is a food stand, there is a pot of food, there are plates and forks. All of a sudden the scene changes when two people walk up to the food stand and motion at the pot of food. Gee, I wonder what they could possibly want? Well, it doesn’t take a genius to figure this out, my dog Thunder would have no problems understanding, so really, what’s the deal. After an unsuccessful attempt at buying slop we were out of options at the bus station.

In fact, this was the second attempt. The first was when we tried to buy a drink and we were desperate almost to the point of panic. We walk in and say we want 3 drinks. Fine, the guy opens the door to the refrigerator what kind do you want, he asks. Andrew looks inside the refrigerator and the guy closes it. He asks again, “what kind do you want?”. Andrew says, “let me see what you have”, the guy closes the door again. “What kind of drink do you want” he propositions us again.

I wasn’t an active part of this conversation, but I was listening and getting irritated. I find it helpful for my own sanity to be aware but be as involved as little as possible. I learned this from working in state government, where many of the people you have to work with are just as frustrating. I have little patience for inefficiency, and my patience was wearing thin. Andrew looks at me and says “what do you want to drink”. I replied to him and the shack’s employee, “I don’t give a fuck what kind of god damn drinks we get as long as we fucking get them now!”. I think Matt was thinking the same thing, though if asked I don’t think he would be so perverse. So the dude gets us three sodas and puts them on the table and promptly walks away to ask the shack’s owner some questions. The bottles still have the tops on, so we can’t drink them. I feel conflicted, between falling on the floor from my on-coming heat stroke and the desire to break someone’s neck.

We continued on our quest for food, really not a big thing to ask for with cash in our pockets and being in the biggest city in Mali. We stroll down the street in the mid-day sun fairly unhappily. We do come across someone with potential that is very friendly. Though she didn’t speak French she still figured out what we wanted, amazing. She had a large wok with fried bananas and fries and we asked her to fix us a sandwich, which she did. But for some reason she missed the fried banana and what we got was a fry sandwich with oil and salt. Now I have always made fun of Taco Bell, since they really only use a couple of ingredients to make all of their menu choices. It’s really amazing. But, this was beyond Taco Bell. This woman had essentially lowered the bar to one ingredient, that being flour. I was really happy she splurged and dribbled oil over our fries. Now to find some bloody water!

We caught the bus and drove through the night, a splendid idea in Africa, since even if the air conditioning works, it’s not turned on and too many times your not moving so no air flow. The bus was a fairly late model Mercedes, and I guess people associate Mercedes with speed. That’s an ok assumption because Mercedes cars are made to run at high speeds on the Autobahn. Now, notice the two key words in the last sentence. In case you missed them here they are: cars and autobahn, neither of which we had in Mali. To a bus driver with dreams of running the Nurnburg race track, those are just minutiae. To me there is a big difference between racing a Mercedes bus and racing a Mercedes car. For god’s sake, it’s a bus. Bus or not, Mario Andreti at the helm wasn’t going to hear of it. We shaved four hours off of our drive time and I can tell you that bus was getting punished. Andrew coyly asked me after the race, I mean ride, was over. Did you sleep through that whole ride or did you notice how fast we were going?”. He said that bus was shuddering from being pushed so hard in a couple of the straight a ways. Personally, I was more concerned with corners, the passing, and the running off the road than the straight a ways.

One of the high points of that ride was call to prayer. By the mere act of pulling off the side of the road for 15 minutes, I really think call to prayer has saved thousands of lives. Five calls to prayer per day times 15 minutes equals one hour and fifteen minutes of no drive time. Multiply that times all the drivers in northern and western Africa and the average number of accidents per minute for the region and you’ve saved some serious lives.

It was dark and the rainy season was moving in. In the distant wild lightning storms were painting the sky purple and warm winds were whipping across the Sahel. Although, I’m dubious about organized religion in general, it seemed wildly appropriate to pray. I wonder how many people were praying that our wannabe race car driver wouldn’t drive us to a fiery death? My guess is that it was a pretty high percentage and maybe, just maybe that’s why we arrived alive.

At three o’clock A.M. we arrived in Mopti, after a stop guess where? Sevare, the place we couldn’t get a bus ticket to because “no buses are going there today”. This foiled our plan. Thinking we’d get there at 7 a.m. we planned to go straight to the boats and start our negotiations. Andrew and I weren’t willing to spend the money on a room for three hours, but Matt was. We took him to a place where he got a room complete with air conditioning., pretty swank. There was no way I was going to pay 40,000 cfa for a hotel room and if I was, I would be staying at least 24 hours without leaving. Matt didn’t care and Andrew and I found a nice tree on the bank of the river to sleep under. This worked out well, because just before dawn people started to wander by, waking us up for our worst day ever.

Negotiating deals in Africa is never fun and we always had to mentally prepare ourselves. It’s similar to border crossings, you pretty much know you’re in for a battle and that you are going to lose, its just a question of how badly you’ll lose. With plans of attack flowing through our heads we made the walk to the town of Mopti. Just as we enetered there was a man selling egg sandwiches. The fry sandwich had long since lost its affectiveness, so we were happy to see a replacement. We sat down and ordered up two sandwiches and two coffees. We were delighted when the “chef” brought out a full sized baggette and asks us how big we wanted our sandwiches. After he broke it in half Andrew and I let out girlish giggles. This sandwich was going to be huge! Once again we made an error in our calculation based on a bad assumption. We assumed that the filling would be proportional to the bread. What we got was two small fried eggs in a boat of dry bread. Our coffee came to us with gloppy, artificial, milk/sugar/creamer, vitamin mix dripping off the side, all presented to us by our proudly smiling chef. The coffee additive literally wanted to make me vomit, just the feel of the improperly mixed glop sliding down your throat was enough, but it also oozed onto your lips. Not surprisingly, the flies loved it and it was chore not to swallow them as we tried to wash down a half baggette of dry bread with it. I can’t speak for Andrew, but I was pretty sure that “Uncle Ralph” was going to be stopping by for a visit.

With a feeling of accomplishment we left our eating establishment with clean plates and punished stomachs. We had stepped up to the challenge and triumphantly eaten breakfast, a bold and daring move in the battle to see through a day in Mali, where the food is bad and the rats are scared. One more meal and we’d be in the home stretch with only dinner barring the way to freedom.

Lunch, however, was not in the cards for us that day but as bad as it would probably be, it would be a damn sight better than what we were in for. What were about to experience was akin to having your hands and legs duct taped together and being thrown out to the mosquitos on the tundra of the North Slope in summer. I’ve always been anti-torture, but I’ve also understood why someone would be inclined to perform it. As the old saying goes, “desperate times require desperate measures”. To this day I would give my first-born child to have a day with these characters in Guantanamo. In case the Domestic Espionage Program (DEP) runs across my blog and to help bring my dream into reality, I am sure I heard them something about their terrorist intentions, really sure. To help the DEP find my blog I am providing them with the following key words: anthrax, dissent, high explosives, al quaeda, anti-western sentiment, allah, one true god, box cutters, sharia, jihad, free thinking. Hey DEP guys, let me know if you need help finding these bastards who work tirelessly against Jesus, mother, and apple pie. You can reach me at HYPERLINK “mailto:torstenaernst@gmail.com” torstenaernst@gmail.com, I have experience with nun chucks and I extensively tortured my brother when I was younger.

At a half hour after sunup, we were at the negotiating table on the banks of the Niger River (by the way, it’s pronounced nee-jair you white supremist, Nazi sympathizer). Our friend Soundouce made the trip a year earlier and told us that if we really tried, we could get the pirouge for 10,000 cfa including meals. They said no, it would be 20,000 cfa, 15,000 cfa without meals. We eventually got the ride for 15,000 cfa with meals, done! “we leave at ten o’clock” they said and I rushed to wake up Matt and see if he wanted to come, since he was having already having strong second thoughts about Africa. Cinvincing him to leave his air conditioned room and continuing the trip wasn’t easy.

Yes indeed, everything was going swell. We hurried to the boat and then it started. Our “guide” Seck took us to get food, even though we didn’t need help. Funny, because everything seemed very expensive. The bill for a tuna, a pack of cashews, 2 packets of drink mix, and artificial cheese came in at over 30 dollars U.S. I was horrified and by switching to tuna in water brought the price down by half. Then we had to buy water. Water was sold in bottles, but was very expensive. Instead, 500 ml water bags are on sale. Secks recommendations was that we buy a 40 pack. His friend wanted 4,000 cfa which we thought was high, so we did the math. 40 water packs for which we were paying 50 cfa a piece came out to 2,000 cfa. Somehow, if you buy in bulk you get charged twice as much. Oh wait, no that’s if you’re white, you get charged as much. We were definitely white, but we also weren’t stupid, so we said no way.

At this point, you may be asking yourself, “why did they buy food if they bargained to get food on the pirouge”. Well, that is an excellent question and I will tell you why. The reason is that we’d played these games for two months and anytime you were in a vulnerable position and anyone noticed, you were in for some good old fashioned raping. So by buying food we reduced our vulnerability when we were on the boat and someone said something like “You want dinner? That’s going to be another 2,000 cfa per day”. It’s important to note that we didn’t buy lots of food. Just starvation rations so that we could make it.

We made it to the boat and waited on shore for the call to depart. Sitting on the bank made us vulnerable to jewelry vendors and much to our horror, Matt decides to buy jewelry and acknowledge the vendors existence. Andrew and I knew that once the flood gates were breached we had had it. “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here” read the sign we passed under as Matt opened his mouth.

As Matt became under assault from the land, I was flanked from the south. The captain’s son saw the chance to make some quick cash. Before he opened his mouth I knew he was going to be a problem. He had one or two compatriates in tow and asked me if we had matts to sit on. I said “no, and we don’t need any”. Somehow it turned into a thirty minute argument and the guy was not being pleasant, but he was being very forceful. There are only so many ways to say “no, I don’t want to buy your stupid matt. I don’t care if it’s hand woven and that I can use it as a prayer matt when I get home. I don’t want it for the boat trip and I sure as hell don’t want to drag it across Western Africa. No!” What really pissed him off was when I ignored him. He was spitting mad, and finally said that if we didn’t buy the matts then we couldn’t ride on the boat. I had no option but to say yes. I get a break from him for five minutes, then he says you have to buy tea, 1 kilo leaf tea for the mosques we’d be going to. I went through the same thing with the tea as for the matts.

By now it was past 10 am and we were going nowhere fast. The sun was out and we had been harrased for hours. We still needed bread but anytime one of us left three of the hecklers tried to lead us to their friends place and give us a special deal. After several more hours we had progressed to yelling at them, but they kept coming up with more mandatory items to buy. Then they moved us to the boat around noon and we hoped for a respite, which we got for a while. Soon, the hecklers realized that we were on the boat and gradually hopped from one boat to another until we had a boat full of people all haggling us at once. We didn’t notice, but only a few grain sacks had been loaded and the twenty passengers were no where to be seen.

I finally conceded to buying the tea and when that guy left another one took his place. Again, trying to sell me tea. I told him I just bought tea, he said “no you didn’t”. I said yes I did. He said no you didn’t. I said YES, I did, in fact I paid 2,000 cfa for it and bought a kilogram. He said “you can’t buy it in kilogram measures, you’re lying”. Then he started mocking me and doing the copy cat thing, remember from 2nd grade…yeah.

Matt and Andrew were not having it any easier. The jewelry salesman were still hounding Matt and had followed him on to the boat and Andrew was screaming at the guy that kept following him around. It was three o’clock now and it had been going on like this since nine in the morning. Needless to say, our patience was wearing thin and our hecklers kept bringing more and more of their friends while we were trapped on the boat. These guys knoew exactly how far to push, Andrew and I would have liked nothing more for them to have crossed the line making these physical confrontations, but they just wouldn’t go that far.

Of course we tried explaning it to them rationally, that we only had so much money. That we needed it for food and travel. Their response? “just go to the bank” as if it were magic money tree, not to mention you can’t just to a bank and get money there. Then we explained to them that need to stop following us and leave us alone. There response? “you are as free as the wind in the desert” or “you are as free as the fish in the river”. “You can do anything you want, you don’t have to buy anything” and without hesistation they got back to harassing us.

At around four o’clock P.M. the captain’s son came back aboard with my tea. He had a look on his face as if he had run out of things to push on us, and then I saw the light bulb in his mind turn on. You have to pay for baggage” were the words that came confidently rolling out of his mouth. “yes, yes, all passengers but you have paid for baggage.” My reply “Fuck you, pack your shit Matt, we are getting out here and taking a 4×4. Screw you guys, give us our money back now.” Matt packed his stuff and we got up and all of a sudden things changed. I told Andrew to tell the captain and the whole place came to a halt. “Allright, allright, keep your fucking money” said the captain’s son. Soon our buddy Seck came and said we would not be bothered anymore. We would get all the food and tea we needed on the trip, we just had to ask. He and another guy hung out with us and things were much better.

At this point we had time to watch life go by for the locals from wyithin our covered pirouge. Many, many unsightly things that made us wonder how anyone survived. For instance While one lady was washing her clothes in shallows of the filthy river, her child would be defecating in the water just to the side of her, while a man on a boat takes a drink and begins brushing his teeth not 15 feet away. We were watching about 40 feet of shoreline intensly, but by the looks of it, that had been happening up and down the length of that river from source to mouth.

Days later we would be sitting next to a man who was violently vomiting blood every 15 minutes for an entire day. As insensitive as it was, I thought to myself “what did you expect”. It made me question the type of aid foreign countries were providing to Africa. Infrastructure improvements, environmental programs, and medical treatment are all good things but what they really need is some education in basic sanitation. You can be poor but still be relatively sanitary. It seems a much easier and effective way to treat a lot of Africa’s ailments. Not that Sahara isn’t badly in need of rice paddies and flood irrigation, but that is another story.

After we threatened to jump ship, things calmed down for a while and we were even treated to a meal with the crew. Everyone gathered in the bow of the boat around a steaming bowl of rice decorated by a small fried fish. For an additional punch of flavoring a green sauce of what looked like finely chopped and cooked lettuce was added. Delicious it did not look like, but judging by the three ingredients it certainly couldn’t be that bad. You had rice, check, you had a little fish, check, and some mild looking green stuff, check. As I took my first steaming handful, the hidden ingredient suddenly hit me like a hurricane but it was too late. If you haven’t figured it out, the hidden ingredient was good old fashioned river water, not that new fangled, yuppie, clean water, stuff.

For purposes of diplomacy, I was forced to bite, swallow, and smile. I wondered if this was revenge on part of the crew. The horrifying part of the meal was that it tasted like the material people were dumping into the river, and I’m not talking about the used laundry water either. I knew it was bad when I saw the look on Andrew’s face after he had taken his first bite and he actively refused to eat more than was absolutely necessary. Andrew is like a dog when it comes to eating, he eats anything and a lot of it, so that was a bad omen. There is a saying that goes like this, “it’s a huge shit sandwich and we’re all going to have to take a bite”. This was similar, except that it wasn’t a sandwich, but yes, we all had to take a bite.

Nouachoutt to Dakar

Ever wondered what it would be like if you had your passport, all your credit cards, and all of your traveling cash stolen at the very beginning of a long trip? If you have, my good friend Andrew Cyr can fill you in because it happened to him.

After an all night bus ride from Casablanca to Taghazoute, three of us got surf boards and surfed into the late afternoon. After packing up, Andrew realized that his bag with all his important documents and money was gone and nothing else was taken. We were meeting two others in Inzigen that night so that we could catch the transport trucks into Mauritania, but traveling is hard to do when you’ve got no ID or money, and entrance visas also are great to have. So, Andrew went back to Rabat to straighten things out which meant he’d be behind us.

We had spent more time than we’d expected in Mauritania, which is actually a hell of a place, giving Andrew Cyr a chance to get closer. Now Mauritania makes it difficult on visitors because it has what is known as a closed currency. The currency, named Ougias, cannot be brought into the country or be taken from the country and the entire country only has two towns with banks. Also, nowhere in Africa can one use credit cards. In some countries there are ATMs, but not in Mauritania. The only option you have is to bring cash and enough to last you for your entire stay. If you run out of cash, you’ve got nothing…absolutely nothing.

One guy I met came to the country with three thousand dollars strapped to his body. For me, that would be an unnerving stay. In a land with average annual income of $1,800 dollars people would come from far and wide to kill you. There would be no salvation for you, if the word got out.

As convenient as a closed currency is, what is even more fantastic is that the banks won’t exchange currency. In review, you have to use cash because credit cards aren’t accepted. You can’t bring Ougias into the country since it is a closed system, therefore you have to acquire them in country. Banks won’t exchange currency, so you can’t get the local currency even in country and no one accepts foreign currency. Where does that leave you, well that was answered by my traveling companion Andrew Walsh in Noudibou.

Andrew couldn’t believe that you couldn’t exchange money except through vagabonds in the desert that storm your car at the border, so he went on a mission. The mission consisted of two tasks, (1) find a bank, and (2) exchange money. Amazingly he found a bank, marched in and said in broken French, “I want to exchange money”. Without hesitation, the clerk answered back “you must do this at the Marche Noir”. “Ok” Andrew said, “where’s that” not realizing that Marche Noire was not just another market but the Black Market. The clerk pointed out the door and said “there”. Though I’m not sure, I think Andrew figured it out before he started asking people on the street directions to the Marche Noire.

Needless to say, the Mauritanian black market is a shady place. Further, it’s pretty intimidating for a foreigner. Luckily I had no money so I didn’t have to experience it, but Andrew pointed it out to me as we passed by in a cab. He cussed at them as we drove by, since he just realized that he’d gotten a bad exchange rate. “Really” I thought inwardly, “you got a bad exchange rate from a couple guys on a street corner holding grocery bags of cash in the middle of Mauritania, who would have figured”?

I digress, this portion of the journey was to get us from Nouakchott, Mauritania to Dakar, Senegal and in the process meet up with Cyr, somehow. Since money was a problem, we had to boogie through Mauritania and reach an ATM in St. Louis, Senegal as quickly as possible. We spent two days in Nouakchott to get Visa’s for Mali (they cold, free water at the embassy…heaven!) and see the fishing port, which really was spectacular. Eventually we hired taxis to take us the rest of the way to the Senegal Border to a town called Russo.

Russo has a very bad reputation so we were expecting the worst. During the taxi ride I rehearsed how I would react to the bribes they would demand of us using the tips of the Scottish camel herder I spoken to the night before (don’t ask). Some of the techniques include sitting down and screaming and if all else fails, taking off all your clothes. Apparently the last one works like a charm. For the four of us getting into Senegal was easy, though getting out of Russo wasn’t. Later I would talk to Cyr, who didn’t have such a pleasant experience. They border officials took his passport and made him a wanted criminal in the computer system. That was an effective technique and since Cyr and the friends he was with didn’t know to strip, they paid the “entrance tax”. I don’t think they are wanted criminals anymore, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if they forgot to delete them out of Mauritania’s Most Wanted database. Try to explain that one to a bored solider at a road block at 2 A.M., in Arabic.

After paying our “guide” 100 Ougia and dealing with several hours of harassment, we arrived in St. Louis and it was dark again. The taxi drivers that were going to take us to the old town took 14 minutes to decide where the Auberge was that we wanted to stay in. We pushed off and within 2 minutes were obviously going the wrong direction. Another late night taxi ride through hell and high water was upon us. We picked up a friend of the taxi driver to help us out and he gave up. Then the driver wanted to drop us off at at a 3 star hotel, we refused and he didn’t understand. Africans think that if you are white, you have so much money that cost is not a factor. It is impossible to explain that we also have limited resources. If I sleep in a 3 star hotel, it effectively reduces the time I can spend in Africa by 3 days…comprendo? We drove patterns through the town until we found what were looking for and got out. The driver said, that will be 10,000 cfa…funny because we had agreed on 1,000 cfa. Another frustrating thing is the lack of accountability. If a taxi driver gets lost he will charge you more because it took him longer than he had bargained for. This can become extremely annoying. We said no and he followed us nearly to our room shouting “you give me”. That night Houman nearly punched me in the face. He came back from the showers and I said “you give me” which made him think our dude was back. The first gut reaction from a pacifist was to throw down. That’s how annoying people can be.

We waited in St. Louis for a couple of days, found some families to stay with and eat with and hoped Cyr would catch up. I got an email that said he was in Dakhla with no ride prospects. Walsh and Aprile decided to head towards Dakar while Houman and I thought that an island retreat was in order. We caught a ride to Parc National Langue de Barbarie and spent two nights in a tent on a thin strip of an island with largely the entire coast to ourselves. The only requirement for staying at the campement was that we purchase dinner, which was expensive but also awesome. We wondered devilishly about how Walsh and Aprile were doing, knowing full well they were suffering while we ate our three course meal served under a lavish tent complete with wonderfully comfortable couches.

After a couple days, we made our way back via a ride on the “friendship bus”. It was an old bus with missing windows and the floor stacked with 50 kilo bags of salt and lots of riders. Everyone was super nice and showed us their babies, fish, and whatever else they had along. It was the best ride of the trip and only cost 200 cfa for two of us. We got in town in time to find out that Andrew was nowhere to be seen and we decided to hit Dakar the following day. In reality, Cyr was really close and would make it to St. Louis the day we left. C’est la vie.

In Senegal sheep were especially white and clean. on a Sunday we found out why. Sundays are sheep washing days, just like you’d see a Camaro parked out in a drive being washed every Sunday. When I say it’s like seeing folks wash their cars in the States, it’s actually exactly like that. They pull out the bucket, brush, and soap (which they don’t even use on themselves) and scrub their sheep down. I didn’t stick around long enough to see how they applied wax, but I am sure it was entertaining.

Getting to Dakar was fun. Again we got stuck in a bus with 40 or so people and took off for our five hour ride. Neither Houman or I had the luxury of having a back rest, so we kept ourselves occupied by focusing on our posture. The great thing about Senegal, for me, was gingimbre. Gingimbre was some sort of juice similar to ginger beer. At any rate, they’d put it in a plastic baggy and freeze it to sell to bus goers. This stuff was like antidote, cool, cheap, and damned tasty. People would pass it through the bus windows and you’d pass them 50 cfa, what a deal!

We plowed through the five hours got to Dakar and wanted to make it to a place called Yoff which looked to be 20 km from Dakar. Bargaining didn’t work and it only ended up being 10 km maximum. We got ripped but got to Yoff and talked some people into letting us sleep on the beach. We setup the tent and walked the beach. Returning around 10 p.m. we were all of a sudden no longer allowed to sleep on the beach and had to go to a nearby Auberge. We packed our tent and went for a walk. It’s always something. Some of the most simple things become ridiculously complex in this land.

The next days we waited for friends to arrive. Houman awaited Michael Kagan, I awaited Mathew Kerr, and we were both expecting Andrew Cyr. We stayed at the Auberge for 2 nights and then moved on. In those days we went surfing, did some snorkeling, and lazed around. It was an excellent time and occasionally we’d venture into the hectic margins of Dakar.

Across the Sahara in 48 Hours?

The big diesel truck rumbles to life, the driver flicks his lighter, takes a long draw from his hash pipe, and shifts into first gear. The smoke and faint smell of hashish drifts across the cab of the truck. The man next to me looks for my reaction and bellows out a loud, sinister laugh. It was then I knew that it was going to be a long, crazy ride across the frontier of the Western Sahara known for its mine fields, road pirates, and strong interest in independence. We are only hours from the town of Inezgane, the beginning of our trip through all of Western Sahara and on to Nouachott, Mauritania. A non-stop marathon born of a desire to reach West Africa, and ultimately Timbuktu, overland from Morocco.

There are four of us traveling this stretch together, three ex Peace Corp volunteers, whom I recently met, and me. We had awoken that morning at six A.M. to negotiate a ride in transport trucks, called cameos, carrying vegetables through to Nouachott. The sand of the Sahara is apparently lousy for farming, so vegetables are a big hit in Mauritania (especially delicious if you are used to a diet based on sand and camel hump) thereby making it worthwhile to drive carrots, grapes, and watermelons across many, many kilometers of desert.

From Nouachott on, we could use public transport, but for this stretch there was none. Private transport consisted of 4×4 ‘bush taxis’ out of Dakhla, the cameos, or hitchhiking. I’ve hitched a good deal in the U.S. and know that you spend a lot of time waiting for rides. Waiting for ride in the Saharan sun in July, no thanks. Using the cameos virtually guaranteed us one smooth ride for the entire stretch and we’d know the cost before setting out. The downside to all this was two fold. One, we’d not have much chance to experience the land we’d be driving through and two, we were at the mercy of the truck driver. I could already see pulling over in the most remote part of drive with the driver needing a bit more money…’or’ I could hear him say, ‘I can just drop you off here’.

“We’ll call you when we’re ready’, they said, and so they did. Like everything in Morocco, no one is in a rush until the bug hits them. Then it’s life and death, and so it was here. Two of us spoke arabic and two of us didn’t. I resisted when we split into two groups with the two non-arabic speakers traveling together, one was me. Though we had to be there right away, it would be another two hours before all the vegetables were loaded and we were off. Boxes of carrots were stacked, watermelons were placed one by one, and finally the covering and netting to hold everything in place was thrown over the top. This was tightened with a lever to pull the loops of netting over hooks mounted on the body of the truck using the full body weight of the workers. Much of the net was torn after all was completed.

We hopped in the truck and started our 48 hour journey through the Sahara desert. The truck had a bench big enough for three, a place behind the seat for sleeping and if we rotated positions regularly we’d feel little pain. It’s said that ignorance is bliss, and we were certainly ignorant, though I can’t say that we were blissful. We were ignorant in that we didn’t know when we would stop to eat or where we would sleep. We had heard some rumors that we’d stop at road houses where we would find a mattress to throw on the floor, but that was wrong.

It wasn’t but 10 km before we stopped to pick up another passenger and my dreams of comfort vanished. This guy happily took the coveted passenger seat and would have surely fought to the death to keep it, the time would come where I would seriously consider that challenge. Not knowing Arabic was a serious drag when my neighbor wanted to talk. He got frustrated when I couldn’t understand him, and trying to understand sentences in which I knew one word frustrated me. Occasionally we’d try to talk which invariably ended in a smile, then we’d look away in unison and roll our eyes wondering what we’d just discussed. Given the scenery I imagine that we were always conversing about either sand, camels, or maybe rocks.

We were told that we’d be in Nouachott in about 48 hours. I don’t think I ever truly believed it, but I tried to believe just so that I didn’t start the trip with a bad attitude. I knew that there would be times when I could no longer stay in that truck another minute, which would coincide with windows being rolled up and the air turned off in the comfort of our solar oven exposed to the noon day sun, all for our health. In Morocco, there is a wives’s tale, that folks buy into whole heartedly, which claims that cross winds make you sick. The effect of this is that windows stay rolled up and the air stays off. If they think that sickness is caused by a comfortable breeze, I wonder what they attribute heat stroke to? Being in the middle seat left me away from the window crank and completely powerless. At least I had the gear shift between my legs to keep me on my toes and distracted.

The driver told us he wouldn’t sleep until we got to Nouachott. That too was wrong, I realized this when we’d make a slight course adjustment on a straight road and head for the desert, but it was just the driver taking a quick nap induced by driving non-stop for 20 hours and a dose of some nice, relaxing hashish. We thought we’d stop for food, which we did. We ate once a day, and it wasn’t much. Quarter of a tagine for day one, quarter of a plate of grilled hamburger meat for day two and not a lot of water to go with it. So ignorance wasn’t bliss, but it was better than this.

Having cell phone reception meant that we could communicate with the other two travelers. They left before we did, but reported a flat tire. A bet was made that whoever crossed into Mauritania first would buy the others a round of beer. It didn’t occur to us that we’d still be in a strictly Muslim country once we arrived and therefore couldn’t even buy beer, bad bet for the winners. No matter, the race was on.The flat tire on the other rig gave us hope and we still had 36 hours in which anything could happen and it did. Two hours later we had a flat tire and our hearts sank. No one thought about the border crossing as the great equalizer.

My traveling partner for this part of the journey was Houman Saberi, an easy going fellow with great language skills. He made himself at home behind the seats while I road ‘bitch’ between the driver seat and the passenger seat…you know the spot with th stick shift between your legs and no room for you legs? At around 6 pm we mercifully got the flat tire, which let us get outside and get blood back into my legs. The ride so far was not without delay, in fact we had several. The fist and foremost being the road blocks. So far we counted nine. By the end of the next day, we had racked up twenty nine. They loved seeing a white boy riding in a transport truck through the Western Sahara headed for Dakar. Naturally they questioned me every chance they got, no matter that there buddy 15 km down the road, and his buddy before that asked me the same questions. “Passport, what are you doing here, where are you going, what is your occupation’ we the standard questions. They had a knack for dragging it out. Even if I was smuggling hash, these guys would never figure it out with these methods. It was basically just harassment and entertainment for the coppers. Maybe it even gave them the feeling of job satisfaction, not they accomplished anything.

That harassment turned the tables in my favor, because once the tire was fixed, they forced me to the back and gave me new instructions. “When we come to road block you go to sleep, you tell them you go to next town, and you did NOT pay for this ride’. After riding bitch for eight hours, I had no problems ‘pretending’ to be asleep. Occasionally I’d wake up only to find Houman sitting upright exactly as I had seen him hours before, and hours before that. No one wanted me up front so he was stuck. The following day, after watching the sunrise in the Sahara, we stopped for gas. I tried again to switch, but wasn’t allowed. I wasn’t until later that morning that Houman said he couldn’t take it anymore. It was once again my turn to suffer, and so I did.

The road followed the coast just a hundred meters or so from the edge of the sea. The coast was spectacular as the desert hit the ocean in a giant cliff line drastically marking the difference between the golden land and dark blue, rolling sea. Several times a river snaked its way out of the Sahara which cut through the cliff band entering the sea via a gorgeous but completely desolate beach garnished with flamingos wading into the outwash of the rivers.

There were two major towns on our trip through Western Sahara, Dakhla and Laayoune, we passed through Laayoune at around midnight on our first day, and was surprised to find it clean and well built, far from the wild west style town I was expecting. Dakhla, we didn’t pass through being on a peninsula away from the mainland, but it was close enough to see. It looked really nice. Beautiful ocean, stark white buildings, and awesome exposure to the sea. Definitely a place I’d like to visit.

We rolled along and finally hit the Moroccan border. Things were looking good that we would be in Nouachott sometime tomorrow before lunch. The border is desolate. A set of concrete buildings set in the middle of the Sahara. Moroccan officials love paper work and bureaucracy. I have little patience for this as is, but when you’re out in the Sahara with no shade, you loose whatever patience you had. I wrapped my long sleeve shirt around my head and sat down on the edge of the concrete platform and baked. Of course they make no predictions as to how long it will take, just give me your info and your papers and wait outside. No shade, Sahara, early afternoon, no water, and no one could care less. We suffered and maybe an hour later we had our stamp. We still had to go to the Gendarmes and sign out, which was fast and painless…I was confused. Don’t you need to know my mother’s cousin’s grandmother’s shoe size or something?

I worked my way to the truck and motioned to the driver that we were finally ready. Then I saw a terrifying sight. They were unloading the trucks one carrot box at a time, and we were third in line. Each truck takes at a minimum of two hours to unload and reload. Aside from having to sit around for several more hours, it also meant we’d get out of Morocco, but the boarder into Mauritania would be closed, leaving us in no-man’s land or hefty bribes to pay. The inspectors got bored and decided that one truck would be enough, that took them 2 hours of holding us up to decide.

We rolled off into the unpaved no-mans land between the two boarders. Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania don’t seem to get along very well. We crawled through the desert in first gear and picked routes as we went. It was slow, scenic, and frustrating, knowing that the boarder was only 10 km away but also another hour, and probably closing there gates while we tooled around in the desert. No-man’s land was full of blown out cars, trash, sand and surrounded by land mines. If you picked a bad route not only did you run the chance of getting stuck but also setting off a land mine. Rumor is that exactly that happened to a French motorcyclist not too long ago.

We hit the border and came to dead stand still. Aprile Leonardo and Andrew Walsh, our other traveling companions came to greet us, ‘bad news’ they said. We knew the news but we listened with heavy hearts as they said “They won’t let us through, at least not until we get our trucks searched’. W were looking at eight hours for our convoy of four. That was the good news, the bad news is that the men who do the searching won’t be here for at least 24 hours. No food, very little water, no blankets, no tent and stuck in Sahara for a minimum of 30 hours, best case scenario.

The problem was that the previous day they actually made 6 ton bust of hashish, in a truck just like ours, meaning that the border guards had just tasted blood and were eager for more. However if we were willing to pony up 5,000 Dirhams, equivalent to about 800 US dollars, we could pass no questions asked. Oh, that was per truck quote. If we had been carrying 6 tons of Hashish worth a fortune, we’d would have no problem getting through. Since we weren’t smuggling hash we’d have to be searched.

So there we were, no Hahish, 1/4 quart of water, no food, no blankets, no tent. Stepping gingerly through the desert to avoid land mines I scoured some abandoned vehicles and found the following: one snake, one hundred packages of ass cream (brand new and unopened), six longhorns mounted some leather contraption, and one beautiful mattress. When I returned and everyone saw my prize, I was offered 1000 cfa, which I proudly declined. Then I made a spectacle of how comfortable my mattress was. That sparked a mass migration to the desert. Truck drivers, riders, and all hoping to find the holy grail. I sat on my mattress and waited for the fireworks of someone tripping over a land mine.

We did have one option when a taxi driver appeared and offered us a ridiculously high cost ride to Nouadibou, which was out of the way and meant we’d forfeit the money we’d already spent to get to Nouchott. We decided collectively to stay in the desert, I arranged and closely guarded my mattress and had my knife handy. I knew without asking that people have been killed for much less in this ungodly place.

The sun began to set and the border officials formed a group, telling me that they we planning something. It wasn’t long until they called me over and threw some Spanish my way. “You can’t sleep here’ is what they said. I called April over since her Spanish was better. “So let me get this straight” I said to her, “we can’t go but we can’t stay”? No, no they said, you can go but the trucks must stay.

“Oh yeah, thats a completely different story’, I said to myself. “Thats perfectly reasonable’, I thought, sitting 500 km from my destination and 50 km from the nearest town. Night was approaching fast. “It is no problem’, said the border guard, ‘you take taxi’. Ah, and there it was, the driver of the taxi had been making friends while we were searching for bedding. By the way, logic does not work with cops, the insane, or customs officials.

We got 600 dirhams back from the truckers and said our good byes and let raping begin. Next stop border guards! Much, much, much to my surprise the boarder official was polite, intelligent, and efficient. He asked about the origins of our names and who we hoped to win the elections. I said Obama just because I didn’t want to explain that none of the candidates deserved to win. He also let me sit next to the machine gun propped against the wall. I was between the machine gun and him, which was a bad move on his part. My mind reeled with possibilities and I found it hard to concentrate on his questions. Luckily for him, I really was impressed by him and I’m generally reasonable, though some would argue otherwise.

Aside from a the misplacing of a passport by one of the crew, everything went smoothly. By now the sun had set and we worked our way through several more road blocks manned by surprisingly friendly folks…with machine guns. Nothing spells hospitality than a guy greeting you with a machine gun every five kilometers.

We arrived in Nouadibou and were chauffeured to a ‘cheaper’ Auberge than the one we had in mind. Unsurprisingly, it cost the same amount. To my delight tea arrived right away. I’m a sucker for Moroccan tea. The same was true the next morning, on the terrace. That buttered me up for the next question, ‘voudrais vous petit dejeuner avec pain e butter e marmalade’. “Oui, oui si vous plat’ I answered without hesitation. There was a cool breeze blowing through the palm growing above the terrace, the weather was perfect, I was being served food and tea. I was definitely in my happy place.

We had a schedule to make and so we blasted off that evening on a taxi to Nouachott. Some Moroccans promised us a ride, but after 1.5 hours of waiting, we gave up. Taxis are sold by the seat and somehow they calculate that a small body Mercedes 190 series has seven places. I think they arrived at this by a calculation of volume, not area. Three in the front and four in the back. Though physically possible, fitting seven folks in a taxi is nothing less than painful. I can say that four hip widths are longer than the back seat of one of these rigs, which means you have to ‘spoon’ the person next to you. Now if it was a taxi full of cheerleaders 500 km would pass by fairly fast, but I’m still waiting for that taxi ride. I’m fairly certain that if you die a martyr, you’ll get your fifty virgins, but you’ll all be in one taxi. Just another one of god’s hilarious jokes.

So yeah there we were blasting down the highway, desert all around broken by thee occasional hut, tree, or camel. Two hundred kilometers into the journey and we pull over, walk to one of the huts and step inside. Following the mandatory and exhaustive greeting. We sit down and are served a big bowl of camel’s milk which we pass around. Now I’ve had nasty traditional fare, so I was prepared to suppress my gag reflex and smile outwardly and say ‘mmm…delicious’ but damned if it didn’t taste good. It was sweet and very thin, nothing like I expected. We layed on couches buffering the walls and on the floor while several rounds of hot tea were served. Then came the meal. A nice plate of rice on a tray topped with a beautiful head of goat with knife sticking out of the skull. The host was kind enough to give us the majority of meat including lips, gums, and everything else that comes with a pressure cooked head. I did a good job of not seeing where the meat was being cut from.

We started down the road again and I fell asleep. After some time I became aware of some occasional heavy swerving, so did everyone else. The driver had become a zombie. He stared dead ahead and could not respond to questions or comments. In fact the only time he acted alive was when he ran off the road. That moment of clarity only lasted long enough to get us pointed in the right direction again. There are certainly many, many places that are worse than sailing off the road than the middle of the Sahara but hitting an on-coming truck would be nasty. What really made my blood run cold were the big, heavily loaded, oncoming trucks. Though there weren’t hundreds, there were enough to make me wish we would just run off the road and get good and stuck in the sand. God willing we’d have to spend the night there. I found myself looking for good places to run off the road and being disappointed when we didn’t. Damn I wish I’d have sprung for that evacuation insurance!

The process of avoiding death went like this; swerve into the left lane, one swerve into the right lane, once more into the oncoming lane, and a final last second swerve back into the right lane and whoosh the truck would skim by. This happened many times and when we finally got near Nouachott, we started to hit road blocks. A mixed blessing since they woke the driver up for a little bit but these guys were really interested why we were traveling at one o’clock in the morning through the stark desert of Mauritania. You know what? That’s a damn good question and one that isn’t so easily answered, especially to a solider that speaks only Arabic.

Well that was just the beginning, in addition to the many, many road blocks outside the city, the police had one on seemingly every intersection inside the city. We had two Auberge’s in mind, and couldn’t find either. After passing through the same road block three times you’d think they recognize you. Nope, ‘passport, sil vous plait’ they’d call to us. I couldn’t help but get a little irritated. We did find the Auberge by chance and called it a night.

Sixty four hours from Inezgane and we’d arrived in Nouachott tired, scared, and with a new appreciation for Moroccan public transport. Now for the road to Senegal, surely that would be easier!

Surfing Sheep and High Times in Morocco

It was warm, the skies were clear, the stars were out, and I wouldn’t ne spending the night in the mud hovel. I was on the northern fringe of the Sahara Desert against the walls of the High Atlas. It was 2 am and I was wondering what to do.

Two days earlier the rains pounded the roof of the mud hut and the winds were so strong that the powerlines to the village were regularly failing. With temperatures in the 40’s and water showering from the roof, it was clear that I under packed for cold weather. I huddled in my sleeping bag moving occasionally to avoid new streams of water coming through the roof. Tommorow, I decided, I am going to the mediterranean come hell or high water. Enough with life in the hovel.

I told Andrew I was leaving but he had another idea. He heard that the weather further south wasn’t too bad, so we planned a climbing trip to Todra Gorge. We packed our gear and started pedalling the 40 km to town.

The next day we jumped on a bus to Fez and then one to Tenerir. The bus finally left the Taza after baking in the hot sun. Buses in Morocco are older coaches from european countries with a twist. Anything considered an accessory no longer works. That means something important but not necessary (i.e. air conditioning) won’t work. That wouldn’t be terrible accept that the buses are designed to run with air conditioning, so the windows are sealed. Even when the bus is moving there is little relief from the heat. The killer is that while I am losing my mind from being far too hot, the Moroccans are wearing sweaters and jackets. Now I know that people adapt to their environment, but not even they can be so cold as to need a jacket over a sweater and long sleeve shirt in that heat.

Things begin to slowly cool from the bus clipping along at a moderate speed of 60 km/hr and I settle in for the ride to Fes. Finally, I tell myself, this is now just a matter of patience. This would be a great time to practice meditation. One ‘om mani padme hum’ passes through my head and the bus begins to slow. Within seconds we are pulled over onto the shoulder of the road. For the love of god, I mutter under my breath, what is it now.

We are 20 km from the bus station where we started and the bus is completely out of gas. I begin to wonder what was going through the mind of the bus driver when we past the three or four gas stations leaving town, but I stop myself. I’ve come to a new plane of understanding, and that is that I don’t understand and I won’t understand some of the things that I see on a daily basis here. So much for the calming effects of meditation.

Because of my bout of dysentary over the past 5 days, I was on a starvation diet for the 13 hour bus ride to Tenerir. As hungry and thirsty as I was, it worked and we arrived at 2 am to that desolate and barren outpost on the northern fringe of the Sahara. Now, I thought, would be a great time to have a reservation or at the least a clue of where to go for lodging. Luckily for us there were lots of aggressive drunks milling about the town which, by the way, looked like it had been the scene of at least one bombing.

The first group, sitting on broken rubble that was once a side walk in a different era, asked us if we weren’t scared to be out here at night. ‘No, no’ we said bluffing our way through the conversation. I nervously fingered the knife in my pocket, planning the sequence of events that would surely cost our lives, either in blood or in prison if I had to follow through. Of course that was just the begining. Walking aimlessly through the town at night looking for a ‘pension’ allowed us the pleasure to meet two more drunken mobs that showed keen interest in us. We desperately needed to find something fast, given that we were being followed though the sinuous alleys of the medina. We found an open door which just happened to be a hotel, but the big surprise was that the followers stayed outside the door. That was a text book example of deus machina, though I’m unclear of who was responsible.

We arrived the next day at Todra Gorge after an unerventful taxi ride from Tenerir, which looked totally different in the day. We found a nice terrace for $3.50 a night with an awesome view of the gorge walls. We grabbed our gear and started walking.

It didn’t take us long to find a climb and before long we finisheed a nice four pitch climb. Gooing up was straight forwarrd but coming down was not. None of the anchors had rappel chains so I set out to find a descent route, which I eventually found. I throw the rope into the abyss and begin to abseil. I’m glowing over my new long 60 m rope that my brother gave to me as a gift before I left when it abruptly ends with nothing but open space below. “Oh hell’ I say to myself, this is not good. ‘Houston, we have a problem’.

As we were to find out, we were short about 10 m on the first rappel and a solid 30 m on the second. We did some reverse lead climbing to get out of the jam after setting up some natural anchors in the gully of the rappel. This took some time which allowed me to watch people far below.

What I saw from high on the cliff where no one thought I was watching was frightening and disturbing. There in the spring where people filled their bottles of water was a man squating and wipping his butt. Two minutes later I helplessly watched as three people waded into the spring, washed their faces, and drank from the cool, ‘clean’ waters. I found myself drinking bottled water that night out of sympathy for those who weren’t.

Picking climbs was easy, it was a process of elimination. Down one side of the gorge, hanging about 20 cm from the wall and about 3 m up, was a high powerline. To climb that wall, you’d either have to climb over the line and let the rope drag over it or shimmy underneath it pushing it out behind you. I figured that climbing was dangerous enough without introducing 120,000 volts, so we stuck to the other side.

After three days of climbing on sharp limestone, our fingers were bloodied, our bodies tired, and our stomachs empty so we packed up for the long journey back to Admam. As we packed, I heard a car coming down the road so I peeked over the railing of the terrace. There on the roof of a mini bus were four sheep, standing up, legs straddled, tied down, doing their best to surf their way up to the canyon. With the metal roof as their wave, the roof rack as their surf boards, they leaned in unison to ride the curve into the canyon and out of sight.

Taxis are hard to come by in the gorge so we humped it a couple of kilometers in the blazing sun until we caught a ride in a van. I worked my way to the back trying to get the bench seat in the rear. As soon as I got close a mean growl echoed through the van coming from str ight in front of me. I steppedd back amd l looked around, no reactiom Thinking that I had surelyne and no dog. I stepped forward again only to hear the loud growl again. I looked for a seecond time and no dog. Confused, I took another seat, and asked Andrew what that was all about. He said ‘oh, that’s just a sheep under your seat’. I didn’t believe that a sheep would fit under my seat, but I looked and it did. It growled one more time for good measure.

My Retirement, the Beginning

The begining started as well as it could. Twenty Norweigan cheerleaders board the plane and the captain of the team takes the seat next to mine. God sits back and laughs, because of the twenty cheerleaders, the captain is the only male. Welcome to my life.

Train Station

I arrive in London to find that I can get a rail pass for four days for nearly the same price as a one way ticket to York, so I do since I have a four day layover. The next day I am in Scotland, wondering why I can understand Spanish better than what they call english here. Nonetheless I go ‘hill walking’ and do my best to avoid conversation . That worked well and I even found a nice place to climb. Everything was going well.

Stained Glass

Let me explain my sleeping situaion, one room, eight people, and an equal number of bed times. My solution was to down a dose of alcohol before going to bed. Thus I took to Edinburgh to get one beer and return in one piece.

York

I failed miserably after meeting two Scotsmen who eventually got us kicked out of the bar we found. I didn’t understand a single thing they said that night except ‘one more round’. That night I slept well and found that somethings supersede language.

Huttons Section

After staying in Edinburgh, I decided to visit the Lake District in England before returning to London. I got up early and dragged to the train station and tried calling a couple of hostels but never got through so I hopped on a southbound train. I wanted to catch a train from Edinburgh through Carlile, but there was ‘engineering’ going on on that track. I was under the impression that is what train engineers did, but this must have been special.

So I took the same route back down as I did on the way up and stopped back in New Castle. After making $20 in phone calls, I realized that every hostel North of London was booked. Luckily the hostel in Edinburgh had a cancellation and I was able to get a bunk. Retracing my steps left me where I started 8 hours earlier, but at least I wasn’t sleeping on the street.

That night I went out with four of the guys from the hostel and met a pack of Scottish girls right away. Between not understanding what they were saying, their indecision as to which bars to go to, and the fact that they were pretty hammered I steathily ducked out of the pack and wandered the streets alone.

Castle

Determined to see the Lake District, I took the train back to New Castle and across to Carlile, with a stop in Hexam, which ended up being my favorite town of the trip. The train malfunctioned, so we were forced to get off and wait for the next one, which gave me a chance to finish Col Mountain.

Once I got to Carlile I was advised to not go my chosen route and instead go to New Castle. By now, I had had my fill of New Castle, but off I went and on to London.

I got to London unscathed but I passed a guy who wasn’t so lucky. I’m not sure what he did, but one second he was reaching for his ‘wallet’ and the next second he was on the floor with two cops on top of him, screaming in pain with his face smashed into the concrete.

I found a hostel includingLondon and it did have a hot tub and sauna on the roof, but most of the people there were tools. I got up at 6 am and hit London Bridge and made it to the airport hours early since London was kind of boring.

I enjoyed seeing Britain, and went away with two impressions of the land I visited. The first was that it had the most polite people I had ever met, and worthy models of a kind, non-abrasive society.

The second impression I left with was with the general quality of life that seemed pleasant. Public transportation was easy and abundant, towns were pretty, clean, and surrounded by beautiful farmland. Lack of city sprawl kept traffic even in urban areas light. What a difference from where I flew out of, mangy Atlanta. We would be wise to look up to the British in this respect.

Morroco, Week 1

The tangy smell of goat makes me bury my head in the sleeping bag in which I sleep, but what makes me finally get out of bed is the water dripping onto my pillow from the leaking roof above. It is my fifth day in Morroco and to my friend Andrew this is nothing unusual. I’m still getting used to village life, but I don’t let on.

Donkey

The previous night, seven of us ate with our hands from a communal plate in a mud house with packed dirt floors. The meal was impressive, served on decorative china plate sitting within a metal platter three feet in diameter. It was a baked chicken buried under olives, carrots, fava beans, and many spices. To eat, we tore off pieces of freshly baked round bread, and pinch food between our thumb and the piece of bread. We do this ONLY with our right hand since the left is reserved for other, less sanitary tasks. I brushed off the thought that the woman with the kind face, beaming smile, and baby nursing on her breast that cooked for us wiped her ass with her hand. I take a big chunk of bread and dig in.

Dinner with a Family in the City

Before we ate we washed our hands while a family member poured water from a pitcher into a catchment bowl, but even so I know it’s just a matter of time until I get sick. While I eat heartily I think of the animals living side-by-side with these people (cows, goats, dogs, chickens) and what they leave behind and think water drizzled on my hands is not enough. I hope it’s not tonight that I find myself waking to stomach cramps, recognizing that it’s inevitable. Andrew has told me stories of waking face down in his own excrement that makes think starvation is a possible solution to the lack of sanitation.

It was six days ago that I was relaxing on a roof-top hot tub in London, wondering how my time in Africa would pass. In all honesty, this is what I expected. What I didn’t expect was the beauty of this place. It is nothing like I expected. Two days before we took a taxi (with 5 other people in one small car) to a village 10 km away from Admam (Andrew’s peace corp village) and picked up Andrew’s dog, Hope. From there we walked through a valley rimmed with limestone cliffs and fields of wheat, the sun breaking through holes in the dark sky with temperatures below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. We walked past goat herders, ridges lined with pine and cedar trees, and children playing in the fields. After talking it over with Andrew, I’m not sure why Peace Corp was there, he wasn’t sure either.

Not all of Morroco is like this though. On day two, we woke from our night of sleeping on the floor of a roof in Marrakesh to prayer call and took a train to Muhamedia, with a stop in Casablanca. As I gazed out the window I noticed a stream that intersected the railroad tracks. This was no ordinary stream, it was thick and deep purple. Imagine a stream of purple paint and you;ve got it.

We stopped in Casablanca for a vaccination of all things. Andrew told me I could save $100 if I got my yellow fever shot in Morroco. After paying, which took some time since the cashier was praying (don;t ask), the syringe was unsheathed. Apparently, the waiting room doubled as an examination room. I reasoned this out after the receptionist took the exposed needle and worked her way through the crowd towards me, holding the needle pointed up, for ‘saftey’. I remember the words ‘fuck me this wasn’t worth the 100 dollar discount’ scrolled across the billboard of my mind, just before she attempted to plunge the needle that was rightly mine into Andrew’s arm… ‘Fuck show’ flashed momentarily on the billboard.

We spent the night in Muhamedia with friends. Andrew warned me not to even mention topics like alcohol, drugs, or the fairer sex. With my severely limited vocabulary, I stayed quiet most of the night. Andrew’s friend Mohamed introduced us to his cousins Safia and Nora, two high school girls that were pretty intrigued with us, hey life is slow in Muhamedia. The words of advice my friend Travis gave me before I left cycled through my head, “don’t screw around with any girls over there or you’ll get your nuts chopped off” occasionally cycled through my head. It wasn’t until 1 am when we were alone with the girls that their uncle busted in and the girls shot out of the room that I guessed that some of the Arabic hurled our way had at least the words ‘nuts’ and ‘chop’ in them. We left the next morning relieved and ‘intact’.

The concept of public transportation in Morroco probably doesn’t conjure up relaxing thoughts in even the most provincial of American minds, but I’ll reinforce that notion for my readers. With one glaring exception, the rail system, public transportation in Morroco is uncomfortable. The words taxi and bus have very different feelings associated with them than before, even after my brief bout of experience. To ride the bus means standing side-by-side with 99 other people in their collective body heat and odor, while the bus driver takes a 10 minute break, leaving us in the sweltering sun with the windows rolled up. Taxis are at least as uncomfortable. A taxi will go nowhere until it has reached the minimum rider capacity of 7 souls. It’s important to remember that I’m not talking lincoln towncar, I’m talking about a small mercedes from the 1970’s. Cab drivers are also kind enough to remove the crank levers with which one would roll down the window, in case the tight conditions, direct sunlight, and greenhouse effect of the car windows caused one to get uncomfortably warm. Luckily the numbness in my seat and legs provided some distraction, enough to let my mind melt in my skull.

A great part of traveling with someone who speaks Arabic is that people open up to you. They love it that a whiteboy from America can speak Arabic. An example of this was when we drove to Souk in Taza. I asked Andrew how to say something in French. He didn’t know so he asked the driver. The driver told us he was illiterate and had no idea. He went on to tell us that he was a mechanic and to prove it too us he pulled the steering wheel off of the steering column turned around with it in his hand to show me in the back seat. Mind you, we weren’t parked on the side of the road, we were driving through traffic. Thank god he got the steering wheel back on before he had to use it,

Leaving Alaska

Moving out of my cabin in Juneau was pretty smooth. There was the random stuff that just didn’t fit neatly into a category, but I got it all squared away. I don’t know why it took so long to figure this out, but I started organizing my belongings into labeled military duffel bags. That made moving much easier and keeps my belongings organized even when I’m not traveling. The duffels, I bought in Fairbanks for $10 a piece and $14 for the ones in slightly better shape.

My father and I boarded the ferry late at night after learning that my account was ‘open’ meaning that we had to repurchase our tickets, in the end, I was charged twice.

We had a blissfully uneventful trip for the most part, and four days of relaxing was ok with me. We stopped in Sitka, Petersburg, and spent a full day in Ketchikan.

We got off the ferry in Bellingham and met Russell, Shannon, and Travis for lunch in Seattle.

I can’t recall the name of the restaurant, but I can recall their attempt to impress us with silly rituals and absurdly fine scale selections of most everything. My dad and I laughed about it for the rest of the trip.

It all began with the beer selection. You know you are in trouble wheen the waiter refers to the restaurant’s selection by saying ‘I have…in stock’ and blathers on about the flavors of each of the beers as it were wine. It only got more humourous when he spouted about the ‘wonderful cascading head’ that beer pressurized with nitrogen creates.

Oh god, then he got to the oysters, oh the humanity! You ordered oysters from the bed where they were harvested. After a ten minute description of the differences in flavor of each of the fifteen beds, I was ready to run. I was thankful that he didn’t bother us with a detailed explaination of the composition of the napkins and how paper harvested from shade grown fair trade pine trees was superior to everyday average pine trees.

The food was good, but just before we made a clean escape, the waiter returned with lemons and crackers, my heart sunk. What did he have planned for us now I thought. Apparently the newest craze for people that need to feel special is to have lemon squeezed on to your hands and then, get this, crackers broken up and sprinkled over them. What a disgusting mess it made, I was horrified. Good riddance Seattle!

Finally on the road, we drove across I-90 into some beautiful country. What I wouldnt have done to drop a fly in some of those streams.

We spent the night in Cordelene, Idaho and traveled on to Missoulla, Montana which I really liked. It may have even displaced Bozeman as my favorite town. It took me to Billings to get a buffalo burger and it was good. We stopped for the night in Sheridan, which brought back memories from my college days as I had passed through there a number of times and had friends from there.

The following day we drove through South Dakota and stopped by Sturgis. It was dead, but we got some good food and fooled around on some stationary motorcycles.

Somehow we crossed the whole state of South Dakota and ended up near Sioux City, IA.

That day we also toured Wall Drug and the Badlands. I really wanted to see some wild Buffalo, but no luck. Instead, we saw deer, sheep, and some amazing landscapes.

I have wanted to see Land Between the Lakes for quit a while because they are restoring some eastern prarie complete with elk and buffalo. I was pretty excited, but that quickly drained from my blood when I saw the 10 foot fence surrounding the prarie. Instead of a wide open natural prarie, it was more like a big petting zoo. The place was dwfinitely modeled after jurassic park, compl te with flahing red lights and and automatic gate. Wee did see some Buffalo, but the were in an even smaller electrified paddock.

We bolted out of there and madw it to Mont Eagle Tennessee for lunch at the smokehouse. We had the best food of the trip anf stayed warm in front of the open fire our table sat against. Two more more hours and I was in Marietta.

Why I am a Cynic, or the Attack of the Evil Bears

A number or people have called me a cynic of society lately and that’s cool. The thing is that we are consistently inconsistent. We don’t do what we say and we don’t say what we do. We are riddled with double standards and what is worse is that we don’t admit to it. For all I know we don’t even recognize it which is even scarier.

So I am just gonna post a couple photos to make my point.

What we are told:
Killer Bear

Reality:Savage Bear

The moral here is that people over dramatize just about everything, look around for yourself and you’ll see it too.

Gustavus on a Shoe String

This July, my friend Thad and I traveled through Gustavus en route to
Glacier Bay. We had no clue about getting around Gustavus, so we
couldn’t play it cool. We just had to admit we didn’t know what was up.
I liked Gustavus, nonetheless, mostly because it felt like an interior
Alaska town, but on the water. The other thing I liked is that
it had a gas station, general store, hardware store, a pizza place, and
nothing more.
What else could anyone want?

This blog is not about that trip. Instead it is about the second trip to
Gustavus. Amy and her “sweetie” Ben, have a cabin there and needed some
help. I didn’t know what was in store for me, but I did know that I
liked Gustavus, I like to hammer nails, and Amy seemed like a good
person. So I met them at the airport and loaded the supplies and Max,
the dog, into the Cessna.

Max, hanging in his doggy bed.

Max didn’t care about the take offs, he didn’t care about
landings, and he didn’t care about turbulence…nothing made him look up.
Once we got to the cabin, he settled in to his favorite activity of doing
a lot more of nothing.

Saturday we worked on the cabin and at night we played gin. It was fun
but Amy was acting unstable. She got very happy when she won and very
sad when she lost. Ben and I decided that we’d play it safe and let her
win. I had visions of the McCarthy masacre, so I was glad to sleep out
in the bunkhouse. That night I locked the door.

Sunday I worked half the day on the cabin and the remainder of the day I
biked to Glacier Bay for a hamburger. It was pretty uneventful, except
I thought I saw some girls on bikes way in the distance. Cool, I
thought to myself. But as the miles passed beneath my wheels, no girls
appeared. Mirages maybe? Nah, it was more likely bears crossing the
road. Have I been in AK for too long? If mistaking bears for girls is
a sign, then yes.

After riding back from Glacier Bay, I headed to the pier to catch the
sunset. Not bad.


Gustavus pier.

The following day we finished up what we could on the cabin and got back
in the Cessna and headed back to Juneau over the pass near Point
Excursion. Now that was spectacular!

Learning You’re Busch League

Sometimes the truth hurts figuratively, sometimes the truth hurts literally, and on some special occasions it does both. This blog is about one of those days.

The day began when my friend Myron and I went skiing one not-so-early morning and we picked up some hitch-hikers who were here to take a heli-ski guide course in Haines. Obviously, we were not going to punish these guys and make them “ski” with us. Just in case they needed a place to stay, I gave them my number.MyronInLine

The next day, their ferry was canceled because of rough seas, so I told them I’d be happy to go skiing with them…and give them a ride in the process. I was VERY excited because they were into backcountry skiing, and I’ve been looking for people to ski the backcountry with.

So we put on our gear and check out some of the possible runs from the base of the mountain. I figure this cool, especially since they keep mentioning the cliff band up there. Great, they’re saftey conscious too…this is going to go super smooth.

Tim Cutting Turns

The ski up was amazing. Sunny, cool, and gorgeous! The snow was fantastic, deep and soft. As we get further up the ridge, we begin to talk about where to ski down and figure out where that cliff band was, presumably to avoid it. As we continued, there was more talk of the cliff band, more than was necessary to avoid it…I thought. Whatever, no one would look for a cliff band to ski off, right? So we find a spot and it becomes clear, that we are indeed looking for the cliff band in order to ski off of it!

Oh yay! I can barely hold my own at the ski area and now I’m standing on top of a mountain getting ready to drop into god knows what….fucking great! Tim (who is at 500x better than I am) and I found another way down, but it was still really steep and filled with small spruce trees, which were tight enough to make it difficult to turn. I jump turned my way to the bottom and waited for Dan.

DansDrop

Dan dropped, and somehow recovered and skied out of it and I was damn glad I followed Tim. Anyway, I did my best to keep up those two and got more worked on the way down than on the way up. I’ve been up there a couple more times, but now I steer clear of that cliff band. Wide open glades for me, thanks!

Why the Guys at TSA Smile When They See Me.

Security:
After my latest security incident, I’ve decided that the government is trying to secure you from me. No one is looking out for me, they are just trying to protect everyone else. I always wondered why I was the one picked from the line over and over again, now it makes sense.

This latest one nearly keep me off the plane. First I had a ton of liquids, they were over 3.4 oz., not clear, and not in a plastic bag. I just grabbed my toilettry bag without thinking. Then there was the expired license….

Apparently TSA doesn’t like people they can’t beaucratically identify, so I was upgraded to mandatory body search, luggage search, and chemical analysis. I felt pretty good about the body and luggage search, but the chemical search had me worried. I assumed that they were looking for chemicals that could be used for the creation of explosives. What could that be fuel, ammonia, fertilizer, gun powder, rocket propellent? No surprise but all the swabs they took from my luggage indicated that I was a pyro. This was indicated by a soft “beep” from analysis machinery and a more audible “oh shit” from the TSA guys. Not good……

My next lesson was this – when you hear a fat guy say “sir, I going to have to touch you in some sensitive areas, but don’t worry*, I’ll use
the back of my hand” you know several things right off the bat. Karma has officially caught up to you, you should have stayed in bed, and more critically
you shouldn’t laugh at the guy and tell him off. Eventually I did make it through security, but I had to be escorted back since they forgot to stamp my ticket indicating that I passed the examinations.

I was just reading this really boring book about computer security and found out about the “three As” of security. Authentication, authorization, and auditing.
Airport security focuses on the first two and it usually goes in the order listed. So, if you don’t get authenticated you don’t even get a chance at being authorized. Usually you’ve got to give ID to be authorized, like a driver’s license I don’t know what you use if you aren’t 16 yet. On a computer, if your password expires, then you aren’t authenticated and therefore not authorized to enter the system. Surprisingly, airport security work in a simillar but less functional way. If you’re license expires, you get felt up and your stuff rifled through…then you get authorized. I still can’t figure out what how humiliation translates into authorization, just pray that Microsoft doesn’t catch on.

Flying Can Be Fun, But Sometimes It’s Not

The Game:
Flying is fun, well not really. Flying in Alaska is scary, even in commercial jets. Wind, snow, mountains, ocean, and fog all mixed together make Alaska an
exciting place to fly. I used to believe that, when you were born, we each randomly got a number. This number was the number of flights
you could take in your lifetime before having a fatal plane crash, but that was before Alaska.

I’ve upset the system. I think differently now about it than I did. I still believe in the old system, but I realize that at a certain point the rules change.
Once you’re flights move from easy flights from popular destination to popular destination to hair raising adventures
consider yourself enrolled in the new game.

For instance, the first time I flew from Fairbanks to Anchorage it was winter, bitter cold, and gusty. Slamming into an icy runway at 200 mph, I thought to
myself, “boy that was lucky”. The problem was that it never improved. On the contrary, the landings got worse and so did the flights between take off and landing.
There was that time when leaving Anchorage we had to fly into the mountains instead over the inlet due to high winds. The ascent was steep, really steep,
the plane was thrown all over, and the engine was screaming. Then there was that time leaving Sitka, or was it Ketchikan. Underway again after
a horrible landing in crosswinds, we were in the air headed for Juneau. Climbing steeply during heavy rain and poor visibility, there was a deafining pop,
the engines stuttered, and there was a blinding light. I don’t think I was out of place, thinking “this is it”. Reassuringly, the pilot came on over the
mic and said “there’s nothing to worry about*, we just got hit by lightening, it happens all the time and we don’t think anything is damaged…”.
Where to start, let’s start with the first bit. The part about getting hit by lightening in a plane desperately trying to gain altitude to
clear the mountains in a storm to keep from crashing into a bitterly cold ocean littered with islands and reef. Not a problem huh, I’d hate to be in
a plane with that pilot when he did encounter a problem. What did he mean planes get hit by lightening all the time? What? Since when?

So, if these types of flights are common, really common, then you are abusing the random number approach and the rules change. The risk just isn’t
the same if I fly from Milwaukee to St. Louis a couple times a year. So, I believe, that universe deals with this in two ways. Method one, after
the abuse is recognized one flight now counts as 1.5 or maybe even two. So if my number was 84 and I flew 25 standard flights and 12 abusive
flights, my number would be down to between 35 – 49 flights.

The second method is different in that it doesn’t use the old system at all. Once you’ve reached the threshold, flying is based solely on luck.
Your number no longer counts for anything. Your plane can go down even if you had 49 flghts left, this is the cost of abusing the system. My
gut reaction says that this is the more probabal of the two.

Snacks:
The last time I flew a plane the stewardesses missed my row during snack distribution. Most people probably don’t care, but I can’t wait for snack time.
I really look forward to it and I am always paranoid that I’ll get missed, because it happened before. Once I fell asleep and woke up to snacks and
drinks all around, but my tay was empty. I was fairly heart broken that I missed the best part of my flight. Well I’m not calling it paranoid
anymore, because they missed me again. I most look foolish because I feel like Milton on Office Space, you know, when it’s birthday cake time.
I even go to the trouble of making eye contact with the steward/stewardess when they start coming close and I open my tray. I don’t know
what else to do. Maybe I’ll start muttering and stretch and say something like “…boy, I sure can’t wait for my drink” or “…gee, I sure am thirsty”

Veni, Vidi, Vici

The Suit – 1970’s era survival suit.

The Suit

The Man – Cabin dwelling punk come database/GIS geek.

A Man and his Survival Suit

The Plan – Swim from shore to dock on a cold Alaskan winter day, not drown, and make it over to Illybob’s for homemade pelmini in under an hour. Ancillary objectives include testing the sea worthiness of an old survival suit found in garage and gauge survivability of going overboard in the winter sans survival suit.

Gumby Lives – On our quest for knowledge, the first thing we found was that Gumby was indeed alive and well, hiding in my landlord’s garage. Although the characteristic green is no longer the color of our beloved character, probably due to aging of plastic-like skin which alters its reflectance/absorption characteristics, the familiar stance is still evident.

Gumby

The Swim – How does one test the sea worthiness of an old survival suit? Well, I’ll tell you. You strip down, put it on, jump in, and hope no cold water comes rushing in to take you to the bottom.
All or Nothing

If you ever try this, be warned. When you enter the water the air from the suit is forced out of it. Since the only opening is at your face, it feels like your going down. Don’t worry, you’ll likely pop back up.

It Floats

Success – After a couple minutes of backstroke I made it to the dock. It’s eerie being away from shore trapped in a suit that feels like it should not float. This makes for excellent lap times.

The Dock

The End – What did I learn from this? Well, I learned that survival suits are fun and that the ocean is pretty cold in February. Most of all I learned that I don’t want to fall off a boat in Alaska…ummmm…ever.

Climbing Out

That Sunny Day in July

I just developed some film and found a couple of photos that might be worth seeing. I forgot that we had a couple of sunny days way back in July of “ought six”.

Travis and I decided to do a quick hike after work and go up Mt. Juneau, which overlooks the city. It was quite pretty up there. Just like Switzerland without the immaculate trails and restaurants every couple kilometers.. oh well no schnitzel today.

We saw a good deal of wildlife up there, lots of ptarmigan, a grouse, and a mess of goats. I’ve got two or three other good pictures of the countryside. I’ll post them as soon as I get the files off of my work pc.

The following weekend Travis, Greg, and I went for a ride to Berners Bay to do some fishing and exploring.

We threw in our lines at about 180 feet deep for Halibut. Since non of us really have any idea about how to fish for halibut, we were really surprised when I got a really good hit on my rod. After a couple of minutes, I decided to reel in and see if the fish was still on. All of a sudden it was clear that I had a big one on. We all took our positions, someone grabbed a net while the other loaded the shotgun. I just kept reeling…it was a lot of work and my arms were getting worked from hoisting the huge halibut up to the surface.

After all that work it wasn’t a halibut afterall, instead a huge skate surfaced. I didn’t even know that there were skates in Alaska. The last time I was this surprised fishing was when Greg reeled in a duck on his salmon rod, one of many interesting creatures he pulled up this year. The net in the picture is about 30 inches across, so this was a big fish. It took Travis a little work to get him off, but it was a clean release.

We found a very nice secluded beach that we decided to check out. That’s Travis with the “bear medicine”.

Mountains, glaciers, beach, and sun…not bad, even if it takes a stroke of god to make the weather cooperate.

Eventhough he is a relatively new to the southeast, it took Greg a while to finally figure out what that glowing orb in the sky was. He was pretty suspicious until we filled him in. So that was summer in Juneau. Those were the last days that got above 70 degrees, though we had 2-3 more days of sun later in the month. It was nice while it lasted, maybe next year I will be lucky enough to see sunshine again.

Tent City

Following the eviction of my roommate Russell and I, we each went our seperate (but not equal) ways. Russell moved into his posh duplex in the valley and I moved into the migrant work camp outside of town.

I’ve really spruced up the place since this photo. Last night I added a pillow and a camp chair. Day before yesterday I bought a coleman lamp with all the nice accesories like a friction lighter and carrying case. I had to look high and low for one that ran on whitegas instead of batteries or propane and I finally found one at Western Auto, the best store in town.

Although it’s hard to see here, there a number of people with really cool setups that have lived here for months. This one has a hammock, stick railings, and really nice tarps. Some of the camps are more like cabins made from tarps, they even have wooden doors and frames. Others have platforms that stick out from the hillside, I’ll try to get better pictures.

My only complaint has been the paranoia with bears. My first night I awoke gun fire and occasional yelling. I hoped that it was a bear in camp, but layed as flat as I could for the rest of the night just in case it was a real gun fight. The following morning I made the mistake of rustling my tarp. The neighbor (the one I thought was doing the shooting) started yelling at me thinking I was a bear, what a way to get shot. I later found out that it was the camp host that was doing the late night shooting, as a bear was looking into the window of his trailer.
Last night I hung out with my neighbor who has plans to build, in his words “a really, really nice shack”. He’s got a 12volt deep cycle battery and a solar cell….some how he gets broadband access on the laptop he keeps in his tent. He’s got me thinking. Maybe someday I can have a really sweet shack of my own, for now I’m sticking with the tent.

The Yukon in a Weekend

8/11/06
Looking into more information on the Canol, I found this account of an alien abduction –alien abduction… damn, I must have gotten lucky.

Original Post –

Explore the Yukon in a weekend? Believe it or not, this was one of my better ideas.
Here’s the plan: (1) catch the ferry on Friday, (2) jump ship in Skagway, (3) explore the Canol pipeline road, and (4) get back to Juneau in time for work on Monday. No problem…sort of!

I left Juneau in a rush on Friday night and I thought I’d grab food in Canada. I got to Carcross at 8 am and find that all they have that doesn’t require cooking is Pilot Bread, sardines, vienna sausage, and canned ham. No problem, I’ll just get better food in the next town.

Allright, so no food in Tagish…maybe I’ll get some at Jakes Corner.

No decent food at Jakes Corners, so I got some gas and headed up the Canol.

No services, bullet holes, warning!!! This is my type of place! 226 km should be no problem with my nice 5 gal tank. Just hope there is actually an OPEN gas station at the end of that 226 km.


This road was really nice. Just like Nome Creek if the road kept going up the valley. I left my fly rod back in Juneau since I wasn’t going to get a Canadian license. There were so many beautiful rivers and lakes on this road, I was really beating myself up for not at least bringing line and hook, Canadian Mounted Police be damned.

This was a cool little cabin right above the river. The name of the cabin was “Toad Hall”, a reference to Wind in the Willows. I had to get a picture of this since mom used to read that one to my brother and me growing up.

This is the view from the cabin. This place looks like Montana, I can’t believe that I’m just a couple hundred miles from the South East. I’m just happy it’s warm and DRY.

The 226 km took me almost 5 hours, even though I averaged around 40 mph. That’s how much I stopped. I had to stop at every lake and creek and take it in, the weather being as close to perfect as it gets. I was happy to make it to Ross River, mostly because I needed gas. Plus, judging by the sign and the old military truck, this place had potential.

Here it is, the gas station. Guess what, it was closed. No “pay at the pump” here. I figured that I’d just setup camp here and get gas tomorrow.

But wait, tomorrow is Sunday. If this guy isn’t open Saturday afternoon, what’s the chance he’ll be open Sunday morning? Ross River started looking more like a ghost town the more I thought about. The color just kind of ran out of the place.
l pulled out my map to check out my options…looks like another town 70 km up the road…great! So I drive to the town of Faro, which happens to be 10 km off the road. This was my last chance for gas, since I didn’t think I had to enough to get back to Ross River. So I roll into the gas station and guess what? It was closed Saturday evening and all Sunday. Great, so I ask this guy what the deal was and he said that the guy who owns the store won’t open it just for me to fill my tank. Fine, “how far is it to the next town with gas?” I ask. “121 miles” he says….hard to make that kind of mileage on reserve.

So while I was crusing neighborhoods and boat docks for gas to steal, I found this sign. I nearly went over the handle bars! Who on earth would name their farm “Mount My Sheep”(sic)? Pure Canada. Maybe they’re just a bunch of innocents…or maybe not. At anyrate, I didn’t want to stick around to find out what was really going on, god forbid they had a “petting zoo”.

I didn’t find any unguarded fuel, so here’s a trick to get you a couple more miles down the road. Drain the gas to the side that drains to the carburetor.

I found a decent camping spot eventhough it was right on the road and slept for 11 hours. Got up early enough to be back in Ross River by 8 am.

Who would have thought, the gas station was still closed, but luckily they opened at 9 am. I played with some dogs and met some nice people. REAL nice people. In fact it’s the first town that I was offered sex while waiting at the gas station. Gee, these Canadains sure are nice folk.

Thad – If you ever had a chance, Ross River is it.

Mmmmm….more Pilot bread and canned mystery meat. If you haven’t experienced Pilot bread, I think it’s made by taking 13,000 saltine crackers and applying lots of pressure. Once all the saltines have taken on the form of one gigantic saltine, it is baked to make sure no moisture is left. Actually, they taste pretty good and I found them ideal for my lifestyle. I fell asleep while eating one for dinner and woke up with it still in one piece – not sure how many times I rolled over it. Needless to say, breakfast didn’t take much preparation that morning.

I checked out a couple cool towns on the way back, Carmacks and Whitehorse. Carmacks had homemade signs all over warning drug dealers that they don’t tolerate crack, should have gotten some pictures. Whitehorse looks really fun, but didn’t spend much time there. I’d like to go back with a mountain bike one of these days. On the way back to catch the ferry, I came across many nice lakes. Emerald lake was one. The calcium carbonate makes it look Caribbean-like.

desert

Then I took another nap in the “worlds smallest desert”. I walked around for a while, but had to ride the dunes. I know, I know, but it was asking for it. It was all warm, and dry, and there was a trail that lead right into the thick of it. The trick to riding in sand is to keep accelerating and put your weight back. Of course thats fine and dandy, until your going 40 mph and still got a ways to go until you’re at the bottom of the hill. Fun!!

I had five or six hours to blow before the ferry left, so I went over to Dyea. I met some nice New Zealanders who were trying to fish for salmon with dry fly (parachute gnat). That was pretty funny and I picked out a better fly for them to use. They were in this cool van that ran on both propane and gasoline.


So Monday morning I got back into Juneau and headed to work a little late. So I’m still convinced that a motorcycle is the best way to explore the countryside. Great gas mileage (over 50 mpg), great view, and exposure should make motorcycling the very first thing you do when you get to a new area. That way you can scope out the best spots and check them out further by foot. Just my two cents.