Travel Journals by Hilary Hopkins

October 20 - November 7 2013 / Morocco/ West Sahara/ Cape Verde: Skimming the Surface

In Which We See Many Hard-Working People and Many Beautiful Places
Part 2 - West Sahara: In the Desert

Part 2 - West Sahara: In the Desert

We are having a sea day today and it’s a good thing since I think many people are pretty tired.  Although below our cabin it sounded as if a vacuum cleaner was being run all night, I slept well in spite of the marathon sleep of yesterday.  There will be lectures today by all and sundry and I can do that. 

Had drinks last night with two nice couples, one of which has teenage twins, boy and girl, who apparently they have brought all over the world.  The boy spent the entire time deep under his hoodie, giant earphones pressed to his head, punching away on his machine.  The girl was somewhat better and actually engaged in a bit of conversation.  The boy looked like a thug.  What good is it to bring these kids if they aren’t even here?  Ah well.  But it seems a pity.  Their parents were delightful.

The sea day was excellent.  There were three lectures, lunch, and a lot of napping.  As usual, in one of the lectures I was so frustrated because the woman is a naturalist, I guess a pretty good one, and she was talking about all kinds of stuff that –oh, I don’t know, that I wish I had been talking about instead.  John is really good about that kind of thing—he doesn’t mind sitting in on a talk about stuff he knows and probably does better.  But I hate it. 

Turned out that the teenage kid talked his ‘rents into buying him a djellaba, the long striped men’s garment, and he wore it for a while today.  I complimented him on it and he actually listened and thanked me.  Also turns out that his father was doing nuclear weapons inspection in Iraq.  The crowd on here is very high-end.  I guess our tastes are high-end even though we aren’t. 

The Captain’s cocktail party and dinner.  Turns out the Captain was with Lindblad for ten years and of course knew Tom all that time.  Oh, he says, you know him well?  Oh yeah.


So today was a lovely day, at least our shore excursion was.  We are now off the coast of West Sahara, an area disputed between the Moroccans and the folks that live here.  We have a police escort all the way into town and around town and back to the ship.  This place is called Laayoune.  Early in the morning when we were docking, I took some great pictures of the huge fishing fleet in the harbor, with the sun just coming over it.  It seemed only one other person was interested in this striking sight, and we clicked away while the others ate breakfast.

Into our four buses.  Our tour guide, a nice young black man from Bamako, Mali, was interesting and comfortable to be with.  Although his English was not superior it was a lot easier to listen to than the other guides’.  It is very tiring to be trying to decode narrative while looking.

A few miles through the dunes and by the low rolls of breakers, and the town, only ten years old if I understood him right.  We stop in a big mostly empty square, and at last a bit of interaction.  A tiny boy about three is with his father twenty feet away.  I ignore the dad and wave at the kid.  Dad pushes him over to me.  He stands by my legs, peers at my shoes and legs, and I bless him with both hands on his little wooly head.  He looks up into my face.  I moved away, and waved bye-bye, daddy and I smiling.

Next a small crowd of teenagers hanging in some shade.  We practice our English together, and pictures are taken, and another woman exchanges email addresses.   The kids were friendly and sweet and thrilled to encounter us.

Then the market, quiet on a Saturday morning.  Camel haunches dripping blood, and lower limbs of camels, hairy and hooved.  Fruit.  Millions upon millions of flies!  People are happy to have us take pictures of their goods but not of them.  When the bus leaves I notice a couple looking down on us from a rooftop, and we wave to each other as the bus pulls away.  I treasure these tiny encounters at a distance.

There is a Catholic church and it is opened for us and the very young priest addresses us cheerfully.  I couldn’t understand most of what he said, but I think at one point he commented how different Christian sects argue but when there is only one church they stick together.  There are only two churches in this entire region.  I like the priest and I liked his modern church.  I left some money and lit a candle for my precious daughters as I always do.

Finally on the way back down the highway to the port, there is a stop at a tent by the roadside where we take mint tea and have cookies, and are encouraged to walk in the dunes.  Yay!  I find the tiny tracks of a high-stepping lizard, and take pictures of two wild flowers, as well as some bleached rocks and desiccated shrubs.  There is a lot of wind but the temperature is mild and the sun is warm and I am happy.

The sober police escort us back to port and our small ship, there is lunch and dolphins, and a nap, and a fruitless email check, and here I am.

For comfort I just did go on my own gorgeous website for a minute or two.  I am not sure what is wrong, but I am not finding anything of much interest.  My first and last time in Morocco and I stayed in bed for a big part of it, nervous to get caught with urgent needs in a difficult place.

In the airport in Madrid I met a woman who was outward bound on a quite different kind of trip in Morocco, a natural history trip.  I wonder how she is doing.

Neither of us likes to be with these rich people!  But I can’t ascribe my problem to that.  Somehow everything just goes by so quickly that I have no time even to formulate, let alone ask, questions, or even to think about them.

So what questions might I have?  Of course one burning question that all of us have, I guess, or many of us, is what about the women?  How does it work for women here?  What am I seeing?  Who are the women I see, the ones with no veiling, and on to the ones completely covered?  What do they think?  Want?  Love?

But it’s more than that.  What is people’s world view?  There is a sociologist on board, as part of the trip team (she’s Ukrainian as are two other officers including the doctor), but I find her curiously obtuse.  I guess I mean, where do people think they are?  Who they are? 

We just nip in nip out nip in nip out.  But I guess that is the way it has to be.  If only we had some guides who could interpret, explain, or even just translate what is going on in front of us. 

I think maybe some other trips have to be chosen more carefully.  We are on this one because of the eclipse but also because I wanted to come to Morocco, now I have been here and left.  And what have I learned?


So today the last day in Morocco but in the West Sahara, the disputed territory.  Yesterday desert, today even more desert.  These small cities or towns appear in the sand, by the water.  Rows and rows of either half-finished buildings of cinder blocks, with grilles on the windows which are shuttered, painted doors, with some of them having big coded locks.  But very few people about.  Where are they all?  I understand the half-finished buildings, but also there are shops, one with a pile of brilliantly-colored mattresses or pillows, glittering against the white and cream of the desert. 

There is a beach, several beaches, washed by long elegant slow rollers.  At one beach where we are taken kids, boys, play exuberantly in the surf.  We are told this is the World Capital of wind-surfing, and I believe it for the wind is extreme and doesn’t stop.  The skies are blue and without clouds, a good day for an eclipse.

We are in a caravan of 27 four wheel drives.  Our driver speaks no English, a little French, a little Spanish.  I would like to know what he does speak.  Arabic, or Berber.  Because they are Berbers here.  We have been told about them but as usual I don’t retain anything.  I will try better when I get home (I think I say this all the time!).

They are trying to set up a group of luxury hotels or resorts or something.  All outlined, half-built, and empty.  It gives people work for a time, but then the promise is not fulfilled.  I myself would not come here for a vacation, but maybe Europeans would.

Men shake hands upon greeting, and may lay cheeks together on both sides.  We are told that it is a matrilineal society, and that there is therefore a tension between the attitude or rules of Islam, and this.  Although we are told that men and women are considered equal, women seem invisible to me.  They walk about on the streets, on errands, in small groups or alone.  I saw one woman in a car (they don’t drive of course), in full Muslim regalia, but red, it was. 

The children are lively and hang with each other, and they seem to smile a lot. 

At the port there are several wrecks, lying on shore.  What are they doing there—what happened to drive them there?  Nobody tells us and I forget to ask.  And really there seems no one TO ask.  I wish we had a local guide on board.  I have so many questions.

This was the town of Dakhla.  What would you do, if you lived in the town of Dakhla?  Would you know people who lived in other places?  Were you born here? 

I have not been able to get up early as I usually like to do on ships.  I have missed most of the sunsets.

So now I have been to Morocco and to West Sahara.  What have I learned?  That people can live in the desert, and be content or even happy.  That they build solid shaded houses to keep cool, and out of the wind and sand.  That they try to plant things to grow around them—palms and various shrubs.  Even desert people need the green.  But I knew those things before.  Still, it is good to have them verified, here in the Sahara, this great desert.  I learned that there are lots of ways to be a Muslim, and I guess I knew that too but now I have seen it.  We never did go into a mosque as advertised.  I learned that the people seem open, not withdrawn.  That they make a lot of complicated things—ceramics, clothing, carvings, foods. 

I guess those are some things to have learned.


Another sea day today.  Last night several of us saw the green flash, and I had thought to get up a little before sunrise this morning to catch it if I could, but again I slept late.  We eat a little breakfast outside on the stern dining area, and that is pleasant.  There is a talk about the geology of the Cape Verde Islands, and one about their history, and one about whales and dolphins.  I go to all of them but I am not engaged much.  I feel listless and flaccid.  This is the way I felt at home, before we left.  I don’t know what to make of it.  This is something kind of new for me.

Before the geology talk, I made the mistake of sitting near some people who were talking of their various travels and the various companies they have gone with.  Of course I do that too, of course! But somehow suddenly I felt anxious and unhappy.  John comforted me as he does.  I think partly I am anxious about these two hikes we have signed up to do and I have neither my beloved hiking boots nor my trusty stick.  And since the stupid cataract surgery I have very poor depth perception.  So I am not sure how these will go.  So I am anxious about that.

But I discovered, I think, that I am also anxious and unhappy when people around me speak of travel as if it were a month’s entertainment, or a competitive event.  For me the travel is a sacrament, almost, as I have often said.  “Our ground time here will be short,”  “You should see the world you live in.”  “To behold it we are here.” In other words, this is my charge in life, to lay eyes on the planet in all its absurd and unique manifestations.  It’s my obligation.  It’s not an entertainment.  We had that neighbor, Joanne Green, a theater director, who loathed and hated Halloween because for her it was a perversion of something sacred to her, her life’s direction and imperative, to masque.  I think I did not understand that so well, but now I do. 

There have been lots of startling flying fishes cruising away from the sides of the ship, sometimes whole huge herds of them.  Some dolphins.  Several days ago, a whale.  A Sei Whale, we were told.  There have been various shearwaters plying their trade, and flocks, elegant flocks, of gulls taking advantage of the draft of the ship and its stirring up of the water, cruising easily alongside, illuminated in the night.

The last several days the sky has been completely clear.  It is now less than a week to the eclipse.  We’ll see.  Or we hope we will!