Going to Rome or Marrakesh figuring out what to do is pretty easy. It usually goes like this: Sightseeing at day, a nice meal in the evening before drinking the night away. But what does one do in Western Sahara?
Welcome to Western Sahara
I’ve seen this question asked multiple times. In novels, on television and online. It has always been kind of rhetorical. It is often answered with “seeing the world,” which is both inadequate and a cliché. Now that I’m here in Western Sahara, where typical pastimes such as sights, good food and alcohol are non-excising, I figured I might try to give a decent answer to what travellers do all day.
Generally, it’s possible to divide my travelling time into five categories: planning, actually moving from a to b, killing time, meeting people, and meta-travel (blogging, editing pictures, etc.).
Travel planning distinguishes itself from preparing for a vacation. It’s much more low-tech. Hostels don't exist in Western Sahara and those five hotels with online booking is way, way out of my price range. Planning is done on the ground and is more a matter of improvising. Having arrived somewhere, the first thing I need to do is to find a place to sleep and to offload my backpack. I usually head to the primary market – these are more often entire neighbourhoods than actually makeshifts markets. This is where the cheap hotels tend to be located. It usually takes a bit of shopping around to find one that isn’t full, cheap and clean. Leaving any destination also requires some preparation. Hotel staff can sometimes assist with departure times, but most often it’s necessary to head to the bus or train station itself. Booking ahead requires an extra trip to the station, but can be necessary if there're limited options to my next destination. The alternative, to just show up before departure. Once the ticket is secured it’s a waiting game as transportation is always delayed. Then there’s the ‘I need to get a new pair of socks or ‘my headphones broke’ shopping that takes ages because it includes figuring out a decent price, quality and the fact that I have no idea about where the electronic stores are. This quickly takes a couple of hours every day.
Moving between destinations
Standard Western Sahara Road
Then there’s the process of travelling itself, that is, moving from a to b. Distances are wast in Western Sahara; neighbouring towns are – at least – a three-hour bus ride away. (This is a country larger than the UK with only half a million inhabitants). However, arriving at a new, unknown destination is one of the joys of travelling. So is being on the move. You sort of has to like this bit. At least if you don’t want to have a miserable time on your travels. Yes, the landscape outside the window has been impressive, but dull dessert for the past three hours, but I’m moving. That feeling of progress is after all the essence of travelling. Though the rally-like driving down here makes it a rather nerve-rigging feeling too. On days where I’m moving between places, this takes up no less than three hours of the day. It can easily take up an entire day if waiting times are long or if it’s an eight-hour trip. Don’t even get me started on those 20 or 36-hour rides. Luckily, those are rare and yet to come.
Weirdest. Sculpture. Ever.
A sort of sightseeing is possible in Western Sahara, but sights are of a different kind. You might have learned about a few tings from fellow travellers or the guidebook. A lighthouse, a market or whatever. Those are usually crossed off the bucket list rather quickly. From there on it’s a search for new interesting tings to do. It usually takes a few walks around town, but once in a while, you strike gold. I’ve come across the weirdest statue I’ve ever seen, an idyllic harbour and a girls football match with all female spectators at the local stadium. When nothing comes up, my usual retreat is the tea-houses, where numerous men are hanging out killing time on their own. I join them. Smartphones and Wi-Fi reached Africa years ago, so many places give me time to catch up on the world, read (I’m becoming a big The Guardian reader) or have a chat with friends back home. This is not a vacation and time is not limited, so I can enjoy that ‘making the most of it’ does not require a constant rush. These breaks also give me a chance to check in with other travellers online. Is there’s something I’ve missed in town? The best gems are often hidden, and I just might need help finding them. If there nothing online, I’m have the options between another walk around town or another cup of tea. If I’m not moving between destinations, this can take up the entire day and no less than a couple of hours are spent in this fashion.
Meeting the locals
These are the spontaneous moments that for most travellers make it all worthwhile. Especially if they don’t like that whole moving from a to b part. These meetings are always spontaneous and once they’ve happened you simply just have to push everything else aside to enjoy it. Most travellers are more concerned with meeting the world than seeing it. These encounters are not solely a matter of the locals being friendly. I can help them along. A general greeting when I enter a café. By offering the person next to me on the bus some of my snacks. Or engaging locals with simple questions – like yesterday when a question of when the boats were coming in resulted in a tour of the harbour and tea with the workers there. These are the meetings that can lead to invitations to local homes, new friends and a better understanding of the country. I just hope they happen as often as possible.
Blogging on the road
Any travel blogger will tell you the same. Travel blogging is a lot of work. Two hours every day is a low estimate. Writing drafts, dismissing drafts, editing and proof-reading – all takes time. So does photo editing (a painstakingly lot of time) and uploading them. And I’m not even spending the time, that I probably should, on promising my blog around the web. For those living off their travels it’s a full-time job – they just always get to decide where their office is. I’m just happy that alcohol is so hard to come by. That leaves plenty of lonely nights to meta-travel...
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