I’m in Laayoune, a city in Morocco.
Some say it’s a city in Western Sahara, which may or may not be a different country. It’s disputed territory, the biggest in the world from what I’ve read.
I flew here yesterday from Agadir, a city in Morocco proper. Security personnel kept directing me to the international departures hall, even though I was supposed to be in domestic. There were a few double-takes, everyone surprised that I was indeed flying to Laayoune.
Apparently they don’t see many people like me going there.
Waiting for my flight I found a cafe, looked at the menu and ordered one of the salads. The plain-clothes waiter laughed at me.
– No no no. There is no salad here.
I had coffee instead.
On the plane I sat beside a wide man named Zachariah. I asked him if Laayoune was in Morocco or Western Sahara.
– Morocco, he said.
I sat looking out the window, watching the desert.
Sand and rock stretching to the coast. The occasional building down there, surrounded by nothing.
Zachariah saw me looking, remarked that God had made it all, asked if I believed.
– Sometimes, I said, and he laughed at that.
When we landed in Laayoune, I walked from the airport to my hotel, took twenty minutes.
It’s a city of half a million people. All low buildings, dusty skies and dug-up sidewalks. The people seemed normal, the buildings falling apart. It was hard to imagine the same people lived in them.
I walked past one nice park and one nice building, both of them fenced off.
My hotel was fairly basic. They had photos on the walls of Venice, Berlin, Dubai.
The lady at reception spent five minutes showing me on a map all the things I could see and do in the city, then asked how long I was staying.
– I leave tomorrow.
– Oh, okay.
I asked if I could find something to eat nearby, assuming she’d point me towards one of the many cafes I’d seen on the street.
– There’s nothing good around here, she told me. You have to go to the center.
I was skeptical, but she was right. I walked around later and saw lots of people sitting in cafes, none of them eating. Just coffee and cigarettes.
At one cafe I asked if they had food and the guy told me they’d have it soon.
– How soon?
– Maybe in a month. Maybe in a year.
I walked for thirty minutes before I found a place serving something decent, saw several white vehicles along the way, UN printed in big black letters on the side.
It was dark. I felt safe.
After eating I went into a little shop and bought water and pistachios, asked the shopkeeper where I could get a taxi. The faces of a mother and daughter, customers in the shop, said we could share.
Took a few minutes to stop a taxi on the street. I sat in the front and tried to put on my seat belt but it didn’t work. The driver looked at me strange.
When we got to the hotel I tried to pay but the daughter wouldn’t hear of it. I thanked them and got out.
This morning I went out walking again.
Mostly men on the streets. Occasionally a woman, old or middle-aged, wrapped up colorful. I’ve probably seen five heads of female hair since I arrived.
I found one street busier than most. The same cafes. A cart full of oranges. Little vegetable and electronic shops. Floors all dusty and paint all peeling. I walked past a butchers with the severed head of a cow hanging from the front wall, its tongue sticking out.
I bought four bananas and had them for breakfast, went back to the hotel and took a nap.
Later I took a taxi back to the same place I ate yesterday. My driver spoke four languages and the seat belt didn’t work. Seems both those things are normal here.
I took another taxi to the airport, cost me fifty cent, arrived four hours before my flight. The place was almost empty. Five security guards at the entrance and one old man sitting inside.
I looked at the screen and saw there were only three more departures scheduled for the day, my flight to Gran Canaria up next.
There was a shuttered cafe with a television on too loud. I turned it down, took a seat, and worked on my laptop for two hours while every fly in town dropped by to kiss me farewell.
When I got on the plane there was an old woman in my seat and we took off five minutes early.
We were barely in the air when everything below turned to sand, then to sea.
It’s supposed to be a 45-minute flight to Gran Canaria, but we’ll get there in thirty.