Hear about travel to the Western Sahara as the Amateur Traveler talks to Francis Tapon about this disputed region as part of his trip to every country in Africa.
“The Western Sahara is a region that, if you’re a Moroccan, you would believe that it is part of Morocco. If you are somebody else you might want it to be an independent country. That battle has been raging on since the Spanish who colonized it left in 1975.” In answer to the question, is it safe Francis says “It totally is. I was just there in 2013. I went all over the place. There are some military checkpoints that they will not let you go past. There has been a cease-fire for almost 25 years.”
“A lot of people love to go to Morocco, for good reason. Why would you go to America and just go to New York City, wouldn’t you want to see some places that are less visited and some natural wonders. I think the Sahara is one of those. And even though Morocco proper has parts that are in the Sahara, the Western Sahara is just far less populated. It has a population of half a million people in a territory that is the size of Colorado. The whole Sahara is the size of the contiguous United States.”
“Most people are going to start in Morocco and are going to go straight down to El Aaiún which is the capital or the biggest city. The city itself is OK, but for me the best things to see are deep in the Sahara itself as well as Dakhla which is much further south. They are trying to make it into a tourist destination and I think they might succeed in doing that. You’ve got to see a bit of the inland area, you’ve got to see the coast, and you’ve got to see Dakhla.”
“The main economy in the Western Sahara is fishing so they have an amazing coastline that is empty for the most part. You are going to see everything from these jagged rugged cliffs that drop straight into the ocean as well as beaches. If you go all the way down to Dakhla you get to an area where there is a bay and it is protected. You will see more touristic stuff. You will see windsurfers, kite surfers, you will be able to get on a jet ski if you want to. Besides that, it is pretty much just empty land and you can camp wherever you want.”
The Hidden Europe
The Moroccan Wall
Trapped in Chains: The Plague of Modern-Day Slavery
The Unseen Africa / Africa 54
Kickstarter Campaign: The Unseen Africa
Chris Christensen: Amateur Traveler, episode 421. Today, the Amateur Traveler talk is about deserts, dramatic coastlines, camel merchants, and the Moroccan wall, as we go to the Western Sahara.
Welcome to the Amateur Traveler. I’m your host, Chris Christensen. We’re going to skip the news for this particular episode, but I do have some personal news, which is that I’m recording this overlooking Petra. I’m in the country of Jordan, as a guest of the Tourism Board. You’ll hear more about that later on for sure, but that means I’m a little cut off on the Internet, so we’re going to jump right into the interview today.
I’d like to welcome back to the show, Francis Tapon, who’s come to talk to us about Western Sahara. Francis, welcome to the show.
Francis Tapon: Thank you so much, Chris. Nice to be back.
Chris Christensen: You may recall, those of you who’ve been listeners for a while, that Francis came and talked about a book that he had done on Eastern Europe, Hidden Europe. Is that the correct name? Do I have that correct?
Francis Tapon: That’s right, The Hidden Europe.
Chris Christensen: The Hidden Europe. You are now working on sort of a sequel, but it’s all about Africa.
Francis Tapon: That’s right. It’s called The Unseen Africa.
Chris Christensen: And your current plan is to spend four years in Africa, visiting every country, and you’re a little more than one year in?
Francis Tapon: That’s exactly right. My first year, I focused exclusively on West Africa. So now, I’m entering year two. I’ll focus mostly on Central Africa and a bit maybe into Southern Africa. Then year three, I should be in Eastern Africa, including the islands of Madagascar, Seychelles, and Comoros and that kind of stuff. Then eventually, the final year, year four, 2017, I should be in North Africa.
Chris Christensen: So don’t be too surprised if Francis makes his way back onto the show talking about some other part of Africa here over the next few years.
Francis Tapon: That’s great.
Chris Christensen: Before we talk about Western Sahara, which may or may not be a country in Africa, you are coming to us from where right now?
Francis Tapon: I’m coming to you from Niger, actually, the capital of Niger, which is Niamey. It’s just north of Nigeria. It’s basically in the Sahara. It’s a very hot country. In fact, it’s about 45 degrees Celsius here, which is about 108 Fahrenheit, and that’s in the shade. [Laughing]
Chris Christensen: And just before we started recording this, we were just about to press the record button and start, and you ran out of power. So this is just Africa. Ran out of power, as in the city, the power turned off.
Francis Tapon: Yeah, it happens a few times a day. In fact, Niamey, the capital of Niger, is actually better than most places. When I was in Benin, it happened almost every day for hours and hours of the day. In fact, in Guinea-Bissau was one of the worst places, where even in the capital we would only have a couple hours of power for the whole week. So only the richest people could afford generators, but most of the people live their entire live, even in the capital, without electricity in Guinea-Bissau.
Chris Christensen: So Western Sahara and I say it may or may not be a country. I’m not just being facetious there. Tell us a little bit about the Western Sahara.
Francis Tapon: Yeah. You’re absolutely right. It’s one of these disputed territories. It’s kind of like Somalia Land is a territory that wants to be independent from Somalia. Well, it’s the same issue here. The Western Sahara is a region that if you’re Moroccan and a few other people, you would believe that it is part of Morocco. If you’re somebody else, you might want it to be an independent country.
So that battle has been raging on ever since the Spanish, who actually colonized it, left in 1975. So when the Spanish left, Morocco said, “Great. We’ll take that territory that you left behind and fill that vacuum.” Then the locals, or at least not all, some of the locals said, “Whoa. We don’t want you Morocco. We actually want to be independent. So we want to be our own independent country.” Ever since 1975, this battle has been fought both political battle and both military battle between these two forces.
Chris Christensen: And since we are starting talking about a place with the term battle, let’s start with the most obvious question. Before we talk about how wonderful it is to go to the Western Sahara, is it safe to go to the Western Sahara?
Francis Tapon: It totally is. Yeah, I was just there earlier in 2013, and it was quite calm. I went all over the place. There are some military checkpoints that they will not let you go past, partially for your own safety, partially just to control things. But you can certainly drive all over the place, and nothing is going to happen to you. You’re not going to get kidnapped, that kind of stuff, and have any kind of war going on.
Right now, there’s been a cease fire, in fact, for almost 25 years. Ever since 1991, there’s been a cease fire. There are occasional protests here and there that pop up, but they’re usually in a city center. If you’re not running around the middle of city center holding up a big banner, you’re probably not going to be clobbered. So just use common sense if you happen to be in one of these protests, but the protests are becoming fewer and fewer with each passing year.
Chris Christensen: Okay. And why should someone go to Western Sahara?
Francis Tapon: Well, a lot of people love to go to Morocco for good reasons. Morocco, as you’ve done in some of your previous podcasts, is a wonderful, amazing country. The Western Sahara, which again, I’m going to argue in this, just to make it simple, I’m just going to say it’s part of Morocco. I’ll explain later why I believe that, why it should be considered part of Morocco in the future.
But the bottom line is the Western Sahara is kind of like why would you go to America and just see New York and Washington DC? Wouldn’t you want to see like the Grand Canyon? Wouldn’t you want to see some other parts that are less visited and natural wonders? I think the Sahara is certainly one of those. Even though Morocco proper has parts that are in the Sahara, the Western Sahara is just far less populated. It’s a population of half a million people in a territory that’s the size of Colorado.
Chris Christensen: So you had mentioned you thought that the Western Sahara is or will be part of Morocco or should be considered that way. You have some reasons behind that.
Francis Tapon: Yeah, this is a really sore subject, and it’s a very touchy subject, especially people who feel that the Western Sahara should be independent. There’re definitely a lot of people who feel that way. It’s a complex issue. So I’m going to try to summarize it simply. I hope to elaborate much more in my future book, which will come out in 2018 or 2019.
But the bottom line is the way territories work in the world is people come and go. No territory in the world has the same people that it always had in history. So for example, for Crimea, which has been in the news lately, had Tatars who were there, and there were people before the Tatars. Eventually Russians came and kind of kicked the Tatars out, unfairly, unjustly, brutally. But eventually, it became Russian. Nowadays, Tatars are a very minority there.
To argue that it should be Tatar again and it should be its own independent Tatar country is kind of strange, same thing, United States. We have like Mississippi, which used to be Native American territory. Well, then we kicked the Native Americans out. We pushed them off onto reservations. But now, if Native Americans ran around and said, “Hey. This is Native American land. We should be independent from the United States,” the people in Mississippi and most of America will say, “Sorry. It’s kind of a bit late on this issue. Sorry. You just have to accept that nowadays, whether we did it justly or unjustly, it should be part of America.”
So there’re countries in all three of these, the spectrum of these transitions. In the Western Sahara, basically what you have is perhaps in 1975, if you had held a referendum, an honest, real referendum, you would have gotten the majority of the population saying, “We want to be independent and not part of Morocco.” I bet you that would have been the case. Morocco resisted having a referendum. They said, “We will do a referendum,” and they still say some. But nowadays, they changed their mind. We’re not going to do a referendum anymore.
The problem is that a lot of the people who were Western Saharans, who were Sahrawis, they were pushed off into Tindouf, which is a reservation camp in Algeria. So there’s a whole issue of who gets to vote, just like if we pushed out all the Native Americans out of Mississippi and say, “Okay. Now, we’re going to have a referendum whether Mississippi should be part of the United States or independent.” Oh, my God. Everybody votes to stay part of the United States. Of course, the Native Americans are sitting in the reservation in Oklahoma say, “Well, that’s because you didn’t let us vote because you pushed us all the way out here, and we didn’t get to vote.”
It’s the same problem. The people who were Sahrawis who were living in that area got pushed out into Algeria. But here’s the thing. During this whole time, just like Americans colonized and basically pushed themselves and reproduced and took over all this Native American land, Moroccans have done the same thing in the last 30 years, 40 years, where they’ve basically encouraged a lot of Moroccans to migrate and move into Western Sahara.
So when I went into the streets of the Western Sahara and talked to people, just random people all over on the street, for the most part, people were saying, “We are Moroccans. We think the Western Sahara should be Moroccans.” It was really hard. I found a few people, but it was hard to find people who said, “We want independence.” So what has happened, for good or bad, Morocco has basically colonized and encouraged Moroccans to take over.
Of course, there were Moroccans there who were always wanting to be behind Morocco in the first place. But here’s another thing, and I got to give Moroccan government a lot of credit on this issue. Morocco has plowed in a ton of money and resources into the area. A lot of the people who want independence say, “No, that’s not true. They just take the phosphate mines, and they just are taking all the fish out of the sea. They’re just mining us for all their good.”
There’s a lot more money going into the Western Sahara than coming out of the Western Sahara. A lot of people don’t recognize that. It’s just like a lot more money is going into Mississippi than is coming out of Mississippi. Mississippi is a big drain on America. It’s a poor state, and we funnel a lot of money into Mississippi. Same thing, Morocco, just like Kosovo. If you look at Serbia during the Yugoslav era, they’ve plowed a bunch of money into Kosovo.
So it’s a poor state that Morocco has kind of helped to prop up. There’re a lot of new schools getting made. Like I said, there’re paved roads everywhere. So Moroccans have done their best to make the territory viable and economically better off than they were 30, 40 years ago. So that’s a long answer to what really deserves even a longer answer. [Laughing]
Chris Christensen: And we were talking about size before we started doing the recording. A lot of people don’t realize, and I think until recently I was one of them, how big Africa is. The Mercator projection kind of makes it look smaller because it’s there by the equator. You were saying the Sahara itself is how big?
Francis Tapon: Oh, the whole Sahara is the size of the contiguous United States. So if you could imagine being in New York and driving all the way to LA, and all you see is sand and desert and rock, and it’s just all Sahara. That’s the size of the Western Sahara. From Miami all the way up to Washington State is the size of the Sahara.
Chris Christensen: Wow.
Francis Tapon: So it’s just massive. It’s mind-boggling big. The Western Sahara is just a little tiny piece of the entire Sahara, but it is really a place to have some wide open space. We Americans kind of pride ourselves in having wide open space as well. Sahara kind of wins by a long shot.
Chris Christensen: What kind of itinerary do you recommend for the Western Sahara?
Francis Tapon: Most people are going to start in Morocco. So from there, you’re going to descend down into the Western Sahara. Most people will just go straight to Laayoune, which is the capital or the biggest city, has about a quarter of a million people. The city itself is okay. It’s mainly an administrative capital, an administrative area, and it has businesses and that kind of stuff.
But for me, the best things to see are deep into the Sahara itself, the Western Sahara, as well as Dakhla, which is much further south. It’s the last major city that you’ll see, and in fact, the only other really big town there. They’re trying to make it into a tourist destination. I think that they might succeed in doing that.
So I would say those three things would be Dakhla, just driving along the coastline, and then making an incursion into the actual desert area, so in other words, away from the coast. So you got to see a bit of the inland area. You got to see the coast, and you got to see Dakhla. Those are the three things I would say should be on anybody’s agenda if they go to the Western Sahara.
Chris Christensen: For someone who has a little less than four years to visit Africa, say a week or two, how would you tackle it? I mean is this something where you ought to get part of a tour? You ought to just rent a car and head off into the desert, hopefully with a lot of water in the trunk?
Francis Tapon: Well, yeah. If you only have about a week in the Western Sahara, then you’re probably going to have to give up your dream of going inland, unless you can somehow find a local driver and rent out a car once you’re in, let’s say, Dakhla or Laayoune. Those two major towns, you could either hire a driver who has a car and go to places like Smara. Smara is a town that’s kind of inland, which I visited as well. Soon after, they actually had a small protest there. There was a little bit of tension in the town, but pretty hard to notice unless you talked to a lot of locals there.
If you only have a week, then most people are just going to have enough time to go down to Dakhla along the coastline and then drive all the way back up, unless they can somehow fly out. But it would be a pity to not be able to do some sort of incursion into the Western Sahara.
Chris Christensen: Well, let’s talk about the one weekend, and let’s add in more time and talk about what we would do. So if I’m driving on the coast, what am I going to see? What is it going to look like?
Francis Tapon: Well, I mean, it’s pretty spectacular. The main economy of the Western Sahara is fishing. So they have an amazing coastline that is empty for the most part. You’re going to see everything from like these rugged, jagged peaks that just drop straight into the ocean as well as seeing beaches.
If you go all the way down to Dakhla, you’re going to get to an area where there’s kind of a bay. It’s protected. You’ll be able to see more touristic stuff. You’ll be able to see windsurfers. You’ll be able to see kite surfers. You’ll be able to get on a jet ski if you feel like doing that and see a bit of that in Dakhla itself. Aside from that, it’s pretty much empty land, and you can just camp and hang out anywhere you want around this huge coastline, where there’s hardly anybody there.
Chris Christensen: And you are camping your way through Africa?
Francis Tapon: I’m camping quite a bit. I definitely camped quite a bit in the Western Sahara. It’s wonderful because you don’t have to worry about raining, ever raining on you. There’s no precipitation, basically. Temperatures are warm. Although in certain times of the year, it can get chilly. You’ll want to have a nice sleeping bag.
But bottom line is, yeah, you can certainly camp anywhere along the way, except of course in the major towns, or they do have hotels and other accommodations to stay in.
Chris Christensen: Are there particular sites we should try and see? I’m getting sort of a trackless land picture in my head. Oh, if you’re there, you really need to see this particular spot or not.
Francis Tapon: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s the joy is, in fact, not to have any set agenda on where to go in the interior part. When you’re talking about the exterior part, Dakhla is, I would say, the highlight of the Western Sahara. It is the prime tourist destination to go to. So that is right on the coast, near the southern half of the Western Sahara. So that would be probably your best bet, unless you want to go all the way down, close to Mauritania, and go into there. But bottom line is that I would say is the one spot on the map that you have to go to.
Chris Christensen: And it sounds like you’re recommending it more for the activities than the sights.
Francis Tapon: No, I would say also the scenery is just beautiful. It has fantastic deserted beaches, and you have good food and great fish cuisine that you can have. There’s also a good tourist infrastructure. There’re good hotels, that kind of stuff. You have it all there in Dakhla.
Chris Christensen: Very similar to the rest of Morocco or to Morocco, depending on how we’re counting it at this point, in terms of the food and the accommodations and those sorts of things?
Francis Tapon: Well, definitely not as developed as Morocco.
Chris Christensen: Okay.
Francis Tapon: So they have it, and I would say the food is very fish-based. So of course, Morocco has a fair amount of fish as well, but Morocco you can get a variety of cuisine that you may not find in, let’s say, Dakhla.
Chris Christensen: And we’re still in a northern African culture here, rather than a sub-Saharan African culture, obviously.
Francis Tapon: Yes, that’s right. So the dominant culture here is the Arabic culture. They’ll speak either some flavor of Arabic, so either Moroccan Arabic or Hassaniya Arabic. It was a Spanish colony, as I mentioned before. But still, I’m fluent in Spanish, and I found it rare to find anybody who could speak Spanish. I think French is a little bit more easy to find, just because Morocco is now really installing itself, and the official language in Morocco is French, so the official international language, I’d say, besides Arabic. So you will not see a lot of black Africans in Western Sahara. That’s for sure.
Chris Christensen: How is your Arabic coming along?
Francis Tapon: It’s terrible [inaudible 00:18:49], as they would say. So as I mentioned before, I’m going to be heading back into North Africa toward the end of this trip. So in the meantime, I’ve been taking lessons and trying to learn some Arabic. It’s slow going I’m about to go to Chad next. So I’ll have a chance to practice my Arabic in Chad. It’s definitely a challenge, but I’m 100% determined to become at least proficient, if not fluent, in Arabic by the year 2017.
Chris Christensen: And getting along in Western Sahara without being able to speak the language, any harder or easier than other places?
Francis Tapon: I would say it’s a bit easier, if you just speak English, for example. It’s a bit easier than other places, mainly because the people in the Western Sahara are very friendly and very outgoing. So when you run into people like that, they’re just going to bend over to try to understand what you’re trying to say. So that is half the battle, if you will. If somebody wants to try to understand you, that’s half the battle. There you’re going to be understood somehow. When you run into a very grumpy culture or somebody who’s very close-minded, they just won’t have patience and will just write you off if you say three words in French the wrong way.
Chris Christensen: So if we throw in another week or two, and we get some time to go into the interior, where would we go? Or how would we do that?
Francis Tapon: Well, I would definitely want to check out the Western Sahara Wall, and not because it’s like the Great Wall of China, which actually gives it a fair run for the money. It’s almost a third of the length of the Great Wall of China. The entire eastern side of the Western Sahara has this long wall, but it’s not the wall you might think of, like a big German Berlin wall or the Chinese wall. It’s a wall made of sand and dirt and rock. So it’s kind of just piled up. So you can almost walk over it, especially because it’s so eroded now.
But it is a site to see, just how it just stretches on forever, and there’re a lot of military posts that have been abandoned there. I thought it would be very hard to go there. But in fact, it’s easy.
Chris Christensen: This is a manmade wall, not a naturally occurring wall.
Francis Tapon: That’s right. Yeah.
Chris Christensen: Okay.
Francis Tapon: So when the war started, they became independent in 1975, the Moroccans and those who wanted independence. Morocco basically created that wall in order to say, “This is ours on the west side of this wall, and you guys can have the rest on the east side of the wall.” They conveniently made the wall so that basically it took about 80% of the Western Sahara on the west side of that wall. So 20% is on the east side of the wall, and effectively forms the border between Mauritania and Algeria.
By the way, the main guy who’s really against this is Algeria. They are the ones who are the most furious about this. Of course, the locals, the Sahrawi, the Sahrawi are the people of the Western Sahara. There’re several there who are angry about this whole situation, but yeah. It’s definitely a wall that you can see. I would encourage you. It’s hard to miss it. You just keep driving east, and you’ll eventually bump into it.
Chris Christensen: So we get a driver. We get a car. We head off into the Sahara. We’re going to hit the wall eventually. Are we heading off towards a particular town or oasis or mountain or valley or just a lot of sand dunes?
Francis Tapon: For my case, I came in from the north. I came here from the town of Zag, which is in Morocco. I descended down into Smara. It’s funny because I was with my own car, and I was driving along. All of sudden, as I’m driving along, this was like basically right near Western Sahara. This jeep, military jeep, just pulled up alongside me driving really fast and he was just like pulling the wrong side and they had rifles. They weren’t pointing the rifles at me, but I was like, “Oh, hello,” kind of surprised. They told me that I was heading off in the wrong direction. I was going into a military red zone. So they stopped me, and they forced me to turn around.
But you’re not going to run into that problem unless you go way too east. I’m trying to see the unseen parts of Africa. So I’m kind of trying to push the limits. But I think if you go to places like Smara, S-M-A-R-A, I went also to Boucraa, which is B-O-U-C-R-A-A. Boucraa is a big phosphate-mining town. Besides fishing, phosphate mining is the big industry in the Western Sahara. So you can go there.
But south of Boucraa, they won’t let you go further south of that. So they’ll kind of stop you there. So what I did is I went across to Boujdour, which almost looks like bonjour in French, but it’s actually called Boujdour. From there, I went a bit south and then cut into a place called Bir Anzarane [SP], B-I-R. B-I-R in Arabic means ‘well’, so like as in to get water, a water well. So, Bir Anzarane which is like a well, the Anzarane well.
So I just drove there because it was a point on the map. So I just was driving along, and I picked up a random hitchhiker there. He was actually a black guy, which was kind of surprising. He was of a darker skin color than a typical Arabic person. Then he told me, “Well, just come with me, and we’ll go to Bir Anzarane together. I’ll show you the person I work for.” He actually had 600 camels, the guy he works for, that they were overseeing out there. So I got to camp with them and stay with them for a few days and got to see how it is like for a person to manage 600 camels. So that was a pretty remarkable thing. I got to hang out with them.
You’re really in the middle of nowhere. The other thing that was advantageous to go with somebody who’s local, like I was lucky to pick up this hitchhiker, is that there are still a few mines that have not been cleared. So they know the areas that have been mined still. So they helped me avoid those area.
Chris Christensen: Now, I would assume that would be off the road.
Francis Tapon: Correct. Yeah, that’s right. So the road is pretty clear. That’s the other thing. You can really see how Morocco has invested a fair amount of money into the Western Sahara. The roads are paved, a lot of paved roads, and they’re fresh, new paved roads. They’re not like the crappy roads, paved roads that you’ll see in a lot of West Africa, which are full of potholes and just disasters. These are just as good as any paved road you’ll find in the United States. You’ll find them all over in the Western Sahara.
Of course, if you go deep enough, those roads will turn into dirt roads and turn into kind of sandy roads. But still, it’s easy to avoid the mined areas because as long as you stay on a designated road.
Chris Christensen: Now, we’ve named a number of different towns there. I don’t have a mental image of them. So you mentioned a phosphate-mining town. So I’m picturing something gritty and industrial.
Francis Tapon: It’s not at all industrial at all. In fact, it’s quite pristine. I stayed there with a guy who was working in the mines. There’re no smoke stacks. I mean, they’re just digging holes and pulling phosphates out of them. So it’s not this kind of ugly, dirty town at all. It’s just a desert town. There, you just have a chance to see some of the industry in action, if you will, but it’s not unattractive.
Chris Christensen: Okay. Then you pictured the well out here in a desert town. I’m picturing date palms and some source of water, the well. What else is in town? There’s a mosque. There’s a market.
Francis Tapon: Yeah, they have some simple things. If you go out to these really village-y areas, then yes, you’ll find exactly as you described. You’ll find the palm trees. You’ll find the tiny mosque. You’ll get into a village. I mean, it’s mainly an area to chill out. You’re not going to find the Internet. If you need a timeout, this is the place to go. You want to go to the Western Sahara if you want a timeout from everything, because it’s just out there in the middle of nowhere.
If you stay on the coastline, it’s still pretty quiet, even on the coastline. Unless you’re in Laayoune or Boujdour or maybe Dakhla, that’s about it, those three towns are it. Then of course, if you’re right on the border, there’s a little tiny town on the boarder of Mauritania.
Chris Christensen: Now, I’m going to guess that a four-year trek through Africa has a surprise or two. What kind of surprises awaited you in Western Sahara?
Francis Tapon: Well, one of them is kind of the one I mentioned, was the fact that I didn’t expect to meet this guy who was working for this other man who has 600 camels. What was funny about the whole experience, and I guess to paint a more accurate picture and to show . . .
So I got this guy who was in a turban, and you could basically only just see his eyes, right? He’s just a hitchhiker. The sun is setting, and by the time we get to Bir Anzarane, which is like I said a little village out there, the sun has set. Right before we get there, we see a mine explosion. He says, “This is where there was a car that just last week or last month . . . ” I can’t remember what it was . . . ” had just driven over there and blown up.”
So I was like, “Wait a second. You guys, you’re living in this village, and people have been driving all around. There’re tracks, car tracks, everywhere. I was driving on one of these many car tracks, and you’re saying that just a month ago somebody just drove and blew himself up on a mine?” He said, “Yeah, but the driver didn’t die. It just destroyed part of the car.” I said, “Great.”
The sun has set. So it was totally dark, and I’m driving with this guy who’s going to take me to the middle of nowhere camp, far from the village. So the village was remote enough, but going into a camp in the village. Then I get there. It’s totally dark. The guy, who comes out, the owner of the 600 camels, has his military outfit on. He’s like dressed in his little turban. I’m like, “This sounds like a really great kidnapping story about to happen.”
I’m just like going there, and they’re just going to take me and then kidnap me away. He’s got the military outfit. Who knows if he has weapons? I have nothing. I’m in the middle of nowhere. Nobody knows where I am. But that’s one of these moments, and it’s kind of surprising. And yet, you have to just, I feel, trust people.
Chris Christensen: I’m going to guess instead of a kidnapping, you found great hospitality?
Francis Tapon: Exactly, and that’s what almost always happens. You have to sometimes, when you travel, just trust people. Yes, occasionally you’ll get burned and get robbed and whatever and that kind of stuff, but it’s so rare compared to the amount of wonderful things that happen. To be able to sit there and watch them make bread which was another surprising thing.
In fact, I showed in my trailer for this television show that I’m working on, The Unseen Africa. There’s a great scene where they take bread, flour. They basically warmed up dirt. They made a little fire in the dirt. Then they brushed the dirt aside, and then they throw the bread in the dirt, these hot coals in the dirt. Then they cover the bread with dirt, with sand. All this sand is covering the flour. They let it sit there for about 15, 20 minutes, and guess what?
After 15, 20 minutes, guess what happens? They pulled this bread out of the sand, and it’s bread. It’s like the flour is totally cooked up. They wipe all the sand off. The sand is nice and easy to get off the bread. You break the bread, and you eat it. It’s nice and warm and toasty, and it’s delicious. It’s kind of like wow. This is how they cook in the Sahara. This is a wonderful surprising way of how they make bread in the middle of the Sahara, when there’re basically very few trees out anywhere to be seen. It was fascinating. That was truly surprising.
Chris Christensen: Interesting. You have mentioned that it’s a pretty country. You’ve talked about the coast, for instance, and some other things. You’re standing in the prettiest spot in Western Sahara. Where are you standing? What are you looking at?
Francis Tapon: I really enjoyed two things. In fact, unfortunately I can’t tell you. It’s somewhere between Boujdour and Dakhla I just found. There’re lots of areas.
Chris Christensen: You can’t get there, but okay.
Francis Tapon: But the bottom line is it’s hard to miss. There’re just areas where they just have these cliffs that drop straight into the sea. I just think it’s beautiful, great cinematography, where you can just like show these cliffs that drop into the sea. Again, from that trailer, The Unseen Africa, you’ll see. At the very end of it, you’ll see a clip of a shoreline there.
The second thing is just the desert itself. Really, I’m not that picky about where exactly it is. But I just adore, adore the desert. I love it. I love how clean it is. I love how silent it is. I love how there’s just nothing there. I love how I can see for miles and kilometers, and there’s nothing obstructing my view. I love the big sky. I love it. Those are the two most spectacular views.
The good news is that you just won’t find any ugly industrial part in the entire Western Sahara. You can go anywhere, anywhere, and you’ll just never see anything that you could say, “This is ugly. This is unattractive.” Everything, certainly if you like desert, you’ll be happy everywhere. If you like sea, you’ll be happy anywhere along the coastline.
Chris Christensen: Excellent. One of the questions we ask, especially with this kind of destination, is when did you feel closest to home? And when did you feel furthest from home?
Francis Tapon: My home is San Francisco. I was born and raised there. So I have to say that near a coastline in order to feel close to home, so places like Dakhla has a little bay, if you go there the right time of year. I was there in May. It was warmer than you have in San Francisco, but kind of this feel of nice dry, warm climate that you might find in other parts of the Bay Area, outside of San Francisco. You get that nice warm, dry climate and have these nice sea views. That’s definitely closest to home.
Furthest from home was when this guy who was from Mauritania, it’s possible. I’m not sure. He might have been a slave. By the way, slavery is still quite active in West Africa. You’ll have anywhere, in Mauritania for example; up to 20-25% of the population are slaves. So in the Western Sahara, you’ll find slaves. I was not so imprudent to ask whether the guy was a slave or not, but I’m pretty sure he was. He was from Mauritania.
But anyway, what he did is he went up to a camel, and he milked the camel, and then gave me the milk. I drank it straight out of the camel, and it was still warm. That’s when I realized I’m far from home.
Chris Christensen: You’ve surprised me a little bit here with slavery, because I did not realize that. Now, this is an indentured servitude? Or this is a, “I’m a slave. My children will be slaves. Their children will be slaves,” sort of thing?
Francis Tapon: There’s a little bit of both. Slavery that exists today is not the kind that we envisioned or that we think about in America, back in the day when slaves were being traded. So you just go to a market and say, “I’ll buy you for $1000,” that kind of thing and being able to trade slaves, that kind of stuff. That is not as big. That’s called Chattel slavery. But what you will see is bonded labor, or people have like debt slaves.
Chris Christensen: Okay.
Francis Tapon: So what happens is you’re a parent, and you want to buy something, and you get into debt. Then eventually the person who owes you debt, you say basically, “Well, why don’t you just take my children? And they’ll work for you for 10 years.” Then that will pay off the debt. So a lot of times, parents will give their children to richer people who they owe money to or they want to earn money. Sometimes, the slave owner will give money to the poor parents. So it’s a way for the parents to make some money and buy food and that kind of stuff. No parent likes to give away their child just like that, but if it means getting some food, that’s what they’ll do.
People might say, “But that’s crazy.” Think of it if you’re a parent. You’re not going to send your child to school anyway. So the child is not going to go to school. You’re not going to be able to feed your child adequately anyway. You may not be able to give them anything. If you give them away to a richer person, that person is going to be able to feed them better. They’re not going to send them to school, but at least they’ll have a home that has water, electricity, and be able to live okay, versus being out in the Sahara where you have no water, no electricity, or you have to go get water in a well, and it’s inconvenient, and no school, and you’re poor, and you have terrible nutrition.
So just try to understand the parents’ perspective, because for me, it sounded crazy. Eventually though, spending enough time with meeting slaves and understanding the whole logic behind it, I’m not trying to condone it. I’m just trying to understand why it still exists today and what are the motivations and that kind of stuff.
Chris Christensen: Well, some of that actually exists still in the US as well, indentured servitude, even though slavery is illegal. Whether it should or not is an entirely different question. But people who are earning their pay for coming to the US, which happened way back in the colonies as well, you would be a servant for seven years, for instance, to repay your trip to the US was one of the ways that, even in the North, things got founded.
Francis Tapon: Yeah. The big difference, I guess, is that you and I were from America, and you’ll never run into a slave. I mean, it’s very hard to. You have to kind of really go looking for it, whereas here, in West Africa, I run into them often. I mean, anywhere, like I said, anywhere between 5% to 25% of the population, depending on the country in West Africa, are slaves. So inevitably, if you are mingling with people and families and staying with families, you’re going to find some slaves.
Chris Christensen: Interesting. In what may make an awkward transition, what was the best day you had in Western Sahara?
Francis Tapon: I would say hanging out with those camel guys, the guys who had all those camels. It’s just unexpected. It’s one of those wonderful things where you just throw yourself out there when you’re traveling. You just cross your fingers and hope for the best, and I hit jackpot there, really had a great time with them. They would make tea out in the middle of nowhere.
That’s the funny thing. It’s kind of warm sometimes, and they’re making hot tea here and there, with a lot of sugar in it. That’s the difference between Moroccan tea, which is absolutely delicious. They put mint and sugar in it. In the Western Sahara, the tea changes. You won’t find that kind of minty tea. You’ll find much more, I guess, more like English tea, if you want to think of it, or Indian tea or that kind of stuff that’s less minty, and smaller portions. So I don’t know if that has to do with the fact that they’re much more water is more precious. But in Morocco, you’ll get a nice tall glass of tea. In the Western Sahara, they’ll give you this little shot glass of tea.
But the preparation is still kind of a nice, meticulous ceremony, big ritual where they’re kind of mixing up the tea. It’s fascinating to watch it being made. They’ll load it up with sugar. It’s a great shot of caffeine.
Chris Christensen: I’m assuming that you didn’t decide to change your career to be a camel herder after that experience though.
Francis Tapon: [Laughing]. No, but it definitely made me appreciate and love the Sahara. Like I say, it’s deserts. I mean, I love mountains. I love deserts. But it’s fascinating to be in that culture and see how people live day-to-day in these places that are “inhospitable”. And yet, you find such hospitality in these inhospitable places. It’s fascinating.
Chris Christensen: Excellent. Before we get to my last three questions, what else should we know before we head to the Western Sahara?
Francis Tapon: That it’s safe. I mean, I can’t emphasize that enough.
Chris Christensen: Besides the land mines, it’s entirely safe.
Francis Tapon: [Laughing]. Well, again, you’re only going to go to the land mine issue if you go off road.
Chris Christensen: Right.
Francis Tapon: You should only go off road unless you have somebody who’s knowledgeable about the roads. So that solves that problem. But I would say the number one thing is that it’s safe. The number two thing is make sure that you don’t just stay on the coastline. Try to get into the interior, anywhere in the interior, just for variety. Number three: realize that it does get cold out there. At nighttime, it can get chilly. So don’t go out there just with shorts. Do be respectful. I mean, this is an Arabic culture, and you do want to cover yourself up, men and women, even though it can be quite hot. Don’t go out there with your shorty shorts on. It might offend a few people, especially if you’re a woman.
Chris Christensen: One thing that makes you laugh and say, “Only in Western Sahara.”
Francis Tapon: Only in Western Sahara will you be able to be out in the middle of nowhere and have a nice warm camel drink, camel milk. That was quite unusual.
Chris Christensen: You really know you’re in the Western Sahara when . . . What?
Francis Tapon: When you’ve hit a land mine. [Laughing]
Chris Christensen: I’m hoping I would know sometime before that. [Laughing] I believe that is a unique answer on this show. In 400-some episodes, we’ve never had that as an answer.
Francis Tapon: You know you’re in Western Sahara when you’re driving along, and all of a sudden you see kind of this low wall, a sand/Earth wall, and you realize that we’re not in China. So that’s not the Great Wall of China. It can only be one thing. It’s got to be the Moroccan wall. That’s when you know for sure you are in the Western Sahara, without a doubt.
Chris Christensen: Excellent. If you had to summarize Western Sahara in three words, what three words would you use?
Francis Tapon: Desert. Sea. Empty.
Chris Christensen: [Laughing]. Excellent.
Francis Tapon: Can I use a Spanish word? Nada. Nada.
Chris Christensen: [Laughing].
Francis Tapon: A whole lot of nada.
Chris Christensen: A whole lot of nada. So as we have alluded to, people can also see what you’re doing because you are working on a TV show. Tell us a little more about that.
Francis Tapon: On May 25th, which is Africa Day, it’s the official Africa Day in the world. I will be doing a Kickstarter campaign that will be looking to raise money to do a pilot episode for a TV series called The Unseen Africa. So what I’ve been doing for over a year now that I’ve been in Africa is filming everywhere I go. I’ve been basically trying to capture parts of Africa that we’re just not used to seeing on television, because basically the image that we always see on television is either good stuff like primitive tribes dancing around or the pyramids or wildlife, or you have negative images like AIDS, pestilence, crime, war, and disease.
So I’m trying to get beyond those two stereotypical images of Africa and explore the parts of Africa that we’re just not used to seeing, like the Western Sahara, for example. When I go to places that are well-known like Morocco, try to go parts of Morocco that are just not often seen. So that’s the focus of the television show. I’m hoping that people will go to Theunseenafrica.com or go to Africa54.com. Then check out the Kickstarter campaign.
Look at the three-minute trailer video. You’ll see a lot of the images that I’ve just talked about. The pilot episode I’m hoping to raise $15,000 for is going to be based on Morocco. That will include Western Sahara footage. So a lot of the things we just talked about in the show, you’ll be able to see on the trailer. I hope you can put the trailer also on your website as well, Chris.
Chris Christensen: Sure, absolutely. We’ll put the trailer, and then we’ll also link off to Francis’ website. So if you don’t remember his website, you certainly, hopefully at this point, will remember Amateur Traveler. So we’ll put it all there. Well Francis, thanks so much for coming back on the show. I suspect we’ll want to have you on again here as this grand adventure continues.
Francis Tapon: Thank you so much, Chris. I’d love to be back one day.
Chris Christensen: And I’m glad that we had electricity enough for the whole recording here. We look forward to talking to you again.
Francis Tapon: Thank you again.
Chris Christensen: In news of the community, there are more and more transcripts available for Amateur Traveler episodes. So you might want to check that out on the website, Amateurtraveler.com. With that, we’ll end this episode of the Amateur Traveler. If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment on this episode at Amateurtraveler.com, or send me an email to host at amateurtraveler.com. You can also join the Facebook community or follow me on Twitter, @Chris2X. As always, thanks so much for listening.
Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.