Saturday, January 08, 2005

To Rabat Without Any Underwear On...

So after two (somewhat) idyllic weeks in the United States of America, on the evening of January 3rd, 2005, I set off for Mauritania. Mom helped me pack up, insisting on loading every square inch of extra space with granola bars and powdered milk for the seven long months until I return, then dropped me off at the airport. The plan was simple. I was to leave on Royal Air Maroc flight 201 from Kennedy to Casablanca, where I would have a 17 hour layover in which to putter around the city, then hop the flight down to Nouakchott, arriving safe and sound at 2:35 am on January 5th. Right.

At the airport I met up with three Peace Corps volunteers I knew serving in Mauritania. The flight was delayed so, as Peace Corps volunteers and Fulbright scholars are known to do in periods of down time, we went to get a drink. Two hours and three double sized pints of Brooklyn Lager later, the waitress, who was nice enough to set up a radio link with our gate in case the plane decided to leave, informed us that the flight was cancelled and that we would be spending the night in a hotel. We joined Mr. And Mrs. Jackson of Hicksville, New York, who where on their way to visit their Peace Corps daughter in Mauritania, and armed with just our carry-on luggage (and no coat), we waited outside for the bus to the Holiday Inn. The hotel was straight out of Dante's Inferno. I don't know what the receptionists may have done in life, but it must have been bad, for now they worked at a hotel whose only clients are people whose flights have been cancelled. People were a little ticked off, to say the least. Myself and my fellow travelers were still a little zen about things at this point. We got our meal tickets and helped ourselves to the buffet, waited on line for free toothbrushes… Margaret and I were even lucky enough to get invited to a drink by two visiting Texans. The two guys approached us to chat as we were hanging around the lobby. They were staying in the hotel down the block but since it was without a bar, they had meandered down here. One of their opening lines was, man theHoJo's here are much classier than they are back in Houston. I replied that they had just confirmed every stereotype Northeasterns had about the South. We made polite conversation for a while but then left. Never accept bourbon from a man who may want to lure you back to a HoJo's. Moving on.

The airline was nice enough to narrow down our departure time to between 3 am and 3 pm on January 4th. Don't call them, they'll call us. The next morning I was awakened by the striking workers banging on their drums and firing up the fans to inflate the omni-present giant rat. I went down to fight for a place in the breakfast line with increasing annoyed group of people trying to get to Beijing. At1 pm, we headed out to the bus to the airport, still wearing the same clothes from yesterday. After only 3 and a half hours more delay, we were airborne, winging our way to Casablanca.

Unfortunately, when we arrived at 5 am, we discovered that we had missed our connection. The next flight wasn't for almost two days. They would be happy to put us up in the decaying beachfront palace of Hotel Azur for the interim. By this time we had picked up a seventh for our little group, Nathaniel, a college kid in a pressed shirt and a tie on his way to deliver computer equipment for the project he was working on. There were a couple other travelers with us, mostly boundfor Dakar, but as they were completely irritating, we ignored them. One was completely furious that they only had Lipton tea. She only drinks herbal. Have fun in Africa lady. They next days were spent wandering around the markets of Casa. Doing some light shopping and sampling whatever it was the street vendors were selling. On the second day we visited the mosque of King HassanII, third biggest in the world. It was brand new, not fully completed yet, with a retractable roof so people could worship in the sunlight in the summer. That certainly wasn't an option now. It had been in the 30s when we landed that morning, and warmed a little during the day, but not too much. Should have brought a coat. Since we had a couple hours to kill before headed back to the airport for our 11:50 pm flight, Margaret and I decided to go to the hammam. Longtime fans of these e-mails remember my hammam adventures in Hungary and Syria, but for the new folks in the house, a hammam is a traditional bath,mostly found in Islamic countries, where you strip down to your skivvies and get vigorously scrubbed. That is pretty much how it went. The scrubber-girl was a little nuts with her scrubbed and took about a pound of flesh off. I had a tan once. Then I moved over to the convex plastic soaping-board where I got my soapy massage. Now, I am covered in soap and the board is covered in soap, you know what that makes? An almost perfectly frictionless surface. And, as anyone who has ever played air hockey knows, you only need a little push togo flying. I was holding on for dear life as she rubbed my back. I was afraid that one strong push would send me skidding off the table and across the hammam floor, a little naked pink infidel missile.

The only problem with the hammam is that I still didn't have any extra clothes. (Yes I am still wearing the same things as when I left NYC.) And my underwear was soaked. No worries, I can go without. All I have to do is go back to the hotel, get my bags, and head to the airport. Which, once I had been reunited with my group of seven, is exactly was I did. On the bus to the airport I became a little concerned by the fact that the fog was so thick I couldn't see the other side of the road except for the vague glow of passing headlights. The scene at the end of Casablanca where they are at the airport and walk off into the mist? Yeah, not so good for air travel. When we get there they inform us that the flight has been re-routed, we have to go to Rabat. So we claim all of our luggage (not an easy feat given that Nathaniel has 300 pounds of computer equipment and the Jackson's have seven suitcases worth of school supplies for their daughter's village) and get on the bus with a bunch of other travelers headed to various African locals. At 9:45 we sent off to Rabat. Perhaps 45 minutes down the down, the driver gets a call on his cell phone. After some discussion in Arabic, we turn around and go back to Casablanca. After waiting around outside in weather cold enough to see my breath (I still only have a long sleeved cotton shirt on) to get through the security checkpoint, we get back into the airport. During this time, I will have to give this to you Mom, the granola bars came in handy. Everyone had two because no one had eaten dinner.

After finally getting inside, dragging everyone's luggage, the official tells us, hurry hurry up! You were supposed to be on the bus to Rabat! Back down through security and back onto the bus. Apparently only the passengers to Nouakchott were supposed to get on the bus, not those to Dakar. The Dakar people had mixed in, so we had to come back and let them off. At 12:50 am on January 7th, 2005, we set off again back to Rabat. The bus is freezing. And I am still not wearing any underwear. At just after 3 am we arrive in Rabat, and dothe speediest off load of luggage anyone has ever seen, get in line to clear immigration, and, praise be to Allah, out onto the tarmac were the plane is waiting engines on, to take me home. We arrive in Nouakchott around 6 am, in a frigging sandstorm of course, and I am back home and sweeping by 7:30.

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