1107 Morocco’s Most Isolated City (Mor 349)

Trip Start Aug 15, 2011
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Morocco  , Guelmim-Es Smara,
Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Day 051: 16 hours, 30.1 kms

Smara is arguably the most isolated city in all of Morocco.   A four hour drive from the nearest town of any sort… at a dead end, so it's not on the way to anywhere… Nobody goes to Smara unless they absolutely have to.  One fellow explains to me "Smara is the city of punishment—if a police, gendarme, or civil servant does something that displeases his superiors—he gets sent to Smara."

I get on the bus which is full of robust Saharawi ladies (in Saharawi culture a woman must be a plus size to be considered beautiful), and soon we head off into the night time.  After we pass Boukra, a major phosphate mine, there is no sign of life anywhere. But then, in the middle of the nightime, the bus pulls off onto a dirt path, drives for a little ways… sure enough, there’s a dim little café/bus rest stop smack in the middle of nowhere.

I have become a bit unpopular with my fellow travellers during this desert trip, because each time we enter or exit a town, there’s a gendarme police post, and they have me get off to question me and write down my ID card information.  In 2009 they didn’t do this—but I guess with the recent riots en El Ayoun, they want to keep track of foreigners wandering around these parts… The police are friendly, however, and don’t seem suspicious as to who I’m heading to these very un-touristy places. But it is a bit of an annoyance for the bus driver and the other travellers.  There’s also a sub-Saharan fellow who looks like a nomadic merchant who speaks only a little French… so at least I’m not the only one this time.

Unlike Boujdour, Smara has a scrappier feel with an unpaved bus station where I learn the next bus will be in 24 hours.  So that means I’m going to have to squeeze 16 hours worth of discovering out of this town, which looks likes it’ll be a challenge.  I soon find a 2 Euro hotel (maybe the cheapest hotel yet here in Morocco), take a quick evening stroll around town, where there’s a decent little main street boulevard lined with shops, then decide to call it a day.

Next day

Next day I set out on my challenge: I’ve got to spend the entire day exploring this town.  No cheating.  No just sitting and chilling out at a café.  No taking naps in my hotel room.  It’s not every day that I have the privilege of being stuck in the absolute middle of nowhere, and I’m going to make the best of theis experience.  

And soon I start to get the feel for how bizarre this town is.  First I hike south, where, other than an interesting stone mosque there don’t seem to be any historical structures.  Then I follow the southern border east, up a hill to get a panoramic view and realize two things: first, this is a large and growing town—large, new neighbourhoods are being built to the east. Second: there is almost no green around the city.  In fact the ground is black with shale like rock.

This makes Smara a unique city in Morocco.  See, every other large town and city has an obvious raison d’etre:  it’s either has agricultural land nearby, it’s on the coast so people can live of fishing, there’s a mine nearby—or it’s a “farmer’s market town”, a commercial hub for the surrounding villages.  But there’s no logical reason for a city to be here in the middle of a moonscape!  There’s not even enough water here—it has to be trucked in from hundreds of kilometres away.

I do learn later that back in the day, Smara was an important stopping point for caravans crossing the desert coming from places like Timbuktu—but those days are long gone, especially with the Moroccan-Algerian border being closed.   I can understand why Morocco would want to encourage people to move to the extremely sparsely inhabited South Sahara—to coastal towns like Boujdour and El Ayoun, but Smara….?

This place has me scratching my head as I see an enormous new mosque being built, a cozy little cookie cut neighbourhood for military families, and the scattering of houses as the city is expanding for miles.  I reach the edge of town, and the day is just starting… it’s going to be a real challenge to milk 16 hours of exploring out of this town.  I see a couple of houses by themselves off in the distance, so I decide to check them out, hoping they might count as a separate “town”.  They’re just a couple of windowless houses, looking more like a family clan, so I decide not to count it as a town.  Folks don’t seem to mind me wandering around, and I head on back towards town.  This time I follow a very dry riverbed with a couple scrappy bushes and thorn trees that I wouldn’t have sneezed at elsewhere, but here in Smara they look adorable.  I guess this means there’s water down there somewhere—so this land actually could support a handful of semi nomadic herdsmen, but certainly not a city.  I head on back, pausing to take a video clip with the black rock moonscape all around me.

Back in town I head back towards the west side of town, this time cutting through a narrow alley slum.  These, I learn later are Saharawis from other parts in Morocco. Then I continue to the western edge, where there is one green area with a little sewage stream running through.  I decide to check it out,  hoping to see some agriculture, but no… just some scruffy trees.  On this side there is some history, with a cluster of sturdy stone structure which were once the heart of this caravan rest stop.  The military base is actually quite nice too—with dome roofed rooms which stay cooler than traditional rooms, and stylish castle like walls.  I doubt soldiers enjoy being posted here, so there is an attempt to make their experience a bit more liveable.  I continue on back to the bus station area which is now an open air weekly market and go looking for something for lunch.

Smara has a surprising variety of cheap eateries—even a little juice bar!  My guess is that a lot of the guys who work here don’t come with their families, so they eat out at places like these.    I’ve also noticed a lack of big, beautiful houses.  I suspect that at least some of the government workers here are making decent money, but I doubt that any of them are planning on spending their retirement years here!  So there’s little incentive to invest in a big, beautiful house.

Interesting Encounters

After lunch, I realize that I’ve explored the town… but still have half a day to kill! Oh well, I’m going to stick to my determination to spend the entire day in exploration mode.  Where can I go?  Well, I guess I can go to the southeast end of town… which I do, and for lack of other alternatives, I do my Smara “concert” sitting in the shade of a long wall overlooking the desert.  I spot what looks like a village beyond a dry run up on yonder ridge, so I figure I’ll go check it out.  But as I pass an empty airstrip, a soldier approaches me and tells me that it’s forbidden to go over there.  It’s actually not a town, but a UN base, set up for observing the region after the conflict here in the 80s.  To my knowledge, this area has been peaceful since, then so it must be the most boring assignment in the world, to be stationed here in Smara.  A helicopter flies back and forth, showing that observation is still ongoing.

On my way back a couple friendly fellows join me, and much to my relief, they invite me over for tea!  At least this will spare me from having to walk up and down Smara another time!  They are Saharawis who work from time to time at the UN base and they confirm that, yes, life is very boring for the mix of nationalities there—but they do throw some big Christmas parties, explaining the hundreds of broken beer bottles dumped at the edge of town.

They are actually quite proud of their town telling me that, yes, Smara is actually a tourist attraction!  It used to be a stopping point in the Paris-Dakar rally, and there’s a café where they say they’ve met several foreigners who like getting off the beaten path.  We have some tea, play some songs (one of them plays the guitar as well) they show me around the town a bit, explaining the history of the beautiful stone mosque I’d seen earlier, walk me to the bus station bid me farewell.

It’s dark, and I’m REALLY satisfied with my tour of Smara… I’m about to give up on my determination to spend the whole day in adventure mode, and just go and veg out in a café… Then, a surreal moment: someone calls my name… What the….?!

It’s the fellow I’d sat next to on the bus from El Ayoun yesterday… and he invites me for coffee.  Cool… now I can spend my last couple of hours learning more about life in this strange city. 

He works on a development project, creating new streets in new neighborhoods, and by his sunburned face, I can see he spends a lot of time outdoors.  But he doesn’t seem to mind—in fact he used to work in Casablanca and says, with the lower cost of living, he can save a lot more money working here.  Of course, he isn’t married, and commutes back and forth to El Ayoun where his parents live. He used to work as a tour guide in the tourism rich Zagora region, but when tourism plummeted due to the Middle East wars, he had to go seeking his fortune elsewhere

He’s a Saharawi as well—but not from this region.  He’s from M’hamid Ghizlane in an entirely different region in Morocco.  He explains some of the differences between Saharawis from the east and those from the south.  For example, Eastern Saharawi weddings are expensive, running at about 5,000 Euros… but South Saharawi weddings are ludicrously expensive—running ten times that much!

He also gives away some of the great secrets of the desert culture, for example, did you know why Saharawis add a special mineral to their tea which gives it a thick froth at the top?  He explains:  “In the desert there are always sandstorms—but that doesn’t stop people from drinking tea.  What happens is, the sand lands on the froth which keeps it out of the liquid, they you sip your tea from the side and voila! Sand-free tea!

Another fellow, also from Mhamid Ghizlane joins us.  He says that he had the opportunity to emigrate abroad, but it didn’t work out.  Now he’s a career military man, settled down here in Smara and planning to get married soon.  But he doesn’t seem bitter about the strange twist of fate.  “Hey, life isn’t too bad here.  I earn a decent living, and I’ve gotten used to Smara”

And so, with these insightful encounters, I end my 24 hours Smara adventure.
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