Western Sahara Stories and Tips

Part 2: Welcome to the Hotel California

We drove through the darkness towards the orange pinprick in the distance. Like moths to a light bulb we were. The pinprick grew larger the closer we got. It then divided into two distinct colours – a perpendicular line of bright white light on the right hand side and a splodge of soft orange light to the left hand side. It was the bright white light we identified first – petrol station/gas station/servo* or whatever. The orange splodge of light stayed an orange splodge of light until about 5 minutes before we reached it. Or should I say them? Because the splodge gradually fragmented into smaller orange splodges that eventually turned out to be the lights of a hotel/a motel/the bar in Star Wars. Claire did a perfect job of reversing between two parked vehicles just as she would have done without me waving my arms around behind the truck like a fruitcake. I needed to feel useful.

I felt I’d been about as much use as a chocolate fireguard so far on the trip. I was also freezing my arse off. It’d been warm in the cab and I’d climbed out in a t-shirt and long cotton skirt. So now the truck was parked and for some technical reason that I couldn’t get my head around, you’ve got to let the engine idle for a bit first. Well that was the coldest bit I’d experienced in a long time. I couldn’t get into the back of the truck without Claire because I didn’t have the energy to lift the tailgate down myself. When I went to Mali I was expecting to be cold in the desert at night but I thought my 3-seasons sleeping bag would probably be a bit of overkill. Instead I bought a second hand nylon zip job from a charity shop and worked on the principle that I’d buy a nice locally made blanket if I needed one and then give it to someone as a present when I got home. After frantically rummaging around in the back of the truck for warm stuff we headed towards the beckoning orange glow across the car park. Our truck was probably the most unusual vehicle in the car park, the rest being the usual mix of 4x4s, shiny Mercs, Toyota pick-ups and clapped-out Peugeot estate cars. A couple of gleaming white camper vans provided more evidence that we were still heading in the right direction for Europe.

‘Why did you park up next to the petrol station light?’
‘Safer.’, replied Clare.
‘Right.’, I said.

What a weird place. Architecturally there were two ways of looking at it - it was either post-modernist fusion gone mad or the place had evolved over time and could therefore be defined as ‘organic’ rather than designed. I incline towards the latter. The building appeared to be modern with smooth rendered walls painted a sort of dark terracotta colour. The main entrance to the place was reached by winding your way between wrought-iron, mosaic-topped tables and chairs scattered across a large circular paved patio area. To the left hand side was a garden area surrounded by a rudimentary barrier made of bamboo poles.

As far as we could see, the only purpose this barrier served was as some sort of deterrent should anyone take a fancy to the scaled-down mock Greco-Roman pillars dotted around amidst the foliage. With its eclectic mix of tropical and savannah planting this small garden area was also entirely in keeping with the notion that it was either evolution or design behind this place – but not both. There was also room on this paved area for a couple of large brick outdoor cooking ranges and a bread oven, none of which were in use when we were there. And covering this whole patio area was the biggest umbrella-like structure I’d ever seen. It was huge and, although it looked like it, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t held up using the same principles as a normal umbrella.

As our immediate mission was the toilets we didn’t pay much attention to our fellow travellers while negotiating the patio furniture or the corridor we were directed along. One toilet door was nailed up and the other had a sign up in what looked like Arabic that we thought probably translated as ‘These toilets are not inspected at all so do not hold any expectations in relation to either cleanliness or the provision of water’. It wasn’t that we hadn’t come across worse loos on our trip; it was just that we thought the place looked like it could have done better than that. I started to wonder if this was going to be one of those ‘all fur coat and no knickers’ hotels that I associate more with Asia. A leisurely stroll back down the corridor took us past the entrance to a self-service food counter behind which was a kitchen that looked as clean, if not cleaner, than my own kitchen at home. It was deserted.

Dressed exactly as you would expect him to be dressed, at Claridges, the maitre’d stood by a table, on which was arrayed the most frightening looking variety of cake things, just inside the doorway leading back out to the patio. When I asked him if that was all there was to eat he gestured to us both and led us to a table, pulled out our chairs, waited for us to get settled, handed us two menus and took our drinks orders with some bemusement. He was so courteous and polite I really hoped the cakes I’d looked at with horror hadn’t been made by his mum. Almost immediately he was back with our two triple-sized milky coffees and, as he placed them in front of us, he remarked on how we were two clever ladies. Damn right we were! Somewhere along the route we had acquired a couple of large-size plastic mugs because we were fed up with small cups of coffee AND more importantly, because you’ve got your own mug you can order drinks ‘to go’ if you’re in a hurry. And eeebygum** was that coffee good. Once we’d ordered we started to have a nosey at the others. Although it was only about 10 ish, I think the ‘professional’ travellers had all gone to bed because there wasn’t a soul dressed in clean, ironed, co-ordinated, proper desert travel kit. The rooms were on the next floor reached by a concrete staircase leading up from the patio, complete with what I call a ‘Spanish villa’ concrete balustrade.

At least it was painted the same terracotta colour as the rest of the building. After looking around in silence for a while I decided I was having a David Lynch movie moment. There was a tall, well-dressed, man with his foot in a cast who kept laughing and talking to himself as he laboriously made his way up the stairs on a pair of crutches. There was a table occupied by 4 hooded Wookies and another by a black toy-poodle sitting on a chair beside a man who looked like Lenin. Inevitably there was a smattering of usually young and European ‘Innocents Abroad’ (2). Most had only gone moderately ‘bush’ in their dress but there were a couple of seriously gone ‘bush’ in the head types. But this was ‘fusion bush’. Boubou from Nouadhibou, tattoo from Timbuctou, turban from Durban, hat from Fez. For the head types there seems to be a deep fascination with the different belief systems they’ve encountered and in many cases they will dabble a little. Nothing wrong with that. It’s when people take on board a whole bunch of different beliefs from different systems, particularly those that are fundamentally antithetical to each other, that I get twitchy. I just wish they’d give a bit more deep thought to life, the universe and everything before opening their mouths.

This lot are not ‘gappies’ – you don’t get many down this way. No, I think they think they’re nomads or free spirits or something and they certainly seem mostly harmless. The man with the crutches came back downstairs walking perfectly normally without them and rejoined his friends. A family, father in blue boubou, only the eyes of the three black-clad women with him could be seen, two young boys in tracksuits and a baby in a buggy all sat at a table furthest away from everyone else. By choice I suspect. Then I looked at Claire. She was wearing four t-shirts, a pair of bogging jeans and a bandana. I was wrapped in a Fulani marriage blanket with a Tuareg scarf round my head. And in the background, the Eagles echoed out across the desert.

(1) Eagles, (1984) Music Album, ‘Hotel California’
(2) Mark Twain, (1869) ‘Innocents Abroad’
* Delete where applicable
** Yorkshire (UK) expression not directly translatable and the meaning of which can vary depending on the context of its use.

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