Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Day 54: Princess Pilgrim

'Pour votre sécurité, Madame.'

To a comical degree, my dear escorts in the countryside have hardly left my side. Following me from the moment I departed the church (turns out, Spanish, not French) in Nador, as I made my way along a quiet backroad through the agricultural countryside, the unmarked car followed me at my walking pace. After some time, as I enjoyed the sights of the orange and clementine harvest, another car joined the parade - a change of regions. Eight men in two cars driving on the shoulder 100 meters behind me at 5 km/hr. When I wanted water, a slight nod from me brought a car forward and a bottle was offered through the open window. When I wanted a rest with some tea, another nod and a car drove ahead to the next village and a suitable house readied itself for the event - always involving an assortment of Moroccan snacks. When a young man on a moped drove up along side me, greeting me with a smile and words of encouragement, my escorts thought him too close, came to a skidding halt to block him, and chased him to the dirt as he tried to escape across a field like a Starsky-and-Hutch episode. Arggh. I managed to slip away for a few moments into an olive grove to answer nature's call, but the men were displeased with my brazenness. This continued for the three days it took me to reach the bordertown of Oujda.

The landscape of the broad irrigated valleys full of fruit, nut, and olive trees is lovely. At one point, passing an open door of a small building, a man carrying a plate of food saw me and invited me to join him for lunch, such is the Moroccan hospitality. Raindrops were getting heavier and I enjoyed the idea of a small rest, I accepted (upsetting my plain-clothes friends) and entered into an artisanal olive press where the two workers took their lunch break and we all shared in the great plate of tangine chicken, orange squash, vegetables in a luscious spicy sauce eaten with torn pieces of flat brown bread. Delicious, and I learned all about the age-old efforts to turn the plump black olives into thick strong oil. Accostumed to the light-colored extra virgen olive oil of northern Europe, the product here is formidably powerful -- as the typical diner coffee in the US compares to turkish coffee. I emerged through the small dark doorway smiling, fat and happy thus relieving my chaperones of further concern. These guys are constantly on their mobile phones and I can imagine their relating my every move to some guy sitting in an office somewhere who's hearing the whole thing like a radio soap opera. How dull his day must otherwise be.

The end of that day necessitated a grande montée - 800 meters in 8 kilometers/2,500 feet in 5 miles. Googlemaps guided me to a dirt road up through a small village to the town at the pass. Though even the shepherds I asked urged that I stay on the paved road, the 7 additional kilometers and the fact that I so distain the highways were too strong for me to heed the advice, so off I went across a freshly harvest field to the track I could see on the hillside. The boys were not amused. Once we met again on the dirt road, they stopped and asked me why I wasn't afraid. Afraid of what? The wolves, they told me as though it was so obvious it didn't need to be stated. I laughed. There are hundreds of sheep around. What wolf would view me as better prey than a lamb? 'Je n'ai pas de peur, messieurs, mais si vous avez le peur, restez dans la voiture'. See you at the pass.

My rewards for staying on the dirt track were many. As it turned out, there had been a wedding celebration at the mountainside village and the celebrants made a great parade down the path I was climbing, singing joyful chants, firing off shotguns and blowing great horns throwing flower petals. Small old hacienda homesteads sat in tranquility with smoke coming from dinner fires. Some deer were grazing by a brook. A shepherd boy was playing some handmade pipes quite melodiously on a rocky perch. A girl leading her donkey back to the isolated farmouse, sang a lilt sweetly. I loved it!

Everyone I passed smiled and waved vigorously. It's not often that a stranger - especially a European (so I appear to them) with a backpack - passes by foot on an autumn evening. When my escorts decided that the path made for donkey carts was too steep and bumpy for their car, one of them - the youngest and most athletic among them - was compelled to get out and walk. I waved for him to join me rather than walk the 100 meters behind. We talked along the way, but the labor of his breathing inhibited much conversation. He had to stop frequently to catch his breath and then got on his mobile phone. Silly boy, 'slow and steady sets the pace, slow and steady wins the race.' He was incredulous that I wasn't afraid of being alone and out in a strange place at dusk and dark and that I had no apprehension about not knowing where I'd pass the night. He clearly had all these fears. Experience goes a long way. The small town at the pass would have some place to accommodate me, I was sure. And so it was. The police - who babysit me in the village of their domain as opposed to the Gendarmerie who take their posts outside of the villages - were waiting. The capitan, in fact, who joined me for dinner at the wonderful auberge run by a transplanted Breton, and a fabulous dinner at that with a French twist on Moroccan food. To top it off, a bottle of Moroccan wine, a fruity Beaujolais ended the day in energized harmony. How perfect the pilgrim day, despite the close surveillance 'pour votre sécurité, Madame'.

Things have sullied just a bit... I reached Oujda at the end of the third day and went to the French church. The priest in Nador had called him at my request to prepare him for my arrival. Nonetheless, the elderly priest greeted me but not only refused my request for hospitality, refused my request for a credenziale stamp. 'Bonne route, bonne chance, au revoir, pélèrine.' He turned his back and closed the door. Dejected, I asked the police standing by for assistance and they got me a gratis hotel room. Always a sad way to end the day. Always a sad thing when a priest turns his back. He even denied that the Nador priest had called him three days earlier. Sigh. Onward.

In the morning, I led my escorts the 13 kilometres to the border point. It took a half hour for the surprised Moroccan command to give me permission to exit Morocco. Twenty men in suits and uniforms stood by with hands on hearts and palm-forward salutes as I walked the last bit through the gate to the two-meter wide lane between the flagpost of Morocco and the flagpost of Algeria. At the gate, since no one among the armed guards greeted me, I shouted across to the guardshack in French: I'm an American and would very much like to enter Algeria, if you please.

Another dozen Algerian men arrived from the building at the distance and finally the guards emerged and asked for my passport. I handed it over the gate with some reluctance. I'd rather stay with my passport than stand in the neutral slice of weedy land, but they have the guns. A man in a dark suit and sunglasses approached and spoke in very poor French that I would have to wait a 'petit moment'. I managed to squeeze the words about my pilgrimage and show the map of my route in before he walked off with my passport and the dozen men.

A half hour later, he returned and said simply: 'Negatif, Madame.' My request to speak with a diplomat only got me the advice that I'd find one in Oujda. Au revior, Madame. Pass the Moroccan flag again, I got another entrance stamp in my passport to the great disappointment of the Moroccans. From their perspective the borderpoint is open; it's the Algerians who view it as permanently closed, since 1994. I'd been asking the Gendarmerie everytime I encountered them - can I leave Morocco through the border at Oujda? Yes. Wrong question, it turns out. Can I enter Algeria? No.

The consulate was of little help. Friendly enough, with words of 'I want to help you but because you are not a resident of Morocco, I can do nothing.' He told me that I can only enter by air or sea and that I'd need a visa, only attainable in my country of residence and costing 120USD. This last bit surprised me, since I checked into this before leaving the US. Stuck for the moment. Need a new plan. No time for distress. When in need of calmness, find some tea. Sit, rest, maybe eat a bit. A plan will emerge.

With the aid of the Gendarmarie and police, some travel agents... here's the plan that evolved: retun to Nador (by car as there's no need to walk the same path twice) take a ferry to Almeria, Spain and another to Algeria. The travel agents I spoke with all assured me that I don't need a visa and can stay for up to six months. I'll only need six weeks - insha'allah - once I get to Algerian soil. One little hitch is that it seems I may need to spend six days sitting around Almeria as the ship only sails once a week. A wee hiccup. The pilgrimage continues!


The Solitary Walker said...

Trials and tribulations, Winter Pilgrim! What a momentous journey. And I'm with you in spirit every step of the way. Rest assured of that. Beautifully recounted, as always ... Bon courage, mon amie!

Anonymous said...

Yes I feared you would not pass.

Sheila Phelan Wright said...

OMG...a Princess, with dozens of escorts. Who would have thought?
I have absolute faith that you will find your way to the next stop. Looking forward to the next adventure - even if you have to wait a week, you'll make the most of it.Giving thanks for knowing you.

Anonymous said...

There have been reports in the last few days of Alg and Mor kissing and making up, but no mention of the border. Those who do travel in Alg are sometimes obliged to take a 150 euro escort. I dont know if that means daily.

Nacho1212 said...

I asked urged that I stay on the paved road, the 7 additional kilometers and the fact that I so distain the highways were too strong for me to heed the advice, so off I went across a freshly harvest field to the track I could see on the hillside.ferry almeria nador