Tuesday, March 06, 2001

TR- Sahara Desert (Algeria) -Part 1

02/21 –03/05/01

Now let’s see. Where do I start? Sometime back in the fall when a few of my running buddies from the BBR called me with a request. They had visited us in Europe in 2000 and we had all run the Paris and London marathons together and had enjoyed a great camaraderie. Thus they requested that I find a spring marathon in some exotic or adventurous location so we could do it again in 2001. I soon discovered a first-ever marathon to be run in the Sahara Desert in Feb. Everyone agreed that this would be a real adventure –we would share a tent in the desert and sleep with Clyde the camel!

However very shortly one member of the team (no names given to protect the guilty – er innocent) backed out with a feeble excuse that he planned to run Boston. Come on, Boston is in April which provides lots of time to recover! Buddy # 2 suddenly decided that he had to go on a motorcycle ride in Mexico at that time? But buddy #3 hung in and said that he was looking forward to the trip and adventure. So the village idiot went ahead and purchased non-refundable air tickets and a non-refundable marathon package! When it got real close to the deadline for the marathon entry and buddy #3 had still not confirmed his entry, the village idiot finally realized that he was going to have Clyde the camel all to himself! A second wonderful surprise came in the form of an announcement from the race director that all runners would spend four days in the desert instead of two as originally planned!

The village idiot’s devoted wife/travel companion/sports manager had decided not to accompany him to the desert since all his running buddies would be with him? But she did plan to travel to Madrid, Spain where the race was being staged from and tour Spain while he enjoyed his adventure in the desert. Also by that time he had discovered that at least three members of the 50+ DC Club were running the marathon and he would have some friends there. So off they set on Feb 21st for the first leg of the journey.

After we (now you know who the village idiot is) arrived in Madrid we had two days to recover from jet lag and explore the city and area. Since I had spent considerable time in Spain and Madrid on previous trips I knew what the main attractions were. We visited the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo in El Escorial. It is known as the 8th wonder of the world. Completed in 1854 by Felipe II as an act of thanks for the victory of San Quintin, when in 1557 the Spanish army conquered the French on the 10th August, the feast day of St Laurence. All the Spanish monarchy are buried in the Royal Tombs.
Then it was on to the Valle De Los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen) where Franco built a huge cross (150 meters high) and carved a church inside a solid granite mountain to commemorate those killed in the Civil War. It also serves as his mausoleum. Since I have already provided considerable details on these and other Spanish sites in my previous trip report on Spain I will only gloss over these same attractions in this report.

The marathon package/tour required that all runners be in Madrid for the departure of the charter flights on Friday Feb. 23. On Thursday night the race organizers held an informal dinner in Madrid where they gave us last minute details and fed us a typical local Spanish meal. Since the charter flights left at 6pm, Nicole decided to stay over in Madrid one more day to tour the city and then move on to Barcelona where she would stay until I returned on the 28th. As I and other runners left the hotel for the airport we began to get an idea of how disorganized the race organization was and how frustrating the next four days would turn out. We were left on our own to get to the airport and for some of us smart enough to reserve an airport shuttle we were asked to carry at least one box of race supplies with us; e.g. Paper cups/plates, bottled water, etc. Upon arriving at the airport and going to the Air Algiers counter for a 4pm charter flight we were advised that the flight was two hours late. We finally left at 7pm. Fortunately they did feed us a dinner on the flight and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that they even provided wine –on an airplane owned by a Muslim country going to a Muslim country?

We flew directly to an Algerian military base at Tindouf. It is the closest airport to the refugee camps and the most secure since Algeria is experiencing many problems with Muslim terrorists/fundamentalists trying to overthrow the government. Since the Algerian government supports the refugees and supported the marathon (more on this subject soon) we had no problem with immigration or customs. In fact the normally-difficult procedure of getting a visa beforehand had been rubber-stamped for all runners and even the $50 visa fee had been waived. We were passed through quickly and after we unloaded our own baggage and supplies and loaded them on to trucks, we were loaded on to buses and provided an armed military escort to the refugee camps.

What refugee camps you ask? Twenty-five years ago Spain pulled out of Western Sahara and left the country and people to rule themselves. Morocco immediately invaded the country claiming that it had been their territory before Spain took it away. To make a long story short, Morocco kicked the shit out of the Western Saharan people, the Sahrawis. They bombed, burned, looted etc. About 1/3 of the one million Sahrawis fled into the desert in the eastern part of the country. Morocco then built a 10 foot sand berm down the middle of the country from north to south (Morocco to Mauritania) and continued to bomb the Sahrawis in the eastern section causing them to flee further east into the Sahara desert inside Algeria’s borders. Morocco cannot touch them there without creating a war with Algeria. Algeria, Russia, Spain and Cuba are some of the countries that backed (and still support) the Sahrawis –the US and Europe support Morocco and most of the world don’t care!
The Sahrawis have settled into four camps in the Sahara Desert in Algeria named after the hometowns that they fled in Western Sahara. They have no money, no resources and few belongings. They depend solely upon the UN and their supporting nations to exist! The UN provides them with shelter, food and water. Their allies/supporters provide education, training and arms for their military. But the Sahrawis claim that they would rather live this way than live under Moroccan rule!
They know that they cannot beat Morocco in a military war so they have wisely decided to try a political path. They are trying to be recognized by as many countries and world organizations as possible. The Sahara Marathon is a subtle attempt to get recognition by world sports organizations and to be accepted as an Olympic country into the 2004 Olympics.

Now back to our arrival –at 1am- to our first vacation home at the Sahrawi refugee camp in L’Ayoun. The camps have limited electricity and other facilities so there are no streetlights and it is very, very dark! We had been advised that we would be housed in tents and hosted by a Sahrawi family. In actual fact, a Sahrawi family gave up their home or tent and moved in with their family or friends so that six runners could be housed in their home. Each camp is comprised of communities called ‘Dirrahs’ made up of about six families or homes. A group of 3 to 6 runners were assigned to a Dirrah with a host that spoke the language of the runners. I was in tent #1 along with 5 other male runners from the US. After we found our baggage and were introduced to our Sahrawi host, he led us through pitch-black desert to our tent. I was so tired by this time that I just accepted my sheet and blanket, laid them out on the desert floor and went to sleep.

8am. Time to get up. First thing –morning duties? Where is the bathroom –obviously not ensuite! I am directed to a small adobe hut about 200 feet from the tent. Looks like the outhouse at my grandparents’ farm –except no bench – just a hole in the desert floor! Thankfully I brought toilet paper with me. Now to wash. Am I crazy? The UN has to bring in water from wells located at Tindouf and distribute it to metal drums located throughout the camp. The refugees go to the drums with a bucket to collect the water needed for their home. Wash? A waste of precious water! We quickly discover that the refugees don’t wash or bathe – they just spray themselves and their clothes 2 or 3 times a day with perfume to mask body odor. We are offered the same amenities. Again, thankfully I have brought a box of handi-wipes to at least clean my hands and face.
Now for a scrumptious refugee breakfast. Some homemade bread that is actually very tasty if you can forget the grit of the sand that has blown into the dough. It is served with honey or maybe some goat cheese and a cup of coffee. We assume that the host family has been paid or given extra money from our entry fees to cover the cost of feeding the runners – otherwise they would never have had enough food?

Now that my tummy is full, it is time to explore my new vacation home. My host stops me before I can leave the tent. It is dangerous to go outside without glasses and a turban –glasses to protect your eyes and a turban to protect the rest of your head. From what? SAND! There is always a wind blowing and the sand is so fine that it gets into every pore and opening in your body. Fortunately he gives all his guests a beautiful black turban and teaches us how to put them on (we of course insist that he accept payment for the turbans). Now it is safe to venture outside. I explore by myself and soon find myself on the edge of the camp where they house the animals –camels, goats and a few chickens. The chickens provide eggs, goats provide milk and camels are used to carry people and supplies. And, as I was soon to discover, all three provide the only meat and protein available to the refugees! As I am walking around several children approach me and ask many questions – in Spanish! It turns out that the three basic Spanish lessons that I took before the trip were very helpful as I was able to carry on a very basic conversation with the kids. We had been advised to bring presents for the kids and I proceeded to hand out a lot of pencils and crayons which made the kids very happy.

Time to go back to the tent and determine what the agenda is for the day. And time to learn the next most important lesson of the trip! Time has no meaning in the desert and especially to the Sahrawis! They have been sitting/existing in the desert for 25 years with absolutely nothing to do but try to survive. If an event or activity –say a meal or festivity – is scheduled for say 1pm; you can count on it being at least 2 to 3 hours late. But late is a civilized concept! If your main concern is staying alive, you don’t really care if you eat at 1pm or 4pm – as long as you eat! But they tried to fool us by providing us with an itinerary for our four-day visit. We quickly learned that the only useful information on the itinerary was that a specific event would happen that day! As an example – a serious example- let me tell you about our first lunch. The race organization decided that the best way to feed 400 runners would be a community buffet for lunch and dinner. Our first lunch was supposed to be at 1pm. We waited at the designated site –a community admin center for three hours and finally they opened the doors at 4pm for lunch. Fortunately I was near the front of the line and rushed to a buffet table where you had to quickly grab whatever food was available and eat standing up. By the time the end of the line got to the tables there was no food left!

What was the food? Near as I could tell without wasting time to do a survey (and go hungry) was bread, some salads with mostly onion and tomatoes, a stew and typically a roasted meat. The meats as discussed were either camel or goat. I only saw chicken at one meal. And believe me goat and camel are tough and stringy no matter how they are prepared. I had great difficulty cutting off a chunk of camel or goat from a roast let alone chewing it once I got some on my plate!
Every meal had bottled water or coke to drink. I refused to eat the salads because I was afraid that they had been prepared with local water? I stuck to the bread and camel/goat and never had any problems with my intestines.

During that first day in the camps the Sahrawis had some local cultural events that were very interesting such as camel races, dances, etc. You just had to show up 2 or 3 hours late to enjoy them.

Since this report is taking longer than I expected I will split it into two sections. Section 2 with the Marathon and National day Celebrations will follow later.
Adios for now!

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