Wednesday, March 07, 2001

TR Sahara Desert (Algeria) Part 2

Part 2
02/21 – 03/05/01

Now where was I? Oh yeh! Just finishing off the first full day of my luxurious stay/vacation in Tent #1 in the Sahara Desert. After a few more exciting cultural events in the Sahrawi camp, I decided to explore some more and watched a Sahrawi man building a new adobe hut for his family.
After deciding where he wanted his home he just dug up the sandy, clay loam of the desert at that exact spot – mixed the earth with water and made mud blocks (like we all used to make mud pies when we were young?) and then set them in the sun to dry. The bricks dry hard but very brittle and would dissolve quickly with water. But since it last rained in Oct 99, rain is not a problem! After the bricks harden, he mixes more earth with water to use as a mortar and builds his hut. He completes the hut with a tin roof weighted down with bricks and stones. The hole beside the hut is just left there and the wind fills it in quickly with sand. Now we all know how to build a shelter in the desert –just need to figure out where to get the water?

And the final activity of the day is to eat our scrumptious 8pm dinner at 11pm and then climb into our soft beds on the desert floor for another night’s rest. Nothing like a good hot bowl of camel stew for your bedtime meal? It was winter in the desert so the temperature dropped to the freezing level each night and the days warmed up to the low 60s. Our host told us that the summer highs would normally reach 50 degrees Celsius (about 120 F)! I wore a warm-up/jogging suit for PJs and that combined with the single heavy blanket our host provided, was comfortably warm each night. My only complaint or discomfort was the pillow – made from the same material as the carpet and filled with the hardest substance known to mankind? Fortunately I had brought along several old running T-shirts to give to the refugees and I used them to fashion a pillow. So nobody got any T-shirts until the final day!

On Sunday we were advised that the marathon was being moved up one day –from Tuesday to Monday. We were also advised to repack our bags because we would move to a new camp at Smara where the race would finish. The rest of the day was spent enjoying more Sahrawi events, lots of napping/sleeping and waiting for meals. I gave up on dinner after 8pm, ate two power bars washed down with a carbo drink and went to bed early to get more sleep.

Monday! M-Day! Load our bags on to some trucks to take them to the next camp and head for the start line. Lots of Sahrawi dignitaries including the President and other politicians (all military types). Also lots of camels and riders dressed in their tribal colors. There are about 200 marathoners at the start - 110 foreigners and 90 Sahrawis. There is also a half-marathon and 10k race that start at a later time. A total of about 400 runners –half are foreigners. The marathon actually starts on time at 9am!!! In retrospect the change of date turned out to be very fortunate for us! The weather was great – sunny, about 40 degrees at the start and most importantly the wind was not strong enough to stir up the sand. I had purchased a fanny pack with two water bottles and a pouch capable of carrying an emergency medical kit, compass, etc. It also carried my turban in case a sand storm came up during the race. The fanny pack turned out to be a necessity because the airline had lost all the paper cups that we had brought for the race. There was lots of bottled water for the water stations but no cups. So every runner was advised to carry a water bottle to refill at the water/aid stations. Although the pack was useful it was a royal pain in the butt-literally and figuratively! It was very heavy and bulky and the damn water bottles kept falling out? I guess it had been designed for hiking – not running! So I struggled with damn thing for 26 miles and didn’t really need it except for the water bottle! But I didn’t know that until the end and I wouldn’t have been willing to risk running without it. But now for the race!

The first 1k out of the camp was run on a soft sand road/track that led to a paved highway (I assume a paved road between some Algerian military installations?). We turned on to that road for the next 3k and I’m thinking, “Gee, this is not bad at all – except for my damn water bottle falling out of the pack every 500 ft”. But that was soon to change! At 4k the course turned north into the wind at headed straight across the Sahara desert – no road, no tracks, no trail – for the next 38k! Part of the desert was hard, compacted sand covered with billions of small sharp rocks and the rest was soft, deep sand! I was glad that I had worn trail shoes because the rocks were very treacherous to run on - but the sand was worse. It seemed to take two to three times the effort to run through that sand. A lot of the course was flat but there were also many, many hills or dunes that just seemed to roll on and on forever! The course was marked about every 2 miles with rock markers and/or old tires and water/aid stations were set up about every 5k. I always had another runner in sight ahead of me so had no problem but a few of the runners did get lost for a brief period. But nobody got seriously lost or injured.
There were few mile markers so it was difficult to tell where you were in the race. As I passed through the Half located in another refugee camp called Aoserd I was shocked and dismayed to discover that my time was 1:59. I was running as hard as I could and already my legs felt like they had been beaten with a 2X4. My quads and calves were both killing me – they normally never hurt during a race? I knew at that moment that it was going to be a long tough day and that a sub-4hour marathon was not going to happen for me. I resolved to just keep on running for as long as possible and not to walk!

Unfortunately the 2nd half of the course was harder than the first. By 18 miles I started to go out of my way and off course to find rocks to run on because it was so much easier to run on the rocks than the deep, soft, sucking sand! That turned out to be a slight tactical error because I tripped on a rock and fell and at that same moment both of my calves cramped and locked up in excruciating pain! I dropped immediately on to the desert looking for a position to ease the cramps and pain and trying to stretch and massage both legs. Fortunately I was able to massage the cramps and ease the pain so that I could walk (gingerly) in a few minutes. And soon I was back to running with only minor discomfort! The last 10k of the course followed an ancient riverbed into the camp at Smara. It was flat but really, really deep soft sand! As I approached the camp I could see the finish line with lots of people and flags, etc. Time – about 4:25! I might break 4 ½ hours!
As I neared the finish line a volunteer approached to inform me that I had to make a 90 degree turn and run another ¾ mile scenic loop through the camp BEFORE I reached the finish line. If I had a gun I would have shot her for this cheery, innocent news! I have never been so pissed off and frustrated at the end of a marathon as I was at that precise moment! But I struggled on and finally crossed the finish line in 4:33:58 – the longest time I have ever taken to complete a marathon! At first I was very disappointed in my time and performance – until I talked to the other runners and discovered that most runners took 1 ½ to 2 hours longer than normal. Many of the runners complained that the course had to be at least 5k too long?

Now it was time to find my bags, my new home/tent in Smara, enjoy a promised shower and rest. Yeh –right! Little did I know that my frustration was just beginning! It would take too long to describe all the problems and issues in detail. But here is a quick review of the highlights! Took over an hour to find my bags with my soap, towel, fresh clothes, etc! Discover there are 12 outdoor shower stalls for 80,000 refugees and 400 runners. No problem – the refugees don’t shower and most of the runners are still on the course. Find the showers, strip and wait along with other naked runners for the next shower to become available. There’s one. Oops – a female runner from Italy (no, I can’t tell from her boobs silly –she speaks Italian!) rushes into the shower ahead of me –strips in the shower and begins to bathe! I ask her if I can share the shower (to conserve precious water). She doesn’t understand English but must understand my look/request because she smiles and nods her head as if to say “No, but thanks for your good intentions”! So I have to stand there buck-naked and watch her finish her shower. Now it’s my turn! Damn this water is cold but it feels sooooooo gooooood! Still, I am done in a few minutes because I feel guilty about using too much water? But I feel clean for the first time in 2 days and believe I just might live? Now I am hungry. They promise that a meal will be served at 3pm – in 20 minutes. 4pm – we’re still waiting for the meal! 5pm –they finally bring out the meal and surprise – there is lots of food. I actually get half a chicken and some baby back camel ribs – and rice and some French fries! The best meal and the most food I have eaten in the desert. OK – I’m ready to go to my new home! No! – the Sahrawis and race organizers are not ready for us to rest – doesn’t seem to matter that we are tired/exhausted? We don’t know where our new home/tent is so we are captive. They decide to have an award ceremony (and political speeches) that takes about two hours – no place to sit or lie down – stand for the ceremony! Finally about 8pm (remember, the marathon started at 9am and we have been on our feet with no rest since then) we are shown to our tents by our new hosts. Announcement that a dinner will be served at 10pm. Screw that – I eat a power bar and fall into my new bed/blanket and sleep! Believe me – that is a day that no marathoner would ever want to endure or repeat (except maybe the part with the Italian runner and shower?).

Tuesday –Sahrawi National Day! The itinerary says that there will be lots of celebration events starting at 10am. A parade finally starts at 12pm. The Sahrawi government/military marches almost their entire army and military equipment past us for four hours. Soldiers, camels, trucks, tanks, missile launchers – even mobile SAM missile launchers! I’m not impressed – the army is poorly trained and the equipment is out-of-date surplus Russian hardware. I spend most of the time talking to an American soldier (from Chicago) attached to the UN delegation who gives me the low down on the true situation in the camps. The 12 pm lunch is served at 4pm and again there is lots of food.
There is another parade scheduled for 6pm where the Sahrawi civilians/refugees will do their tribal dances, etc. It finally starts at 9pm and goes on to 3am. I give up and go to bed at 10pm with another power bar because the 8pm dinner has still not been served. I wake up at midnight when I smell something good in our tent. Our hostess has prepared a camel stew for her guests. Damn, it smells good. I eat some –very tasty- and go back to bed to be lulled back to sleep with the celebrations going on till 3am!

Finally it is Wednesday –time to get out of here and back to Madrid. The original planned two days would have been just right! We pack our bags and give everything we don’t want to carry back to our host family and the Sahrawi kids. We all chip in and give our hostess about 15,000 pesetas which is a lot of money for them. Hopefully they will eat very well for the next year! We load the trucks at 10am and get on the buses – and wait for about an hour until our armed military escort shows up to take us back to the Algerian base at Tindouf. We decide to hold a raffle to determine when we may actually leave Algeria (the charter is scheduled for a 1pm departure?). I almost win with a guess of 4:12 pm – we finally get off the ground at 3:52pm!
Sometimes a planeload of passengers will applaud when a plane lands safely – this time we all applauded when the wheels left Algerian soil!

I must admit that I was kind of sad to leave my new girlfriend, Clyde the Camel (whom I think I ate in that farewell stew); but I was very happy to return to the luxury and comfort of Madrid. As soon as we arrived back at the hotel I enjoyed the most wonderful cold beer with many of my new friends and then we all scurried to our rooms for a lonnnnnngggg HOT shower. I can’t describe the look that I gave to Nicole when she innocently asked “Why are you so late –you were supposed to be here hours ago”?
Remember – she went to Barcelona –stayed in a 4-star hotel while she toured Barcelona and Montserrat, and sure as hell didn’t enjoy camel stew? Nobody can ever claim that lady ain’t smart?

But now we have 5 more days in Europe/Spain to tour the country. As I indicated before I had visited Spain previously so decided to take Nicole to Cordoba, Seville and Toledo. Unfortunately the weather did not cooperate well as it rained all 5 days. But we still managed to tour all those cities and enjoy all the main attractions. We took a tour bus from Madrid to Seville via Cordoba. In Cordoba we visited the Cathedral and historic Mosque and walked around the Jewish Quarter. We overnighted in Seville before visiting the Cathedral, the bullring, the Real Alcazar, Plaza De Espana and other tourist sights. We caught an AVE (high-speed) train back to Madrid on our own, rested up and left for Toledo the next day. We stayed overnight again in Toledo so that we could casually stroll around the 1,000 year-old walled city and enjoy a typical Toledan dinner at one of the best restaurants. It was the best meal I ate during the trip – even better than camel stew!

And finally it was time to return home! As usual we were looking forward to returning to the comfort and familiarity of our own city, home and friends. And there was no doubt in my mind when I thought of that oft-used expression “What a great country we live in”!
Time to rest up, plan and prepare for our next adventure – to ?

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