Laayoune – First Impressions

I’m currently sitting on a little bed in a little room in my empty hotel here in Laayoune, the capital of the contested Western Sahara region. Western Sahara (or Moroccan Sahara, depending on who you ask), is the southern territory annexed by Morocco in 1975 in a historical Green March, which freed the region from Spanish colonization (only to essentially become a Moroccan colony). After that there was pretty consistent violence until the UN negotiated a ceasefire. The UN has been peacekeeping in the region ever since. The rest of the world recognizes the area as sovereign, but Morocco still occupies the territory and considers it as a part of the kingdom.

I’m here with two friends, Mackenzie and Luigi, until the 22nd, and it’s already quite the adventure. We were supposed to have a fourth friend with us, but he backed out, but we still make quite the team. Luigi is, no surprise, Italian, and he speaks French and Spanish which is extremely useful here, since no one seems to be fluent in either but is somewhat capable in both.

We flew into Laayoune tonight at 6pm on a Royal Air Maroc flight from Casablanca. We had quite the experience at customs, which is especially interesting considering it was technically a domestic flight. We were the only obvious foreigners on the flight, so they easily picked us out and asked to see our passports. People that come to Laayoune are almost exclusively UN peacekeepers, aid workers, journalists, or locals, and the men at customs refused to believe we were possibly visiting as tourists. After explaining to four separate men that we really just wanted to visit for fun, they finally let us through.

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And the fun didn’t end there. When we got out of the airport we saw absolutely no taxis. Instead, the parking lot was full of UN vehicles and a few local vehicles. After asking a few different people about taxis, a man overheard and offered to drive us in his cattle cart. He lead us over to a cart that had clearly recently held goats or sheep and lifted Luigi’s suitcase into the back, beckoning us to follow. We almost did, seeing on other viable options, until another man with a real van offered us a ride instead.

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We made it to our hotel, Hotel Grande Gare, with no real incident. The hotel just opened a month ago, and is unfortunately quite a ways from the centre of town. But it’s comfortable, secure, and best of all, clean, so I’m very happy. It’s eerily empty here, because Laayoune doesn’t get many visitors, but there’s apparently several other guests. Everything is still covered with plastic, as though it hasn’t been opened before.

After dropping our bags we hit the town! Laayoune is surprisingly big, but IMG_0533.JPGyou’d never gather that wandering around town. The buildings are all one storeys, or two at most, and everything seems to be made from what was once sand. The buildings are all a sandy red, and a recurring architectural theme are there domed buildings, apparently quite common in the Sahara to help with the heat.

We wandered through the few main streets in down, which were far from bustling. The plus side of visiting somewhere completely untouched by tourism is that you get to see something at least somewhat untouched from the rest of the world, but the down side is there’s not necessarily exciting things to see for tourists. But just being here is exciting. It’s so cool just wandering around and noticing things and talking with people and seeing everyday life.

We got dinner at an average restaurant called Bihi Fish, where we each had a subpar plate of assorted fried fish to the sound of a Michael Jackson song on repeat. We had the place to ourselves, which might have been our first hint it wasn’t the best spot.

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We passed a really beautiful hotel in the centre of town, and decided to pop in and ask for a map, since our hotel didn’t have any. The man at the desk laughed at us and told us that no maps of Laayoune exist. We asked about any tourist info, and he very plainly told us that there’s nothing to see in the city. He said it was essential that we leave the city, and suggested a nearby port or desert oasis as possible day trips. He explained that there’s absolutely no tourism here, and our best bet was to leave town.

Luckily, we’ve been invited to visit the UN mission here tomorrow, MINURSO, so Laayoune isn’t a total bust tourism-wise. We’re also hoping to visit the Oasis, before heading to Dakhla tomorrow night!

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