To the Moon and Timbuktu

TO THE MOON AND TIMBUKTU by Nina Sovich Excerpted from “To The Moon and Timbuktu” by Nina Sovich. © by Nina Sovich. Published by Amazon Publishing/New Harvest. All Rights Reserved.

Chapter 1: Hotel in Dakhla

The cab driver assures me his sister Salima runs a lovely hotel.

“It’s a very good hotel, yes, very good hotel. No noise, no bother. Very clean. They have many, many Western tourists. Many women. Salima is a good woman.”

He leaves me in front of a squat two-story building made of poured concrete that sits on the edge of the desert next to the army airport. The second-floor balcony is hanging off its anchor bolts, and the windows are murky with sand and pink goo that looks a lot like Pepto-Bismol. The only light in the hotel emanates from a first-floor pool hall that smells of fish heads and burned felt. Cigarettes, empty milk cartons, and black plastic bags skip down the street in the midnight breeze, accumulating in a huge pothole in front of the hotel. Clean, I suppose, is a relative term.

My cabdriver is, however, right on one count. There are women. Lots of them — standing in windows and doorways all down the street, lit from behind by candles and kerosene lamps into spectral figures of muslin cloth and cloying scent. Their bodies are round and their faces hard, but they beckon me with soft laughter and hennaed hands. I suppose a client is a client to a working girl — or after two weeks of travel through the Western Sahara, I have become sufficiently androgynous to enjoy their attention.

I’ve been nowhere places before — the northern reaches of Azerbaijan, the desert in Western Egypt, Sweden with its endless pine forests — but the Western Sahara doesn’t even exist. At least not in a political sense. It’s a land claimed both by the native Sahrawi population and the Moroccan government, which has occupied the country since the 1970s. Dakhla, its most southern city, would like to think of itself as a resort town, but as it is home to Morocco’s commercial fishing fleet, its real allure lies in loose women and a sheltered port. I’ve landed in West Africa’s version of Tijuana, a place purposefully kept lawless so soldiers and sailors can blow off steam.

Salima is indeed very nice, but highly suspicious. She pulls aside the night watchman and they speak in furtive, rushed Arabic, gesturing toward my black backpack. Under a green neon light that lends an aura of unreality, I paw through the contents to show her there’s nothing inside but clothes and books. She asks for payment up front anyway and scribbles down every detail in my passport. When she finally hands over the key, her mood is dark.

“Look. The Chinese will come back tonight. You don’t want any part of that,” she tells me in weirdly idiomatic English. “I suggest you go upstairs and bolt the door. Don’t come out until morning.”

“What happens if I come out before morning?” I ask. It’s an awkward question but I’m curious.

“Well,” she says slowly. “Not good things.”

“Not good things is vague.” But she stares hard at me and frowns, until, finally unsure what else to do, I frown too. “I’m going,” I say, and head toward my room.

“Best,” she says.

There is a particular queasiness that comes from being warned by the proprietor of a hotel to avoid the public spaces in that same hotel, but the room, as far as seven-dollar-a-night rooms go, isn’t half bad. The full moon shoots light through acrylic curtains, bathing the walls in a red glow that suggests a dark, almost Victorian velvet. There’s a television, though it’s bolted to the wall and covered in wire mesh, and in the corner is a broken wooden chair. It could be worse. I’ve stayed in worse, but I jam a chair under the door handle anyway and lie down on the bed without taking off my clothes.

Over the past few weeks, I have skirted down the fertile rump of Morocco into arid Western Sahara, rarely staying in a town more than a day or two and often catching taxis south before knowing my destination. I’ve eaten sheep brain sandwiches and hitched rides with soldiers and stayed in hotels almost as bad as this one. In order to cover half a continent in less than six months, I have moved quickly and cheaply. Now I’ve reached the edge of the world, or at least the edge of the Sahara, and it feels a little as though I’m paying a price for my hubris and an old, temporary exuberance.

At three a.m. the bordellos close for the night, and the street outside my window fills with fishermen from all over the world who have come to work the fertile waters off the western coast of Africa. Under flickering streetlamps, a group of Russian sailors tighten their brown leather belts and pass a bottle of vodka. Across the street, Chinese fishermen in thin beige Mao suits smoke clove cigarettes, while two Moroccan soldiers start a swordfight with pool cues.

My floor becomes noisy with drunk fishermen looking for their rooms. Someone retches and someone else tries my door handle. Men cluster around the pay phone down the hall, calling home with prepaid phone cards in fifteen-minute increments. They shout and laugh in Mandarin and Russian over thousands of miles of broken phone lines. I lie in my little bed at the ceiling and count the hours to sunrise in conversations that I don’t understand.

At daybreak I say good-bye to Salima, who gives me a knowing smile and a slight pat on the shoulder. A small and rare moment of female solidarity. Then I make the long walk back to the center of Dakhla. At a café by the ocean, I order espresso and bread and try to defend myself against the frantic sunlight bouncing between the water and the desert. Through squinted eyes, I watch children walk to school in green-and white uniforms and the sea throw up spray onto the boardwalk. I close my eyes, drink my coffee, and when no one is looking, rub butter on the dry skin around my nostrils.

For a moment I succumb to fatigue and allow myself to think about home. Thousands of miles north, in a warm and quiet Parisian apartment, my husband is sleeping under a down duvet with a pillow over his head. In an hour he’ll wake up, pick out a dark suit, and shave while listening to Europe1 radio. Then he’ll spend twenty minutes looking for his keys and leave in a rush. If I caught a flight now, I could sleep tonight with his hand on my hip.

Instead, I ask the waiter about transport south to Mauritania. He tells me that bush taxis leave from the outskirts of Dakhla, but warns me that the road is rough — no hotels, no gas stations, no cell phone reception, no natural sources of water. Sometimes the track is so thick with sand that the old Peugeots drive on the beach by the Atlantic instead — a beach, he warns, that is mined. He adds that his cousin is bringing fishermen across the border in two days, and I could join them for a reasonable fee.

I think about all the women who have made similar trips in the Middle East and Africa. Mary Kingsley, who walked through Gabon’s jungle in the 1890s in black wool skirts, surviving hippo attacks and surging rapids. Alexandrine Tinné, who rode a camel across Libya in 1869 in a gallant, if foolish attempt to be the first European woman to cross the Sahara. Gertrude Bell, who counseled kings and prime ministers on the creation of Jordan and Iraq and climbed daunting Swiss mountains in her spare time. I see a photo of my mother, resplendent in mid-’80s Banana Republic safari gear, grinning up at the big green sign that marks the equator’s passage through Kenya. None of these women would have turned back.

Then again, none of these women traveled absolutely alone as I do. I heave a great sigh and consider what lies ahead for me. Spotty transport, cheap hotel rooms, bad food, worse water. Searing heat during the day, freezing temperatures at night. A thousand more miles before I reach Dakar, Senegal, where the only person I know in West Africa lives. Every night I’ll arrange new lodging, every day new transport south. Every evening I’ll eat alone; every night I’ll jam a chair under my door handle. Throughout it all, this relentless light will follow me, haunt me, and hound me into dark cafés and shadowy bus stations where no respectable woman should go.

I smile and shudder and try to suppress the gnawing realization that I have pushed myself too hard in the past couple of weeks, am too dazed and tired and lost, metaphorically and perhaps even literally, to keep going. I should return to France, where life is sad and gray but solid and predictable. I should go home to my very good husband and our quiet, ordered house; I should start up as a reporter again. I should have babies.

But even in my shattered, scattered fatigue, the idea of going home brings on a wave of despair so intense I feel momentarily nauseated. I turn my face up to the brilliance rising off the ocean. It blinds me behind my eyelids and the world turns to white light, crashing waves, and the cry of children. Their laughter tugs at my heart a little, but it’s the sun that makes my eyes water. Tears mixed with rancid butter fall down my cheeks and disappear into the wool of my sweater. I beckon the waiter.

“Tell me your cousin’s name.”

Nina Sovich is an American writer who lives in Paris. She is releasing a travel memoir in July 2013 titled To the Moon and Timbuktu. She has written for Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, Time magazine and the Patriot Ledger. She blogs on travel and raising children in France on