Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Among the Saharawi

I feel like I am a long way from anywhere right now.

I am in Smara, the largest of the Saharawi refugee camps in southwestern Algeria. These camps have housed Saharawi people since the mid-1970s when thousands were expelled from their land in the Western Sahara by the Moroccan army. In 1981, the Moroccans built a wall seperating the refugees from their homeland. The wall is built of sand and rocks, monitored by Moroccan patrols and lined with landmines. But it is not enough to keep Saharawi from escaping what they call the occupied zone into the camps where I now sit.

The wall is what first attracted me to this place. In my few days here I´ve heard some chilling stories about men crossing the wall, and about the dangers the trip entails. These are a brave and proud people, and I have been embraced by their hospitality.

And I am not alone, not this week. Yesterday was the eighth running of the Sahara Marathon, an annual event meant to bring awareness to the Saharawi cause. There were 380 runners registered for the marathon, plus many more for the half marathon, 10km and 5 km runs. I am proud to say that I was the top Canadian in the 10 km race. That is to say I was the only Canadian. It was a remarkable experience running in the desert with Saharawis driving up and down the route ululating and shouting encouragement. When I reached the finish I was welcomed by hundreds of Sharawi women, each draped in vividly coloured fabric that covers everything but their eyes. As I crossed the line, the applause made me feel I´d actually won the race instead of being a mere ¨also ran¨.

More on the Saharawis, the camps, and the wall in upcoming posts.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

From Dead to Red to Med

Greetings all.

I am in Algiers now after nearly two weeks of luxury. I attended my first travel media tour in Jordan and while bus tours and big groups are not the way I prefer to travel, I could get used to five star hotels and free meals in posh restaurants. The tour brought us all over Jordan, from resorts on the Dead Sea, to camping in the desert, to an afternoon cruise on the Red Sea. The trip will yield a couple of new stories and gave me the opportunity to meet some interesting travel writers and photographers.

Algiers is a bit of a shock after all that pampering. It is a beautiful city, sloping towards the Mediterranean with its blocks of white apartments. The place has a marvelous cafe culture, and I have spent much of the last two days drinking two inch shots of espresso among men who smoke and wear suit jackets. Outside Cafe el Istiklal - Independance Cafe - illegal moneychangers wave wads of dinars and spit on the pavement. They seem to be the only ones who recognize me for a foreigner. The Arabic haircut I got in Amman seems to have everyone else fooled. My lousy French, however, fools no one.

Tomorrow night I will fly south to the refugee camps near Tindouf. My flight arrives there at one in the morning. Hopefully there will be someone waiting for me.

(Right now I can hear the music coming from the headphones of the man next to me in the Internet cafe. It is Lady in Red by Chris DeBurgh. I am having flashbacks of Iran.)

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Welcome to Elsewhere

Greetings, and welcome to the first posting of Elsewhere.

I've been thinking about starting a blog about my travels and writing - and the writing and travels of others - for quite some time now. Today, just hours before I head to Algeria and Morocco to begin research for a new book, seems as good a time as any.

I am very excited about my new project. I want to write about ‘walls.’

I traveled to Jerusalem last September and had the opportunity pass through the ‘security barrier’ that surrounds the West Bank. The building of ‘The Wall’ has conjured international debate, but it is not unique. There have been similar barriers constructed around the world for centuries. The Chinese built the Great Wall. The Romans divided Britannia with the Hadrian and Antonine Walls. The Berlin Wall split Germany in two. Human civilization has always been preoccupied with keeping people out and holding others in.

I am most interested in contemporary walls. These days, ‘fortress’ India is building security barriers along its borders with Burma and Bangladesh to ward against smugglers and illegal migrants, and another wall along the Pakistani border to protect against militants. There is now a wall along the Pakistan-Iran frontier built to foil cross-border drug traffic. Minutemen in the southern U.S. are not waiting for the government to build a security fence along the Mexican border. There are barriers going up along the borders of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Yemen, and a security fence now protects Sharm el-Sheikh tourists from terrorists. The world is seeing a genuine building boom of walls.

All of these barriers are controversial. Some, such as the Indo-Bangladeshi barrier and the proposed U.S.-Mexico barrier, divide members of minority ethnic groups. Others are seen as racist barriers, and their stated aims are often suspect. Is the barrier going up between Brazil and Paraguay really meant to stop smuggling, for example, or are Brazilians afraid of the radical leanings of the Arab communities that reside in the border areas?

My plan is to travel to walls around the world and write about the people who live in their shadows. I will visit with the Bengali Indians who find themselves cut off from mainland India by the Indo-Bangladeshi barrier. I will speak to Baluchi desert traders along the Iran-Pakistan border and find out how the new wall affects their business. I will visit the Sahrawi refugees who wait for statehood on the wrong side of the Moroccan ‘Wall of Shame.’ I will seek out Glenn Weynant, an Arizona ‘sound artist’, who is using the U.S.-Mexico border fence as a musical instrument. I will relate the history and politics of each of these walls, but it is people and their stories that excite me.

This project is terribly ambitious. The research will bring me to the borderlands of at least thirteen countries on five continents and will require much time and expense. If you are interested in following along with this project - and others, and random musings about travel writing - you are welcome to tune in to Elsewhere.