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western sahara

October 2021

A vast, disputed territory of sand.

Western Sahara is almost exclusively sand. Literally, there are almost no trees, shrubs, mud, rivers or anything beside dunes and a few craggy hills. It's one of the least densely populated places on the planet, and is also the subject of a decades-long debate. Morocco claims Western Sahara as its own, whereas some locals in Western Sahara say they are separate. Separatists are typically jailed and silenced, and journalists are not allowed to enter. We were asked our professions at the border, and I even had to show my nursing ID badge.

Politically, legally, culturally, and even geographically it's quite different from Morocco, hence I consider it a fully separate destination. So do nearly all world maps.

We spent a week in the territory, mostly in and around the capital Laayoune. It's not as poor or remote as I expected - I found gluten-free pasta in one of the first supermarkets I went to. People are friendly but literally no one speaks English, or French, or even Spanish, as was regular in Morocco.

The dunes are amazing. Straight from the chilly coast, it's sand and only sand. Every store, every surface, and soon enough our skin became coated with a fine sand layer. Town water is desalinated, at least partially, and feels salty and sandy. It's truly a desert society.

Tainting our trip, at the end, flying out of the Laayoune airport for Gran Canaria, the Saharan check-in attendant demanded a $165 USD bribe to check our bags, and would not let us board the flight otherwise. We negotiated for an hour, calling authorities, asking other staff or passengers for help, to no avail. We paid it at the last minute, then literally ran to board the plane at the last minute. Sadly the girl demanding the bride was barely 21 years old. I informed authorities, including Binter, the Spanish airline, but never heard back. Saharan regions are rife with dishonest people, and Western Sahara is no exception. This is the desert, where anything goes.

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