|A important aspect of travel, for me, is seeking out, experiencing and learning about the music of the region. In planning the route that these travels would take, Evelyn and I knew enough of West African music to be drawn to that region and thus to include it on our list.
Another important aspect of travel for me is to minimize flying - stay close to the ground. See how places connect. West Africa - we're planning to visit Senegal and Mali - is a tough one, isolated by desert, civil unrest and political turmoil. We decided early on, for reasons primarily of cost, that we'd fly to Spain and go overland to Morocco. But how to continue on to West Africa without flying? The old trans-Sahara route across Algeria is out of the question these days due to instability and lawlessness in that country. The alternative overland route was along the Atlantic coast from Morocco, through the Western Sahara and Mauritania, and on into Senegal. For a long time, this was out of the question. The Polisario were fighting for their own country in the Western Sahara following the annexation by Morocco. In 1975, 350,000 unarmed Moroccans participated in the "Green March" - they simply walked in and claimed the former Spanish possession for Morocco. (Mauritania dropped its claims to any of the territory in 1975.)
The international community couldn't be bothered with Morocco's bold move and so, today the region is a de facto part of Morocco. The UN keeps the peace and a referendum has been scheduled, postponed and rescheduled. As a result of the dispute, land mines lie menacing in abundance. And until recently, the Moroccan authorities wouldn't let you cross the region.
Most of that has changed. The Moroccan government now says you're free to go. Mauritania however, officially says their border to the north is closed. But if you show up at this border with a valid visa for Mauritania, they'll let you enter the country.
Because the border is officially closed, Mauritanian embassies require that you book a flight in and out of Nouakchott (the capital) before they'll issue you a visa. Thus, the Mauri visa game.
Particular travel agents in Rabat were hip to the situation and willing to participate. Although annoying and costly, the rules were simple. Book an air ticket in and out, get the visa, cancel the ticket. Upon cancellation, the travel agent would pocket 20% of the airfare - about US$100. Even better, one agent was known to issue a photocopy of a ticket for a $50 charge. Such a photocopy was good enough for the Mauritanian embassy.
By the time we'd arrived in Morocco, we'd read enough travellers' reports on the web to feel reasonably confident this would work for us.
Since the Mauritanian embassy is well outside the city center, we rang them first to inquire. Speaking in French, Evelyn was told to come to the embassy and yes, you need to bring an air ticket.
So we walked over to pay a visit to the agency known for issuing photocopies of tickets. The agent's reaction to our request came as a surprise. He was rudely defiant - acting as if we had insulted him by suggesting he would do such a thing. Whoa. Now what do we do?