So, there I was, in the back of a van uncomfortably spluttering its way toward Sidi Ifni with six Moroccans and an Australian backpacker called Pete. We sat nervously perched on side benches, the windows were blacked out but shafts of light cut the must from the driver’s cabin. It had the air of a troop truck, busing its uncomfortable passengers to the impending front. We arrived in a town that did little to undo this apocalyptic sensation; it felt like it had been abandoned in the wake of a gas attack.
Sidi Ifni was once a Spanish enclave, a port and barracks from which Francisco Franco could administer the Western Sahara. Now a few thousand locals eke out a living squatting within its once manicured art deco walls. The paint had turned to peel and dust, the iron grills above doors had turned to rust and the colonial extravagance had turned to poverty. Meanwhile, I had turned into a five year old. The vast tracts of dilapidation were my own empty playground. The place was useless and largely unused but I had it to myself, I could sit on the old port, now used by three small fishing boats, singing “sitting on the dock of the bay” uninterrupted besides by other tourists whistling its refrain. It was so empty that human contact was a joy and wonder was contagious. Wandering through the old faced pink and faded blue barracks and towers, I developed a hint of affection for the frivolous history of colonialism; I wished I could have been there as a settler, building my little outpost of a home, subduing the natives and believing that it was all worth it. This desire probably came as a reaction to my mission drift. I hadn’t seen a friend in near to a month and without filial reassurance I felt purposeless. It was there I decided to go only one step further south before grasping the vitalising aim of turning north, home. I went from one place that had shriveled into irrelevance to one that appeared to be a bold ode to frivolity. Laayoune is a boom town, build on subsidies and the custom of a vast and unending UN mission. For forty years, the suited diplomats and towering black men in exuberant African dress have haggled over the regional conflict with little effect besides creating this surreal oasis of western opulence in the heart of an empty desert. I stayed in the only hotel that was not fully booked by the UN and spent two days wondering quite what all these diplomats were doing. There must have been hundreds, milling about from one government building to another, driving about in black Mercedes. I knew they had done very little in forty years and resolved that one day I would get a cushy well paid job here. Other than incredulous musing, little was to be done except bask in the fiery sun. All in all, Laayoune was a soulless city. Its one pleasant building was the old cathedral, run by a Spanish priest who let me have a look inside. I think I was the first person to go in there for some time; he made me tea and asked me about home, never once asked me about religion, probably for fear of driving me away.
I left looking for a more characterful place. I found it in the village of Tarfroute.