Friday 31 May 2013

Scam Art Sam : The Powdered Milk for Baby Scam

Dear Scam Art Sam,

This is a good one, with decent dividends and a high success rate.  You’ll need to employ some charm and play your cards right, but unlike many others, the Powdered Milk for Baby Scam works best when you don’t rush it. 

You Will Need
You, and an agreement with the clerk or owner of a shop which stocks, perhaps especially for this scam, large buckets of powdered milk.  Optional: tattered photograph of your starving baby.

Your Grounds
Could be any country that visitors (ie, potential Marks) preconceive as poor, or with a great divide between the rich and the poor.

Appear poor with a starving family.  You are probably a working man – say, a mechanic or a gardener – but the recent economic downturn (there are always hard times somewhere and for someone, so don’t think this is topical) has unjustly thrown you out of work.  Maybe the corrupt government or police were involved, and you were discriminated against.  Injustice is always a winner.  Essentially, you are trying but failing to feed your family, especially your baby, because where you were born is pitted against you.

Your Mark
Is any visitor from an apparently wealthy country to your apparently poor country.  Probably a young and solo Western male, but this is variable.  The most important thing you’re looking for is a fresh face and a desire to make a tangible difference in the world.

Your Target Emotion
Could be pride (ie, the Mark must do this in order to save the world), but typically, it is sympathy; but not so much sympathy for you – for your starving baby.  That’s what makes this one so effective.

The Routine

Step One: The Approach
This is just as crucial as a pick-up line.  You want to break the ice, but not with a sledgehammer that telegraphs your punch.  Don’t be waiting for the Mark.  Be walking somewhere (looking for food for your baby), and grab him as he passes you.  Hey, it’s you! I saw you at the…  Subtext: you look interesting, definitely more interesting than all the other tourists here.  Maybe you saw the Mark at a café earlier, or walking by the market / museum / beach / historical site / etc.  It doesn’t matter if the Mark spots the lie – you mistook him for someone else, someone with blonde hair / green eyes / big muscles / polka-dot skirt.  Meanwhile, the Mark’s first impression of you needs to be of someone charming yet downtrodden, filled with stories yet empty of money.

Step Two: The Chat
Be patient.  By the time they get to you, most Marks will be somewhat hardened against hustling.  The first few minutes of conversation are critical in establishing that you are a friend, just looking for a chinwag, not seeking help or sympathy – in fact, you might try being insulted at the suggestion.  It’s good here to have a few anecdotes.  Maybe about how the police mistreated you, how you met your wife, or what happened while you applied for a visa (and were rejected, of course, because you didn’t have the money) to the Mark’s home country.  Swear and then right away apologise for swearing.  Condemn your country and the system, and then say how great it is to have a country and a system like the Mark’s.  Tell jokes, quote Shakespeare, be yourself.  Make the Mark feel like he is having a cultural experience by just being in your presence.  And, be sure to balance your talking with questions for the Mark: about where he’s from, his wife, his job, his travels (always implying, of course, how lucky he is).  Don’t talk too much or he’ll get disinterested, because you’re not interested in him; and don’t ask too many questions, or he’ll feel targeted.

Step Three: The Bait
When the moment is right, ask for help.  It might be a good idea to pretend you’re busy and need to go soon, and so you pop the question before heading off.  Immediately tell the Mark that you do not want his money.  If he offers, refuse.  Push his hands away, get insulted.  Trust me, the return will be bigger if you hold out.  Tell the Mark that your baby is starving and that you need to buy powdered milk.  Will the Mark go with you to the shop to buy the milk?  If the Mark offers to give you the money to go buy the milk, refuse.  Tell the Mark that you want him to know that you are trustworthy and not using the money for anything else.  It is for your honour.  Tourists always assume that honour means more in the country they are visiting than it does in their own.

Step Four: The Walk
You will be relatively close to the shop, but not next door, so you will need to get the Mark across that distance without time to think.  So, here’s where you pull out your best and juiciest whopper story, the one you’ve refined and perfected with all the tragedy and comedy of the ages.  If you get to the shop before you finish the story, wait outside, as if the story is more important than him helping you – everything for the punchline of that great gab.

Step Five: The Sell
This will depend on the shop, but it’s best if you get the Mark to ask the clerk for what you’re looking for, and for the clerk to fetch it.  Alternatively, you can get it and bring it to the till, but this is less effective.  Just make sure that the Mark does not learn the price until the item is scanned through and ready to be bought.  The price, obviously, is high – but not outrageous considering the size of the bucket of powdered milk.  You want the bucket to be more surprising than the amount, because you want the Mark to think of how long that will feed your starving baby.  Don’t rush the Mark but do make him feel that this is a special moment in your life and, without saying it, that you can’t wait to bring the gift home to your desperate family.  At this step, you’ll need less charm, more emotion.  If possible, a clever partner in the clerk can be a tremendous asset: they can tell the Mark what a great service he is doing, make the deed feel legitimate, and help you out if the Mark has second thoughts.

Step Six: The Reward
Lose the Mark, but give him a fake number if you want him to feel like he’s made a friend and thus to cover your back.  When he’s safely away, return to the shop and give back the bucket of powdered milk in exchange for half of what the Mark paid, or whatever you’ve negotiated.  Everyone wins.

  • If the Mark acts suspicious or asks questions about your motive, get offended, and make to leave.  This is a general rule anyway: if you’ve been charming enough, he’ll chase you.
  • If the Mark tries to purchase a smaller container, say it is not the right kind.  Get the shop to stock, or at least display, only the kind of powdered milk you need in the bucket size.
  • If the Mark decides at the last minute not to buy the powdered milk, act incredibly deflated and disappointed, as if life-saving fortune teased you and then turned its back.  You may here want to ask for money in order to save up to buy the bucket, or you could hold out and put all your cards on the solemn and slow walk-away, in which you hope to be chased by a Mark who has changed his mind.

And that’s it.  Happy hunting and let me know how it turns out,


Thursday 30 May 2013

o : The Sahara

The Sahara
225km north of Nouakchott

Dear o,

The sand of the Sahara hisses at you.

Under the sun it blasts your face and screams, and drifts on and off the road forming dunes of gold or brown or white on either side.  It twists into swirling devils and always, always, always gets where it wants to go.  It is swallowed by the sea and sent back onto the hard and stout and crunching plants; plants that, despite their disposition to the hot and dry, make no sense out here because they are alive.

But now, in the night, you can only hear the sand hiss.

The heat persists as well.  We crossed the border to Mauritania late this afternoon and arrived here, across the road from a busy truck stop, around dusk.  Its been hours since we cleared the back space of the truck and set up our bed – hours outstretched and as still as possible, hours downing litres of water, hours with the doors wide open letting the wind in.  The wind is strong and welcome, of course, and is better than hotboxing the whole truck – but it still feels like the air blown from an oven only a few feet away.  The sky, at least, has lost its haze since the dreary dusk (the sun looked more like the moon on the horizon) and I can see the Big Dipper through my side of the wind tunnel.

The precariousness of the Sahara, which is the Arabic word for desert, is plain to anyone who looks at a geographical map of the world.  From a top view down there is no interruption to its yellow surface save for the Mediterranean coast, the Nile, and the odd swirls and punctures and blotches of darker orange or heavier brown.  It is the world’s hottest and third largest desert (next only to the Arctic and Antarctica), and here in the middle of it I feel like a visiting alien on life support.  I don’t belong, Archer doesn’t belong, the roads don’t belong.  I have lost count of the abandoned cars and trucks off the road, stripped of their parts, tortured by the sun for months or years or decades, and slowly being gulped down into the sand.

And yet, there is life here.  The square tents and iron huts are motionless but not empty; a closer look shows a pair of dangling feet at the entrance.  Trucks stopped on the side of the road have barren cabins, but underneath them are men sleeping on mattresses.  The odd, lonely, burned-up wanderer walks the road and maybe waves at us, maybe doesn’t.  There are hundreds, thousands, of camels, all across the desert, and though they seem wild they are branded; their keepers are not far off.  The gendarmes who stop us for a few questions and a copy of our fiche wear sunglasses and green scarves around their head and face, but typically show their mouths to say hello.  One of them gave us a big salute and a pat on my shoulder. 

That is Mauritania.  But most of the Sahara along the Atlantic, and most of our drive, is where your map will say Western Sahara, a long stretch of yellow bordered by a mix of solid and dotted lines.  Two governments claim this harsh land: Morocco, which controls the coastline and much of the interior, and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), which controls only the far eastern edges, bordering Algeria and Mauritania.  Wars have been fought here, if you can believe it.  And Morocco – which issues license plates showing the total territory of Morocco, including the Western Sahara, in red – is ready for another.

This morning we visited Dakhla, the Western Sahara’s second-largest city next to Laayoune, which we passed through yesterday.  It seemed that most of the inhabitants of both cities wore green uniforms, and the cities themselves are built and gridded with military precision.  Meanwhile, Dakhla feels like it is waiting for the flood, perhaps of water, but more importantly of people – Moroccans, of course, not Sahrawis, who are immigrating under government subsidy.  There are vast town squares, grand new halls of justice, long stretches of waterfront terraces and cafes, and fields upon fields where there are no roads or buildings or any sign of civilization at all, except for a complete and ready grid of streetlights waiting to be turned on.  Dakhla, and to some extent Laayoune, have been built pre-gentrified.  They’re just waiting on the gentry.

On the road south of Dakhla all the way to the Mauritanian border was the longest distance between gas stations (only about 150km), and the most barren of humans.  And still, transmission towers spring up at regular intervals, each one with a metal or mudbrick home built alongside its walls, housing a lonely guard who watches the sun and the traffic go by.  For about 50km before the border the desert turns to rocky outcrops and hills, and atop many of these are rock formations, similar to the Inuit inukshuk, and I wonder who makes them.  Is it these bored guards, or truck drivers waiting on a generous passerby for a few more litres of fuel,  or the windswept wanderers on the road, or the camel herders, or people I haven’t seen?

Many of the rock formations have collapsed, many are perhaps half-built.  But what is astonishing is how many have stayed standing in the intense winds, which batter them day after day.  The apex rocks point up, alone and barely supported, and yet they remain.  They are not really guiding the way, like the inukshuk, but instead declaring, there is life here.  The hissing, blowing, tormenting sand knocks them down but still we build them up.

Life in the Sahara, especially human life, is precarious.  I have no doubt of that as I pour hot water down my throat (it doesn’t help) and my lips begin to dry up without the help of the sun.  It is clear to me what happens when civilization is let go, as in the No Man’s Land between the Morocco and Mauritania, where the road is a stitch-up of rocks, cars that get stuck get left, and without any authority over the kilometer stretch of land, you can probably get away with a murder or two.  I have never seen anything quite like that in my life.

But life is here.  If I wasn’t passing through, and so tired by the heat and the wind and the sound of the hissing sand, I might build a rock formation of my own.  I don’t know why or what I’d try to say.  Maybe, I’m here.  Or, better rocks than hissing sand.  Yes, the rocks will turn one day to sand, but the nature of life in the Sahara is not so nihilistic.  For now, they are rocks, and they point, and they remain.



Watch for camels crossing the road - we did have to stop a few times,
but thankfully not at night.

The Sahara meets the Atlantic

Kitesurfing in the Bay of Dakhla

Abandoned car in the Morocco-Mauritania No Man's Land

Garbage in the Morocco-Mauritania No Man's Land

The open road

Rock formations

Sunday 26 May 2013

o : Drâa Valley

The Drâa Valley, near Agdz

Dear o,

The sun has just set over the Drâa Valley and we’ve pointed Archer towards where it will rise tomorrow.  This contour of green oasis walled in by the desert-brown and volcano-black mountains has been a crossroads of humanity for thousands of years, though at times you feel like you’re on Mars.  I wish you could have seen some of the things I have seen in the past 24 hours. 

I have to admit, I don’t really know how to properly describe all of this to you.  I’ve tried to be careful not to give you a blow-by-blow retrospective itinerary or some scribbled sheets from my travel diary.  I’d rather make a point with each letter, illuminate one thing and spread the wings of language from there.  But sometimes all I’ve got is the simple story of the journey we’re on, and my bald attempt to recreate some of the beauty and learning along the way.

Archer Gets a Boost
Back outside of Casablanca we met another couple going overland, Chris and Celine, who accompanied us into the city, shared some whisky and politics as our first guests around a mosquito-candle for a fire, and sold us some new heavy-duty coils to give Archer some more clearance.  In Agadir we had them installed along with some new shock absorbers, and the difference in handling is outstanding.  More revealing than a smoother ride over speedbumps, however, and more telling than our increased fuel efficiency, were the old shocks, once removed.  Rust had bored holes through them and covered their outsides, and while the interior piece of stainless steel looked as good as new, it was a wonder we had any shock absorption at all.

Chris and Celine are heading back to Europe but plan to start their trans-Africa overland trip this summer.  Check out their website at

Our old front shock absorbers

Waiting on DHL
The reason I write to you from the Moroccan semi-desert and not somewhere in Mauritania or even Senegal, is DHL, who were supposed to deliver our carnet de passages from England a week ago.  I don’t want to bore you with our story of waiting and calling and confronting incompetence – yes, I have written to them – but that’s why I’m here, and not there.

Morocco is one of the foremost destinations around the world for making films.  The limitless golden dunes of the Sahara, the ruined or not-so-ruined kasbahs built on hills or mountainsides, the mudbrick towns, the Berbers who seem to stroll along from another century, the impossibly vibrant colours – all of these, and any combination thereof, is many a filmmaker’s wet dream.  And Ouarzazate is the heart of it.

Culturally, geographically and historically distinct from Ouarzazate are the ruins of Volubilis in northern Morocco, not far from Fez.  Al and I visited this ancient and impressive Roman outpost on our third day in Morocco (Day 24 overall), and at the city gate met an American geographic photographer who was waiting for people to clear in order to capture the live painting of the countryside the imperial Romans had framed with their stone archway.  He had just been to Ouarzazate on a tour bus, and his review was summed up with a ‘meh’ and a shrug.  He’d taken the studio tour and learned about Gladiator and Indiana Jones in the rolling sand, visited the kasbah, taken photos, and said it didn’t amount to much.  All I had seen of the film mecca were photos of the red kasbah over the desert, and Al had never heard of it.  So Ouarzazate became the part of the plan that we crossed out in order to get to Taghazout a little earlier, and hopefully (vainly) to get our carnet de passage a little sooner.  When the DHL delay hit the weekend, we suddenly had a couple extra days.  More Taghazout surfing?  More Agadir café-hopping?  No, we took them to Ouarzazate, and beyond.

There are two kasbahs in Ouarzazate.  The famous one from all the photos, directly across from the movie museum on the gentrified main street, is the crumbling and expansive Kasbah Taourirt.  Despite its volatile structure, the front block-towers seem like they have been placed by a child-giant playing around with huge pieces of mudbrick Lego.  The interior, which costs 20 dirhams per person to visit, doesn’t match the outside splenour, which is not to say it’s a disappointment.  Parts of the glorious Alhambra in Granada (Spain) feature the same tiny windows with wooden shades, low ceilings and lower ports, winding, angular, pasted-white walls, and the maze of turns and staircases and rooms you missed on the way up.  There is only one room inside Taorirt that attempts the same artistic feats of the Alhambra, with its intricate geometrical patterns carved into the wood and stone (geometry remains the preferred Muslim form of expression, as in the distant past all representation of nature was banned); but the cool and cloistered impression is the same with both.

The other kasbah is Tifoultoute, also ancient, crumbling and formed of mudbricks in which you can see the straws of hay still poking out.  But Tifoultoute in the afternoon sun, across a river without water and a growth of palm trees, is somehow more foreboding and otherworldy than Taourirt, or for that matter any other castle I’ve seen.  Like a European castle it has a keep with four points, descending structures rising and complementing, a military height and static aggression.  But where a Welsh castle feels alive with light, a Scottish castle feels alive with ghosts, and an English castle feels alive with the National Trust, Tifoultoute feels like it has never lived at all, at least not on the earth.  The brown-and-red stones seem like they have been released from a Martian cliffside, the passageways are hollow with or without visitors, and the whole structure seems to reach up and away from whatever vantagepoint you choose.  It is as if there is a special law of quantum mechanics just for Tifoultoute: the observer changes what is observed; and unobserved, the thing may not exist at all.  I have to wonder if it is still there.

Kasbah Tifoultoute

We drove from Ouarzazate towards its broad, out-of-nowhere lake in search of a place to spend the night.  After some four-wheel driving to and along the shoreline, we found a spot with a view of Lake Ouarzazate, yet another ruin, this one on an island.  Al and I made our first fire of the trip from deadwood along the rocky beach, watched the sun set and turn the island kasbah into a brilliant orange, and ate our first meal cooked by our any-fuel mini-stove.  It was a fantastic night already.

“Look!” said Al.  I turned up my chin from the surprisingly decent beans and saw a yellow-grey glow on the horizon over the lake.  The full moon was rising.

We took photos, talked about it, savoured it in silence, tried to imprint in our memories the bright cratered globe ascend over the black and windless lake.  It might sound trite to say that I saw the full moon rise over a lake in the desert and that it was sublime.  I could whip up some words and maybe wrap the moonrise in a story with a twist, but I don’t want to fake it.  I saw the full moon rise over a lake in the desert, and it was sublime.  If that’s not enough, okay.  But if I was Caspar David Friedrich I could make that moon reach down and grip your spine.

Moonrise over Lake Ouarzazate



The Valley
This morning (Day 38) we decided to drive towards Zagora, and then find a different, less-beaten way back to Agadir.  We curved around Ouarzazate and its lake, and drove up into the Anti-Atlas mountain range.  The drive to Ouarzazate was something, but this was something else: oasis after oasis huddled around streams that you cannot even imagine being there, let alone see; canyons of black volcanic rock so smooth that in certain glints of the sun they look like glaciers of oil; mountain surfaces that could only have gotten that way if gone over by a Titan’s comb; steep dives into red rock and stony surfs.  And then, first a glimpse and then a full view from the top of a mountain pass: a valley of the deepest, lushest green, cornered by brown desert cliffs, stretching on towards the Sahara.  This was the valley of the Drâa, Morocco's longest river, which once connected Marrakech with Timbuktu by trade and war. 

We drove past Agdz, which had some of the friendliest and happiest Moroccans/Berbers I’ve encountered, and for sunset found a spot on the edge of a rocky plateau, overlooking the valley.  We ate watermelon for dinner and couldn’t stop looking.

And now, as I write, guess what?  The moon is rising, just peeking out now, from the mountains which edge this eccentric valley from the Sahara. 

The Drâa Valley

We’re not going back to Agadir.  We’ve decided to drive to Casablanca Airport, find the DHL office, and sit there until someone gets so sick of our playing cards by the reception desk that they finally just hand us our parcel with the carnet de passages and send us on our way.  The route will be exciting and challenging, and should take the whole day: to cross both the Anti-Atlas and the Atlas mountains, and then the great plains north of Marrakech – to go north in order to go south.  It’s about time.