In the midday heat of the West Sahara, heat haze blurs the road leading out of Dakhla. The two policemen manning the first of several checkpoints seem exhausted in their uniforms, lazily waving vehicles through, one by one. They stop some to chat with the driver, especially if it’s a pretty girl. I jump out of my friend’s car - he’s driven me here so I can hitch a ride to my kite camp that’s located 30 minutes out of the city on the lagoon.
I walk up to the policemen. They ignore me at first; once I catch their attention I try to explain in a mix of bad French and basic English that I’m looking to get back to my hotel up the road. I’m pointed towards the guard house. The guy behind the desk is friendly. “What you work?” “Film,” I say, that’s the next best thing to “nothing really, I used to work for a big company but am taking a year off” that I can come up with that's still semi-true. Again, I explain that I’m trying to hitchhike. He smiles, nodds, and waves to one of the policemen to join us. They chat, then I’m motioned to stand behind the barricade next to a truck parked on the bank. The driver is filling in some paperwork in the guard house. “Attendez! Attendez!” I gather that they want to pick a good car for me to ride with.
Four minutes later, the police men flag down a grey minivan. They exchange jokes with the guy in his forties behind the wheel; all three of them laugh. One of the officials points at me, gesturing me come over and hop in. I climb onto the passenger's seat. “Salaam Alaikum!” The driver is dressed in jeans and shirt with a sports jacket, the outfit completed by a big watch and impressive ring. “Alaikum Salaam,” I nodds, adding a phrase of thanks in Franglais, and reach for the seat belt. “Tsstsss,” the driver shakes his head and wags his finger. Apparently, he doesn’t approve of the use of safety devices. I abandon my attempt and hold onto the door handle as he steps on the gas and we hurtle towards the desert.
“Hamza,” the driver introduces himself, grinning. He wants to know if I speak any French. “Je ne parle pas le Francais,” is the only pitiful morsel that’s left of 3 years with Madame Aubert in high school. Arabic? No, neither. Hamza seems disappointed, but not deterred. Steering the van with his knees, he turns to me to explain via gestures that he is an octopus sales man. I am suitably impressed. The van does indeed smell distinctly of fish. Apparently, a lot of the catch in the area is caught illegally and smuggled to the market via back roads. The police, of course, knows about this and receives regular pay-offs. Maybe that is why they picked Hamza as trusty ride.
“Muslim? Ramadan?” Hamza wants to know. Today is the first day of the one-month fast. I explain that no, unfortunately, I’m not Muslim and not observing Ramadan. Hamza tuts. I am not sure how to react, and stare ahead at the dashboard. It is decorated with a pair of boxer shorts. On his iphone, Hamza dials a number and puts the call on speaker phone. “Un ami. Il parle aleman.” Someone is saying something on the other end of the line, but I am unable to decipher what. I throw up my hands apologetically and laugh. Hamza grins, hangs up and instead puts on some Arabic tunes. “Good music, yes?” I nod enthusiastically. Arguing seems out of the question.
“Êtes-vous marié?”. Again, I nod and smile, and point at the silver ring I purchased in Bolivia and which for the occasion of this trip I am wearing on the fourth instead of third finger on my left hand. Just in case. I get a thumbs up from Hamza. Where my husband is, he inquires, seemingly surprised that he abandoned me on my own in the West Sahara. I gesture somewhere vaguely ahead of us. I am lucky, Hamza explains, since usually he doesn’t take Western hitchhikers. Or Westerners don’t usually hitchhike? I’m not quite sure, but Hamza makes it clear that “everything very good. Morocco safe.” We’re almost at the hotel. One more police stop - surprisingly, the officials seem undisturbed by a European hitchhiker in Hamza’s fish van. Two minutes later, we screech to a halt by the side of the road. “Shukraan,” I say, and climb out of my seat. Hamza waves goodbye, two rows of white teeth blinking beneath large sunglasses. In a cloud of dust, the octopus salesman vanishes in the distance like a Fata Morgana. I am left behind, with yet another surreal travel experience to ponder upon. Maybe with my husband, over a beer or two.