Wednesday, January 14, 2015

On the Road to Sierra Leone

Strange transition from cold and wind in Portland, Maine, to the relative warmth of Casablanca, Morocco

Painting above my bed in the place we're crashing before leaving Maine... I'm not sure what this man's intentions are, but I feel mildly apprehensive!

Director Dunn helping to move the great big pile of advance team luggage (170 lbs of medical supplies)

Waves crash against the footings of the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca (this is the largest mosque in Africa, with a retractable roof, ability to accomodate >100,000 worshipers, the tallest minaret in the world (689') Inside the mosque, glass panels allow beautiful views of the seabed of the Atlantic.  At night a green lasar light points from the minaret, towards Mecca).
The mosque was completed in 1993 and has since seen repairs necessitated by the challenging nature of its exposed location.  Saltwater has migrated into the concrete and corroded hidden rebar.  This and over 100 loadbearing pillars were replaced in 2003 in a major repair undertaking.  The mosque now has what is in effect an outer waterproof hull beyond the original foundation, which protects the loadbearing elements from saltwater damage.
  Next to the mosque is a long seawall with a broad flat top.  During our layover, IMA's advance team joined a large crowd of locals, who seemed to have gathered not only to enjoy the sun, but also view a succession of daring human encounters with the sea.  Near our perch an angled white sand beach and a projecting section of coarse riprap worked in concert to funnel breakers violently against the seawall.  This funneling effect caused larger waves to rush up vertically against the seawall, break into fine spray over onlookers, and dissolve backwards into a churning wash of foam and undertow.  Local schoolboys made a game of running into the funnel, then racing back out just in time to avoid the potentially deadly action of the larger waves.  As we watched them, a woman in her 50's slowly made her way down the beach towards the funnel.  She was barefoot and bore a headscarf wrapped around a grapefruit-sized object.  Something was unidentifyably wrong with her expression, and mood she was projecting, as she slowly entered the funnel and bent, dipping the headscarf into a series of small waves that rushed in around her feet.  We saw an odd smile on her face, then one of the large waves came in and she disappeared beneath it.  We rushed down onto the riprap to assist her, balance thrown off by our heavy backpacks.  The crowd laughed and pointed, then fell silent as people grew concerned and started to rise to their feet.  We were joined by several local men, and together we helped the woman get back on her feet and up onto the safety of the riprap before the next large breaker hit.  She was not appreciative of the help, slapping away the proffered hands.  We were quite concerned about her and kept a discreet eye on her afterwards, as she stood on the roadway for a long while, looking quite upset and angry.  Eventually family arrived and joined her.  We never did find out what it was all about.
We continued our people-watching atop the seawall.  Occassionally a whistle blew, as mosque security chased off mischievous teens or the over-amorous young couples who tried to tuck themselves away into cool dark alcoves of the mosque.  Our next risk-taker made his way across the rip-rap below us.  He paused at the end of the seawall, stripped down to shorts, then produced and donned a pair of green flippers and small plastic goggles.  He had a short military-style haircut and had the lean, muscled look of someone who works for a living.  All eyes were on him as he entered the water and swam straight for a protruding corner of the mosque foundation, where a 6' wide whirlpool was created by each passing breaker. Somehow, he timed his swim to miss the whirlpool, and swam further and further out, ducking beneath each wave.  Finally he turned, and kicking mightily, caught a breaker and body-surfed in, almost to the beach.  Impression made, he then exited the water, doffed his flippers, and returned to his pile of clothing.  
I made a mental note to carry flippers with me while traveling in the future.