Published: April 21st 2012April 16th 2012
Today we crossed into Mauritania! The border opened just after 9am and the truck was squeezed into the queue which had become quite long. We were to walk across as the truck is sent through an x-ray and also checked for alcohol, Mauritania being a dry country. Dressed in long sleeves, long pants and proper shoes (rather than the flip flops or sandals that have given us our fantastic tan lines), we filled in the necessary paperwork and lined up to receive our exit stamp. The wind was again blowing sand into eyes, ears and mouths and I looked on almost enviously at the local women in burqas.
Our passports were checked again by friendly Moroccan officials and then we had to go and register our departure with another official. It was all very official. All we had left to do then was sit and wait, swatting flies and lamenting over the state of our clothes. I seem to be attracting dirt. Given this, perhaps black pants were not the best option for me. Or the fact that I only have one pair (I do have a second pair but I don't like them. Am I allowed
Squinting in the bright sun
A fisherman (fisherboy!) on the beach near the fish market
to not like brand new pants in a country where many wear patched up second hand clothes?). A cheer went up when Suse drove towards us in the truck but we all felt somewhat sheepish upon hearing about the beer. It turns out that when we cleaned out the truck, no one thought to check the esky (cooler!) for beer, resulting in it being confiscated and most likely adding to the lengthy delay while they checked more thoroughly. Once she registered her departure, we drove through one final checkpoint and ... no man's land! Three miles of heavily mined land separates the two countries with a road of sorts that we must stay on for safety. We stopped for a toilet break but cannot leave the road and touts selling SIM cards and cigarettes made it hard to have any sort of privacy. But when you gotta go, well...
Then the slow bumpy drive to Mauritania began. Most were squished up the front of the truck to watch but I sat at the back taking photos of the discarded television sets and VCRs, the stripped and occasionally burnt out cars and an endless supply of tyres. We were tossed around
while Suse navigated her way through the eerie surrounds and we arrived at the unassuming border.
All in all it took us probably close to five hours which is considered great. The Mauritanians didn't check the truck and after several officials came up to check us out, we were through with one final wave.
The road to Nouakchott is sealed and smooth and cuts through the Sahara with police checkpoints every 50km. We must stop at every one of them and each time, Suse was told not to stop for any other reason, except if it was a marked police car with the police holding their badges out of their windows. Toilet stops were only allowed at the checkpoints; friendly locals pointing us towards the backs of buildings. This isn't the safest stretch of road but to us, it was desolate with only the occasional tent outside the checkpoints. Free camping is forbidden as is driving at night and we arrived in the capital just before dark and found the auberge with a little help. Trying to get the truck into the small sandy car park proved a tad tricky but after the staff dug out the front wheel, Suse
manoeuvred us in and they could close the gate behind us.
The majority of us chose to sleep in the dorm room with air/con and ran like school children to claim a bed, laying out sleeping bags and pillows before getting our big bags to sort through; most of us usually just stuffing things wherever they fit in pockets and then having trouble finding them again. Or maybe that's just me. Sockets were filled with an assortment of laptops, camera batteries and iPods and queuing for a shower began while the cook team prepared dinner in the kitchen.
There are a tonne of mosquitoes and they unfortunately seem to love me. I was slapping at my arms only minutes after arriving and when I put on my fleece, they went for the only skin left - my face. Not happy!! Decided it was time to pull out the DEET bug spray I was given but it's 50% and at most you should only use 30% (some people have 80% or even 100%) so I diluted it with a bit of water. In the end I didn't put any on, choosing to hide in the room with everyone so we'll see
So many people asked us to take their photo - such a refreshing change after Morocco!
tomorrow. We're on cook group so when I go looking for food I'll also be looking for bug spray and the like. We're starting our malaria pills tomorrow, Senegal being the next country we stop in and our first malaria zone. Now the fun begins. We're so used to wearing whatever in the evenings, only covering up when it's cold (and that varies a lot from person to person) but come dusk, it'll be long pants, long sleeves, DEET and making sure our tents aren't open (which a lot of the time they are). To be honest, I'm a little nervous, knowing how much I get bitten already but I should be fine. I'm sure I will be.
Bed time felt even more like school camp with people playing various pranks on each other and as the last person up turned out the lights, I put in my earplugs and fell asleep.
I feel like I was bitten all night but as I'm still lying in bed, I don't know for sure yet. People started stirring not long after 7am as I lay here and caught up on my blog (yay! finally up to date!)
before the day begins. Suse is taking our passports to the Senegalese embassy with a guy we met last night who has a friend working there so hopefully things can be sped up. It's conveniently close by and once she confirms her intended route with her boss, we'll know where we're going. Suse is great like that, giving us as much info as and when she has it. Guinea Bissau has jumped on the military coup bandwagon, further hampering our plans but it'll all work out one way or another.
What an up and down day. Suse returned from the embassy to announce that they were only issuing visas to Mauritanians. As far as I'm aware, that helps none of us. But after explaining that we had intended to go through Mali and showing them the visa plus our Guinea and Ivory Coast ones, they said they'd consider our case. Having to wait until midday, we walked to the nearby 'Big Market' to check out the local produce. The way we acted, you'd think we'd never seen a supermarket. I would've thought Morocco would be better stocked than Mauritania but no way. We found Ben & Jerry's, all the
These guys followed us around for ages, amusing us with their antics.
different chocolate brands we're used to, salsa (but no corn chips!) and various other items we'd never even consider if we were at home. The staff in the second supermarket definitely found us amusing and they all stood and stared as Britt and I decided between rice and potatoes for our beef stroganoff dinner (winner: both). Prices were cheap but the currency threw us a bit, having to now deal in hundreds or thousands (250 oogey boogeys as we're calling them is equal to $US1). It was bizarre to see the Dove moisturising cream I like cost the same as a packet of Tic Tacs ($US2)! We stopped in the butcher next door and bought beef from a very helpful guy and then headed back along the dusty path (only the road is paved) to the auberge. At midday, we Aussies were driven the 500 metres down to the embassy by Mohamed, one of the lovely guys here even though we said we could walk (secretly, I was grateful for the drive because it was hot today) and were told to return 'about 2 or 3pm'. Hmm.
We had lunch and sat about in the common room until it was
You can buy small packets of flavoured milk which these kids are sharing
time to go again and thankfully, we were granted a seven day transit visa. Not quite what we wanted but given that we are meant to apply in Oz, we were more than grateful. Filling in the paperwork that was in French proved difficult but we muddled our way through and handed it over to a handsome man who looked so calm and serene in his royal blue local attire. Our visas will be ready tomorrow at midday but that doesn't give us enough time to get to the border so we'll spend another night here and head off early Wednesday morning.
Dinner preparation was a little stressful as it turned out our one kilo of meat was probably close to one third bone and fat. Crap. I'd never made stroganoff before because I don't like mushrooms (true, whether it's a good enough reason or not) but I knew it needed meat! In the end with our sides of mashed potato and rice, it was fine and tasted good as well which is always handy.
Tonight was also the first night we took anti-malaria pills. I'm a little apprehensive about it all because the mozzies love me (yes, I was
bitten all night and again this evening. I put DEET on but I'm not sure I put enough) and because of the side effects. I've both Malarone and Doxycycline and have started with the latter to see how I react. There can be issues with sun sensitivity, nausea and goodness knows what else so Suse advised us to take them at dinner, therefore being on a full stomach. It's also advisable not to lie down for at least half an hour after taking them so we sat around more or less staring at each other, playing games on iPads and chatting. So far, so good. Let's see how the night goes...
What a country. I love Mauritania - or at least it's 50 year old capital city Nouakchott. I've had the most amazing day. Six of us hailed a taxi that took us into 'marche capital' for only 100um each (we'd been told it would cost 300um) and we wandered through the dusty roads of the colourful market. Women dressed in every colour imaginable sat in small groups selling material, dresses or socks and men crouched around piles of second hand
clothing or shoes or toiletries. Each vendor sold only one item so when Talbot stopped to look for pants, a boy selling shorts led us off the main thoroughfare and onto a short side street. A pair of pants and a long sleeve shirt cost the equivalent of $US12 after minimal bargaining. We attracted a lot of curious onlookers, some even taking photos of us with their phones. Of course we stood out in Morocco but the country is quite used to tourists. Here, I didn't see anyone else and we're now in the Africa I imagined in my head. The beautiful dark skin, amazingly white teeth (you see quite a few men chewing on a stick. It's a natural teeth cleaner and supposedly tastes slightly minty. I want to try it) and for the most part, happy people with big smiles.
After wandering, we made it our mission to find a post office. In a city with approximately one million people it could be anywhere and it wasn't within view. But not to worry, one friendly local said he would take us there and we followed him gratefully. And arrived at a bank. Hmm. Seemed our 'poste carte'
Top of the line
These fish are the most expensive (but I forget what fish it is!)
was lost in translation and he had thought we wanted an ATM. Again, no problem, the group of men there pointed us further down the road 'past the bigger building' and we set off again, our friendly local still leading the way. To a different bank. At this stage I was starting to wonder if banks sold stamps in this country but then Toni was given directions in English. We were on the right street, we'd gone past the 'bigger building' but we hadn't gone far enough. We found the post office (called Mauripost. Of course) and encountered our next problem. How to say 'stamp' in French. After Justice drew a stamp and I made a stamping motion on it, the man held up a sheet of stamps and smiled when we shouted 'oui!'
We'd seen a lovely mosque down one of the streets we'd crossed and retraced our steps until we found it. I stopped at a small shop with a photocopier to make copies of our passenger list for Suse and attempted a conversation with the elegantly dressed older man who gave up his seat for Maria to sit on. My 'a'jourdhui se chaud' and 'se chaud
much cheaper prices than we're used to in Oz!
pour vous?' were met with a hearty laugh and a nod in agreement; it was hot and even the locals found it to be so.
After seeing the mosque we stopped at a cafe on the same street for lunch. Menu items were similar to Morocco but cheaper prices for the most part. The man even turned on the tv and found a channel showing American sitcoms! I had the most delicious kafta and rice; the rice served in a bowl shape with a few diced carrots and the kafta (meatballs) swimming in a soup-like sauce with potatoes and diced onions. For less than a fiver. Excellent. I finished the meal off with the best mint tea so far and by then had been chatting to a man seated alone at a table adjacent to ours. As we were settling the bill, he came over and introduced himself as Said ('sigh-id') and invited us to his house for tea. Talbot and I accepted, the others either having chores and wanting to go to the fish market and the three of us walked to the main street where Said hailed a taxi and off we went.
We drove out
Fatima and Mohamed liked my hat and loved looking at the pictures of themselves
of the city past the local radio station, municipality offices, a school and the city's oldest mosque then beyond the airport to the next town before turning right and continuing in what I think was the direction of the sea. There were no sealed roads and Said said that the small one-roomed houses we drove past were built on land given to the poorer members of the community by the government. Goats and donkeys picked through piles of rubbish and children of various ages were everywhere. Said's house was behind a locked door, the wall having one small barred window through which he shouted to his family. His children excitedly called his name and came running to meet him at the gate. His eldest, five year old Mohamed, returned to the house to get two cushions to stand on to reach the bolt and soon had it open. Said scooped up him and three year old Fatima and disappeared inside while Talbot and I wrestled with the door, trying to close it. The double storey building houses his family as well as his wife's sister's family and there seemed to be older people there also; maybe the kids' grandparents? Once
Said and his son Mohamed
inside, we were introduced to Aisha, his wife, who wouldn't offer her hand because she'd been preparing food and she stood there shyly while Said filled her in (I assume!).
A key was produced from behind layers of material and she unlocked a door and motioned us in. Following Said, we took off our shoes and entered the cool interior. Sofas lined the walls and lace curtains hung in front of the windows with two large rugs on the carpeted floor. Offered the choice between sitting on the sofa or floor, I chose the floor and we made ourselves comfortable while the kids climbed all over their father. Mohamed and Fatima call their parents by their first names but I'm not if that's a Mauritanian custom, an Islamic custom or just their family. Fatima soon fell asleep, using her father's arm as a pillow until she was carried off. Tea was brought in looking similar to what we had in Morocco except with a frothy head. Said told us it is custom to take small sips often and to finish the drink which I happily did. This was repeated two more times, each time being served and the glasses
There's goats, donkeys and the occasional dogs picking their way through rubbish piles throughout the city
collected by a boy who looked to be in his teens - though I've been off completely every time I've guessed so it'll probably turn out he's my age with three kids! After counting to ten in what I thought was Arabic (it was Arabic but it's a local dialect in Morocco), I took out the small scrap piece of paper I'd written our address on for the taxi and wrote one to ten with his guidance. I then tried to show off and write my name but it turns out I only wrote the S and A and missed the rest! And so my impromptu Arabic lesson began. It is really, really difficult. We worked through the different sounds (for instance, the letter B will change it's sound depending on the number of 'dots' or 'dashes' above or below the character) and rules and only took a break when food arrived. Considering we met in a cafe after lunch, I didn't expect to be fed more but local custom says you feed people who arrive on your doorstep. Beef and soft almost mashed potatoes served with crusty baguettes were eaten with our hands and I suddenly became conscious of
being left handed. Usually people eat with their right, the left being seen as 'dirty'. Obviously it makes no sense to me and I'm sure I could probably look it up but no one I've asked seems to know either. Anyway we ate, the dishes were removed and a bowl and jug were brought for us to wash our hands and then we continued. Another larger scrap piece of paper was brought and I learnt to count to one hundred in tens and then add the original numbers to make fifty-five or ninety-eight, etc. Our next break came when a tray was brought in with three massive purple mugs. Seriously, the biggest cups I've ever seen. Said said it was sweet milk and knocked his back as if in a drinking competition. I didn't think anything of it until I took a sip. Goat's milk. It was definitely not my cup of tea (pun intended) but being a guest in his house and manners instilled in me told me I had to drink it. Talbot almost visibly gagged and kept trying to make excuses but in the end chugged it down and Said beamed, telling us he kept goats and
carried in the traditional way.
one had been brought in to be milked just for us. Excellent. Now I was definitely unsure if the milk was going to stay in me! Fatima had woken up and joined her brother and two cousins clowning around while Aisha and her twin sister lay on one of the sofas. It was hard to not feel like we were overstaying our welcome but every time I hinted that we should get going, Said waved it off. I was feeling bad I had nothing to offer them, like when Jareb and I visited the family in Marrakech, I conveniently had figs and apricots that I'd bought earlier. Now, nothing. So I offered Mohamed my Aussie cap and he put it on, refusing for several minutes to give his sister a turn. Said told me to take photos which I gladly did but not wanting to use the flash and having hyper children as subjects meant that most were a bit blurry. Fatima was fascinated with the screen and her photo and kept pressing her nose up to the screen, squealing with delight. It was really great to watch.
Then, without much of a warning, it was time to go.
To market, to market
to buy some bright cloth.
Said put on his traditional dress again having lounged in pants and shirt and motioned for us to come. I'd been aware of my stinky socks and was happy to put on my hiking boots, the kids watching my every move while they stood against the opposite wall. I was shown the kitchen, bedrooms and common area before we said our goodbyes and was then back out into the still warm sun.
I reflected on my day while in the taxi back to where we were staying, Said accompanying us. He had welcomed us into his home, fed and watered us, taught us and asked for nothing in return; he even paid for the taxis. I'm hoping that after meeting families in the two countries we've gone through so far, I can do so in the other countries we visit. And that one day I can return to Mauritania and see more of the country. Inshallah.
There are more photos below