Published: November 26th 2007November 24th 2007
Faced with four and a half hours of free time on a Saturday afternoon in Saint Louis, what else were we going to do but walk to Mauritania? Our guidebook had a little map with an arrow saying "Mauritania, 3km" so we figured it'd be no problem.
Our first problem was that we forgot to figure in all the kilometres that it was going to take to get to the part of the map where the 3km started. In order to get off our island, we had to first walk south, cross a bridge to another island and head north. Eventually the road ended, and we trekked through the sand. We lost most of our group to the beach and the Muslim cemetery, but Faith and I pressed on in search of the border guards.
After about an hour of walking through the sand, we ditched our flip flops and ran into an old man. He, too, was barefoot and had an empty rice sack slung over his shoulder. We had seen some people walking towards us with giant sacks of rice on their heads, but we could not figure out where they were coming from. Our new friend
asked if we were heading to Mauritania, and after replying in the affirmative, we asked how much further it was. He pointed to a clump of trees several kilometres behind us and said that's what they considered the border. He also informed us that we were headed in the right direction to reach a butik that sells really inexpensive food items. I was really excited about the prospect of a $.40 can of Fanta, but it turned out that we weren't even halfway there at that point. He kept saying that it "wasn't far" and we saw more and more people walking back to Senegal balancing impossibly large items on their heads. We asked him why these people walk so far just to buy rice and why we had seen several horse carts turn around and head back into Mauritania. Our friend the old man told us that people cross the border to get rice and cigarettes at reduced prices, but it's illegal to bring back sugar. In Senegal, the prices of certain products (sugar, oil, bread, flour, etc) are set by the government, and the price of sugar has just risen again. There were rumors of customs officials checking
incoming vehicles in an attempt to try and stop the illegal importation of sugar via this unchecked border crossing.
We passed all of the old man's landmarks (the bend in the "road," a "village" of about two huts, etc), and finally he said that the butik was now visible. I realize that the Senegalese don't tend to do well with estimating distance, but this guy was so far off that it was a bit ridiculous. The butik was a small white speck on a fog-enveloped hill waaay off in the distance. Instead of attempting to walk all the way there, Faith and I hitched a ride back into St-Louis on a horse-drawn cart.
The men on the cart told us to jump on and then they took off. Faith and I clung to each other for fear of being pitched off the side of the cart. A few minutes into the ride, the driver asked if we were sitting on the sugar. Faith and I looked at each other and then down at what we were sitting on. Turns out Faith was, in fact, sitting on the five or so kilos of sugar and she immediately switched to
sitting on the huge sack of rice. We both scoped out the horizon for customs officers, but luckily, we saw no one and no other carts were heading back to Mauritania or ditching illegal bags of sugar in sand dunes. We chatted with our travel companions, and they complimented us on our Wolof skills, and we talked about our studies. I asked the man sitting next to me what he did for a career. "I'm a policeman," he said. "I make sure that no one is smuggling things into the country by boat." I suppose he doesn't consider smuggling things on land as terrible an offense as smuggling on the water. And I guess that if you're going to break the law, it's best to be doing it with law enforcement officers...
We finished our sunset ride back to Saint Louis without a problem, except for some jeering from the guys playing soccer in the sand. In addition to the usual "What pretty ladies!" comments, we heard one guy yell out, "Les toubabs font de la fraude!" (the white girls are doing some smuggling!). Everyone laughed, we waved to them, and the youngest boys chased our cart back to
where there were roads once again. There's nothing like clandestinely transporting goods to bridge the gap between two cultures...
There are more photos below