The Train Ride

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Africa » Mauritania » Dakhlet Nouadhibou » Nouadhibou
September 24th 2007
Published: November 20th 2007
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When I got to the station there was still plenty of time before the train left. A man drinking tea in the shade had told me it was twenty past three and the train didn’t go till six o’clock, so I decided to have a look outside to pass the time away. The journey from Atar had been both dreadfully hard and gloriously spectacular. Over twenty people -all men- crossing one of the harshest desert in the world on a white Toyota van. The car was so overloaded that more than once we all had been forced to get off and walk next to it while the skilful driver did his best to keep the engine going although at minimum pace.

Atar, the administrative capital of Adrar region, is just a tiny speck of humanity surrounded by hundreds of kms of lifeless sand. Still, it looks like New York City when compared to Choum, this arid, remote village which only reason to exist seems to be its train station. Here, once a day, the iron-ore train coming from Zouerat stops on its way to Nouadhibou. It’s the longest train in the world, apparently up to 3 kms long, and the only link between the northern desert and the coast. It’s also the only reason why I took the pain to come all the way up here. Wacky reason it might sound, I know, but love always push people to do the most uncanny things and my love story with trains is everlasting.

So, here I was lying in the shade of a (semi)nomadic tent sipping tea along with forty or more Mauritanians (all men, again) waiting for something to happen. I was nervous. There was something I couldn’t completely fathom and that made me nervous, itchy. Well, as for the itch, it might have had something to do with the flee infested bed I had slept on the previous night in Atar. But why was I feeling this anxious? I was feeling somehow like the boy who decides after weeks of sleepless nights to declare his love to his special girl and is now torn between the wish of fast forwarding so to cut the waiting time shorter, or rather to stick a dream nail into the clock so to be saved from potential defeat (and a broken heart).

These are the times when I like to be all alone. So I finally left and went for a walk. The place was totally silent and deserted. I can’t express well enough how hot can be a desert at three o’clock in summer, but, believe me, even after several months in Africa, this was unbearable. Just that. I walked for a few minutes, wondering how could anyone like, or even tolerate, life in such environmental conditions. This might sound exaggerate but, in fact, is not: when I reached the other side of the village I was feeling as dehydrated as a raisin. I got into a tiny grocery shops and drank several cans of melon juice (probably the only Mauritanian product I will ever miss). Desert climate should be advised to all those who wants to lose weight. You very seldom eat and yet, because of the massive amount of liquids you are forced to drink, you never actually feel hungry. I don’t remember ever eating more than once per day during my stay in Mauritania. Beside, in places like this you never feel lured into eating for pleasure as the modest choice of goods range between canned beef, canned tuna and dry biscuits.

Shortly before six, the whole village moved in synchrony towards the train station. If station is what you call a random piece of desert crossed by a railway with a french signpost reciting arret passage. An elder guy in white robes approached me and said something I could not understand. He had a bunch of pieces of paper in one hand and was waving them at me. A young football player I had previously met on the van from Atar came closer and told me in French that the old guy was the ticket seller and that the price for travelling in the maison (house) was 500 ouguya. That means 1½€ for a 13 hours ride! There are two ways of travelling on this train: you just jump on one of the hundreds ore wagons for free or buy this absurdly cheap ticket and travel in the proper passengers car.

Finally the train arrived. It was huge, immense. It was pulled by four massive, yellow diesel engines. Then an endless row of wagons loaded with reddish black iron ore and finally a single, tiny light blue coloured passengers car positioned just in front of an extra engine. To stop such a monster must be a feat and the engineer probably start braking a few kms before reaching the place where he actually wants to halt. I fought my way up the passengers car but it was so crammed that I decided to jump off from the opposite side, run towards one of the ore carriages and climb on it. I prefer to bake in the sun and then freeze at night while sleeping on iron stones rather than spend 13 hours unable to stretch my legs and breathe properly. Nothing annoys me more than the lack of space.

Then the mighty beast slowly start moving towards its far away coastal goal. I climbed on the top of the small hill of stones left in every car by the loading crane, to savour in full the feeling of freedom and adventure. I was well above the metal edge of the car and I was aware that a wrong movement would have sent me rolling down the hill and off the train either dead or bones broken stranded in the middle of an unforgiving desert. And now the train was gathering speed and so being so high wasn’t fun any longer. Beside, there was a second, not less troubling problem: dust rising from the ore itself. More and more as the wind kept lift it up and forcing it into my mouth, eyes and ears. Finally, I somehow managed to climb down and quietly sat in the inner, more sheltered side of the balustrade. I took a look to how locals on the other wagons were dealing with this blacksand storm. They were all wearing some sort of scarf all around their heads, mummies alike. I reached for my Invicta to take out my only extra t-shirt and use it as headscarf, only to realize in deep horror that some absolute fucker had stolen it, either in Atar or on the van to Choum.

You never know the true limits of your own abusing imagination till something like this happens and If you have never travelled luggageless, I won’t probably be able to make you understand how bad the situation was. I mean, if you’ve got a backpack and someone steal something from it, it’s just gonna be a matter of economic loss. It might be something really costly, say a GPS or a camera but in no case it will affect your quality of life in immediate terms. But when all you carry around is a t-shirt and you need it to avoid swallowing half the Mauritanian iron production, well, then it DOES matter indeed. The only solution left was to use my towel as headscarf.

Then the sun set and all I could see were stars above me. All I could hear was the rattling of the train softly drifting towards more human friendly scenes. Few hours after sunset the temperature began to drop. It went from scorching heat to chilling cold in no time. Again I was facing hardship. I could either remove the towel from around my head and use it as blanket and probably wake up in the morning as blind as a earthworm and with my mouth as smooth as a gorilla’s armpit or leave it were it was and freeze my bum off. I went for the latter.

I have strange memories from these many hours riding at night. I catnapped the whole time. It was utterly uncomfortable and cold. Yet, every time the train stopped for some (unknown) reason, I got up and fully, happily breathed the fumes of a sort of -in the west- long forgotten, romantic way of moving. We reached Nouadhibou at dawn. I woke up and realize in the most complete amazement that at some point during the night a whole herd of sheep had been loaded on top of the ore and now their shepherds were frantically unloading them by simply throwing them off the train. Quite a scary scene.

Next, I got off the train myself. Unofficial taxis were standing next to the railway in the cold Atlantic wind waiting for potential customers to be lured into the comfort of some kind of soft seat. I jumped in one of them and off I was. I was unworldly dirty. So dirty it was actually a wonder the driver let me get into his car.

It was the end. In five minutes time I’d check in somewhere, in fifteen I’d be showering and scrubbing dust off my body. In few days time I’d catch a ride north. The train ride was over.

La versione italiana di questo blog la trovi sul sito
Link: Il Viaggio in Treno


21st November 2007

the written version of the train story...
The difference between your African train stories and my Indian train stories? Yours are based on true facts! You even have to fotomaterial to prove it! hihi... I really enjoyed reading this story again. Especially because this time, I also had the privilege of hearing it live while you were in Belgium! Big hug from your little friend in Gent, who's leaving for Buenos Aires this weekend!
26th November 2007

The train ride
Exciting stuff and well-written - my God! the thought of all that iron ore and dust! Sounds like u got enough meterial for a book...

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