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Published: April 23rd 2010
Climbed into the iron ore train after only an hour of waiting.I'm pretty sure I was the only female in the open bines section (no ticket required), and definitely the only tourist, but I got lucky and rode with three very nice and experienced guys. They had warm blankets and quickly set up a sand firepit in the corner and we had a freshly cooked beef stew tangine and plenty of tea for the trip. The open desert and starry night were wonderful, and the train was a lot more comfortable than expected, even got some good sleep in between the occasional jolt of cars crashing together.
Arrived in Zuerat, feeling quite safe despite the hype; one thing that helps is that every police or army officer i have met has been very nice and there are many points where my passport details are recorded - all tourists are tracked. Walked around for the morning and met a nice family from Senegal who invited me for tea and breakfast, but decided to catch the same day train back towards Choum. In the 7 hours we spent waiting at the 'station' everyone got along great, despite the hot sun and little space that under the tarp that provided the only shade. Luckily there were a few amazing guys from the Sahara Occidental who were fluent in Spanish and treated me extremely well, including insisiting on buying me a ticket to sit in the passenger car with them. They were great people and made me regret only having spent 3 days in the Western Sahara.
On the train my Saharan friends told a member of the Gendarmerie that I
needed a place to stay in Choum, and despite the language barrier spent 3 days in the dusty, very hot town. Then it was on to Chinguitty, understandably the tourist capital of Mauritania, surrounded by a sea of sand dunes and home to several ancient libraries and architecture. Stayed for a week, spending mornings helping cook in a childrens centre, afternoons relaxing inside to escape the Saharan sun, and a few evenings hiking to a nearby oasis and sleeping under the stars. Had
turned down an offer from my Mauritanian army friend obliging anyone
who i asked to give me a free ride (that wouldnt be hitchhiking anymore), and so had to wait a few days before hitching a ride all the way to Nuakchott.
In general, sprawling, dusty cities with chaotic traffic and few trees are a personal nightmare, but this past week in the Mauritanian capital has proven that its the people who make the city. I am staying here with another friend from couchsurfing and his extended family including his parents, wife and kids, siblings and cousins, plus there's always plenty of visitors. From our first conversation it was clear that Mohamed and I share similar philosophies on life, and also that he is a skilled and patient teacher of African beliefs and values. In between helping in his restaurant, trips to the beach, and singing every night until the early morning, we have had open conversations on every topic that has come to mind, from the importance and strength of African families to the mysteries of witchcraft to half-successful lessons in Wolof, Pular and Sonike. One particularly memorable conversation was on the meaning of freedom; we both agree that no person can ever be completely free (the human body and being part of a society are two inevitable restrictions), but I found it interesting that the restriction he feels is strongest in his culture are those put on by family. He explained that unlike in the West, where people's happiness and survival are directly linked to work, here in Africa you can get by fairly well and enjoy life even if you cant work because friends and family provide such a strong safety net. However if you go against the wishes of your family not only will that safety net disapear but youll always have to live knowing you have caused the people who brought you into the world stress and pain; and to live knowing that seems like the worst punishment possible for the people here. So regardless of whether it means working in a predecided profession or giving up the one you love for an arranged marriage, you are bound to obey.
Interesting conversations, delicious thiacri and warm peppermint milk aside, tomorrow is the final day on my Mauritanian visa and I'll be hitching one last ride out of the Sahara and across the Senegalese river into my next African country. I will be staying in Rosso with the daughter of the great uncle of a friend of Mohamed's; yes, Ive definitely entered a land where extended families matter.
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