From Saharan Sands to Deep Water

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Africa » Senegal
April 11th 2009
Published: April 11th 2009
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The journey from Rabat to Laayoune, in the Western Sahara, took a full 21 hours. Late at night we paused in Agadir, and while sleepy-eyed passengers ate tajines and salads, I sighed in relief to know that, from here on in, we would not be doubling back on ourselves - equipped with our Mauritanian visas, our journey south into the unknown would now begin. The sky was full of stars and when the sun finally rose, it was over desert scrub as far the eye could see in one direction and with royal blue ocean in the other. This was Western Sahara, not quite its own country but not quite Moroccan either. The disputed region seemed to hang in a strange limbo and for hundreds of miles you would see nothing but sand and the occasional hut, the occasional camel. There were now frequent police checkpoints, at which Seth and I were marched off the bus and made to hand over our passports and explain ourselves; our purpose, our hometowns, our professions, to men with guns tucked into shiny white holsters. ('Bookseller' unfortunately sounds like 'boxer' to the non-English speaking ear, and I consequently caused much confusion and hilarity. I wish it were true; the ability to beat someone up in a tough situation could be more useful than the ability to sell them a copy of David Copperfield if we get in any trouble later on.) There were ten such checks in the two days it took us to reach the Mauritanian border and at each I pretended to be totally unintimidated when in fact I was nervous as hell, thinking how easy it would be for someone to make life difficult for us and turn us back. I'd read somewhere that you needed a special permit to cross the region, and we had nothing of the sort. Seth had worried about not being issued a visa for Mauritania - I hadn't; I'd worried about getting through Western Sahara. If we had been refused at any point, we'd be forced to return to Rabat and fly to Dakar, which would have been a frustrating, expensive, time-consuming pain in the butt. Passing through unscathed felt like a triumph. Now, according to the UK FCO website, all we had to worry about was Mauritania itself, with the risk of kidnap attempts by Al Qaida, political unrest due to the bloodless coup and the presence of landmines along the border. Only two weeks into our trip, it felt like we were plunging into the deep end without those lovely luminous orange armbands.
The border crossing into Mauritania was like no other. Between the two border posts lay a no mans land that was in fact a desert wasteland full of abandoned, decaying cars, sun crisped and warn as thin as paper in parts. It was like a mass grave for vehicles that had clashed with customs regulations. Our driver had to weave around these strange skeletons on a twisting, invisible path that made no sense to us but much sense to him, knowing the locations of the many landmines in the area that we definitely didn't want to disturb. The formalities complete, we rode on to the seaside town of Nouadhibou, where my old friend culture shock was awaiting me. It was a moment I was always due to have, that 'f*cking hell I'm in Africa' moment, brought on by dusty roads lined with one story buildings, kids riding on donkey carts singing, one room restaurants with ragged curtains and football posters on the wall, and strange exotic music booming out into the streets. The local men of Arabic descent wore long pale blue, toga-like robes with gold embroidery, while the women were wrapped up in colourful material and scarves. Other people looked different - there were tribal women with bold printed skirts, and tops that showed a little shoulder and hugged their waists, their hair tied up in top-knotted bundles of material. There were tall men and boys in football shirts. Perhaps this description is in danger of making Nouadhibou sound too lively - it was a strange town, ghost-like in most parts, and for two days we delved into its oddness, in the company of the cheery, laid-back Italian traveller Silvana. The beach transpired to be a strange wasteland, partly desolate, partly beautiful. Ecstatic to see a flock of flamingos, I ran to the water's edge to see them properly. 'It smells weird,' said Seth, following behind me.
'Flamingos! Look at them! Can you believe it?' I asked.
'Louie. Do you know what you're standing in?'
I looked down. It was a makeshift camel graveyard. Close by, rows of hooks showed the spot where they were slaughtered daily after prayers (eating camel meat is common in this part of Africa) and all around my flip-flopped feet lay whole jaws with rows of teeth, tails, legs, snatches of fur and so on. It gave a sombre undertone to our brief visit to the neighbouring camel souk. From car graveyards and camel graveyards to ship graveyards, Nouadhibou just kept on displaying decay. The nearby beach known for its shipwrecks left the three of us without words. A neon blue sea, with white sand, and huge rusting boat carcasses stretched before us like something from a movie. Mauritania, we agreed, was pretty damn weird so far. A visit to the port, where Seth hoped to take photographs, threw out further curveballs. Officials at the gateway refused him permission to take photos and a further plea to the authorities still returned a negative response. As though to mock him, a man swinging a massive octopus strolled by, and a cartload of huge silver to purple fish with gawping mouths was trundled past ('they're as big as me!' cried petite Silvana.) When it seemed we had left the port, there was a row of men gutting and salting fish, and Seth happily snapped photos. Five minutes later he was being escorted back to the police office by a man with a walkie-talkie, while Silvana and I followed, worried. In the dark office, I counted 14 policemen and about ten tons of testosterone. Most of them were transfixed by a glowing television in the corner, showing a Hindi film starring a young Ajay Devgan. Apologising and explaining he did not intend to spy on Mauritania's import export industry, Seth deleted his photos in front of the chief officer, and the three of us returned to the blinding daylight like naughty school kids.
Nouadhibou had been infinitely interesting if crazy. We met people who were in the city for work but had come from elsewhere in West Africa. Alio from The Gambia sacrificed football practise to hang out with us, and Charles from Nigeria bought us breakfast and proudly showed us his mobile phone shop in the electronics market. The other thing I will never forget is the food. It was so bad, I ended up buying a tin of sweetcorn and eating it by hand.
Covered in a film of grey dust, we headed south to the capital, Nouakchott, cramped in the back of a bashed up Renault 21 where I played with the boundaries of pain and decided it is mostly psychological. Having your legs and shoulders compacted into one tiny spice for ten hours, sharing a car with nine people and a baby, will bring you to the same conclusion, or to madness. By occasionally manoeuvring myself into a more uncomfortable position than was necessary, I was able to feel the original position to be almost luxurious. It was a good tactic and I'll use it again.
I was very surprised by the number of overlanders and travellers in Nouakchott. The UK government currently advises against all but essential travel to the country and coming here was not a decision that Seth or I took lightly. The coup is six months in, and it is now a year and a half since a group of French tourists were murdered in Aleg (a shocking event prompting the cancellation of the Dakar Rally.) It seems Al Qaida threaten and plan attacks against the military and tourists, though things have been a little quiet on that front. Six months ago, a dozen murdered soldiers were found in the desert. We always promised ourselves we would give up on the Mauritania section of our journey if, on arrival, it felt wrong, and we kept up with the news and events weekly, daily, in the run up to arrival. We knew, too, that we wouldn't linger long - 'C' was to be for the ancient Saharan town of Chinguetti, and we would leave after procuring it. This is why I was surprised to see so many people on holiday and on the road. It must be said, though, that everyone we spoke to in the country felt it was safe for tourists, and that the risks had been blown out of proportion. (I'd still advise anyone thinking of going to do their research first, but we were fine for the whole time we were there.)
The port at Nouakchott was its big attraction, especially for a photographer. Though slightly nervous about this new, chaotic world we had recently entered, Seth ventured in among the fisherman for portraits and won people over with smiles and exchanges of address. The photographer needs to put in hours of work in such places, before processing it later, while the writer absorbs life, sucks the scene into their head then tries to recreate it. It means that I do a lot of waiting in such places, but hey - no better way to address the issue of culture shock than to hang out with rowdy fishermen for, what two, three hours. Fish were unloaded from arriving boats and iced, sliced, filleted, and carried in buckets on the heads of young men waiting on the shore. One woman was wrapping squids in plastic bags. As we left, a breastfeeding woman called Seth over and asked if he'd like to take her baby to London, giving me a disapproving look and suggesting I wouldn't really be capable of childbearing; she'd be doing us a favour. Tall, pale and lanky doesn't qualify as attractive in Africa, then, I thought. This idea was contradicted two days later when a teenage girl approached Seth and asked if she could buy me. The conversation translated roughly like this:
Girl: Wow, this is your woman. I like her too much! She's mine now, I'm taking her.
Seth: How much will you pay?
Girl: (rubbing chin) 14 billion ougiya.
Seth: That's quite a lot. It's not a bad price at all.
Girl: You go now, she's mine! No need for you anymore! (pulling me by the arm and pinching my cheeks with joy.)
Seth: OK Louie, see you some time...

Getting from place to place in Mauritania takes an age. We travelled in a bashed up Merc bush taxi to the town of Atar, where we were told the road to Chinguetti, our 'C', would be closed until six, and driven to a stranger's house to wait for two hours. Around sunset, nerves took hold. 'Say you were going to kidnap some foreigners,' said Seth, 'Hiding them in a house until nightfall might be a start, mightn't it?' Then came the classic three glasses of Mauritanian tea from our hosts and the worries were forgotten. The car loaded with bags and passengers, the road at last open, Chinguetti remained elusive - our driver was pulled over by the police and had no license or proper paperwork on him. For half an hour, we sat bemused and amused on the dusty roadside. This is travel. The sun set over the Adrar mountains and when we arrived in little Chinguetti, it was only just light enough to see it, the stars already taking over the sky. Lying out on mattresses in the courtyard of our empty auberge, Ahmed - the owner - made tea and talked romantically about camel treks into the dunes. Seth's eyes grew wide with wonder. The call to prayer from the ancient mosque next door sounded out and was answered by the call from the newer mosque, across the dried up river bed that divided the town in two. Come morning, I climbed on the roof and could see the Sahara surrounding us. Seth told Ahmed we were sold on a two and a half day camel trek into the dunes. The price was good, the opportunity unmissable. For a few hours we explored our alphabet town, with its sandy streets and old books that would have made the eyes of the rare books team back at Blackwell's glitter - 13th century, old leather bound, crumbling copies of the Koran, handwritten of course, and gorgeous. The trinket we bought in town was less of an antiquity - a fairness cream called, 'I Love Garlic.' When this was done, we packed for the desert.
Ali was our guide. There was much to like about him. He was almost an old man, but far fitter than the two of us put together because of his desert lifestyle. He spoke only a little French and was hence quiet, smiling often and singing sometimes. He knew every dune from the next, even when they seemed identical. I was very glad to be spared the folk songs/ tales/ canned traditional speeches and stories that I had always assumed accompanied such trips. Ali's simple, straightforward approach was perfect.
For two days we walked in the dunes. In the early mornings and late afternoons, the camels cast perfect, long shadows of themselves. Their names were Sahel and Sagar. Sahel was a complainer, always bellowing if you rode him or attached any baggage to his back. Sagar was paler and quieter, with a torn nose from a previous accident, and always a rather coy pout. Climbing dunes proved to be hard work on the calf muscles. Ali was fast and only stopped when, glancing back, he'd see two exhausted shapes dragging their heels along the horizon. At the crest of each dune an expanse of new ones were revealed. At night, we camped and ate by a fire built by Ali (the master of sardine pasta), watching the stars. Seth saw a red comet with a tail that extended far behind it. Sand got everywhere, most noticeably in our tent and in our food. Ali liked to bake bread in the sand using coals. He also made zrig for us, a desert drink made of curdled goat's milk.
'Mmmm!' I said.
'Tastes like butchers shop' said Seth, who liked to undermine my optimism about our new desert diet. Conversations went like this:
Me: (in bad French) Ali this bread is incredible
Seth: (in mumbled English) You're talking out of your arse
Me: This tea is very good
Seth: Yeh, right, whatever, if you like a cup full of sand...etc.etc.
The temptation to sprinkle sand in his sleeping bag was there, and strong.
On the third day we headed for an oasis. Seth asked how many kilometres away it was and Ali looked confused. In the desert, he explained, there are no kilometres - only dunes. The oasis was three dunes away, and 'dune' in this sense means not one nice fluffy lump of smooth sand but a mountainous wall of them. After three of these we collapsed in the shade of the palms, and began to talk zealously of Fanta, Coke, cranberry juice, sangria, beer - every lovely fluid we desired but couldn't get our hands on. (It's a cliché but for the duration of our desert time we were both constantly thirsty, dry as leaves pressed between the pages of a book.)
The sun was setting 9and two more camels had joined our caravan0 by the time we returned to Chinguetti. Collapsing under the stars, the whole experience seemed unreal, proving itself only when piles of sand poured out of our belongings for days to come.
Our 'C' in the bag, it was time to leave Mauritania. After many hours of sitting in various excruciating positions in a packed car loaded up with about 400kg of carrots, we returned to Nouakchott and found our chosen hotel had gone upmarket and was now twice the price we had hoped. We must have looked very dejected as we turned towards the door, because the boss took pity on us, giving us a room for half the usual rate, and even cooking us up a plate of magnificent calamari and fish, fresh from the port, for screamingly meagre price. 'A guardian angel is watching over you two tonight,' he sighed, shaking his head at his own softness, 'just don't tell any other travellers I did this!' (hence you won't find the name of the kindly establishment mentioned...)
The next day, we crossed into Senegal. The border town of Rosso, on the Mauritanian side, was every bit as awful as it had been built up to be. We were hassled, and latched on to by a madman. The police looked on as Seth was ripped off by a moneychanger, and we were stuck for two hours before the border reopened after lunch. We crossed the Senegal River on a wooden boat overloaded with thirty people, which threatened once or twice to capsize. 'Can you believe,' said Seth looking out at the expanse of green-blue water, 'that this is the same world as the one we walked through with Ali and the camels?'
I don't know what to tell you about Senegal. Let me try and think of the good stuff - beer by the sea at Yoff at sunset time; tiny colourful birds in the trees; painted signs outside shops; people selling everything from sunglasses to ginger beer through the windows of cars; some lovely characters, like Nhi-haa, and Jimmy the cutest toddler in history. The bad stuff? Well, there was getting accosted by a drunk guy in the street, hassled and intimidated by an aggressive hustler, followed by thieves and then, despite vigilance, pick pocketed on a dark street by a gang of guys. Dakar is the first ever alphabet town, including our Asian alphabet, that I have ever disliked. Being swarmed at by confrontational, crotch grabbing guys and having to run away from various scrapes is not my idea of fun, however cool the music scene is supposed to be here; in my opinion, the place is not safe. However, I can't blame the country, just a few idiots we have encountered. I can't help but dream more and more of the Gambia River and of leaving this place behind, however fair or unfair that seems. I hope we're soon on its shores, there to pick up our 'E' and 'F' if all goes well.


30th July 2009

I love how I can read the first and last paragraphs of your blogs and feel like I read the whole thing! Your style is obviously very refined, and this is before reading all the juicy details in the middle. That dune sunset looked timeless!

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