"Western Africa 2012" story # 13

Nouakchott, Mauritania           July 6, 2012

Insects resembling earwigs lived in the loose, orange sand of the Sahara. Their thoraxes bent over their abdomens towards their heads, and were armed with pinchers. They buried themselves in the sand with their pinchers barely exposed, lying in wait.
     Could you imagine a big one of those eating you alive?
     I tried not to. I had sand in my eyes, lungs, and stomach, when a full-bodied mechanic picked me up in Bujdour.
     There was only one town left in Morocco. Dakhla. The mechanic could take me the remaining 350 kilometers to get there. I didn't think we'd have much common ground, because he greeted me with materialistic praise for the United States. But, as we passed a pale wasteland in which make-shift shacks sometimes appeared - did they belong to fishermen, nomads? - we laughed and drank tea and got along fabulously.
     Dakhla lied on a narrow peninsula forty kilometers out in the ocean. We drove across this white-sand strip, flat and vast like a sportsfield. Sand powdered the air, hurricaning across, as if God were trying to suck in the world.
     In the windy town of Dakhla, I:
     enjoyed a big meal with the mechanic's family ... checked into a hotel, so I could wash the sand and sweat and sun-tan lotion off me ... snorkeled in the pea green, sandy Dakhla Lagoon, observing a dead catfish/pufferfish whose tail had become trapped in a rope (and whose eyes had been eaten out) ... and walked down the esplanade on a Saturday night.
     Young women were out walking, too, in thin colorful fabric that covered everything but their faces. These robes seemed impractical, as the wind kept forcing the girls to re-arrange them. Their thin Arabic faces wore bubble-gum pink lipstick. Some girls talked to boys; others waited disapprovingly for their friends to finish.
     It was quite chilly this night. I admired the dull purple "jabbala" (long flowing robe) worn by a young man. This jabbala was thick, like the young man himself, to keep the wearer warm.
     "Bienvenidos a la Sahara Occidental," he greeted me in Spanish. (Welcome to Western Sahara.) He reminded me that this part of Morocco was a disputed territory.
     In recent history, the Western Sahara had been colonized by Spain. In 1975, Morocco's King Hassan II rounded up 350,000 civilians and had them march into the Western Sahara. Spain couldn't shoot 350,000 men. So, they left the territory to the Moroccans. Morocco claimed it had always belonged to them. But other countries, such as Algeria where separatist Saharans had their base of operations, claimed the land belonged to a people different from Moroccans.
     This young man in Dakhla, named Ali, strived for Western Saharan independence. He said the Moroccans currently got all the jobs; there were none for Saharans.

I returned to the trans-Saharan highway and attempted to hitchhike the remaining 450 kilometers to Mauritania. A Senegalese man named Mamadou Mbengue quickly picked me up.
     As we drove, the white sand beside us dropped down as canyon walls opening into beautiful craters. Albino dunes threatened to migrate onto the highway. Clans of camels, some peanut-colored, some chocolate, wandered among the sparse grass. The Moroccan military carried out field exercises.
     Mamadou Mbengue, a tall roundish guy with big glasses, had great patience for police and the military. He ran his used-car-selling business with intelligence. And he was generous. When one of the Senegalese girls whom his cousin Seri had picked up was found in violation of overstaying her three-month welcome in Morocco, he paid 25 Euros so she'd be allowed to leave.
     We drove two kilometers from Morocco to Mauritania on an unpaved road through no-man's-land.
     We drove on rough rocky bumps. The desert surrounded us, possibly full of landmines from Morocco's wars over the Western Sahara. Dust filled the air and made the sun hazy. Skeletons of cars lay in the sand. Bunches of television sets had been dumped here. Mamadou explained that Senegalese men had hauled these worthless Moroccan televisions to the border, to fool the border guards into thinking they hadn't sold any of the European TVs they'd brought into the country.
     We reached the poor country of Mauritania and were greeted by soldiers so thin their military belts seemed to be strapped around nothing but their pants.
     I had a sure ride with Mamadou, all the way to the Senegalese border. This would keep me safe from Al-Qaeda, who were rumored to have a strong presence in the interior and who'd killed a handful of Westerners in recent years. I felt safe with Mamadou.
     But, would he and his car-selling business make it through Mauritania without having to pay too much of the local currency, "ouguiya", in fines?
     Police and their roadblocks were, annoyingly, everywhere.
     This was despite the fact that a river of sand blew through the air. Wooden rectangular houses indicated that the northern Mauritanian desert was, for some reason, inhabited. Some of the older homes leaned, on the verge of being blown over. Dry, crooked savannah trees decorated this apocalyptic scene. Snowy-coated camels stood on splay legs.
     Whoa! We came to three boob-backed camels, standing in the highway. It was dark night. But, Mamadou stopped in time. He informed me that camels, once they'd begun crossing a road, never turned back.
     Me, too.
     I was concerned for Cousin Seri, who was driving behind us. Mamadou and I stopped to wait for him. He arrived ... but, with a big cracked bubble in his windshield.
     He'd hit a camel. And then the camel kicked his windshield.
     No problem, said Mamadou. We'd fix the windshield for 100 Euros in the capital city, Nouakchott.
     At one of the following police checkpoints, however, we were detained. A policeman claimed, "Le chameau est mort." (The camel is dead.)
     Oh, no. Why!? Why, poor camel, did you have to be taken away from us at such a young age!!!?
     Mamadou gave the police 100 Euros, which would supposedly go to the owner of the camel.
     Shortly thereafter, we arrived in Nouakchott. 450 kilometers south of Morocco. I was happy to rest for two days in the home of Mamadou's aunt. And I was ecstatic to eat "riz au poissons" (rice with fish), Senegal's national dish. The spicy orange rice, rich fish, cabbage, and legumes were "safna". Delicious!
     Mauritania was made up of blacks who spoke Senegal's Wolof language, and Arabs. Most Arabic men wore the same types of jabbala. The robes were a blue that was trying to be white, decorated with golden borders and shields. I tried photographing a group of such men, and they snarled at me and threatened me with a stone. Why did they care if I took their picture?
     Garbage lied everywhere in Nouakchott. Kids played football in garbage. The under-developed city stunk of car exhaust.
     Mamadou and I left to drive across the last 200 kilometers of the desert. Many bare trees and villages of yurts appeared here. Some yurts had been given bright colors, like periwinkle bottoms and pea green tops. Mountainous orange dunes flowed in the background, calling me to stop and play on them.
     Near the border with Senegal, Mamadou had to pay several small fines. He thought he'd bought all the car parts the police would ask for. But, they asked for new things.
     He and Seri would sell these used cars for 2000 Euros more than they'd bought them for. Was it really worth so much trouble? (They had also brought goods with them to sell in Africa.) They'd fly back to Europe and do it all again.
     As for me, I was happy to arrive in sub-Saharan Africa.

Safe travels!
Modern Oddyseus

Thanks to Abrahim Shakiri; Mustafa Sa'ad; Mara'inin & Mohammed; and Mamadou Mbengue/Seri for rides!
Much thanks to Mustafa Sa'ad, his wife, Fatima, Abrahim, & Hadima; and Ngoni, Momi, & their family for places to stay!

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