Trails of Mauritania – chapter 1

Assane

Out of 7 hitchhiking drivers that took me from Morocco to the Mauritanian border, just two wanted to hold my hand. One of them proposed marriage, the other one tried to flirt and talk dirty. They both seemed very surprised that I did not appreciate their gorilla moves and the mating calls of “fuck-fuck” and “mon ami”. But statistically speaking, Morocco scored much better on the global creep ranking than Turkey, Egypt, or Tunisia.

The road from Agadir to Nouadhibou is a one-and-a-half lane suicideway – most drivers here seem to have driving skills and common sense of a goat. But the road signs want you to believe that the biggest highway hazard are camels and moving sand dunes. “Spot a camel” is a great game to play while you’re contemplating the endless desert landscape of Southern Morocco. Another fascinating pastime is learning Arabic and trying to write its twists and curls with shaky hands. Although most Moroccan and Mauritanian people speak French, every now and then you’d come across a driver with whom you do not share a common language.

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Still, all of them will make sure to deliver you safe and sound, as far as they can. Southern parts of Morocco, in the aftermath of the long and bloody Western Sahara conflict, still have strong military presence. Which means, that every 200-300 km there is a checkpoint where foreign travellers are regarded as the most precious cargo, the loss of which can damage Morocco’s entire tourism industry. To avoid getting out of the car at every checkpoint to answer the same questions over and over again, prepare some 20 photocopies of your passport, and add details about your occupation and final destination to the page – that should make the officers crazy happy.

The wind lifts little curly waves of sand in the air and rolls them over the highway. They race after each other, as if following some bizarre rhythm, and then dissolve in the hot African air. I just made it out of Dakhla – the last large town before Mauritanian frontier and a popular destination among kite surfers. I am not interested in kite surfing or Dakhla. I am exhausted. I have been hitchhiking for the past 3 days.

I took an overnight bus to Dakhla because I did not want to lose time and needed to get to my final destination as soon as possible and by any means. In the middle of the night, all passengers suddenly started screaming bloody murder, and it felt like the bus was leaning on the left side, about to send us all rolling off the road into the darkness. That didn’t happen, but I swore I’d never take a bus in this country again.

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“You should go take a bus,” Ahmed says. Ahmed is a police officer with grandfatherly eyes who caught me hitchhiking at the big roundabout outside Dakhla. It is his job to keep monkeys like me safe. Careless, optimistic, devil-may-care Western travellers who know that everyone here cares about their safety.

“I really need to get to Mauritania today before sunset. It is almost noon. It is a long way,” I explained to him again and again, why I had no intention of going back to Dakhla to catch a bus. Also, because bus drivers are insane. “Listen, Ahmed, why wouldn’t you help me catch a ride to the border?”

Assane and his two travel companions are driving an old pickup truck from Spain to Senegal. It is a lucrative business, for those who like extended road trips and do not mind a bit of bureaucratic hassle here and there. The pickup is loaded with all sorts of stuff, but they find space for my backpack on the top, and squeeze me in on the back seat next to Abdullah, a young man absorbed by his mobile phone.

“Take care of her, will you?” Ahmed writes down their license plate, passport numbers and names. He then bids me goodbye and goes back to his office with relief. One more foreigner off his shoulders.

“Hope you are comfortable, it is still 400km to the border. My name is Assane,” the new designated driver shakes my hand.

To communicate, we have a modest range of languages to choose from: French, Wolof, or Spanish. Finally, my five years of Spanish major are paying off. Here. On a broken highway in West Africa. Falling in and out of sleepy exhaustion, I vaguely remember the road between Dakhla and Guerguerate, the Mauritanian border. I am just certain that we drove through the same endlessness of the desert, roadside garbage, occasional gas stations and broken asphalt.

“Morocco is crazy. I don’t know why am I still doing this,” Assane complains. “People here don’t know how to drive, and at every checkpoint they extort money from us. I swear to god, I bring an extra stash with me just to pay all the bribes.”

Over nine years ago, Assane left Dakar on a rusty bucket of a boat in order to make his way to European shores. He did not succeed the first time around, and the boat crashed off the coast of North Africa. Moroccan prison was little fun for a big guy like Assane. He was looking for freedom, but ended up being locked up, and then deported back to Senegal. This did not stop him from trying once more.

“It was the most difficult thing I have ever experienced in my life. That boat. I think it took a week or two from Dakar up to Spain. I am not sure,” Assane still remembers himself, then a young boy, hiding at the bottom of that shaky boat and clinging to dear life. “And when I was deported back to Senegal, my heart just sank. I could not imagine living through these horrors once again. But my name means ‘warrior’, you know”.

He did try again, and Spain became his new home. Assane claimed asylum in the country and was allowed to stay. He could not return to Senegal or even reach out to his parents for a few years, and the business of buying old cars and driving them down to Dakar presented itself like an excellent opportunity to make money and visit the family on a regular basis.

“The way it works is complicated,” he explains. “It used to be possible to sell imported cars over 6 years old in Dakar. Now you can’t. But you know Africa, people here always find the way. What we do is, we drive through Senegal to Gambia and then return to Senegal with a new license plate, then the car is good to sell. It’s a lot of hassle. But I always remind myself of what I have been through in my life, and there were things much more harsh than a drive through Morocco and Mauritania. It’s all good.”

Since summer 2015, Mauritania changed its visa rules. If before one could easily enter the country for $30, now they are changing an extortionist amount of $100 ($120 at the border) per person. The logic here is simple: for most overlanders, or car dealers like Assane, Mauritania is not a destination in itself, but a necessary transit country between Morocco and Senegal, the gateway to Sub-Saharan Africa. Since you cannot go around Mauritania, you have no choice but to pay whatever the government (and the border police) tell you.

The border between Morocco and Mauritania is like an American post-Apocalyptic movie come alive. 4 kilometers of no man’s land that separate the two countries are filled with land mines – legacy of the bloody Western Sahara conflict that was tearing the region apart from the 1970s until very recently. In order to cross the wasteland without going kaboom, cars have to follow the trail of burnt tyres, carcasses of rusty cars and other pieces of garbage. Local touts will always find you, too, and offer their guiding services through the minefield.

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Moroccan-Mauritanian border is full of joy

The border procedures on the Moroccan side take forever. It seems that the endless bouncing between different passport checks and baggage scans is not the matter of security, but rather a way to extort bribes. Not to mention that the border officers seem to be bored out of their minds.

“Wait till we get to the other side. They will constantly ask you for money,” Assane grins. I cannot fathom how he manages to go through this several times a year.

While I head to the roadside café to buy us all some fresh juice – my only consolation for all these troubles – the guys buy several canisters of petrol and hide them underneath all the crap at the back of the pickup. You can sell this gas for a better price down in Mauritania, as long as you can smuggle it past the border control. By the time we reach the Mauritanian side of the border, it is starting to get dark.

After crossing the minefield, the archway that marks the beginning of Mauritanian territory looks like the gates of hell, with several armed guards sitting in front of it and lazily sipping their evening tea.

“We’ll get our clearance now and go straight to Senegal. I just prefer to drive through Mauritania like it is a bad dream, and arrive to Dakar by morning,” Assane says. “I suggest you come with us. I swear, my family will treat you like family. There is no visa to enter Senegal. What are you even looking for in this country?”

I had no idea.

Of course, I was looking for stories. But stories always end up finding me.

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“They let in only 50 cars per day, at 6pm every night. We’ve arrived too late today. Now we have to wait here until 6pm the next day,” Assane announced a few minutes later. “But you should go. They would not allow us to get the visas before we clear the car. We have to stay in the transit zone until tomorrow evening, but for you, there is nothing here.”

At 7pm on January 31st, I am exhausted. I am a chicken. In the past couple of weeks, every person to whom I announced my plans about Mauritania, made big eyes and told me something even more discouraging than the previous one. “Mauritanian police slowly but steadily extorted all our money,” one friend said. “I paid $100 to a truck driver who then just abandoned me at the border,” another person shared their experience. “Be careful, they are big scammers there at the border, they might try to hold on to your passport until you pay them,” someone else warned me.

It is getting dark, but the air is still stifling hot. I am at the parking lot with Assane and other drivers who gathered here with old cars from all over Europe: there are license plates from Switzerland, France, Spain, Belgium. It smells of burnt rubber and dust. The sand permeates all my clothes and feels itchy in my hair. My eyes are burning from squinting so much at the sun.

Suddenly, a large brown moth lands on the tip of my shoe. Its wings are adorned with black and white patterns, and when I lift my eyes I see that the sky is filled with them. Here, in the middle of this wasteland, among the sand and rust, garbage and dust, somehow, for unknown to me biological reasons, there are thousands of moths in the sky.

The following morning, I wake up in my private room in a small auberge in the south of Nouadhibou, the first town after you’ve crossed into Mauritania. Lamine, a young lad from the border, took me here the night before as I was exhausted and wrecked, and made sure I was set and comfortable. He promised to come back the next morning and guide me around the city. But before diving into Mauritania, there was one thing I needed to do.

I walk outside to get my first glimpse of Nouadhibou in the light of day. The place I am staying at cannot be described with a better word than ‘a slum’. My heart skips a beat as I stare around – and get stared back at. I have missed Africa so much. It is a bittersweet masochistic feeling of wanting to let this chaos into your life. I shuffle the sand with my almost bare feet, wearing just flip flops, my Moroccan jellaba and a scarf. The sun is not too high up in the sky yet, but kids are already out in the street to play football. Goats are already halfway through their morning meal: like tireless furry vacuum cleaners, they thoroughly try to clean up the mess of yesterday.

I have just one plan for my first day in Mauritania. A few hours later, I take a taxi back to the border.

“I told them you’d come back,” Assane points at his companions. He smiles. They had spent the night sleeping in the car at the parking lot in no man’s land, along with dozens of other Senegalese, Cote d’Ivoirean, Gambian travellers. Since the border police refused to issue them a visa the night before, they could not leave the transit zone and have access to a hotel, food or shower.

“All we could do is pay one of these touts to bring us some bread from that restaurant over there,” Assane points at a local eatery just a hundred meters away where they were not allowed to cross. The food I brought from the bakery in Nouadhibou and a bag of fruits was pretty much the first edible thing they’ve had since we parted ways 15 hours before.

Untitled “Well since I am here I might as well spend the day enjoying the stunning view,” I decide. I came to Mauritania for stories. And Assane has already become the title character of one.

At the Moroccan-Mauritanian border, you can buy and sell anything in the world.

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“See this load of crap in our car? I bring tons of broken computers, phones, just about anything – and sell them here. I have no idea what they do with this rubbish but I do not care,” Assane explains. I reckon that the money he gets from the sale of all this junk may compensate for all the bribes he has had to pay between leaving Spain and reaching Senegal.

The outright racism of Africans against Africans in this country is overwhelming. Strangely enough, thanks to Assane and his travel companions, this was the first phenomenon I witnessed in Mauritania, on this parking lot in no man’s land where having black skin gets you stranded with no food for 24 hours, and being a white princess gets you free taxi rides and tea.

“You’ve been in Spain for what, 9 years now?” I ask Assane. “You speak Spanish, you live there full-time. Is there anything about the European society that still bugs you?”

“Sure there is,” he doesn’t have to think too long. “I admire you white folks. Your passion for equality, transparency, ecological living, individual development. Senegal is far from all this, but I know young people who start pushing these ideas when they return from Europe. This is good. Senegal is very politically active.”

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With every hour of our conversation, Senegal seems more and more like a magical land.

“What really annoys me in Europe,” Assane continues, “is how you treat your elderly. I mean, children just move out of the family house and then never come to visit. I’ve got a neighbour in Zaragoza, an old gentleman, so I sometimes find him sitting at the porch of our apartment block. He cannot lift the grocery bags up the stairs, so he sits there quietly for god knows how long, and waits till one of us, Senegalese guys, helps him out. He’s got a daughter and a son, but they only come to visit once a month or so. I cannot imagine how he survives on his own, but he always tears up when I help him lift the grocery bags, as if I just did something out of the ordinary. In Senegal, this would never happen. Old people would never be allowed to live by themselves when they are physically unable to do so. Somebody in the family would always take care of them.”

“So you think you will return to Senegal to take care of your parents eventually?” I wonder.

“I will, yes. I do not see it working out in the nearest time, there are just no job opportunities in Senegal for me. But I miss it a lot. It is home.”

The sun, a big pale disk in the ochre evening sky, is setting down. Speckled moths, same creatures that startled me the night before, start fluttering among the cars on the parking lot.

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We’ve all been here too long. We talked about states and revolutions, social movements in Senegal and European immigration. A lady from Cote d’Ivoire speaks to me in French and asks if I want to marry her.

“Seriously, then you could become a legal resident of both France and Cote d’Ivoire through me!” she suggests.

Assane and another Senegalese guy sit down and start playing a game which looks like a variation of tic tac toe, using cigarette butts and pieces of rocks as action figures on the board drawn upon the sand.

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“This is something Senegalese kids play when they have nothing else to do,” they laugh. “Holy shit, we have been on this goddamn parking lot for 24 hours now!”

I sneak an occasional picture or two, trying to be cautious with my camera, as the border police might have mixed feelings about photography out here, in no man’s land. Soon afterwards, the guys get their papers for the car and are finally free to go.

“You know you are always welcome to come with us. Ditch Mauritania, there is nothing for you here, and come with us to Senegal,” I hear once more. The temptation is strong, but I have to decline, again. “And you know that you can always contact us when you visit Zaragoza, or Granada, or any other city where we live”.

I am bad at saying goodbyes, but I am good at parting ways. I practically do this for a living. After all, we are all just nomads and immigrants down here.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. psychanaut says:

    Thank you. Yes, it really does look a lot like the American southwest! Many deserts that look like that, minus sand dunes (except for a few spots), the colorful African characters largely replaced by stagnant corporate American entities. But still: space.

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