Trails of Mauritania: The Train and I

Enormous rattling transformer is approaching Nouadhibou railway station, and I dig my heels deeper into the hot sand. For the next 10 hours, I will not feel stable ground under my feet, until I reach the desert village of Choum.

Back in Morocco, many people were wondering why I was going to their southern neighbours. A fair amount of Moroccans know that there is, actually, another country down there. But most of them don’t care and have never been that far.

“Anyway, what are you going to do in Mauritania?” I heard many times from different people I’d meet here and there.

“Well I miss Africa and I miss the desert landscape,” I would tell most of them, to avoid explaining the real reason behind this trip.

You see, there is this train.

Trains are romantic as duck. People tend to associate long-distance trains with the rhythmic bouncing of railway cars, with the ever-changing landscape behind the dirty glass window, covered in traces of spit, sneeze, and fingerprints of passengers of yesteryear. Hell yeah, I loved trains when I was a kid. During the long summers at my grandma’s my cousin and I would have special days when she’d takes us to watch the passing trains while we munched on cheese sandwiches.

And then, of course, there was Agatha Christie who made the Orient Express sound cool (Paul Theroux skillfully killed the myth for me), and many many people who perpetuate the sweaty romanticism of the Transsiberian train, filled with beer breath and hairy armpits. Anyway, my point is, trains are awesome and always spell adventure.

The iron ore train of Mauritania inspires a lot of thrill seekers. Indeed, who would pass on a wonderful opportunity to ride inside the freight car of (supposedly) the longest train in the world for 10 to 18 hours through the Sahara desert?

This is how I met Gavin. In fact, I never met Gavin, but his blog was the only online resource not infested with selfies but actually stuffed with useful information and logistics about the train, Mauritania and hitchhiking in the region. I need to say that Gavin’s blog was, for a long time, the only thing that reassured me I was not completely insane.

Nouadhibou railway station lies about 5 kilometers north of the city, and taxi drivers can get you there for about 500 ougiya. If you ask what time does the train leave, just… don’t. Some say there are two trains per day, in the morning and in the afternoon. Some say the only train leaves at 3pm, but then it actually leaves at 5pm. Either way, the train station is a surprisingly sane place to spend a couple of hours before departure. It is nothing like the jam-packed platforms of India where babies yell, men spit betel nut, monks pray, women cook food and hippie tourists cling to their backpacks for dear life.

Nouadhibou train station is refreshingly cool and almost empty when I arrive there around 3pm. Before saying goodbye, Lamine buys me the train ticket in his last attempt to convince me that ladies should ride in the passenger car.

I refuse to be a mere passenger. It’s not like I do not have a spare $4 for the ticket. The thing is, I do not want to be stuffed inside the train’s only passenger car when I can have, instead, a whole cargo compartment for myself, with the open top to gaze at distant stars.

Or so I thought.

“No no no, you cannot go alone,” about half an hour after my arrival to the station I get called into the police office. I am not the first foreigner they see trying to get into the freight train, but being a female does not help. The level of preoccupation for my well-being in this country is between cute and annoying, but I firmly keep my stance: I came to Mauritania to ride the cargo train through the desert. Isn’t this every little girl’s dream?

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Abdullah, the chief of local police, accompanies me to the train himself. As the wagons start screeching and slowing down, he introduces me to Mohamed, a large Mauritanian guy who is travelling to Choum with his sons. I’d love to hear Mohamed’s story, but all I get to learn about him is that he’s a “pêcheur”, fisherman, like many other people in Nouadhibou. I struggle to explain that I am a writer, “la journaliste”, but finally the word “teacher” does the trick. This is pretty much all I learn about Mohamed and his family, because we cannot find a common language beyond Shukran and Insh’Allah. And that’s okay.

The train finally comes to a full stop in front of us, and Mohamed signals me to climb in quickly and stay put. Elegant like an elephant, I scramble up the metal ladder and slide down into the car. Somehow, Mohamed’s youngest son is already there, helping his brothers and father load bags full of fish, and I join in to make myself useful. After all, I’m here for a 10-hour journey, so I better figure out how to build myself a comfortable hobo bed.

Remembering the instructions, I wrap the scarf around my face and put the sunglasses on. I look like Jihadi John on a trip to Disneyland, glowing with joy underneath my garments and still wondering why do I do what I do. The chief of police pops his head into the car to check on the white girl. He does not recognize me at once, but then his quiet chuckling grows into uncontrollable laughter. He gives me thumbs up and jumps off.

The most disturbing thing about the train, is that it exists. That hundreds of Mauritanian workers and freelance merchants have to take it on a regular basis, like this, covered in dust and dirt. What for me was a one-off adventure, stuff to write stories about, for Mohamed and his family was just another commute to work.

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Once all the sacks were loaded, the men started preparing our luxury suite for the journey. One corner was made into a compact kitchen, with gas stove and water containers. In the opposite corner, Mohamed emptied a bucket of sand. This was, essentially, a human version of kitty toilet, but I firmly decided to hold it in for the next 10 hours. Finally, the floor was covered with a few layers of carpets and duvets. In comparison with my travel companions, I was utterly unprepared for the trip. And even before the train took off, I thanked the universe that I had not been born in a place where I’d be forced to ride a cargo train to get from one town to another.

Just a few years ago, the train was the only way for people to travel between the coast and their desert villages if they could not afford to have a car. Now, there are several buses per day that connect Atar (the largest town in the region) with both Nouakchott and Nouadhibou, but if you travel like Mohamed, transporting a few dozen kilos of fish, hopping on a cargo train is the cheapest and fastest way to do business.

For a moment there, my heart almost stopped. The most terrifying murderous sound of an amplifying explosion started echoing through the desert, and my travel companions all grabbed onto something, preparing for the take off.

You see, I’ve been told that the train consists of 250+ cargo and one passenger car. When the locomotive is powered on and makes it first pull from the station, the sound of metal cars bumping into each other starts rippling from the head to the tail of the train, yanking them out of still position and scaring the sheep out of inexperienced passengers. This is the last test of your moral strength and determination, because the whole experience is so terrifying I could totally imagine myself jumping out of the bloody train before it’d go up in flames.

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But as the train started accelerating, and the clouds in the sky floated by to the rhythmical motion of its wheels, I sat back and leaned on the fish sacks, preparing to enjoy the ride.

I was living through one of the most surreal experiences of my life. The mixed feeling of “Why am I doing this?” and “Holy sheep, I am doing this!” never left my head. But at the same time, the life around me was just taking its regular turn.

Mohamed and his family had some guests over from the neighbouring car, and they cooked rice and fish in the pot on the gas stove. I had no appetite to join them, but shared some remaining Korowka candies from my stocks and my last kilo of tangerines. Despite the fact that the cooking corner was on the downwind side of the car, nothing could escape the whirlwind of iron and sand particles that was blowing all over the place. Between the paper wrap and your mouth, Korowka accumulated a solid layer of crunchy dust.

If I understood Hassaniya or Pulaar, I could’ve probably eavesdropped on the conversations they held over dinner. I imagined it would be similar to things people discuss on their long-distance commute in other parts of the world: family news, neighbour gossip, perhaps global politics. I’d love to know how many times Mohamed has taken this trip, in the dirty car of a freight train, and how many times his youngest son will have to do this before Mauritania makes life any different for its regular citizens.

Like so many times in Africa, I felt being thrown into a distorted reality and compelled to redefine the boundaries of what’s normal and what’s broken.

Like on all romantic train journeys, I imagined myself lying on a carpet with intricate Oriental designs, gazing at distant stars and thinking about eternity. The train stopped at least three times at the lonesome platforms half-buried underneath the sand, with just a few signs of human habitation in sight. Every time we stopped, the ripple explosion rattled the train from head to tail, and five minutes later, it repeated itself when we took off again.

When the sun finally sank beyond the horizon, the dark wind of iron dust started getting colder and biting on my skin. I thought of pulling out my sleeping bag but that would mean sacrificing it until next time I found a decent laundry place. The plan was to camp out in the desert, so this seemed very unlikely.

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I sat against the pile of fish sacks and turned my face away from the wind – a futile effort to avoid the sand that flew into my eyes, filled my ears and crawled up my nostrils. I probably managed to fall into a series of short sleep-deprived comas throughout the night, and every time I woke up and tried to open my eyes (just a few millimeters), I was afraid to find myself alone in the car, having missed my station and heading all the way to the end of the route.

But Mohamed would not let that happen. By the time the train arrived to Choum, we were all packed and ready to go. All we had was 5 to 10 minutes to get out of the car, throw out all the luggage and get further away from the tracks.

I wish I had started doing pull-ups long before the trip, as I soon discovered that I was as much physically unprepared for the journey as I was mentally conflicted about it. Without the backpack, I could reach and pull myself over the edge of the car, but with 12 kilos behind my back it seemed like a more challenging endeavour.

When once again after 10 hours, I dug my heels into the bleak Saharan sand, it was still in pitch-black darkness of the night. A few minutes later, the train rattled one last time like a murderous transformer, and the locomotive started speeding up and pulling away its metal tail, disappearing in the emptiness of the desert.

On the parallel tracks, I saw the contour of another train, going in the opposite direction and pulling the filled-up freight cars. Dark figures of stowaway passengers were springing up here and there, trying to make themselves comfortable on the perilous mounds of iron ore. They still had a ten-hour journey ahead, through the cold of the night, brightness of the rising sun, heat of the nearing afternoon. With the cars now full, they had no opportunity to set up an improvised kitchen, but on the other hand, urinating down from the moving train must be more fun than pissing in the sand-stuffed corner. I will never know.

“Allez, allez!” Mohamed’s son waved at me, as a pickup truck pulled over on the other side of the tracks.

I finally realised that I could hold my eyes wide open, without them being coated in iron dust. I unwrapped the scarf from my face and the remaining particles of sand from the folds peppered my hair and scattered in the wind.

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