Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Well its been a long couple of months of traveling since I last posted. In that time I've had the good fortune to go all over Morocco, Southern Spain, Mauritania, welcome a new group of IES students, and then go on a road-trip with a few good friends. As you can imagine I have quite a few stories, pictures and thoughts to share from that time, but trying to post them all would overwhelm not only you all, but me as well. Fortunately, however, during my travels I have been keeping a somewhat sporadic (but nonetheless interesting) journal of my thoughts and experiences and what I have done in this post is to transcribe and edit (slightly) some of my journal entries from my trip to Mauritania. Enjoy, and, as always feel free to peruse my newly added pictures on facebook and send me comments or emails.

The train station of Nouadhibou is a simple concrete structure that sits along a deserted windswept portion of the single two-lane strip of asphalt which winds from the center of Nouadhibou down the peninsula to the Spanish built compound of the SONIM mining corporation. Composed of a large L-shaped waiting room open on one side to the desert and train track and a small abandoned room where, once, presumably a lone ticket seller must have sat, the train station is little more than a glorified concrete 3-walled hut in which the occasional colonial mining overseers, geographers, soldiers and administrators (and perhaps their families) must have sat, sweating into their linen shirts and muttering in French while they waited for the only train with a passenger car to take them out to provincial capital of Chinguetti or the mining colony of Zouerate.

I'm sitting on one of the two concrete benches partially lining one wall, staring ahead at the opposite wall which is slowly reverting to its natural state of grayish white plaster covered in French and Arabic graffiti. The sky-blue paint, probably last touched up in the waning years of colonial administration, has peeled into jagged and ragged archipelagos. Beside me are two French backpacking tourists, the man reading Terre Des Hommes by Saint-Exupery while the woman examines a photo on the screen of her SLR digital camera, draped in a swathe of orange and green blobbed cloth which she no doubt purchased recently in one of the cloth stalls of the Nouadhibou or Nouakchott souks. To our left, sitting perpendicular to us on the short end of the L is a moul-atay, alternating two teapots off of a propane burner, pouring, mixing, re-pouring, relighting and reheating the tea until the glasses contain thick heads of froth which take up half of the small shot-sized glasses.

In front of us four African women and their assorted entourages of toddlers, loafing young men and hard-working pre-teen daughters are setting up shop. Rickety tables are covered with 8-inch stacks of egg-carton flats, the better to display bottles of water, UHT boxes of milk, fruit juices, cigarettes, cookies, clementines and chew sticks. The women laugh and playfully banter as they sweep out the floor by their makeshift stalls with bundles of sticks. One of them admires the French touriste's cloth draping and then promptly re-drapes and dresses her properly cooing and giggling the entire time. The moul-atay walks around with his tray of three tiny glasses filled with foam offering tea. A few more men, immigrant laborers from farther south in Africa, wander in from the open desert side of the station and take up chunks of the space on the benches lining the walls.

2:30 p.m., and the train which was scheduled to arrive around this time has not. Groups of men, some of them the immigrant laborers and some of them Mauritanians swathed in the traditional robes go out to pray, standing, kneeling and sitting in the makeshift mosque constructed out of a ring of stones in the open stretch of sand between the station and train tracks. Women wander off singly an find a spot in the desert in which to pray.

3:00 p.m. More and more people file in, including a group of Mauritanian women, most likely Beidane, all elaborately draped and swathed and accompanied by their adolescent relatives and an older 30-something male relative who wears an impeccably clean white traditional robe and whose hair has been combed back and gelled into place. The women quickly become the center of activity as the pass around and examine their two pieces of luggage, both packed into chinese-made rolling suitcases covered with flashy strips and polka-dots.

3:15 p.m. The group of Mauritanian women is preening the French touriste, adjusting and re-adjusting her drape amidst a chorus of giggling and jokes. The women show off their elaborately hennaed hands to the tourist and mention the word picture in French. The touriste tries to make excuses claiming her camera is stowed away. There is a moment of confusion and then the Mauritanian women laughingly pull out their cell-phones and begin snapping pictures of the touriste, posing beside her. Attention now turns to me and I am mobbed by the group who alternate sitting next to me as they snap pictures on their phones. The jokes soon turn to marriage and the women explode into hilarity as they compare their pictures to wedding photographs of the bride and groom. One of the adolescent relatives asks where I am going. When I say Choum and then Atar he is disappointed and tries to cajole me into continuing on to Zouerate where I am graciously invited to stay at their house. Fearing actual marriage I politely decline.

5:00 p.m. Still no train. The waiting room is now crowded with me, women and children in various positions of squatting, sitting and lying. Piles of baggage and groups of people sit for a few hundred yards in either direction along the tracks. Men go out in ones or twos to pray in the makeshift mosque. They stand and kneel in towards the qibla--three large stones, wind whipping their second-hand western clothes or flowing robes.

5:30 p.m. The sun is setting and its harshness has now changed to a benign warmth. With the wind it is becoming quite chilly in the shade. Conversation is a low rumble, with outbursts coming now and again. I wander out into the sand surrounding the station for a look around and fall into conversation with a young Mauritanian in French. He's named Salim and is going to Tchgish where he has been promised work for a few days. Normally he works in an auberge in either Chinguetti or in Nouadhibou. He invites me to stay at his family house in Tchgish for a few days before continuing on to Atar together. Made paranoid by State Department travel warnings I claim to be meeting friends in Atar who are waiting there for me.

7:00 p.m. Night has now fallen. The station is dark, lit only by the moonlight coming in form the open wall and the makeshift candle lanterns the the kiosk women have fashioned out of empty plastic water bottles. Another prayer session is being held, more sporadic and rag-tag this time. Salim comes into the station and finds me and we go out by the track where I am introduced to a Mauritanian matriarch (a friend of Salim's uncle) and her four female relatives of various ages who I am told will be traveling "dans le wagon" (in the open bucket car) to Choum like me. Salim and I squat in the sand by the track with the seated women, the wind blowing over us. The matriarch launches into a profusion of Hasaniya which I am unable to follow, my confusion at the barrage of questions being launched at me causes Salim to erupt into raucous peals of laughter. Piece by piece I am told that they will also be traveling to Atar, where they own a restaurant and I am invited to travel in a bush taxi with them from the train stop at Choum to Atar. Our conversation ends with me being forced to pronounce the matriarch's name (Leta) over and over accompanied by a chorus of laughter from everyone else at my attempts.

9:00 p.m. The train finally arrives, rumbling, jolting and screeching to a slow roll and then stop. As it is groaning to its stop Salim runs out with me and we approach a group cluster of men with sacks of goods piled next to the track. Salim hurriedly arranges in Hasaniya and then informs me that I will ride with them in this bucket car while he rides in the passenger car. I turn and begin loading sacks of onions and potatoes with two boys who are about my age. The sacks loaded we clamber up and over the side, landing in a giant steel bucket thankfully free of iron ore except for small piles of dust in the corners. Another 30-something man clambers aboard and, like the boys, wastes no time in laying out his sleeping pad and covering himself completely in a blanket. One of the boys invites me to sit on his pad and hands me a sandwich of onions and tomatoes as we creak into a roll. We are off and, as I stand to take in the view the first gust of dust washes over us, covering us and invading our eyes, noses and mouths.

11:00 p.m. Our first stop. I have been lying down completely covered by a shesh (nomadic head scarf). I am coated in dust and every time I peek out my eyes and nose are filled with dust. As we slow I am able to stand. The process of stopping takes around 20 minutes. It begins with a series of jolts which pass through the entire car and knock you off your feet if you are standing. Then come creaks and groans as the train grinds to a halt. In front of us there is a single bright light, strange and eerie in the flat emptiness of the desert cut only by the solitary train track. A half dozen cars ahead the profile of a shesh-clad rider is framed magnificently in the bright light-- a black and exotic silhouette surrounded by swirls of ghostly dusts. As we roll to our stop the light defines itself into the headlight of an engine waiting on a side-track. This is our counterpart returning from Zouerate, each car piled high with iron ore. There is a moment of disorienting uncertainty as we finally halt and the train beside us begins to slowly roll forward. Steadying myself against the side of our bucket I see solitary amorphous figures sitting on the iron ore, some with baggage one even accompanied by three tethered donkeys. In the final car sits a reclining figure--a silhouette of a djellaba with its high pointed hood, punctuated by the red dot of a burning cigarette tip. As the train glides onto the solitary track back to Nouadhibou the cigarette is raised in a hand, a solemn salute of a traveler passing in the night.

2:30 a.m. Another stop--the 30-something man in our car stands and asks me, presumably about where we are. From my post at the side of the car, swathed from head to foot and shivering I tell him I don't know in three languages. He grunts and, as the train groans to a stop he clambers over the side. I pass down his sack and he, along with a few other dark figures, strides off into the dark desert. Exhausted and tired of shivering I take out my sleeping bag and lay down on the creaking and groaning floor of the car.

7:00 a.m. The sun has risen and I, hoping to shake off the chill from the night and the wind, rise as well. I retie my shesh against the dust and stand at the edge of the car looking over fantastic and absolute desert broken only by the occasional plateau or mountain or grove of gnarled trees around which one or two nomad tents and a Toyota HiLux huddle. The mile markers next to the track read around five hundred.

7:30 a.m. The wagon-mate who shared a sandwich with me last night awakes and looks around. He looks at me and mentions something about Choum. After a few minutes of gesturing and a mix of broken French and Arabic (neither of which he seems to speak fluently) I conclude that I have slept through the stop for Choum and that I am well on my way to the end of the line at Zouerate. I ask and he assures me that I can take a bush taxi back to Choum and Atar.

8:30 a.m. The other wagon-mate and business partner to my informant awakes and sticks his head of his blanket. He pulls out a small bag and breakfast is shared around--small peanuts which taste fresh and a little green, although I am not sure as I have never had fresh peanuts.

9:30 a.m. We are arriving at Zouerate. Over kilometers we slowly creak and groan to a stop as we pass giant mountains, more gigantic mounds of iron ore scree with the occasional conveyor belt or loader machinery. Our final halt is in an flat desert plain populated only by a random collection of ancient Land Rovers converted into pickups, Hiluxes and the ever-present Mercedes sedans. One of the boys jumps down and we unload the sacks of potatoes and onions, which pour dust as we pick them up. I clamber down and, completely at a loss stand around. Finally one of the boys tells me to sit in the cab of the converted Land Rover Pickup which they have loaded their sacks into and we rumble off towards Zouerate.

Apparently the boys and driver had not taken me for a foreigner, at least not for an American. We had not bumped across the empty desert plain for more than fifteen minutes before we reached the first checkpoint, where, upon seeing my American passport the gendarmes (wearing olive drab sheshes) were clearly at a loss as to what to do. After a hurried consultation it was decided that I would dismount from the pickup and be driven to the police station by one of the gendarmes where I would have to file paperwork with the necessary authorities. This caused consternation amongst the boys and the driver who began shouting worriedly at the gendarmes as I was led over to their vehicle. I myself am to exhausted to care at this point, and far too exhausted to try any sort of evasion or resistance. The gendarmes and the boys are in a full-fledged argument with the gendarmes clearly throwing their weight and flexing their authority. Finally the driver runs over and the police officer asks if I am willing to pay him. I gladly give up 300 ouiguiya in order to pacify the situation.

10:00 a.m. I am driven into Zouerate by one of the officers, with a customary stop for gas. Th town of Zouerate, center of the Mauritanian mining industry and capital of the province of Tris Zemmour has about seven or eight well-paved arterials which connect a network of dirt tracks. At the wilayat administration building I am ushered from office to office by a bureaucratic functionary wearing a maroon button-up shirt and a belt which is so long it wraps around him one and a half times. I am eventually told to sit and a gendarme asks me a series of questions which he then fills into a form. The form completed I am ushered into another office which turns out to be the office of the 30-something provincial governor. He is sitting in an easy chair wearing a chic suit and flashy striped silk tie which gives the appearance of fine apparel if not the quality. The young governor is is seated opposite the police chief for the Tris Zemmour region who is sitting on a couch with various folders spread out on the coffee table before him. Upon learning that I am an American they invite me to sit in the third seat around the coffee table, and, after a careful inspection of my American passport in which I am asked to describe every one of the idyllic and picturesque scenes of Americana depicted in the pages (Mount Rushmore occupies a good ten minutes of mixed English-French-and-Arabic explanation met with incredulity) the functionary is dispatched to collect my paperwork and we continue with a pleasant conversation in our mix of French, Arabic and the police chief's surprisingly good English. The topics range from my studies, the city of Rabat, the benefits and downsides of the US Peace Corps, how I appear Saharoui when I wear a headscarf and whether or not Arnold Schwarzenegger would make a good American Ambassador to the Arab world (the police chief seemed sold on the idea). After this somewhat convoluted exchange of ideas and information, during which I become more and more aware of the fact that I am covered from head to foot in dust and am completely exhausted, I am dispatched with the functionary who, after a few stops and starts through various offices I am loaded into an official pick-up truck and driven to the "gare routiere" (which strangely resembles a dirt parking lot filled with toyota hiluxes in various states of repair) where I am transferred amidst general curiosity to a bush-taxi pickup headed for Atar.

Auberge Bab Sahara

The nation of Mauritania has no great works of architecture--it has no need of them. God has provided it with enough grandiose dunes, plateaus, mountains, buttes and valleys to dwarf the cathedrals of europe and the skyscrapers of Chicago, Singapore or Dubai. The Saharawi nomads do not pray in mosques. They simply stop their camels (or, more commonly, their toyota hilux) so that a giant dune or great cliff or grand peak stands between them and Mecca and touch their heads to the ground in servitude to the majesty of Allah.

Auberge Bab Sahara

Nouakchott is the capital of Mauritanian Islamic Republic and it is quite noticeably so. My trip from Atar was in the back seat of a crumbling Mercedes Sedan which had been hired by and aged French couple; the red-faced, white-haired Albert (a French anciƩn-militaire doctor now assisting in the establishment of medical services in Chinguetti) and his docile and equally white-haired wife were ex-patriate (and therefore default) friends of Juste, the wild-haired Dutch proprietor of Auberge Baba Sahara, who had kindly arranged these travel arrangements which allowed me, a poor American student out to see the world to travel to Nouakchott gratuit (but of course with a customary small tip for the driver). Albert and his wife both seemed to share a love for the country coupled with the typical European condescension and snideness at the third-worldness of it all. No one more than the European ex-pat or tourist will tell you how wonderful the country is or how nice the people and, with the same breath, make a snide remark when the driver stops to shake hands and share a smoke with the checkpoint gendarmes. Nevertheless the ride was a wonderful opportunity and the slight arrogance of my European companions (no doubt tempered by the Gallic disdain for anything or anyone which originates or occurs outside of l'hexagone) actually helped to add a comforting "retro" hint of colonialism to our trip as we twisted down from the Adrar plateau pausing on the edge of one town to buy smuggled Algerian petrol for the car and watermelons for my French benefactors before roaring through hours of flat and mirage covered desert, broken by the occasional cluster of simple houses or wide green plains where goats and camels ranged freely.

The two-lane asphalt strip which was our only path through this vast expanse was Mauritania's route nationale 1, built in 1942 by a colonial engineers battalion (Albert and wife had insisted we stop to photograph the plaque) and remains one of the few (or according to some, the only) paved highway in the country. Arriving from the provincial capital of Atar to the national capital of Nouakchott on this route one passes camel herd after camel herd, who form the backbone of the Mauritanian camel-dairy industry. (Camel milk is available pasteurized by the carton or fresh by the cup in nearly every corner store or grocery in Nouakchott.) Nouakchott itself rises out of the dunes--the wind blowing over them serves to shift them in and around the outskirts and new developments on the edge of the city, all the while allowing for a healthy circulation of the heaps of trash which coat them. Dodging donkey-carts with full oil drums of water bound for sale at the water souk, one passes from nomad camps to slum towns, before quite suddenly, arriving in chic neighborhoods of wide sand avenues lined with villas over whose walls peak the true signs of comfort and wealth in these desert lands--groves of trees.

After dropping the French couple at one such villa the driver and I continued onto one of Nouakshott's main avenues (General De Gaulle) passing opulent embassy compounds guarded by rag-tag but well-armed Mauritanian military. Crossing over to the Avenue Kennedy (complete with partly functioning streetlights) we struck rush hour. Even the poorest of third-world capitals can still boast miles of honking Mercedes taxis, overloaded trucks, land-rovers, flashy SUVs and weaving motorbikes and this after all, was the capital.

Auberge Menata