Monday, July 4, 2011

It's a Minefield Out Here


One overland leg and one more African immigration post to go. I’m up at dawn to catch a four-seat taxi to Dakhla, the first town over in Morocco—some 250 miles away. This time my prissy I-want-the-front-seat scene I plead with the driver is that I’ll get violently sick in the back, and yes, I will pay extra for this seat. My driver and I take off and pick up a few passengers around Nouadhibou. First stop is at a solid metal door down a dirt lane, and a serious looking Muslim dude steps out (I think we woke him up). It seems we’re picking his women up around town. These two women are believers of the forced feeding cult, and I'm immediately grateful I'm the front-seat queen of the day. I can’t figure out the relationships or why they’re going to Dakhla, but I assume they are his wives. Next, a Senegalese guy gets in; he's on his way to Marrakesh.

Off we go, and an hour later, we clear Mauritanian immigration. Now the fun begins. There’s an interesting three-kilometer stretch of no-man’s land between Mauritanian immigration and Moroccan immigration, with landmines on either side of the dirt track—1000s of them. This is not the place for a toilet break in nature. I ask my driver what his nationality is, and he answered Sahrawi—Polisario.” He swerves left and right, following a well-worn path. With one hand, he’s trying to find some Sahrawi music to play for me. One of the songs is in Spanish, with lyrics that go something like “hand to hand, in the streets of Laayoune, we repeat the story, the history, the victory…” I read somewhere that some Bangladeshis were stuck between these two customs posts for months and had to live on food and water handed out by passersby because neither country would let them enter. I look for them, but there’s nobody out here.

Moroccan customs: this takes 2 1/2 hours because of the Senegalese guy. The women in the car need help filling out the form because they can’t read. The taxi also has to go into a special hanger-like building to be scanned for bombs and whatnot. Passports are checked at least six times. We stop for lunch, for prayers, for peeing, for more passport checks, and for some random conversational exchanges with other drivers--obviously buds of my driver .

And if anybody wonders what can equal the decibels of a Who concert, the tinny speakers of any Mauritanian taxi can blow them away.

Anyway, here I am in Dakhla, southern Morocco, and as Huck Finn would say: back in “siviliaztion.” Well, kinda. This is all there is for Africa this time around—until the next trip…

I don't think this Mauritanian tourist office container on the border does a lot of business.

Lot's of camels out in this desert

I have a mosque on the way to my room at this hotel in Dakhla.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Nouakchott to Nouadhibou

Today's leg is a five-hour run across the desert from Nouakchott to Nouadhibou, the latter being pronounced something like Noddy-boo or Naughty-boo. Take your pick. In Mauritania, I've learned that on these long-distance, how-many-people-can-you-stuff-in-a-taxi runs, the seat in the front next to the driver is prime real estate and something worth haggling over. Normally, they fit two people in this seat, with one person sitting on the emergency brake. The procedure is they quote the price for two seats. Several people start yelling all at once. I do a little yelling too. Numbers are drawn out in the dirt. Eventually we all agree on a price after much dramatics and several bouts of walking off with my hands thrown in the air. The seat is mine. Hat pulled down, bandanna over my mouth and nose, and iPod in my ears, I'm ready for hours of mind-numbing boredom.

Crossing Mauritania means endless police checkpoints--out in the middle of nowhere, but I'm glad they're there--very glad, since this isn't the most secure place in the world. The procedure is the taxi stops some distance down the road and waits for the guard to signal to approach. No funny business. Everybody is very polite. Yesterday, I had to produce my passport four times. Today, I show it seven times. In one place I have to get out of the car and go to the shed for registration. I hear things like Obama, Hotel California, I have a cousin in Kentooky. Welcome to Mauritania, they tell me.

There is nothing out here, and only three colors: beige, bluish beige, and the dark gray of the tarmac. This is the smoothest road I've ever been on in Africa. It's brand new and makes what used to be a two-day trip doable in about 4 1/2 hours. Some sand dunes, some camels, some squalid huts. During one break, a very pretty young woman brings something to the driver, and she looks like she's never had a hard-scrabble day in her life. Her teeth are perfect. How on earth do they survive out here? This is an intense country. What can you say about a place where slavery still exists, female genital mutilation goes on (although there's a new fatwa out banning it), and young girls are sent to fat farms where they are force-fed 16,000 calories a day to make them attractive to potential suitors? Don't eat? You'll be hit with a stick. Girls often marry between 12-14 years of age. Charming.

In Nouadhibou, I hire a taxi for an hour to take me out to the abandoned ships. At one time, this graveyard of ships (some 300 of them) was the biggest collection in the world, but the Chinese have come in and carried off the pieces. A guard says one of the bigger ones was just hauled off by some Dutch last Sunday. What's left is rather disappointing, and there isn't the dramatic impact like the abandoned ships at the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan. Maybe they figure there wasn't the money to made in tourism here.

People actually live in this bleakness.

The blue robes billowing out from the wind gives the scenery an exotic look.

The famous iron ore train--said to be the longest in the world.

One of the shipwrecks of Nouadhibou

Another shipwreck

And another

Friday, July 1, 2011

Border Crossing Fun

Today's adventure has been playing on my mind for some weeks. This border crossing from Senegal to Mauritania has a bad reputation, and the town of Rosso has been called everything on the Internet from quite messy with corrupt police, touts, and hustlers, to an absolute shit hole. Like passing through airport security with the TSA, it's "let's just get this over with."

To add to my paranoia, the Mauritanian immigration is only open for a few hours a day in the morning and in late afternoon, and it's a good three-hour drive from there to Nouakchott, the capital, so it's no place you want to pass the day or night in. I'm up at dawn.

It's only a two-hour cramped ride from Saint Louis to Rosso, on the Senegalese side. I hire a fixer at the Gare Routiere to negotiate me through the morning's procedure. He's OK--only tries to scam mildly--and has a name that sounds something like Schwur. No cars maneuver through the back streets of Rosso, but carriages do (see picture below).

Next Schwur takes me through a doorway into a backroom to meet the money changer. I know my rates, and the haggling begins. The longer this takes the more of an audience piles in. I take every one of the bills and throw back any that are too worn, too torn or too old. Done, my fixer and I go back out in the dirt street and plow through all sorts of nationalities, such as Senegalese, Mauritanian, Malian, bedlam in general, and humping donkeys.

Now we have to get across the river to the Mauritanian side. We climb down the river bank and step into a pirogue, which looks like some old boards nailed together in the vague shape of a long canoe. The guy can't get the motor started and starts paddling with an oar, but the current isn't helping matters. He's working up a sweat, which is not hard to do in this climate, and when we nearly reach the other side and down the river a bit, he finally gets it going.

Mauritanian immigration is in a little building with some cutout squares in front where people throw their passport through. My fixer scrums at the window. I wait and wait and wait, and nothing happens. I work my way to the window, which one person can look through at a time and see four guys in there. They kind of look like they're doing something, but they're really not; they're just swirling around. Schwur pleads over and over with Ahmed, one of the immigration men, to stamp my bloody passport, but still nothing happens. About 45 minutes into this, finally a hand thrusts it out the window.

Next up, negotiating the transportation to Nouakchott. The language on this side of the river has now changed from Wolof to some dialect of Arabic, which cannot be spoken in a normal tone of voice--only shouted. I find myself shouting right with them. Schwur takes leave; he was well worth his tip. The car takes an hour to fill, but finally it's done, and after some bleak desert driving, I reach Nouakchott.

From the Gare Routiere in Rosso, you must ride this to the river.

My fixer. We try to cross the river by pirogue, but the guy can't start the motor.

He still can't get it going. "Hey friend, it looks like you're gonna have to start paddling!"