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

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