Monday, January 17, 2005

Eatin' Camel and Ridin' Ore

So when we last left off, I was waiting for my buddy from the States to come visit so I could see some of the highlights of this sandbox on the sunny side of hell that I currently call home. Mauritania has exactly 1 tourists attraction, the village of Chuingetti in the northeast. Figured I might as well check it out.

Josh arrived only 3 hours late, as opposed to my 3 days. Unfortunately for me, that meant he for in at 4:30 am. Not to many taxis around at that time of night, but I convinced a couple of gendarmes to take me down to the airport in their pickup. Yes, that is as sketchy and stupid as it sounds, but the other alternative was to walk 2 miles in the pitch black by myself to the outskirts of town.

After a day and a bottle of Senegalese whiskey to recover from the traveling we both had just done, we set off for the northlands. The trip from the capital to the main city in the northeast was uneventful. The only interesting part is that the Paris-Dakar rally was zipping though Mauritania at that point, road in the opposite direction was dotted with tricked out, logo covered 4x4s speedingsouth. That was sort of neat. We spent the night at the Peace Corps volunteer's house in Atar, and set off the next morning for Oudane.

Now Oudane has a reputation for being a place that is difficult to get in and out of. It is a desert oasis, set high in the rocky cliffside, literally 100 miles from anything and everything else. The two volunteers that live there just needed 3 days to find a ride in. Josh and I lucked out. In less than an hour we were perched on top of a supply pickup headed to one of the guesthouses out there. Perched. On top of cases of soda, crates of vegetables, eggs, bread, you nameit. The truck started it's winding assent through the mountain pass to get to the desert beyond and eventually Oudane. The wind was freezing, as we were flying, so I laid down on the onions, pulled the drawstrings on the hood closed over my face, leaving only the pink sunburning tip of my nose sticking out, at rode out the bumpy 3 hours. Josh was a little less fortunate. He was on the edge of the truck, white knuckling it, as we spend around turns over sheer cliffs perhaps best described as abysses. And it seems that they ran out of moneybefore they put up guardrails. Oh well. No one died in the end.

When we finally got to Oudane, I was so covered in dust and sand from the trip, I looked like the Great Mummy rising from a thousand year sleep. But I dusted off, grabbed my pack, and set out to find a place to sleep. We checked with the volunteers and they recommended a guesthouse nearby. We rented a tent with full board, lunch was camel and noodles! We spent most of the afternoon playing cards and waiting for the tourist "guide" to show up. Apparently the Peace Corps had built a tourist center here a number of years ago, leaving this guy in charge of it. Eventually he did show up and took us on a quick soulless tour of the old city. It would have been hard to diminish the sights though. The old city dates from at least the 12th century, those are the oldest doors they have left. It is made of rocks fit tightly together and sealed with mud and set high in a cliff over looking the date palm oasis. Truly incredible. The guide led us around, then down through the gardens to the one room tourist center. It was nice. We were reading the signs about the history of Oudade when he spotted a 4x4 full of French tourists, and darted off after them. We hung out, waiting for him to bring us back. And waited. Eventually it started getting dark so we walked back up ourselves to find the volunteers for dinner. I guess the French are better tippers.

Next day the plan was to grab the first car out of town. After 2 hours of climbing up and down the cliffs to no avail, we decided to just camp out at the tourist office, conveniently next to the gendarme stop, until a ride came through. We played gin rummy for 4 hours, occasionally running out to stop a car and ask for a lift. The plan was to get a ride to the crossroads about 120 km down the road, then walk or hitch the rest of the way to Chuingetti. Apparently we looked dangerous because no one was interested in letting us near their trucks, tourists and farmers alike. Around 2 in the afternoon, salvation arrived. You remember that poor set of parents that I got delayed with for days heading incountry? Yup. With their daughter, in a pickup. Sure, no problem, we can give you a ride, we are headed there too. We leave at 5. Back to gin rummy for a few more hours.

In Chuingetti we ate, rented a tent and crashed out for the night. (What's for dinner? More camel!) Chuingetti is a whole different animal. She is the seventh holiest sight in Islam, as she served as the assembly point for West African crossing the desert to Mecca for the hadj. Everyone brought books there to study before the journey and eventually they were collected into a vast network of libraries. And it looks like the end of the earth. Beyond town there ain't nothing but dune until you hit the Nile. Sand dune after sand dune, nothing else. The next morning walked out into the dunes to see the sun come up. After breakfast, we picked up the volunteers in town and went to one of the libraries for a tour. The manuscripts were incredible. Dating back centuries, they had illuminated texts of the Koran, and algebra books complete with student's margin notes. After such an incredible cultural experience, there is only one thing left to do. Go dune boarding. One of the volunteers had acquired a snowboard from god knows where, so we threw it back in the pick and headed out of town to the largest dune. I have never snowboarded before, so I was a little nervous to say the least. I strapped my all-terrain sandals in and pushed off the crest of the 25 foot high sand dune. I made it all the way to the bottom before getting really scared, unsuccessfully attempting to sit down to stop, and getting a mouth full of sand as I tumbled to an eventual halt.

Then it was back to Atar, to spend another day reading and playing cards in preparation for the train. Now the fastest way between Atar in the northeast, and Nouadibou on the west coast is by train. The train that makes this run is the iron ore train coming from the mines in the north to the port on the coast. The train stops at a town called Choum, three hours north of Atar, for a few minutes beforeheading on. And there are three ways of riding this train. The first is the most expensive, renting a berth in the sleeping car at the end of the train. The second, slightly less expensive option, is buying a ticket for a seat in the passenger car. The third, and free option, is to climb on top on the iron ore and bed down for the freezing 12 hour ride, emerging black and covered in iron ore dust, but having alittle extra in your pocket. I will leave you to ponder the choice we make...

Meanwhile, we had to get to Choum. The taxi ride was the longest three hours of the trip, wedged in the corner over the wheel well. Then we get to Choum. This was hands down the most depressing town I have ever passed through. It looked straight out of a post-apocalyptic horror movie. I filthy dusted down group of buildings, facing a dusty central square. People with rotting teeth, dressed in rags, begging for change. All it was missing where the zombies. Josh and I found two filthy mats in a dirty restaurant at the corner of the square to hang out for the 5 hours until the train. We ordered a plate, and got dry couscous with two piece of rotting fish. (Fish in and of itself scared the crap out of me. The nearestsource was 2 hours away, by helicopter.) So we, you guessed it, read and played gin rummy, eventually by candlelight, until just past 8 pm, when the train came.

That was an adventure in and of itself. Suddenly you hear a low whistle in the distance. Crap! The train stops for less than ten minutes, so you got to be on it. We throw everything in our bags and take off in a quick walk across the field separating us from the track. When the train stops I pull myself up the metal ladder and climb into the rocky, dusty pile of ore. Black clouds puff up as mysandals sink in. Josh climbs in and we start making preparation. We were in the first car behind the locomotive because we through it would be (a) cleaner, and (b) less likely to go off the track in the event of a derailment, which hadn't happened in almost a week anyway...) Josh dug out an indentation for us to sleep in while I covered myself head to toe in scarves and sweatshirt, socks and second pair of pants. I had even bought a cute little mid 80s Frenchy redand white ski parka. We wiggled into our sleeping bags, slide the bags into industrial size black garbage bags borrowed from the volunteer in Atar (who has made this trip 3 times), and settled in for the long, cold, long cold night.We arrive in Nouadibou looking straight out of those Depression Era photos of coal miners. We are Filthy. Our faces are black. Our teeth are black. Our hair is black. Everything is black. We call the volunteer there and go over to her place for a shower. Feeling a bit cleaner we try to get a flight back to Nouakchott. (Hey, don't roll your eyes at me. I just spent 12 hours on a pile of iron ore. I deserve it!) Which entailed sitting at the airport for a couple hoursuntil they told us we were shit out of luck. So back to town and lunch with the volunteers. Fortunately they knew this cute little Chinese brothel that served cold beer. After three of those I was feeling better about the impending 12 hour ride through the desert I had to look forward to that night.The ride was long. We got stuck once, requiring the assistance of another carload to dig the car out of the sand and get the sand out of the transmission. I sat the little adventure out. Listen gentlemen, if you don't have to shake my hand, I don't have to dig your car out. Fair's fair.

I did eventually end up pushing a couple times later that night when there were fewer hands on deck.We got back to Nouakchott just in time to sleep for a couple hours, do some last minute shopping, kill the last bottle of Senegalese whiskey, and get Josh on a plane back to NYC. In sh'allah.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

To Rabat Without Any Underwear On...

So after two (somewhat) idyllic weeks in the United States of America, on the evening of January 3rd, 2005, I set off for Mauritania. Mom helped me pack up, insisting on loading every square inch of extra space with granola bars and powdered milk for the seven long months until I return, then dropped me off at the airport. The plan was simple. I was to leave on Royal Air Maroc flight 201 from Kennedy to Casablanca, where I would have a 17 hour layover in which to putter around the city, then hop the flight down to Nouakchott, arriving safe and sound at 2:35 am on January 5th. Right.

At the airport I met up with three Peace Corps volunteers I knew serving in Mauritania. The flight was delayed so, as Peace Corps volunteers and Fulbright scholars are known to do in periods of down time, we went to get a drink. Two hours and three double sized pints of Brooklyn Lager later, the waitress, who was nice enough to set up a radio link with our gate in case the plane decided to leave, informed us that the flight was cancelled and that we would be spending the night in a hotel. We joined Mr. And Mrs. Jackson of Hicksville, New York, who where on their way to visit their Peace Corps daughter in Mauritania, and armed with just our carry-on luggage (and no coat), we waited outside for the bus to the Holiday Inn. The hotel was straight out of Dante's Inferno. I don't know what the receptionists may have done in life, but it must have been bad, for now they worked at a hotel whose only clients are people whose flights have been cancelled. People were a little ticked off, to say the least. Myself and my fellow travelers were still a little zen about things at this point. We got our meal tickets and helped ourselves to the buffet, waited on line for free toothbrushes… Margaret and I were even lucky enough to get invited to a drink by two visiting Texans. The two guys approached us to chat as we were hanging around the lobby. They were staying in the hotel down the block but since it was without a bar, they had meandered down here. One of their opening lines was, man theHoJo's here are much classier than they are back in Houston. I replied that they had just confirmed every stereotype Northeasterns had about the South. We made polite conversation for a while but then left. Never accept bourbon from a man who may want to lure you back to a HoJo's. Moving on.

The airline was nice enough to narrow down our departure time to between 3 am and 3 pm on January 4th. Don't call them, they'll call us. The next morning I was awakened by the striking workers banging on their drums and firing up the fans to inflate the omni-present giant rat. I went down to fight for a place in the breakfast line with increasing annoyed group of people trying to get to Beijing. At1 pm, we headed out to the bus to the airport, still wearing the same clothes from yesterday. After only 3 and a half hours more delay, we were airborne, winging our way to Casablanca.

Unfortunately, when we arrived at 5 am, we discovered that we had missed our connection. The next flight wasn't for almost two days. They would be happy to put us up in the decaying beachfront palace of Hotel Azur for the interim. By this time we had picked up a seventh for our little group, Nathaniel, a college kid in a pressed shirt and a tie on his way to deliver computer equipment for the project he was working on. There were a couple other travelers with us, mostly boundfor Dakar, but as they were completely irritating, we ignored them. One was completely furious that they only had Lipton tea. She only drinks herbal. Have fun in Africa lady. They next days were spent wandering around the markets of Casa. Doing some light shopping and sampling whatever it was the street vendors were selling. On the second day we visited the mosque of King HassanII, third biggest in the world. It was brand new, not fully completed yet, with a retractable roof so people could worship in the sunlight in the summer. That certainly wasn't an option now. It had been in the 30s when we landed that morning, and warmed a little during the day, but not too much. Should have brought a coat. Since we had a couple hours to kill before headed back to the airport for our 11:50 pm flight, Margaret and I decided to go to the hammam. Longtime fans of these e-mails remember my hammam adventures in Hungary and Syria, but for the new folks in the house, a hammam is a traditional bath,mostly found in Islamic countries, where you strip down to your skivvies and get vigorously scrubbed. That is pretty much how it went. The scrubber-girl was a little nuts with her scrubbed and took about a pound of flesh off. I had a tan once. Then I moved over to the convex plastic soaping-board where I got my soapy massage. Now, I am covered in soap and the board is covered in soap, you know what that makes? An almost perfectly frictionless surface. And, as anyone who has ever played air hockey knows, you only need a little push togo flying. I was holding on for dear life as she rubbed my back. I was afraid that one strong push would send me skidding off the table and across the hammam floor, a little naked pink infidel missile.

The only problem with the hammam is that I still didn't have any extra clothes. (Yes I am still wearing the same things as when I left NYC.) And my underwear was soaked. No worries, I can go without. All I have to do is go back to the hotel, get my bags, and head to the airport. Which, once I had been reunited with my group of seven, is exactly was I did. On the bus to the airport I became a little concerned by the fact that the fog was so thick I couldn't see the other side of the road except for the vague glow of passing headlights. The scene at the end of Casablanca where they are at the airport and walk off into the mist? Yeah, not so good for air travel. When we get there they inform us that the flight has been re-routed, we have to go to Rabat. So we claim all of our luggage (not an easy feat given that Nathaniel has 300 pounds of computer equipment and the Jackson's have seven suitcases worth of school supplies for their daughter's village) and get on the bus with a bunch of other travelers headed to various African locals. At 9:45 we sent off to Rabat. Perhaps 45 minutes down the down, the driver gets a call on his cell phone. After some discussion in Arabic, we turn around and go back to Casablanca. After waiting around outside in weather cold enough to see my breath (I still only have a long sleeved cotton shirt on) to get through the security checkpoint, we get back into the airport. During this time, I will have to give this to you Mom, the granola bars came in handy. Everyone had two because no one had eaten dinner.

After finally getting inside, dragging everyone's luggage, the official tells us, hurry hurry up! You were supposed to be on the bus to Rabat! Back down through security and back onto the bus. Apparently only the passengers to Nouakchott were supposed to get on the bus, not those to Dakar. The Dakar people had mixed in, so we had to come back and let them off. At 12:50 am on January 7th, 2005, we set off again back to Rabat. The bus is freezing. And I am still not wearing any underwear. At just after 3 am we arrive in Rabat, and dothe speediest off load of luggage anyone has ever seen, get in line to clear immigration, and, praise be to Allah, out onto the tarmac were the plane is waiting engines on, to take me home. We arrive in Nouakchott around 6 am, in a frigging sandstorm of course, and I am back home and sweeping by 7:30.