844 days, 20,256 hours, 1,215,360 minutes, or 72,921,600 seconds. That is the approximate duration of my world tour. I never wanted it to end and now, in a manner of speaking, I suppose it never has to. If you wish to go by country do so by clicking on one above. They are numbered in the order I visited them, more or less. If you enjoy reading about it even a tenth as much as I enjoyed living it then you will not have wasted your time. Grab a refreshing beverage, settle in a comfortable chair, and make a journey across the world, experiencing it as I did. Then get off your ass and check it out for yourself. You're not getting any younger.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Love & Al Qaeda (Ben Amira, Mauritania)

I'm not from here
Dec 1st, 2010 - Listening to the desert wind sounds eerily similar to the inside of a seashell…….The next morning we made our way to the small village of Tmeimchitt for our first gendarmerie (civilian police) check-in of the day. Whenever entering and leaving a city or village it is necessary to provide passport information to the security forces so they know how many tourists/foreigners are in a given area. Supposedly, it is for our own safety. And what are they protecting us from? Hmmm.

According to Ahmed the commander of this particular outpost was a bit ornery which explains the two hour delay for no good reason. He was apparently upset about us not camping next to their office the previous night as opposed to outside the village where they could not keep a protective eye upon us.

Finally, we were released and began our drive toward the monolith of Ben Amira and the small village of the same name. Ben Amira the monolith is reputed to be the largest of its kind in Africa and second (in size) only to Uluru (Ayer's Rock) in Australia. There are a bunch of similar outcrops dotting the horizon as you approach but Mr. Amira is by far the most significant. The landscape (monoliths, desert, dunes, etc.) combined with the ramshackle village is the stuff of surrealistic dreams, the kind that haunt you long after you wake. Hard to describe but breathtakingly beautiful.










Derailment is not an infrequent occurrence. Driving that train, high on cocaine, Casey Jones is ready, watch your speed....
We stopped once again at the local gendarmerie office to check in. By this time an electrical problem had arisen with our vehicle. Ahmed said there was an issue with a fuse so he and some locals spent time playing mechanic. This was not a problem as it allowed Leslie and I some time to soak in the surroundings, snap some photos, and engage some of the local children as they attempted to cajole a cadeau (gift) or two from us.

After a spell Ahmed assured us the problem was fixed so we went off in the direction of Ben Amira's 'wife' Aisha, a similarly intriguing, but not quite as massive, monolith not far from Benny. Here you will find some interesting stone sculptures created as part of a millennium commemoration by 16 international sculptors in 1999. Very cool.

After a circuit of Aisha we stopped beneath an outcrop for the all important tea interval. It was at this time that Ahmed began laying out his future business plan and his intent to open his own auberge (inn) in Nouadhibou. He was looking for someone to run it and began a not so subtle pitch directed at a certain redhead in our party. Curiously, this was the second time he began lobbing hints at Leslie. And, just like the first, his spiel began while I was out of earshot (taking pictures on this occasion). When I entered the conversation it did not occur to me that only one of us was qualified for the position. I briefly entertained the idea of working for Ahmed and engaging in some sort of tourism enterprise in Mauritania. There appears to be a lot of potential for growth and the landscape sells itself. However, I was not his intended target as we would soon learn. Ahmed had big plans alright, I just was not part of them.

On the way back we stopped on the opposite side of Ben Amira (monolith) and did a bit of frolicking in the dunes. Ahmed asked me to snap a few pictures of his truck to place on his not-yet-existing website. I happily obliged. We then made our way back to the village .









There goes my baby (oooo girl look at you), you don't know how good it feels to call you my girl, 
there goes my baby, loving everything you do (oooo girl look at you)....




This picture is funny on so many, many levels.



Photo by Leslie


Although we were planning to sleep in the area we were in need of some diesel, at least enough to get us to Choum (next village) the following morning. First we were told that no diesel was available and that we would have to wait until Choum. However, after a few moments we learned that some had been 'acquired' from the mining company that owns the railroad. Nothing like the purchase of stolen fuel to set the mood. Scandalous.

While I stood on the tracks and did a little filming Leslie, Ahmed, and Shady Fuel Salesman went for a short drive to load up on 20 liters of fuel. I thought nothing of this. I'm ignorant. In the meantime I blabbed into the camera and then engaged a small child and an adult in a game of 'Knock Shit Over With A Rock'. I would set up some tin cans and a plastic bottle or two and the three of us would take turns firing rocks at them from the comfort of our train track perch. All found this amusing.


When they returned Leslie wore a curious countenance and merely responded 'It was interesting' when I inquired about the venture. Clearly, she had a lot to share but would have to wait until Ahmed was otherwise engaged. So we drove about a kilometer away from the village and set up camp for the night. Ahmed then realized he needed some coal for the fire so he hopped in the truck and headed back to Ben Amira.

Now Leslie shared. Apparently, Ahmed saw an opportunity to speak to Leslie out of my presence and took it (Carpe f***ing diem!). Thus began the wooing……alooooooot of wooing. He told Leslie he was looking for a wife and that he wanted to have two more children. Something about having kids to pass on his fortune or what not and how in the absence of children (what about his 10-year-old son?) his possessions would pass on to his mother and sister. What a tragedy. He pointed out that he may look older but he is actually young/youthful and has a lot of life left in him. Then came the assault upon my character as he impugned my 'system' and our Dutch pay (as in split the costs) relationship. He is really fond of the phrase 'For example' and used it incessantly. So imagine the look on Leslie's face when he said something like, 'If you were my wife, for example, you would not have to pay for anything. Mauritanian women do not have to pay for anything.' Uh-huuuh.

I have since discovered that Mauritania men have somewhat of a 'all's fair in love and war' attitude. I was irritated if not severely vexed. Indeed, Ahmed had started to get on both of our nerves by this point. But what to do? All things being equal I would merely instruct G-money to 'step off' so to speak. But, alas, all was not equal. Here we were somewhere in the Mauritanian desert basically at the mercy of a man we knew very little about. My instincts told me he was harmless and was bound to ensure our safety if for no other reason than to safeguard his reputation. After all, he is a business man. On the other hand the possibility of 'hell hath no fury like a Mauritanian man's scorn' did have a solid foothold in my reasoning. Cupid is a devious little bastard.

And then there is the Al Qaeda factor. Currently, foreign government travel warnings range somewhere between 'You'd have to be an a**hole to go there' and 'Sure you can go, only when you get there lock yourself in a room and emerge only for food and water' (See USAAustraliaUK, and Canada for starters). Why the dire warnings? Well, there have been some kidnapping issues in the past couple of years and there seems to be some concern as to the growing presence of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to include Algeria, Niger, Mauritania, and Mali. For a recent story go here. For even more recent story go here.

[Author's Note: The situation has only continued to deteriorate since my trip there. Would I make a second visit if the opportunity presented itself? Probably, but I'm kind of an idiot.]

Status during my visit (November 2010)
So one might ask why the 'F' would we chose Mauritania? Yes, it sounds crazy but it is important to take a step back. As with almost everything all is not what it seems. For one thing there are a significant amount of expats living in Mauritania, albeit most reside in the capital of Nouakchott. In fact I corresponded with a former Peace Corps volunteer living and working in the capital before we arrived. She advised me that it is a personal decision. Yes, there is a risk but it is not quite at the level presented in the current literature and that smart choices are paramount. The far east and northeast section of the country are no-nos but the Adrar (the place we were headed to) was supposedly safe (or at least safe-ish).

[Author's Note: It appears, as I have mentioned above, the situation continues to deteriorate. Areas that were kind of sort of OK are now off limits. Nouadihbou would be the most salient example. Too dangerous to go? Still not sure. People are still making their way there sooooooo.......I suppose one should do the research and then decide. Pack a spare AK and a few bonus RPGs.]

Current status (March 2012)
In addition we spent some time perusing online posting boards (like Lonely Planet Thorn Tree) reading the comments and suggestions of recent travelers to the region. We also met a fair amount of folks at the Mauritanian Embassy in Rabat, Morocco that were headed there as well.  We determined that if we kept our wits about us and did not go gallivanting off into the desert on our own we would be relatively secure.....probably. Also, before we arrived we'd heard much about the number of police checkpoints scattered throughout the area we wished to visit. The Mauritanian government has taken steps to curb AQIM's activities (see here) and are more than aware of the impact recent headlines have had on tourism. Is there a risk? Of course, but there are risks with every place you visit. The real question is: Are the risks extreme? In all honesty at this point I would have to answer no.

However, all of this did start swirling to the forefront of my mind when deciding whether or not to confront Ahmed. I figured it if I did not do so he would assume Leslie told me nothing and would interpret that as an open invitation to continue the wooing festival.

When he returned from his coal gathering I welcomed him with, 'Ahhhmed, Hay problema contigo' ('I have a problem with you' in Spanish). The jig was up and the look on his face was one akin to a child exclaiming, 'Uhhhh-Ohhhhh!' I basically let him know that I did not appreciate him putting the moves on my 'fiancé' (a little fib to make him squirm) and that his actions were 'very, very bad'. He switched into defense mode and told me that he would not do anything to disrespect his clients and that he was very sorry for the misunderstanding.

Clearly, Leslie 'no comprend pas' (did not understand) what he was saying. His English is bad, Leslie does not speak French or Spanish, blah, blah, yaddy, yah… In other words he was a Big Fat Liar Face and was close to pooping in his robe. Leslie, within earshot of our cross-legged face to face pow-wow was more than a little irritated by the implication. No one could blame her but I felt I had to give him a chance to save face and carry on making it up to us. I accepted his apology and waited for the impending awkwardness.

It started while we were preparing dinner in the form of a couple of snide comments about Leslie's inability to understand him. He did it in a chauvinistic 'women are all silly little fools' kind of way. Leslie wanted to throttle him. I considered holding him while she did so. But we refrained. The awkwardness culminated after dinner when he left camp to visit the gendarmerie shack a kilometer or so in the village of Ben Amira. He basically left us there alone in the desert at night with nothing but government travel warnings to think about. I wonder what the going rate is for an American male and female? Ahmed was probably bargaining as we chilled out in the desert trying not to think about it. Yippie.

I figure Leslie had nothing to worry about. I was the one he probably wanted to make disappear (My head would make one hell of a mantelpiece). We distracted ourselves by lying in the sand, breathing in the cool desert air, and contemplating the night sky. All things considered it was a magnificent evening made more so by the viewing of a large meteorite fireball in the sky, the largest I have ever seen. Ahmed returned not long after we crawled into our tent. No late night assault. No roving bandits. He just crawled inside his tent and fell asleep. Pheeeew......for now.











Photo by Leslie

Photo by Leslie


Dinner (Photo by Leslie)

Time to go tribal, to become Johnny Incognito. Mr. Mauritania. This is the kind of deep, deep cover one can lose themselves in. It is the only way to boldly state: I AM FROM HERE!!!! (Photo by Leslie)



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'Love me or hate me, but spare me your indifference.' -- Libbie Fudim