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.

To the Hinterlands (Dakhlet Nouadhibou, Mauritania)

Nov 29th, 2010 - So we were off! Into the unknown! Into the desert! Into the chaotic abyss of Ahmed's mind! Buckle up. We covered roughly 300 km the first day, the majority of which was spent driving straight through the desert. Roads are for pussies...or pussies without a chauffeur. If you like the desert then you'll love Mauritania. About 75% of this country (roughly the size of New Mexico or Egypt) is either desert or semi-desert. 0.2% of the land is arable (able to grow crops) and only 0.01% has permanent agriculture. 

It's Old Macdonald's worst f***ing nightmare. On top of that there aren't so many folks living there, approximately 3.2 million (40% of which live in urban areas). I will be making numerous comparisons to the apocalyptic nature of Mauritania's landscape. It will probably get old. Get used to it.

If 'nowhere' is on your list of places to visit I must believe northwest Mauritania is, at the very least, on the way there. It is a land of enchanting desolation where even the 'nothingness' that surrounds you still has a 'somethingness' quality. This probably explains why I was not even the slightest bit bored sitting in a vehicle for hours on end staring into the desert void. Mesmerizing, captivating, and a whole slew of other adjectives that don't quite do it justice can be applied. Just plain awesome. It gets the highly coveted Rich Plumadore 'Fuck Yeah!' stamp of approval.

Photo by Leslie
At one point we pulled off the sand track for a short respite. Ahmed wanted a break. It was tea time. I would have to say that tea, for Mauritania men (women get in on the act as well), is only slightly less important than breathing and procreation. Watching locals repeatedly pour the tea from their miniature pot into equally miniscule shot glasses and then from glass to glass in a relentless quest to obtain the perfect combination of tea strength, sweetness, and temperature you start to view it much more as an art form than a mere drinking habit. It is a serious business. Men judge and are judged by their tea making prowess. I suppose what strikes one of a Western bent the most is how little tea one actually drinks throughout the entire process, about half a shot per serving, at which point the whole procedure begins anew until you are once again presented with a miniscule, albeit tasty, serving of tea (made in China). However, it does not take you long to realize that it is the social nature of the ritual (often conducted in groups) that is important, not necessarily the product.

During our rest stop we began to learn more about our intrepid leader. We'd already heard about a few of his former satisfied American clients along with his high quality of service (a bit of horn tooting) but now it was time for a peek-a-boo into Ahmed's mind. According to him he owns the tour company but does not normally take people out himself. Instead he has drivers to do the grunt work. He seemed to take a special interest in us as Americans and repeatedly told us that folks from the USA receive some sort of quasi-special status according to a verbal mandate passed along by the Minister of Tourism himself. Americans getting preferential treatment? I guess there's a first time for everything.

[Author's note: He did not take an interest in 'us' unless by 'us' you mean Leslie. His goal during this trip was simple: Steal the white woman from the goofy bastard. Think I'm paranoid or fell victim to a cultural misunderstanding? Oh how I wish it were so. Stayed tuned.]

When it comes to folks from other countries Ahmed professes to be a bastion of tolerance. He claims to care nothing for one's country of origin or religious preference. Israelis? No problem. According to him Mauritania's 'on again off again' relationship with Israel (currently 'off again' as all diplomatic ties were cut permanently in 2009) is solely a political affair meant to assuage hard line sentiments in the Arab world. The people of Mauritania, for the most part, have no deep-seated grudge against Israel. Riiight. Not so sure about that.

Al Qaeda? Not true Muslims. Men who hit woman? Not good Muslims. Men with more than one wife? Not good Muslims. Sooooo it appears that Ahmed is more of a lover than a hater......unless you happen to be black in which case he is an ardent racist. Black people from any part of Africa? No good. Black people in general? No good. Black folks from Senegal? Particularly no good. This is especially curious when you consider that one of his black 'friends' (also a guide) spoke highly of Ahmed in his presence. Hmmm. I asked Ahmed about his 'friend' and was given the 'ehhhh, so-so' hand wobble as if to say, 'He's okaaaay....for a black dude'. Wowie.

Ahmed's attitude (at least in regards to blacks) is not particularly surprising. Racism is alive and well in Mauritania. Let's start with the Moors. Who the hell are Moors? Although there seems to be a bit of a dispute on the exact definition I believe the term 'moor' refers to the population of Arabs, Berbers, or Black Africans whose ancestors came from Northern Africa….probably. You have White Moors (i.e. lighter skinned individuals of Arab descent). You have Black Moors. You have Mixed Moors. And then you have the descendents of slaves, ex-slaves and actual slaves who may or may not be moors...I think. The social stratification goes White Moor, Black/Mixed Moors, slave descendents, ex-slaves, slaves….I think.

No, that is not a misprint. Forget racism. Slavery still exists, albeit illegally. It only became illegal in 1981 by government declaration, making Mauritania the last country in the world to prohibit slavery. Seriously. The move was cosmetic because although the practice was abolished there was no punishment for those breaking the law. 
Finally, in 2007 another law was passed which made the keeping of slaves a punishable offense. Figures range anywhere from 100,000 to 600,000 slaves living in Mauritania today. That is fucking staggering when you consider the population is only 3.2 million strong. I am not exactly sure how slavery is defined for the purpose of statistics but by any definition the presence of slavery is extremely troubling. I shudder to think how many folks I have encountered fall into that category. Our waiter at the restaurant? The young boy employed at the auberge? The guy at the petrol station? All of them? None of them? Does my presence here make it better or worse for them? Am I complacent? Complicit? I do not know.....

So tea time was over and we drove on. More mesmerizing landscapes. More insight into Ahmed's world. He talked about the tendency for Western men of questionable moral character to come to Mauritania in search of younger woman. I believe the technical term is 'scumbags'. He also describes a similar circumstance with older woman (shall we call them cougars?) in search of Mauritanian men. He himself had to ward off the cat-like advances of a certain 58-year-old Dutch female (Sugar Mama?) that tried to beguile him with the prospect of a charmed life. He wasn't biting. As he put it, 'I have my own money.' You go girl!

Ahmed has a half-Israeli Ukrainian wife (currently separated) that he met during his ten year stint as a boat captain. A man form Mauritania and a half-Israeli/half-Ukrainian wife? Right. He also has a ten year old son and although the acrimony toward his estranged wife was palpable he does hope to remarry someday (As it turns out he was hoping to remarry Leslie. Naughty, naughty bastard). Keep in mind that this whole conversation was conducted with our own unique pigeon language comprised of English, Spanish, and a smidge of French (Franglish?). I am fairly certain that no one fluent in any of the three languages would have had any idea what the hell we were talking about. I'm not sure we had any idea what the hell we were talking about.

At the end of the day we camped adjacent to the train tracks alongside a shack manned by an individual tasked with keeping an eye on that section of the line. Ahmed was none to keen on sleeping in the small village nearby. Preferring the solitude of the desert and the company of a friend he opted for the out of the way location. Besides, it was an ideal place to murder me and make off with Leslie. No arguments from us. Ignorance is bliss. Oh what a tangled web we weave...

As Ahmed knew the gentleman and felt it was secure enough for the evening we settled in and relaxed a bit. We drank tea. Drank some more tea. Ate dinner. Drank tea. Then we had tea. Being so close to the tracks gave us a close up of the ore train as it passed. The backdrop combined with this steel caterpillar inching its way across the landscape, its tail end ensconced within a cloud of dust felt just about right. I had to keep reminding myself where I was........Mauritania.

1 comment:

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