When I’m writing a blog, I normally write as much as I want to and then delete half of it in a desperate attempt to get it down to a length that people might actually read. This time, Huw suggested posting the full version so, with apologies (blame Huw), here it is – a 3800 word blog on 36 hours (is that a record?).
But keep reading! There’s an overnight train journey through the Sahara in an iron ore wagon, a failed attempt at cycling through the desert, paralysing heat, black eyes, and the kindness of a Mauritania we’re just starting to get to know:
Sunday, 1.30pm: We cycle to Nouadhibou’s train station – a three-sided shelter – in good time for the train which some people say comes at 3.30pm and others say 6.30. We sit on the floor, among the other would-be travellers. We wait. The sun moves across the floor of the building. Every now and then, little groups inch out of its glare in unison.And we wait. We listen to the four Senegalese women selling food and drinks arguing among themselves. Occasionally, mid-argument, they all collapse into laughter – presumably at some insult one them has conjured up.
Sunday, 4.30pm: We wander outside for a change of scene. A man introduces himself and invites us for a walk over some boulders to look at a stretch of beach – empty and pristine apart from a couple of dozen shipwrecks.
“There should be a hotel for tourists here,” he says. “The ships should be cleared – they’re not good for the environment. Somebody should clean the beach and build paths. But nothing – nobody does anything. This is Mauritania’s problem: the government does nothing.”
“And the new government? Aziz?” we ask (Aziz is Mauritania’s former coup leader and newly elected president). He laughs at the question, loudly and genuinely. “Now Aziz, he is another Mauritanian problem. The Europeans don’t like him, and we need Europeans to like us. For investment.”
Together we walk back to the station and part, easily. Huw and I settle down on the station floor again. A young Mauritanian man moves to sit near us. Three minutes later, he starts a conversation. He is a desert tour guide, working in Nouadhibou for now and going home to the Adrar region to help with the date harvest.
He tells story after story – very well – about his experiences of guiding tourists. He finds it hilarious, absurd, that if a tourist ever falls ill on one of his desert tours, the others always demand immediate motorised transport. They don’t trust his first aid (he is well trained). They just want a car and a hospital. What car? Where from? How will it reach a place that only humans or camels can get to? What hospital? How long will it take? Do they realise where they are?
There is a joke, he says, among his tourist guide friends: in an emergency, the only way to get tourists to stop obsessing about cars and calm down is to write a list of how much the car, driver, petrol and hospital fees will cost, and ask who is going to pay. Suddenly, they start believing that the guide is capable of treating the problem after all…Sunday, 6.30pm: We are still talking to Dher (at least his name sounded like Dher), the tourist guide, but now we’re talking about the delayed train. When does he think it will come? He laughs. “Inshallah [God willing] it will come. That is enough. Welcome to Mauritanian local time,” he grins. “3.30pm local time means 8.30pm your time.”
Other Mauritanians have joined the little group over the hours. Someone buys a round of hot, sweet, green tea. During our conversation, I realise that, to British ears, Mauritanians are not polite. There is no flattery here, or outpouring of superfluous pleases and thank yous, or great show of what the British call manners (and much of the rest of the world calls hypocrisy). Instead, with this group at least, there is a sharp and surprising directness, an easy intimacy, and a love of words and ideas and riddles and jokes and discussion.Sunday, 7pm: We wander over to the tracks for a change of scene. The sun is dropping fast; the people dotted around the track in the near distance are turning into silhouettes.
Sunday, 8pm: We hear the train approaching before we see it – a great clunking, sighing metal thing. We’ll be travelling in one of the open iron ore wagons instead of the passenger’s carriage – after so many nights in a hostel’s stuffy room, we want space and open skies. Just as we wonder how the two of us are going to manhandle the bicycles and panniers up over the high sided wagon, Dher and two of his friends appear and help us.Everything is loaded and Dher and his friends climb into the wagon too. They had been planning to take the passenger car but have decided to travel with us instead. I worry about their immaculate white robes and ironed shirts in all the iron ore dust in the carriage. “So what?” Dher laughs. “That is the journey!”
One of our companions is carrying a holdall. The other two are carrying nothing for this journey across half the country. We – with our bikes, our eight panniers, our two bar bags, our tent and our assorted bits and bobs – are clearly not of nomadic stock.The five of us lay out our tarpaulin and tent on the wagon floor and have just sat down when the train jolts forward and starts its journey east to Zouerat. There’s nothing “lulling” or “rocking” about the motion; this is a colossal iron beast wildly hurling its cargo from side to side.
In the wagons around us, Mauritanians stand up and wrap black turbans around their heads as protection against the wind and dust. We and our companions make do with shirts, sarongs, sleeping bag liners. A cloud of dust hangs over the train as it snakes through the desert and we laugh at each other’s whitening faces, stiffening hair and shining eyes.
As the sun sets and the nearly full moon rises, our companions settle into what we suspect is their real reason for travelling with us: a really good conversation. We talk, and talk. Occasionally, we stand up to give our bruising backsides a break and to peer over the top of the wagon. Once, we see a small settlement of tents with a single fire burning. It seems a magical sight. Huw hums “Freight Train Blues”.
Dher wants to explain Mauritania’s very complex social structure (“to understand Mauritania, it is important that you understand this”) – its ethnic makeup, its white Moors and back Moors and sub-Saharan southerners. This is a subject that I’ve been desperate to understand properly (especially in relation to the country’s practice of slavery – made illegal in 1981 but still practiced), but I can’t follow the intricacies or the French in all the commotion.
The conversation turns to Mauritanian marriages and weddings. There are traditional marriages, Dher says, where the family chooses the bride, and there are modern marriages, which happen for love. One is not better than the other. Thinking about the traditionally widespread – although apparently increasingly rare – practices of female genital mutilation and the enforced feeding of girls (big is beautiful here), I ask about the balance of power between the sexes. I don’t think his friends understand the question but Dher – married to a French woman – answers that, in Mauritania, “the man is society’s brain, its intellect. The man makes all the decisions”.
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