Nouakchott to Dakar

My Mauritanian friend gives me some cash to catch a “sept-place” private taxi to the border with Senegal. I catch it somewhere in the outskirts of dusty Nouakchott and receive honest treatment from the taxi operators. It is not too far to the river Senegal and the border, and the scenery is already getting richer. Some brushes, even trees start lining the road and by the time I got off in the village of Rosso the desert was behind me.
I cross the river on the free ferry. On the other side, a group of locals jumps on me (the only white person) and tell me about taxi fares and that I have to provide a proof that I have enough cash to live in Senegal and that I have to come with them they know it better they’re local.
I say “no”. I know what I’m doing. And I walk on a few hundred meters, thinking how much I like just being alone walking along the road until after the stalls where people smile more and more, this is the main road to Dakar so I march on for two minutes then hear the roar of a good engine, I stick out my thumb – a black BMW stops, and the Mauritanian television producer gestures me in. He’s going straight to Dakar, of course, and I am welcome to join him. We talk about his work. He is going to Dakar to learn from Senegalese TV producers then apply it to the Mauritanian market.
Through the open window I hear birds and smell green again.
We passed St. Louis (he said I should visit it) and arrived in Dakar quite late. Before I could tell him anything, he had offered me his hotel room. That night I slept on my sleeping back rolled out in the corner of a hotel room in downtown Dakar, fully air-conditioned and immaculately clean.

The Enduring Fight Against Fire

The next morning I wake up in an acclimatised room with a large tv-screen showing “France 24”. Breakfast with papá. I spent the day in the house looming, large TV movies keeping a tired soul busy. We had Mauritanian Tajin, goat meat and liver served on a plate of rice and eaten in balls with your hands. A little girl comes into the room to bring me tea, smiled when I took the little glass then ran out of the room.

I don’t feel awkward enjoying this incredible hospitality, or maybe a little bit. I’m actually the opposite of the tough independent traveler I want to be: I can’t walk around alone here or it doesn’t make sense since it’s far away from everything and I don’t have Oudaja to go anywhere. So I live with papá and his family for a few days. These were hot days and I apologize when their description here isn’t as tangible as I want it to be.

We took the car through the network of dust roads of Nouakchott and arrive at another two-story building, big satellite dish on the roof. They bring me here for the wifi. In the middle of the room lay he on three pillows, white beard, a tunic wrapped around his bare chest and a stern look on his face. A bottle of water and two remote controls standing next to him. He nods when I enter the room and sit down on a couch.

Whose experience is this? A young philosopher sees an older man in some Muslim republic, like there are so many, and has his short-sighted associations. “He looks just like Socrates!” he yells in excitement blocking further details and crippling his youthful senses. Seeing Socrates then returning to the books. Perhaps a few details here and there, but the ability to see anything new? I mean we need these associations for our minds to be closed and also for our minds to be open. Couldn’t resist speaking in riddles, excuse me for that.

I hope to do something back: translate some of their commercial communications into German and English. Papá owns a small company dealing in fire extinguishers and related safety equipment and their training, providing mostly international groups present in Nouakchott with their sécurité incendie. I think about slogans for their company “SIS” (sécurité incendie secourisme). What about “The Enduring Fight Against Fire” hinting the American fight against terror, or “Before calling SOS, try SIS”.

The No-Man’s land

The no-man’s land, a 3-mile strip of dusty desert between Morocco and Mauritania, was what I had expected. A potholed dust track lined with car wrecks, rusting refrigerators and computers piled up between the dry shrubs, and one scavenging species approaching every living thing that crossed: human beings. Some lead you to a dead-end where your car gets stuck then rob you, my driver says. I see a camp of thugs and rowdies but don’t feel afraid. These are petty thiefs, not armed robbers. Arriving at the paved road on the Mauritanian end felt good. I got my stamp quickly but my driver was held up and we had to say goodbye.

It took me about twenty minutes to be picked up by two friendly Mauritanian men in a comfortable black car. The road to Nouakchott is good, and at sunset we pulled over for prayer in front of a roadside tent. As travelers, they combined several of the five daily prayers into this one just after sunset. Sitting next to them, head down to communicate respect while they were saying their prayers felt – pure.

Impression of the desert, with dromedars.

Sitting there, in the Mauritanian desert in the evening cool, the traveler’s spirit came back to me. I understood this was a designated praying point consisting of a pitched tent and the availability of camel milk. Lakhlaf (whose name I remembered the second time because it sounds like “luck love”) and the other man nicknamed “papá” sat down direction Mecca and said their prayers. I sat down cross-legged and listened to their calm and sincerely voiced “Allahu Akbar” and felt truly happy.

Why? What is my own religion? I let some desert sand run through my fingers. Nature, perhaps, feeling connected with mother earth.

A while later, we stopped for another pause at a roadside restaurant to have tea. On the pole next to the entrance a freshly cut off goat’s head and a Tajin lid. They laid down on the plastic carpet and asked me to do the same. Goat served on a bed of rice – this would be my diet during my stay in this fascinating country.

We arrived in Nouakchott and drove straight to the house of monsieur “papa”, where he introduced me to his younger brothers. I also saw some women (his wife, his daughter?) in the house but they were living in a different room and a different world just a few generations of emancipation away.

In a large spotless room, the only one in the house with air conditioning an a large flatscreen TV I could lay my head down.