Countries Visited

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Map Legend: 28%, 75 of 263 Territories

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Erg, Mauritania

Greetings from a capital you've probably never heard of in a country you probably wouldn't be able to pick out on a map.

We are in Nouakchott, Mauritania, a big sandbox of a city on the Atlantic coast of the Sahara Desert. Now, for a little background...

The Islamic Republic of Mauritania has had three coups in the last decade and a few kidnappings of Europeans in the last year. Slavery was legal until 1980 (!!) and there are still estimated to be about 100,000 people enslaved here. But if you want to get from North Africa to West Africa, it's still the safest overland route through the Sahara desert. Still, I think you'll understand if maybe we weren't the most excited ever about coming here.

But I'll say it now--Mauritania kicks ass. Our week here has been way better than we ever expected possible. The people here have been nicer to us than the citizens of any other country we've been to. They are constantly inviting us into their homes to have tea, to eat dinner, to sleep for free. Plus, there are camels to be ridden in that little place called the Sahara Desert...

We entered the country from Morocco/Western Sahara in a taxi and rode down to Nouadhibou, the "big port city" of 80,000 people in the north of the country. We drove in on a side road around twilight, and the place looked rather dusty and abandoned. Hard to say whether there were more people or goats in the street.

Later, when we got to the main street, things perked up some with some open shops and restaurants, but Nouadhibou is still the kind of place where you stumble across half a goat skull in the middle of the main roundabout and don't think much of it.

But we found an unexpected ATM (yay!) and had a good dinner (chicken and fries and bread and even some salad) at a little restaurant with a pretty big TV (playing soccer on every channel, of course). Our auberge room had its own bathroom with a Western-style toilet and a hot shower (the last of both of those that we've seen). And then the next day, we were off on our first epic adventure--the iron-ore train into the desert.

Did you know that the longest train in the world is in Mauritania? It transports iron ore from the interior to the coast for shipping and has about 2km of cars. It also has one passenger car, built in 1953, and for $4 you can ride 12 hours in it to the middle of the Sahara. Which is exactly what we did.

Here's the inside of the car. We were lucky and got spots on one of the benches along the wall, though it's a toss-up whether that's actually comfier than lying on the floor. Smart people bring their own carpets to lie on.
12 hours is a lot of time to kill, so when about an hour into the ride, a man came up to us and asked in halting English if he could talk to us about Islam for 20 minutes, Andy told him to have a seat. Two hours later, he was still going, and I was still translating furiously from French to English for Andy's benefit. By that point we were surrounded by a semicircle of other faithful souls who wanted to testify to us about how happy accepting Allah into their hearts has made them. My favorite was the old woman who tugged on my pants leg and gave me the thumbs up and a big smile every time the preaching man mentioned how much Islam respects women. Later on she also offered me half her sandwich and a spot next to her on her rug to sleep.
The whole thing was very heartfelt, and Andy and I appreciated that people wanted so much to tell us that Islam is a religion of peace, and that they don't condone suicide bombing, and that they really cared about our spiritual welfare. We probably won't be converting anytime soon, but by the time the session was over, we felt like we were surrounded by new friends who had our backs. Which was good, because we had to leave all our bags behind in the car so Andy could block me from view while I used the "bathroom" (an open hole over the tracks with no door separating it from the vestibule). Everything was still there when we got back!
Our best friend on the train was Nema, a computer programmer who speaks great English. We talked for many hours about everything from American music and movies to what it's like to have a secret girlfriend in Mauritania. Here we are with Nema around 1 AM, shortly before reaching our stop at Choum.
From Choum, 4x4s drive you three hours through the night to Atar, the main city in the desert. You are basically driving on sand, with four people crammed in the backseat, so sleeping is tough. Once I finally got to sleep, we were woken up for a police checkpoint. There are tons of these in Mauritania, but they have always gone pretty smoothly for us--the policeman just takes our passports for a while, records information from them, and gives them back. No third degree or anything.
We got into Atar around 6AM and were deposited in a vacant lot. A man we met on the 4x4, Mohammad, invited us in French to come back to his house to rest, and since we had no better plan, we followed him to his place in the old town. There we met two women that we're pretty sure were both his wives, and took a nap on the floor of his open-air living room for two hours. (Weirdly, Wheel of Fortune was playing in English on the TV in the background.)
Yeah, it felt a little weird, but apparently that's how things roll in Mauritania. He just wanted to be a good host, and we probably offended him by not letting him also feed us breakfast and tea. I did make use of the earth toilet outside, which was literally just a hole in the ground.
When we got up, Mohammad took us around town to show us the market, and the embankment the government build after rains washed away the whole mud-brick old quarter in 1984. He helped us find a taxi to Chinguetti, the town 2 hours away and our ultimate destination in the desert.
But the taxi wasn't ready to leave yet, so the driver took us back to his house to have tea "for 20 minutes." Two hours later... (this phrase could be the theme of Mauritania!) the tea was finished and we finally set off. (Mauritanian tea, by the way, is a phenomenon unto itself that we will have to discuss at length in the foods of Mauritania post...)

The ride was a little dusty, so I had to fashion a makeshift burka out of a towel.
Chinguetti (also spelled Chinguitty and some other ways) is an old caravan town founded before the year 1,000, and is the seventh holiest city in Islam. The oldest part of town is totally buried in the sand now, but the second oldest part still looks pretty cool.
Chinguiett was a center for scholars and is filled with old libraries with incredible books. We got a tour of one by the man whose family owns it and I put on my translator cap again for Andy. Here is a lovely illuminated manuscript page we saw.
We slept and ate at Auberge Zarga, where our terrific host Abdou plied us with many cups of tea in exchange for us teaching him new phrases in English. (His English is already pretty impressive, but we think that he developed a crush on one of the Croatian tourists he had last week and wants to be able to text her better in English...)
Abdou also arranged our three-day, two-night trip into the desert, to see amazing sand dunes, like these...
...and ride camels!
(Note my lovely new headscarf, which I bought from a young woman in Chinguetti. Turns out a headscarf is a very handy thing to have when the sun is beating down on you and sand is blowing in your face in the Sahara.)

So, my camel was branded with the initials "M.I." so we called him Mission Impossible. Andy's roared a lot, so we called him Roary. Here's Roary:
We think this picture is way better unrotated, since the shadow is a much better view than my and my camel's backsides...
We actually only road the camels for an hour or two each day--the rest of the time, we walked. Riding doesn't save any time, anyhow, since the caels only walk as fast as the guide leading them on foot. Our guide was named Dumu, and he took this picture of us atop a dune we all climbed.
Dumu spoke a bit of French, as do I, so we didn't have too many long deep conversations...but over tea in the desert at the end of day one, we did manage to learn the following important things about marriage in Mauritania:
-If you are a Muslim, you can have up to four wives. Your first three can be white, but if you add a fourth one, she has to be black. (We never were able to get a good explanation for this rule.)
-Wives in Mauritania don't come cheap. Thge price you pay her family for her can range widely, from a few thousand ouguiya to over a million ($4000).
-A camel, by comparison, costs around 300,000 ouguiya ($1,200).
Dumu wanted to know whether you could have multiple wives in America and if you had to pay for them. I told him basically no, though I didn't go into the specific exceptions about Big Love-style sister wifery and expensive engagement rings...
We slept outside on the ground in the desert. It got pretty cold at night! The sunrise was incredible.

Wildlife of the Sahara: We found this guy on Andy's mattress right before he lay down to go to sleep. He was enormous, like the size of my fist. I barely suppressed a scream. Andy killed him after taking this picture because he thought he looked dangerous. We showed the picture to our guide the next morning, who said the spider was very dangerous! (And here I thought our biggest threat would be possibly getting kidnapped...)
Much cuter was this little desert mouse who came out to investigate our dinner droppings.
These scarabs, or dung beetles, are all over the desert. As is camel dung. Andy was especially proud of getting a shot of a beetle on a piece of dung. Matt, this one is for you.
At the end of our first day in the desert, our guide tied our camels' front legs together before turning them loose. Turns out they could still get pretty far, and he had to go off in search of them before we left. A little while later, he went off for a bit and came back with two MORE camels, which we assume had been turned loose (or broke loose?) for a few days and now were going to get returned to town. So here's a caravan of three of our camels in the desert.
On our second night, we camped near the base of the "singing dune," seen below. It's a very steep dune that doesn't exactly sing, but makes a sort of farting noise when you slide down it.
The next morning, Andy and I climbed to the top of the singing dune.
OK, climbed is an exaggeration for one of us. I crawled. It was steep!
Here is a shot of both of us on our camels. My camel and I always went first, because we are leaders.
We returned to Chinguetti for some much-needed showers and a night in a real bed. Then the next day, we made our way to the capital on the coast, which involved 2 very uncomfortable hours sharing the front seat of a car going to Atar and then 5 very comfortable hours in an air-conditioned bus with seat belts (oh, the luxury!) to Nouakchott.
On that bus, we met another English-speaker, Moulay, who invited us to come stay at his cousin's house in town, so...we did. We hung out yesterday afternoon with several women (sister-wives??), and their adorable babies, drinking mango drinks from Saudi Arabia and watching Turkish soap operas on TV. They insisted on feeding us dinner, too.
A final shot for you from down the street from chez Moulay's cousin--a goat jumping up and down on top of a car. He was basically dancing. We assume that when the owner saw the damage he had done, that goat became dinner!
Off to Senegal tomorrow. Catch ya there.

Addendum: Andy and I realized that there were a few important things I forgot to mention in this post. For starters, the title refers to an erg, which is a massive sand dune. We traversed one near Chinguetti. The major takeaway I have about ergs is that they are not so easy for camels to climb, so you have to walk over them beside your camel rather than ride.

Also forgotten...on the iron ore train, there are two other options for travel. You can ride for free in an empty ore container (reportedly a rather dusty experience) or you can pay $12 US for a berth, or bed platform, the height of luxury on this train. Well, on our train there was an old lady who had apparently paid for a berth but didnt get one on the train...and she yelled for literally the first four hours of the trip nonstop to anyone who would listen. She was yelling when our Islam conversion session started and still going when we had finished. Considering that the $12 may have been her life savings, we felt fairly sympathetic towards her, though her stamina was frightening.

OK, more updates from Senegal if we can ever find a decently speedy connection and English keyboard again!


  1. Amazing! I love it! I'm so glad you made it on the iron ore train - will have to tell my relative who did Peace Corps there. He has a deep affection for Mauritania too. Glad you're staying happy and safe!

  2. I want to ride a camel! How does it compare to riding a horse?

  3. What month should that be in the "Poop Around the World" calendar I am making with all the photos you send me and Sarah?

  4. Dude, I read the scary state department warnings about Mauritania and am glad to see you're still not kidnapped. Keep up the good work avoiding that and spider bites!

    Great pictures too.

  5. Wow! What an amzing post! You guys are so adventurous... Glad you are getting time to work on your writing, Tara, and you should also write a book about your adventures! Or at least some articles... Miss you guys! - Mary

  6. Somehow, my favorite picture is that last one of the goat. Great post--looks like you're having quite the adventure.

  7. Loving, loving, loving your blog! I miss Africa so much reading this. Can't wait for you to wend your way toward Togo! --Kathryn H.W.

  8. "the seventh holiest city in Islam"

    How far does the list go? Is Las Vegas the 3,045,061st holiest city?