Saturday, March 12, 2011

Travel Day

Musa was at the lodge by the time I woke up. Does that guy ever sleep? He wore the same clothes he'd had on yesterday, which is common with people in these parts who don't have a lot of money. He wanted to make sure I ate my breakfast and got to the bus station.

I considered the shower block again, and opted against carrying around a wet towel. Musa walked me around the corner to a cafe. Which was like a living room with a curtain over the doorway. The owner was sleeping, but he woke up, took a chair off a table, and supplied me with a baguette, some jam, and some Nescafe. I was getting used to the Nescafe, and didn't really regret not bringing my own coffee this time. It was always a hassle to get hot water and to throw away the grains.

I nibbled my bread while the owner turned on his old television in the corner. I heard the sounds of news violence, and went over to see the news. Al Jazeeza Arabic showed violent demonstrations.

"Mauritania?" I asked, nervously.

"Non, Yemen."

He was riveted. Then he spoke English.

"The Arab countries, they are going crazy."

Al Jazeera cut away to Libya.

I finished my baguette and walked back to Chez Abba. I was worrying now about how to deal with Musa. Bamba had reacted poorly to my suggestion of a tip, and yet I found it unlikely that Musa had dogged my tracks and done all this work for me just because he likes helping guests. Then I found 50 Moroccan dirham in my bag. I'd somehow overlooked this before. "Musa, I just found this and I can't use it where I'm going. Maybe you can change it and use it for something?" He accepted with a "Sure, whatever" shrug. Face-saved. Anyway, he may already have gotten a commission from the money-changer. But I wanted to directly give him a tip.

Musa hailed a local share taxi and off we went to the bus depot. Which wasn't really a depot. It was a room that housed the office of a private minibus transport company. I sat on a dusty old padded sofa and then I realized the Nescafe needed a release.

"Excusez-moi, ou est la toilette?" I asked a guy behind a desk. He motioned me to a closet.

One of my travel rules is this: When faced with a hole in the ground in an unlit closet, hike your jeans way up and adopt a wide stance to avoid splattering on your sandals. It works. More or less.

The other passengers started milling about and workers took all our baggage and stored it on top of the minibus, which was new, comfortable, and climate-controlled. Wonderful! I hadn't expected this.

And rather than all of us rushing into the van at once, our names were called in the order our tickets had been purchased. First, a woman draped in red-and-white cloth, her head covered in white, and looking completely Mauritanian apart from a stylish leather handbag that looked like a Fossil product. Next to her was a younger woman, probably her daughter. Her daughter wore a tailored local skirt and top, made from bright cotton fabric and most likely handmade. I was third, and the other ten passengers took up three rows and the passenger seat. The back row was empty. This was a scheduled departure, leaving on time at 11 a.m. even if only three people had purchased tickets.

We drove out of the dusty, too-sunny, beige town, past goats nibbling on rubbish, and lots and lots of plastic bags. Naughty-boo was hospitable and friendly, but it sure was ugly.

And then we passed the legendary iron ore train, chugging along in the opposite direction, just before we got to our first police checkpoint of the day. I'd see at least nine more of these, and I handed out copies of my passport and visa every time. It made the process go by faster, as otherwise the police would have had to write all the details out by hand every time. The six-hour ride was already long enough.

After a few minutes, the daughter next to me politely turned to me and chatted.

"Where are you from?"

"New York. Where are you from?"

"London. But I grew up in Paris. My mother still lives in Paris." She motioned to the woman next to her.


I asked the daughter lots of questions on the ride. Her mother spoke French and not English, but told me through her daughter that when she was a child, the six-hour journey took 15 days.

"Sometimes people would get lost and die."

Looking at the vast desert around us, I could see why. The only sane approach would have been to hug the coast, and even five years ago, driving along the beach at low tide had been the only way to drive from Nouadhibou to Nouakchott. I was grateful for the new road, and even grateful for the modern gas station/convenience store we stopped at halfway. I ate a Popsicle and cowered in the shade while the Parisian mother went off to pray.

The daughter worked for a new Nigerian airline in London, having majored in international business. She'd also worked for Air India for a while.

"Why are there so many police checkpoints?" I asked the daughter.

She shrugged. "They used to catch many drug-runners along here."

At one point, we did have a suspicious unclaimed Thermos. "Why is no one claiming that?" "Maybe there is something in it that they don't want to admit they own."

In time, we reached Nouakchott, which was every bit as beige and dusty as Nouadhibou had been. Just before I left the minibus and hopped into a taxi, I thanked the daughter for her information about the route and wished her well.

"Oh, and I didn't catch your name." I wanted to know who I'd been talking to for several hours.


I laughed. "We have a superhero named Hadya."

Hadya looked puzzled but amused. And I was amused too. Hadya is our guide character. And here Hadya has just guided me through some of the finer points of the road.

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