Friday, March 11, 2011

Border Day

Bamba was trying to tell me something. He kept motioning at things. The glove compartment. The dashboard. He wanted me to do...what? He'd speak to me in French, because he'd gotten it in his head that I understood French, though I'd repeatedly said that I did not. Perhaps saying this in perfect French isn't a good strategy.

I fumbled around, trying to help him out. He kept putting one hand to his ear. I dug around in the glove compartment and produced some earbuds.


He pointed to his ear again.

Oh, there was a rattle! He wanted me to find the rattle. Bamba was deputizing me. Co-driver.

I enthusiastically sought out the rattle, but couldn't find the source. Actually, I couldn't even hear the rattle. But you know how drivers are. They precisely know the sound of their cars.

Right about then, something far worse than a rattle kicked in. One of the two women traveling together decided we should all be subjected to the songs on her phone, MP3s played through a tinny speaker. Wretched.

Bamba lit another cigarette and tossed a small carpet into the back seat. The woman on the east side of the car requested the window go down and back up a bit—the window console was in the front—so she could stick the carpet into the window crack. The Saharan sun is merciless. Bamba himself used the cloth that he'd been wearing on his head last night. I had my scarf on deck for later when the sun hit my side.

We drove for a few hours through the end of the world. Or what looked like it. Sun, sand, and billowing plastic bags as far as the eye could see. The road was the only color, and I'm not sure black counts as a color. Mercedes or Peugeots occasionally raced by, only to have us overtake them later when they were pulled over for a pit stop.

One of the women in our car needed a pit stop. I couldn't understand Bamba's response to her, but I understood the sweep of his arm and the questioning town of his voice.

"We're in the middle of a desert. Where?"

She ended up gathering up her billowing cloth to squat behind a knee-high shrub. We all looked the other way.

When she got back in, one of the other women passed around bread and UHT milk.

"Non, merci." I was afraid to eat. I'd been sick just two days ago and I was afraid that eating food might create a bad situation that no shrub would be able to handle.

About three hours into the trip, after several more police checkpoints where I handed out more paperwork (except when Bamba motioned to me to hold back until asked by the guard), we stopped at a rest stop, a small shack-like place that served tagines and tea. I braved the squat toilet, but nibbled only on bread. The day was still young and though the border was just ahead, the trip supposedly took five hours. I couldn't see how though.

I sat with the women, but Bamba motioned us all over. "We should all sit together," he said, hospitably. Or maybe he said "Get your ass over here." It's all the same to me in French.

He ordered tea and proceeded to prepare it Mauritanian-style, something I'd only read about in guidebooks. Mauritanian tea just isn't tea until it has a frothy head on it. This froth is achieved by pouring the tea from far above the glass, and then from that glass into another and into another. Three glasses are used and the tea is poured over and over until it froths. Or maybe those rocks I took for sugar are actually soap. Either way, I didn't drink any, because I had my eye on a disgusting concoction that the pharmacist in Dakhla had assigned me to drink for five days.

We got back into the Renault, where Bamba lit another cigarette and my friend in the back seat went back to serenading us with her screechy phone. Within minutes, we were at the Moroccan border post.

An official at the gate wrote down all our details on forms and charged us five dirham each. Too late, I remembered the entry official in Beni Nsar giving me the same form "for when you leave." I'd even filled it out already.

I made it through quickly, and Bamba threw his passport and registration at me when I got back in the car, trying to get out of the wretchedly hot sun. He had been stamped out already, but was going to help the Senegalese passenger with some kind of border issue. I wasn't quite sure what to do with the paperwork, so I sat stiffly and tried to look responsible. I stole a glance at the details, and that's how I learned we were in a 1993 Renault.
We drove through the gate, and on the other side, we all had our passports stamped.

"Where are you going next?" The border guard was curious. "After Mauritania? Senegal, Gambia, Mali..."

"Then home?"

"No, then Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria..."

He drew in his breath.

"You are crazy to do this alone. Mali and Nigeria are very dangerous. And you..."

I waited for the obligatory comment on my gender.

"With this passport! With an American passport! This is crazy."

I laughed. So it wasn't my gender but rather my nationality that was likely to get me into trouble.

The officials became bored of me, and I got back in the car again, cowering from the sun. The benefit to the car was now clear to me. I couldn't imagine walking through this border post with my backpack in the sun. And we hadn't even gotten to no-man's-land yet. We were still on the Moroccan side.

As I sat in the car, with Bamba out at some border post doing something with some of the other passengers, another official walked up.

"You are six in here?" He laughed. "The driver will be a rich man."

I nodded and didn't point out that we were actually seven in addition to the driver.

Eventually, we were all gathered up by Bamba, and we drove past the end of Morocco and into no-man's-land.

After a minute, Bamba started driving a little funny...sort of swerving a bit to keep us from getting stuck in the sand, because there was no longer an actual road. And then I saw the first overturned, rusting car. And that's when I started to remember something about land mines.

Yes, it's good to be in a private car sometimes, rather than being dropped off at the border by the bus and then being at the mercy of a grand taxi driver who can charge you whatever he pleases to take you across an area where land mines might blow up if you go astray. Bamba wrenched the steering wheel left. He seemed to have some kind of innate knowledge of the route.

"Left at the half-a-Toyota with one door. Right when you pass the upturned hood of the Peugeot."

I tried to ask. "Qu'"

"Shocks," said Bamba.

I almost laughed right at him. Really, shocks? Did I look that fragile that I couldn't know about the land mines? Though I suppose it isn't wise to frighten your passengers.

We made it through the mined border intact, and by now, I really did believe the hotel-man back in Dakhla. Bamba probably was the best driver. Or at least the top of the field.

When we finally reached the Mauritanian border post, Bamba had a strategy in mind. He pulled me into the border guard's office at a certain time, in an order only understood by him. I was through quickly.

The Senegalese guy wasn't so lucky. The rest of us sat, bored, for a half-an-hour while he was repeatedly questioned by the Mauritanian authorities. Eventually, we took to amusing ourselves. The women tried on my sunglasses. I modeled my headscarf for them. One of them showed me the jewelry she was carrying to Mauritania. I wasn't clear on the specifics, but she seemed to buy jewelry in one country and sold it in the other. I changed money, and I nearly got the SIM card seller in trouble with the currency exchange guy, when I let it be seen that we were cutting a currency deal. I ended up back with the currency guy, who wouldn't look at me as he tossed my new money down on the desk.

Finally, the Senegalese guy was through. He and his Mauritanian friend took their overnight bags and checked into the guesthouse at the border. The remaining five of us got back into the car, and Bamba started the engine.

And promptly drove BACK into the border post, where he picked up two women and a baby to replace the two men who had left.

"Hey, what happened to the other two guys," yelled a border guard.

"They're in that hotel. They're going back tomorrow!"


As we pulled away, I could see the border guard walking up to our two former passengers. I liked Bamba a lot by now, but I really wish he hadn't said that.

On we drove, past more people looking for lifts (yes, it's a damn good thing I didn't take the bus) and more police checkpoints. About ten minutes later, we pulled over and left our last remaining male passenger with a relative who was standing there waiting for him by the side of the road. Now we were six women, one baby, and Bamba.

Eventually, we pulled up into a heap of dusty and short, lopsided shacks called Nouadhibou, which is pronounced Naughty-Boo. We drove around back alleys, looking for the places to drop off our passengers. This wasn't something I'd see on the tourist trail, that's for sure.

The jewelry woman's relatives shook all of our hands, and the jewelry woman herself seemed genuinely sad to be leaving her traveling companions. Bamba was sad too, because as he dragged all her crap off the roof, he notice that the Renault's roof rack had broken in one spot. He'd been planning to go to Nouakchott the next day, but maybe not.

The only passengers left at the end were me and the 32-inch flat-screen television.

"Blah blah blah blah camping hotel?" Bamba asked me where I was staying.
"Abba," I answered. The guidebook recommended this overlander's lodge.

He drove me to the front door, and then said that I should call him if I wanted to go to Nouakchott tomorrow. I think he said he's at 4675 3233 and that I should ask for Bobacar Vans. But maybe not. Maybe he said "Screw off, you're a lousy co-driver." The entire day's narrative might exist only in my head given my lack of linguistic comprehension.

Except for one thing. The original guy who'd put me in touch with Bamba, the Hotel Sahara guy, had made a big deal out of claiming that Bamba wanted 350 dirhams, not 300. And he's "negotiated him down" for me.

I now tried to give Bamba that extra fifty dirhams. He'd certainly earned it.

But he looked offended.

"Absolutely not." He pushed it back at me and reminded me to call him if I needed him.

I said good-bye and walked into Camping Chez Abba.

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