This blog will be random thoughts on living and raising a family overseas. We live on the Atlantic edge of the Sahara Desert, amongst a people whose culture has changed more in the last 20 years than in the previous 1000. A lot of times, it’s like being on another planet. We deal with the same issues as any family anywhere; just sometimes they look a bit different. We teach English and photograph, and spend a lot of time standing in line to pay bills. Our kids go to French school and are ashamed of our thick American accents when we speak to their teachers.
In order to give you a better picture, my first post will be a (far-too-long) description of a recent trip we took to the interior…
Our trip to (fa-la-la!) Boumdaid…and beyond!
The kids are all in French school, which means they get a week off at the end of February for the excitingly-named Vacation of February. (vacances de fevrier…doesn’t that sound better?) We decided to take a trip into the interior with our friends T and D and their son E.
We left Nouakchott at 2 p.m. on Feb 28, a mere 5 hours off schedule. I won’t go into all the boring reasons why; the only one you care about is that a power outage the night before had made packing, filling up huge containers with filtered water, etc. difficult. We drove about an hour out of town and stopped for lunch off to the side of a big dune, where there was an overgrown thorn bush/tree for shade. 3 hours after that, the sun was sinking to the horizon, and it was already time to stop for the night. The nice thing about Mauritania is that this just means turning off the road at a likely-looking spot, driving until you feel you have some privacy, and stopping. We set up our tent, and the kids scattered to look for firewood. We were in an area with bushes and trees and dust, which meant that our stay would be enlivened by herds of goats, camels and cows, wandering through to strip the grey-green leaves off the thorn bushes. Also, that meant we needed to keep an eye out for their herders, who have a disconcerting way of appearing just as you’re sure you’ve gone behind a big-enough bush for privacy!
That night we had a big bonfire under the stars. I slept at the very edge of the tent so I could stare up at the night sky. It was a clear night, and the stars hung close enough to touch. We could pick out different constellations even though we are Astonomically Ignorant like most other Americans. For the first time, I could see enough stars to make out shapes. Maybe those ancient Greeks weren’t on mind-enhancing drugs after all! I could see the Scorpion’s tail, and Orion’s bow, and the wavy Hydra.
Next morning, we were eating our cereal and long-life milk when a camel-herder appeared. First he asked if we needed anything. He and his family and herds were camped not far off. We said no thanks, so he asked if we had anything we didn’t need!
All that day we drove through the glare and dust along Mauritania’s East-West Highway. It’s called the Road of Hope, and was built during the terrible droughts of the 70s and 80s. For many nomads, their only hope was to follow this road to reach the coastal capital city of Nouakchott. We stopped occasionally for cold drinks in the small towns which have sprung up along the road, in the manner of small towns and highways anywhere in the world. We would instantly be swarmed by the local children. They are somewhat accustomed to seeing Westerners drive through in their big 4WDs, so they’d approach to demand a gift or a pen or whatever they could see through my window, but would stop, entranced by the vision of blond children in the back seat. “Tfayla! Tfayla!” (Little girl! Little girl!) they’d yell to their friends, who would scamper up. The twins quickly got tired of kids reaching through to touch their hair, or of requests for their toys, or just of being stared at. Sometimes I got tired of feeling like an animal in a zoo and demanded, “Have you never seen people before?” but I tried to just ignore them.
We reached Kiffa about 5 p.m. Kiffa is a regional capital; a small city with electricity, pharmacies, an airport, and other amenities. We stopped for cold drinks and a visit with a mechanic, who checked a leak we’ve had “fixed” at least 10 times over the past year. Then we began our Quest for the Road to Boumdaid! Since there are no road signs, you follow the time-honored way of the desert and ask passers-by. The problem was that everyone had a different opinion. We drove up and down the same stretch of road, being told that we’d just passed it, or that it was just up there round that corner. Finally we were off, on a road surprisingly graded and smooth (but not paved), through a strange sort of countryside. It was almost a savannah. The ground was covered with a pale green sort of straw, and dotted here and there were spindly trees that would afford absolutely no privacy to anyone more than 4 inches wide! I wondered about camping, but near sunset we came to some dunes. We bumped up to a wide flat spot and stopped for the night. In the near distance, a purple-black plateau rose into the sky. We climbed the nearest dune to watch the mango sun set in shades of red and the sliver of new moon sinking towards the west. The kids played on the dunes, running and jumping, in the process filling pockets, hair, and ears with reddish-gold silt. Again that night, the stars were like an added presence, their distant fire instilling a solemn sense of joy.
We were only 50 kilometres from Boumdaid, the town we’d planned to reach on Tuesday night. We didn’t hurry in the morning, sure we’d be there in an hour. Wrong! This was four-wheeling, bumping over dunes, sahel grassland, more dunes, through strange trees, round the sides of rock plateaus. It took hours. We came to a tiny village built on the side of a massive dune. As we approached the village, hoards of children ran towards us. The first reached us. “Go back!” he shouted, sweeping us away with his arms. “This is not the right road! Turn around!”
Amused, we stared at him. “This is the way to Boumdaid?” I said.
“Yes, but Kiffa is that way!” He pointed back the way we’d come. “You want to go to Kiffa.”
Most villages in interior Mauritania don’t have electricity, but many have one or two little shops with ancient fridges powered by butune gas bottles. Our AC doesn’t work, so we drive through the sand with our windows down, and by this point, our tongues were practically hanging out with thirst. We had plenty of warm water, but were fantasizing about cold drinks. T asked a boy of about 11 or 12, “Is there a fridge in this village?” “What’s a fridge?” was the respose. Guess not! We drove on.
Boumdaid was a tidy town with a yellow school, shiny new solar panels and several anti-desertification measures in place. No cold drinks though. We determined our road and left.
It was nearly 3 before we finally reached the village of Lig Dame, 15 km beyond Boumdaid. On the way, we’d met some of the inhabitants, who offered to show us the way to their village. They were excited to meet Americans. “Did you hear about Lig Dame in Nouakchott or in America?” they asked, and were disappointed when we said Nouakchott.
From Lig Dame to the Canyon was only about a kilometer. An elderly man named Mohammed clambered into our car to show us the way. We drove through the afternoon heat and light to a place on the edge of a wide, dry riverbed, full of scattered milkweed plants. The milkweed plant is the main plant of the desert, and they can get really tall and produce a purple flower. Mohamed has staked off a section of this flat sandy area, where he has a well and has planted date palms.
He volunteered to guide us into the Canyon of the Barking Baboons (note: its real name in Hassiniya means Green Water. BORING! We’ve renamed it, in the time-honored tradition of travelers and explorers through the centuries.). We set off, straight up the side of a dune, in the full strength of an oppressive afternoon sun. Mohamed set a terrific pace, climbing easily and without apparent effort. We strung out behind him. Several kilometers higher, we gasped in relief to enter the shade. Mohamed couldn’t find the “path” so we clamoured over enormous boulders.
Soon the canyon’s inhabitants came to see what was going on. Their furry little faces peered over the edges of the rocks, looking down at us. Apparently, an argument broke out between them, and they began fighting and barking ferociously. The sound bounced and echoed and magnified in the rocks, making the children a little nervous. The babboons surrounded us in a loose circle, and followed us as we continued our rock-climbing. We finally came to some still green water. The big question in these deep desert oases is—are there crocodiles? Mohamed said no. We’d hoped to get a swim in, but the sun was already sinking behind the canyon walls, it was a long way back out and we had no light with us. The baboons were getting braver and angrier too, scampering all over the rocks with ease while scolding us and each other furiously.
On the way back, Mohamed found the actual path, which made our going much easier and quicker. He took us down a little gully and showed us rock paintings—drawings of men on horseback hunting what were obviously giraffes. They were incredible. We tried to figure out how old they might be—minimum 1000 years, most likely several thousand. Perhaps only 10 other Americans have ever seen them. Doesn’t this make you want to come visit us?
It was dusk but we could still make out the path as we emerged gratefully from the canyon. Mohamed offered to take us into another canyon, where, he promised, there weren’t monkeys but there were crocodiles! That night we didn’t even bother with the tent, but slept under the stars. The villagers generously offered us a large hunk of raw meat, and you could see their puzzlement at our contentment with tinned ravioli, with its minimal prep time.
In the morning, Mohamed came to say goodbye as we prepared for our 2-day trip back to the city. He milked one of his camels for us, thereby showing us the true hospitality of the desert by giving us one of their greatest delicacies. Camel’s milk is thinner and saltier than cow’s milk. You can buy it in little cartons in the city, but the real way to drink it is still warm, from a big wooden bowl, with little hairs still floating in it. Even urban Mauritanians dream of this.