edited to add: This posted then disappeared. I don’t know what happened. Hopefully this time it will stay.
The next morning was windy; in the desert, that means sandy, too. We ate our gritty cereal and long-life milk and decided to pack up and move on.
Again, we rode through the desert with our windows down. We crossed a wide wadi. Donn was driving and I was rocking out to U2 on my MP3 player, facing the wind, seeing my reflection in the side-mirror and thinking to myself how tan I was getting on this trip. When we stopped and I turned to face Donn, he choked with laughter. Apparently, I looked like an incredibly realistic life-sized sand sculpture of myself. Oh well—I guess this is better than skin cancer. But I looked GOOD orange, let me tell you. A lot of woman can’t pull off that look.
We made it back to N’Beka, where we rented a room to eat lunch in, out of the blowing sand. I wanted to post a picture of Debbie eating an apple in this room, but I value our friendship more than making you laugh. You will just have to imagine it.
We then spent a really boring afternoon driving over rock and more rock. It was hot and ugly; even though the sun was muted by atmospheric dust, it glared though the patina of sand. Every so often, we would see small villages, permanent settlements. I don’t get what would make people stop the camel and say, “Ok, kids, this is it! We’re here! I’ll start building a house, and you just sit there and stare at the rocks.” Because there is nothing but rocks as far as the eye can see—no sand, no greenery, no water, just black rock stretching to the horizon on every side. Why? They just had to keep going for 20 more miles or so to at least find some fine dry sand, which is a lot more comfortable. There were many settlements like this—tiny villages along the paved road, sometimes with a few trees, more often not. Cows and goats and even camels wandered through, much to our amazement. There must be water tables underneath the rock, but I don’t envy whoever had the job of drilling to find them.
We were on pavement from N’Beka to Tijikja, but after getting some gas and buying drastically over-priced cold water from the gas station attendant (for lack of a better term to call him), it was time to head out into the wilds again. Tim picked a set of tracks and set off at a terrific pace, the rest of us strung out behind him. At one point, he decided that he had missed the fork in the road he should have taken, and we all began to turn around. Another car came up just then, featuring female tourists wearing turbans like men do! (We found it amusing and I’m sure the locals did too, but they no doubt were just trying to protect themselves a bit from glare and dust) This is a touristy part of the desert! Their driver said that no, this way would take us to Rachid, so we bumped off again. Tim wasn’t sure though, and later decided that he should have turned around. The end of it was that sunset found us again setting up camp some miles away from our intended destination—this time on a desolate, windblown plateau. The cover was sparse, the wind was strong, and everybody was a bit depressed as we huddled in the tent to escape the grit. Already by this point, anytime you scratched your head, your fingernails would be full of sand. Ilsa’s scalp between her braids was orange.
We all made the best of it, but no one was sad to pull up stakes in the morning and head out again. Soon we were back on the rocks again. We drove along for another hour before we came to the edge of a steep plateau. The town of Rachid (Rasheed) began with a tiny power station at the top, followed by a new college (jr high school) just below, then houses strung along narrow alleyways and twisty lanes all the way down the hill. Rachid is a tourist destination and has recently acquired both running water and electricity. You can tell they get tourists because there are what I will call souvenir shops, and what you would call women sitting outside their homes selling two baskets and a decorated, leather-covered old sardine tin.
The variegated shades of shale and the architectural shapes make the town aesthetically pleasing. The high school, located at the top of the hill to keep those lyceeans in shape as they make that trek 4 times a day, is just out for lunch, so we are surrounded by swarms of teenagers as we wander the wide rocky lanes. Four young women stop to talk to me. Two are married; two are not. They are learning English in school, so together we move in and out of English, French and Hassiniya. They ask me which of the kids are mine. When I tell them I have twins, and point out Ilsa and Abel, they congratulate me, and ask my blessing on their marriages. They are high-energy, even hyper; they laugh easily and make up a song-and-dance about my name. Afterwards, they walk the town with me, chatting with me and each other.
On this trip, we are traveling with 3 little girls, all with long blonde braids, and they get a lot of attention. Ilsa, surrounded by a crowd of children all reaching out to touch and pull her hair, turns to Tim. “This is so humiliating!” she moans. But the boys, left in relative peace for a change, are happy. Soon, we return to the cars and head out of the town, into the wadi.
Even in the west we understand layers of longing and satisfaction behind the word oasis; the promise of rest, of life-giving water and food, of beauty, of life. Unlike travelers who’ve spent weeks in the desert, I had spent just two days looking only at unmitigated blacks and browns and yellows, staring out the window at desolate moon landscapes or into blowing grit, yet my first view of lush greenery amazed me.
The oasis just beyond Rachid is the most beautiful one I’ve ever seen. It has everything—a FOREST (according to Ilsa), an enormous sand dune to climb, tall thorn bushes spreading their welcome shade, date palms, and even two wells and a camel skeleton. We stop the car and stumble thankfully into the shade of the towering palm trees, gratefully spread out a mat in some shade and eat our late lunch. Then, we relax. The kids scatter to explore, the women get out their books, the men chat with a date-farmer who has come to welcome us. He is a kindly, grandfatherly man, who shows us where the well is. “Can we help ourselves to the water?” Tim asks. “God made water—it is for everyone,” he replies, and draws buckets full to douse the boys’ sweaty faces.
© Donn Jones, 2007
The evening light draws long shadows down the sides of the nearby dunes. After a rousing game of Throw the Grown-Up Down the Sand Dune played by Donn and the 7 dwarves, er, children, we decide to shower at the well. The sun has just set, and the half-moon shines brightly through the spiky palm fronds. The spring water is cool, and it feels great to get some of that sand off our bodies.
Kids running down giant dune. These are brutal to climb, but a blast to come down.
It is with great regret that we pack up next morning and begin the long drive back to the city. It is supposed to take us 12 hours but of course it is more like 16, including an hour after lunch digging someone (Tim) out of soft sand. Abel whines that the sun hurts his eyes and he’s bored, so I cheer him up by pointing out to him that when he’s an adult, he will cherish these memories. You can always count on me to come up with an original way to really turn a situation around! You should hear me when they don’t want to eat their lima beans!
We stop in N’Beka to get bread for lunch but they tell us it’s gone—you can’t get it past noon anywhere in the town. We try again an hour later in Moudjeria and find a bakery with dense, chewy bread, still warm. We pull out of town to the shade of a thorn tree and stop for lunch. These are definitely “sand-wiches”; the wind whips sand into our mouths, our water cups, our eyes and ears. Potato chips must be taken carefully from the packet or they, too, will be whipped away. From the branches of another nearby thorn tree, a large black crow watches mournfully.
In the dim light of early evening we drive through the town of Aleg, its streets lined with opened sheep/goat rib cages on little iron racks. Donn wants to stop for supper in one of those open-air restaurants, lie on the thin matlas in the whirling sand and eat grilled meat, but (fortunately, at least from my and the kids’ points of view) the restaurant owner is blinded by the light flashing off our four-wheel-drives and refuses to negotiate a price that is anywhere near fair. Instead, we buy bread and cold drinks and drive on. Now we are on the Road of Hope, Mauritania’s main east-west highway, so named because during the terrible droughts of the 70s and 80s, this road brought the desert inhabitants in droves to Nouakchott, the capital city on the Atlantic coast, in search of food, water, work, life. Most towns along the Road of Hope have electricity now, so it’s not difficult to find cold drinks.
By now it’s dark. Driving Mauritania’s highways in the dark offers a great opportunity for contemplating your own mortality and it’s also a terrific cardio-vascular work-out to boot! It’s fun for the whole family. First of all, there are the huge trucks with no lights or reflectors that park along the highway for the night, with only just a little bit of the truck on the narrow two-lane highway. (Note: thanks to a public service campaign, this situation has gotten MUCH better. The trucks used to park ON the highway, their drivers napping on the dunes just behind. Nearly every Mauritanian I know has lost a relative in an accident involving one of these trucks) Then, there are camels, who also don’t have reflectors and who like to amble alongside the highway and occasionally make random swerves. This will remind some of you of deer and you will want to write me about them, which is fine, but at least deer are flying across on their way OFF the road. Camels don’t mind the road. They like it, sort of.
Sand dunes encroach onto the pavement, and if you think of sand as soft and giving, you have never hit a dune at 80 kilometers an hour. It’s hard as rock and has much the same effect on your car. And then, last but not least, are the other drivers. They have their own little system of using headlights that I have never quite figured out. They drive with their brights on, which is fine. Often they lower them when they see your headlights approaching, but then, just before your cars meet, they flash the brights again! Leaves a great imprint on your retina! Not to mention that temporary blindness, which makes camels and trucks and dunes so much more invisible.
We make it back to Nouakchott about 12:30 a.m. The city is wide awake and brightly-lit, and everybody is out doing things. We stop for hamburgers, go home to eat them and shower, thankful to be home.