It was not yet light when I climbed into the taxi with Mohamed, leaving the dimly lit Sahara Regency diminishing behind us. Mohamed didn’t speak French; apparently the area around Dahkla had been a Spanish enclave during the colonial period of French West Africa and he was conversant in Spanish but had virtually no French. My limited Hassiniya worked to some extent and we got our basic thoughts across. Fifteen minutes out of town was a check-point. In yet another situation where I seemed to be the only one laughing, we discovered that passport control had not actually stamped my passport coming into Dahkla. This discrepancy seemed abnormal to them. How had I gotten to Dahkla? No, really, how’d I get there? After explaining myself about 3 times they accepted the fact that there I was, no stamp, and probably someone had simply not done their job. All in all, they were very nice about it and soon we were on the road again.
Mohamed’s car had a blinking oil light which beeped audibly 3 times per second. Exactly. I counted it numerous times. I also did the math in my head. At the end of our journey, I would have heard it 48,600 times! He assured me there was plenty of oil; it was actually an electrical problem. Comforted, I settled in, counted, and did the math again. Yep, 48,600 times. Yes, I thought, this could very easily drive somebody insane.
About 9 am we stopped at a café where we had coffee, eggs fried in oil, and bread. Back in the car, we discovered that it wouldn’t start. It had been beeping right along but now… nothing. We did all the looking and poking that two non-mechanics can do and then enlisted other non-mechanics to see what they would poke or wiggle. Of course we tried pushing it and this got us well out of the café parking lot but not much further. “Problemo,” Mohamed said as he lit a cigarette. Southern Morocco is desolate; there aren’t a lot of options. The gas station attached to the café had no mechanics so we waited around, thinking, Mohamed chain-smoking, and uttering, “Problemo.” Occasionally I’d add a “Mushkila” which is Arabic for problemo. Mohamed would nod in agreement. “Mushkila.” Light another cigarette and exhale, “Problemo.”
Tim told me once that one of the effects of living in Africa for 20 years is that when his car breaks down in Minnesota, he finds himself scanning the side of the road for something useful. I knew what he meant. Africa is a land of improvisation. Something discarded always has another possible use. Shortly before leaving Mauritania, I started photographing chairs on the streets of Nouakchott, which are often made up of 2 to 4 of their broken, discarded predecessors.
Chairs on the streets of Nouakchott; used mostly by young men selling phone cards. Images © Donn Jones
Mohamed walked off a bit in search of something useful. I scanned the highway as well for something useful, such as a UN Land-Cruiser on its way to the border. Eventually Mohamed returned with a 20 ft strand of barbed wire, lit a cigarette and waited until a willing car passed by. A kind soul eventually stopped and Mohammed spoke with him, straightening the barbed wire. We attached it to both cars and began towing, pushing, hoping. It broke. But of course, a chain is only as weak as its weakest link. So we tied it together at the break and tried again, and again. And eventually we got rid of those weak spots and got enough speed to start the car! Black smoke billowed out the back. In a diesel engine, that’s unburned fuel. A trained mechanic might know what to do with that information. Soon thick clouds of white smoke followed. I couldn’t think of the significance of white smoke from diesel engines but vaguely remembered it’s not ideal. About a kilometer down the road we stopped at some empty buildings, one of which had mechanic scrawled over the door. Exiting the running car, M looked for life-forms. The car died instantly.
The place seemed as remote as the moon and I opted to stay near the capsule. It had that ghost town feel and I remembered a family vacation when I was a kid, our 69 VW bus breaking down on a long dirt-road outside of Bodie, CA. Problemo. Presently however, the same man that helped us the first time came back. He pulled in and we searched for something better than barbed wire. We found a strand of thick, blue rope. Got the car running again, quickly collected the rope, and rolled down the road. Mohammed lit a cigarette, shook his head and said, “Problemo.” It was a good two hours since breakfast and I was beginning to appreciate having left at 6…
…to be continued