We rolled into the border about 90 minutes later. There is a small strip of shops and two cafes claiming to be hotels at that crossing. Mohamed was eager to head back so I paid him, said good-bye and surveyed the shops for what was available. I’d already been informed of the latest news from Nouakchott: that the drivers had not gotten their truck unloaded by 7:30 a.m. as agreed and so were running late. It was about 1 p.m., and I figured I had at least 3 hours before Tim would be there, so I settled on a café and asked about a room in the back. I only wanted to nap for 3 hours but it took some negotiating to get from the day rate to the napping rate.
The room was typical of a road-side inn in West Africa. It was marginally cleaner than some I’ve been in but the bedding definitely didn’t smell of soap. The door didn’t lock so I moved a heavy coat rack from the corner in front of the door, and closed it as best I could. I lay on top of the blanket and put my arm through the strap of my bag next to me. The three hours passed like the time waiting around Mohammed’s car; or like the day wandering Dakhla; or like the night before cut short by the need to sleep replacing actual sleep.
After 3 hours I went out front and ordered a goat tagine. Although it was one of the more gamy tagines I’ve had, I ate most of it and checked in with Elizabeth. I had not been able to get through on any of Tim’s numbers and consequently had been conducting all communication through my wife who relayed messages both ways. She had just been informed that the truck drivers said it was too late to leave Tim’s. “They haven’t left?” “No, they’ll be there tomorrow.” I quickly went and renegotiated for the full night’s rate.
I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting in a plastic chair like the ones in the previous post, except that these were on their first life, drinking water and coffee. The border population was 98% male and I was the only obvious foreigner. Do you ever get the feeling you are being watched? I don’t think it would be paranoid to say that my prolonged presence was widely noticed. Eventually, the waiter sat down at my table and started talking to me. I used as much Hassiniya as I could as the effort to speak the local language is usually appreciated and it also conveys right off that you’re not entirely new to the area. Nevertheless, these conversations invariably progress beyond my abilities and I’m left plugging along with Franglaniya (a mélange of French, English and Hassynia spoken by a select few).
Soon three others joined us, so that we had 3 Mohameds (which beats two-pair) and a Serien. The conversation was light and friendly except for the occasional helpful comment about what was wrong with America. This was becoming another theme of my trip. If you want to know what’s wrong with America, take a road trip in a non-western country. One difference we’ve noticed living overseas is that when it comes to politics, we as Americans tend to be very aware of our domestic policy–which is logical as it touches our lives so directly—but others judge us almost entirely by our foreign policies, which we often put little effort into understanding from the perspective of those on the receiving end.
Mohamed in Dahkla, upon learning my nationality, had told me he loved America, had no problem with America EXCEPT he had been in the process of preparing to study in Britain when Sept 11th occurred. His “life-long dream” of studying abroad was apparently a casualty of the flurry of new restrictions on Arab/Muslims traveling to the West. Whatever the actual details of his situation were I don’t know, but his disappointment was still clearly visible in 2009.
As the border was closing, some left while others joined our table. I had a long conversation with a policeman named, oddly enough, Mohamed about the role of language in understanding a culture. (i.e. what do a culture’s word-pictures, idioms, and proverbs tell you about how they think?) Eventually his “chief” came and we had a pleasant 3 hour conversation about sight-seeing in Morocco, recreation, man’s universal need for hearth and home and America’s annoying habit of meddling in other countries’ affairs. We split a gamy goat-tagine and had tea. Also named Mohamed (who says Arab names are hard to remember?), he told me he would look for Tim tomorrow and help get my things across the border.
Nouakchott is 5 hours from the border and Tim & co. had left in the middle of the night so as to be early. The border opened at 8 and I waited as the 10 or so vans and trucks that had lined up in the early morning made their way across to Mauritania. I sat in my plastic chair with a clear view of the border. Nothing seemed to be coming the other way. Around 11, I eventually got a hold of Tim who told me the Mauritanian side had just opened. Tim appeared around noon. I entered the Moroccan side and met him in the middle. There were crowds of people at various windows and it took some figuring out as to what formalities we actually needed to engage in. Tim wasn’t actually going to Morocco, I wasn’t actually going to Mauritania, and the truck wasn’t ours, so certain windows could be avoided. Tim and I hadn’t seen each other in 2 years and the souk-like atmosphere was not conducive to catching up, particularly given the magnitude of recent events such as Chris’ death 2 days earlier. The truck drivers were working on their own paperwork and Tim and I chatted as we bounced from one station to the next, realizing more often than not that we didn’t actually need to stand in that line. It was a surreal experience having two vastly different events occurring simultaneously.
Eventually one of the drivers came up, slapping an imaginary watch on his wrist in an attempt to communicate his desire for us to hurry. “Oh, these guys are Berbers. They don’t speak any French,” Tim informed me. At the market where he had hired the fruit truck and its drivers, Tim had specifically requested a driver that spoke French and was assured one of them would be a French-speaker. They also spoke no Arabic, so my Hassiniya wasn’t going to help either.
Finally we were directed to the customs office where I had to produce a list of my personal affects. I was afraid of that. The stuff had been in storage for 2 years and I remembered the big items but not the specific contents of each box. I quickly jotted down a list of what I could remember and it seemed to work. The customs agent seemed to be juggling at least 3 activities at any one time and so our interaction was interjected with long pauses. As he looked over each piece of paperwork and got to my passport, he said, “American?”
“You know, every great empire eventually comes to an end.”
“Rome, Greece, Britain.”
“That’s true,” I said, “All earthly kingdoms will eventually come to an end.”
After this bit of historical perspective, he gave the list to a field agent and sent him out to the truck with me. The agent directed the driver to bring a box from the far end of the truck. The box said “Books” on the side. “Des livres?” He asked me, pointing to “Livres” on my list. “Oui.” He motioned the driver to put it back as he surveyed the other boxes. “Do you have guns?” he asked me. I always want to joke at times like this. It’s a strange form of vertigo I have where I’m tempted to plummet myself into a chaotic, legal situation simply for the value of making a joke. I pulled back from the edge. “No,” I said as we walked back to the office.
The final stamps landed on my paper with a thud. At moments like these, I always feel like Lucy in A Charlie Brown Christmas dancing to the sound of shiny nickels. “Oh how I love to hear those old nickels PLUNK!”I feel that way about stamps on official documents.
Out at the truck, Tim formally introduced me to the drivers. “This is Saied. “What?” I thought, “Not Mohamed?” Turning to the other driver, he said, “This is also Saied.”
Well as long as I’ve got two of a kind, I thought…
…to be continued