Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Into Mauritania

Heading into the heart of the South Saharan territory really does feel as if you are going to the end of the earth. The landscape is dry, bleak, but beautiful. On one side is the deep turquoise of the ocean. On the other is a vast, empty landscape of brown. Scrub brush dots some areas and then gives way to rock and sand. Here and there are buttes and towering sand dunes. The sun is relentless and the wind a constant sculpting force. Occasionally, next to the ocean, a fisherman's hut stands in defiance against the harshness of the land. They are made of anything that the inhabitants can get their hands on; scrap wood, mud bricks, plastic, fabric, and are held together with fishing nets stretched over it all.

Every 100 kilometers or so is a military checkpoint. This is still disputed territory, but currently occupied by Morocco after a UN brokered cease fire in 1991. UN presence is still heavy here. At each stop I show my passport and answer the question " What is your job". "Estudiante" I answer, although I probably am getting a bit old to say that! After Tan Tan, it is 9 or so hours to the next stop, Layounne. Here I am again invited to stay with a family that I meet on the bus. The hospitality is amazing. Mom wants me to go to the Hammam and get my hands decorated with henna with her but I have already purchased my bus ticket for the next day. "on my way back through, Inshallah" I tell her. We feast on a traditional Moroccan Cous Cous dish which I have watched being prepared. The women give me gifts-a ring and the traditional Moroccan gown to sleep in.

The next day is another 9 hours to Dahkla, located on a peninsula surrounded by ocean. I have taken the government run bus this time, which is more comfortable but also a bit more boring. It takes me to the door of my hotel, where reservations have already been made for me. I have the room just next to the reception so that an eye can be kept on me; this hotel, like most in this town, is full of men. The bathrooms are shared and my long gown for sleeping comes in handy. I really must get a pee bottle! The hotel management helps me arrange transport for the border the next day.

To the border is more sand, more rock, more desolation. It is almost 400 kilometers and the journey to Noudabou in Mauritania ultimately takes nine hours. I share the taxi with a Mauritanian woman and a Moroccoan man. As we get closer to the border, I begin to see lone military standing straight and tall on the higher vantage points in the desert, surrounded by nothingness. At Moroccan customs there is one checkpoint after another.
"What ees your joba?"
At one checkpoint the officials hand me an orange.
It takes several hours to go through this five or six times. Finally we pass through a gate in the razor wire. Here the road stops. For the next two kilometers there is a maze of dirt tracks through the desert. The tracks are littered on either side with rusted out car shells, trash, and land mines. A group of 'guides' wait in their cars for hire to help you find your way to the Mauritanian checkpoint. Our driver has done this route many times and races past the guides before slowing down to crawl our way to the Mauritanian checkpoint. Here, we only have to stop one time and then we are headed to Noudabou and another part of the journey is complete.

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