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Africa 07/08

Stockholm - Timbuktu


English Posted on 2008-01-02 14:39

Nouakchott is the capital of Mauritania and a place that is really hard to describe. It is spread out over a large area with between one and two million inhabitants. There are a few modern buildings in what is called le capital but the rest of the city is mainly one and two story buildings. Chaotic is not a good enough description of the traffic, it is like a giant folk race with cars where nothing is working except for the driveline and perhaps a light bulb or two. They don’t just have dents, some cars are more like loosely jointed pieces of sheet metal. Then there are countless donkeys with carts behind them, goats, dogs garbage and of course people everywhere. There are few paved roads, and since we are in the desert here, the roads are running in deep sand and cars get stuck all the time. Anarchy is the rule, you just push ahead on either side of the road or anywhere a car can slip through, honk your horn and use your lights (if you have any) to show you’re coming. Actually, what looks like total anarchy actually is a rather sophisticated system of communication that has evolved naturally and many of the drivers are eminently capable of driving here without accidents. Still, there are a large number of vehicle impacts. Damage is mostly small though because it is nar impossible to drive faster than 20 kms/hr in the sand and the endless traffic jams.

One of the capable drivers is our friend Abou Moustapha Si who met us at a gas station shortly after our arrival. Abu is a great guy around 25 yrs of age, a bachelor of Senegalese descent.

(The complicated relationship between the Moors and the Africans, the so called “White Moors” who may be pitch black but still think of themselves as white, the various ethnical groups and languages, whether there is still a slave trade and other interesting topics and for reading more about the amazing country that is Mauritania I recommend going to Wikipedia or making a search. For Swedish readers, there is an interesting (but probably not wholly truthful) article by Marianne Ahrne here: )

It was obviously a meeting that Abou had been looking forward to since he first met Jon and Joakim four years ago. Abou is one of the hubs on this trip. He will probably join us on the trip to Mali and be invaluable as a driver, a guide, an interpreter and a friend. He is also a man of many trades, and he would help us sell the Peugeot the next day.

Abou lives in the fifth arrondissement where the population is mixed but mostly African. He has a large apartment where we were to spend the next three days. Abou started cooking right away, one of his many trades. Large chunks of salt water fish, a few vegetables, hibiscus seeds, chili, various spices and a long boil and viola. A lovely Senegalese dish, that we shared eating with our right hands from a big bowl, sitting on the floor.

The Peugeot was sold to a policeman named Yaya. His idea was taking my passport and getting a stamp in it that the car I had arrived in had somehow crossed the Senegal border. I reluctantly let him have my passport and was a little bit worried. And more than two days passed before I was to see it again. Being a foreigner in Mauritania without a passport is not a good idea! And getting a new passport would take a while – longer than I would like to stay here.

We spent the days here driving around, doing a little shopping, taking in the scene and talking to the people around the place where we were staying. The men and the incredibly beautiful west African women. An 18 yr old girl named Bongko helped us with cooking and errands. She and her sisters and other women often came by, and for some reason they were changing their clothes every time. We were more than flattered by their attention. :o)

For New Years Eve Abou slaughtered the little goat that someone had given as a gift to Joakim the day before. The legs were put in a put In a stove with the grease and the liver and three hours after the animal had died we were enjoying it as a meal of very fresh, young, tasty and tender meat.

For the evening, we went to the fishing harbor which is actually only a long stretch of beach with an endless row of wooden boats in the sand. We bought fresh tuna and langouste. They had a huge langouste, over 3 1/2kilos that we thought about taking but it was frozen and cooking it could be a problem (I later regretted this). We took two smaller ones instead.

The tuna and langouste were prepared in much the same fashion as the goat – au nature. Natural, without any recipes or anything else. Only a slice of lemon and some salt. The tuna was grilled over charcoal so it was barely cooked and then we let it rest under a lid for a while. The taste was wonderful. Then the langoustes were halved and then grilled over intense heat. Now the taste was sensational. About the best seafood I ever had. I wonder if langouste is even better than lobster? They look the same, except for the fact that the langouste gets along without claws.

We got the Peugeot sold, learning a few lessons like that in Africa “right away” means tomorrow and ”in an hour” means some other day. Insha’Allah! With Abou now we are four drivers for two cars which make more sense. Today is the first of January 2008. It is Tuesday. Tomorrow morning we are ready to go the Malian embassy and get our visas and then get out of this crazy place. ;o)

Actually, the spirit of this place is amazing, the people are colorful, patient and generous.

There’s a lot to like. Perhaps I will be back someday. Hopefully they will then have running tap water and better plumbing.

Northern Mauretania

English Posted on 2008-01-02 14:34

It was getting dark and we were quite exhausted from a very long day. We decided to stay in the first oasis on the left side. There we stayed with the Moors of the area at a simple auberge, where they prepared spaghetti for us served in a huge bowl with a small piece of chicken on top. The spaghetti proved difficult to eat with just the fingers. I guess we should have asked for their regular cous cous instead. The spaghetti was what they figured we would like.

After dinner we were invaded by young people from the village who were very eager to test our cell phones, MP3-players and digital cameras. Not that they didn’t have their own cell phones, just that they shared the interest that especially young people all over the world have for these novelties.

We also swapped clothes, donning their boubous (kaftans) and chech (turbans). One of the young moors was a Burt Reynolds lookalike – photos later….

We left before daylight and drove south to Nouakchott (450 kms), where we arrived before noon.

We were driving all the way through a sandstorm that made the desert look like a painting in the haze. Wooden sheds and small huts with the handwriting “auberge” or “restaurant” on the wall. Wornout tents. A few trucks on the road, the occasional French tourist in a camping car. And the annoying police controls, always looking for booze. One of them searched my suitcase when he fell over and lost his hat because there was a toy that looks a lot like a real snake in there. We laughed and drove into town.

The tragedy in Mauretania

English Posted on 2008-01-02 14:32

Just a few short words about an incident that happened last week in Mauritania. A French family of five was attacked when they were picnicking on the roadside near Aleg in the south. They were robbed and then shot with automatic weapons, including the children. Only the father survived, and he is in hospital with multiple gun wounds.

This was reported all over the world and caused an outcry among the French. Is it safe to go to Mauritania? What had happened? Al Qaida took responsibility for the attack. There were reports of bombings along the Algerian border.

We talked to the French we met and also Moroccans who were discussing what had happened. The conclusion was that this was an act by regular criminal thugs and not an act of terrorists.

On the border station, I asked and one officer became agitated and said it was a shame what had happened for Mauritania. All the people had gone to the mosques and said “NON!”, the president had spoken on television and said “NON!”. This was wrong.

I think that after what happened, the roads in Mauritania are probably safer now than they have been before. The control is tightened and everybody driving around is en vigilant.

Addendum: on the Mali embassy in Nouakchott, the secretary took out the visas he had given to the French family. Turned out they were a father with two full grown sons and an Arab friend, no woman. Not the picture media had given, a nice little family with small children camping on the roadside and brutally assaulted by savages. Hmm.

Entering Mauretania

English Posted on 2008-01-02 14:28

A boy in white clothes came walking through the desert and said “Bienvenue a la Mauritanie!”.

He proceeded to exchange all our dirhams for Mauritanian ouguiya and helping us with the formalities. We needed to get visas for ourselves and insurance for the cars. This was done by filling out the forms, waiting in line, paying the fees and adding a number of small bribes.

I always felt that corruption is a bad thing for all people involved. It makes your hands dirty. I don’t like it but I accept like I have to accept many things in Africa because it is this way and I can’t change it. Hopefully it will go away, someday. The racism, the corruption, the poverty.

There were no fewer than three controls at the border station where their main concern seemed to be if we had any alcohol in the car. Totally forbidden in Mauritania. In reality, they were only looking for more bribes,. I am happy to report that we never paid any bribes for this reason. Nor did they find my 18 yr old Knockando single malt, or the two beer cans and casket of wine we also carried.

We gave the boy who had helped us a real leather football as a gift. I then calculated he had made over 25000 ouguiya or €90 in the currency exchange. Not bad for a young enterprising Mauritanian boy.

Southern Morocco

English Posted on 2008-01-02 14:27

We still had some 900 kms to the border. Southern Morocco was all desert. We passed warning signs for camels, and there was a large herd of dromedars. The owner in a Landrover stopped and chatted. Dromedars are a sign of wealth, and they are used as payment at weddings. They are rarely used for transport anymore, but the milk is used to make a nourishing drink, zrig. Slightly sour milk is mixed with sugar and water. This is actually pretty good, especially if served chilled. Almost like buttermilk. We were treated to it in Mauretania, where it is often had for breakfast.

We met a shoeless Tuareg who we gave two pairs from our supply. Size 41.

In the town of Boujdour, we had coffee. There was military everywhere, incidentally they’re all driving nice looking Toyota Landcruisers model HZJ75. Toyota is a big seller in Africa, as is Peugeot and Mercedes. I asked about the military presence, and the coffee shop owner told me there is a conflict. “But you don’t see it?” “No, you don’t see it, but it is there, all the time.” After the Spaniards left, this huge country was divided between Mauritania and Morocco. Mauretania was too weak to control the country, so Morocco took over all of it. Today we rarely hear of West Sahara, but it is still occupied territory.

In Boujdour, there were plenty of people looking for business, almost like a border town. We sold them some cell phones and a computer and then started driving again.

The exhaust system fell of the Peugeot. Off course this happened in the middle of nowhere and late at night. We made a quick repair and stopped at a hotel long past midnight. The hotel was full and we had to sleep outside. I found the back seat of the Landcruiser quite comfortable for five hours of sleep.

The next day we had a discussion of how to proceed. We could probably weld the exhaust and be on the road in a couple hours. On the other hand, there was a person interested in buying it as is, and offering a near decent price. After we realized he wanted us to drive the car to Nouakchott for him and pay us there, we decided to have it repaired and sell it later.

The welder turned out to be another professional and he did a first rate job. It took him three or four hours, not bad by African standards. The cost was around €20. Then the fun started.

A Tuareg backed his Landrover straight into the right front door of one of our Landcruisers. This of course made us upset, and we suggested he pay us €3000. He mumbled “tres petit ca, pas grave”. He started taking the door apart to straighten it, when his English-speaking cousin appeared, and I suggested this Tuareg only had a license for driving a camel. All present found this rather amusing, except for the Tuareg who looked a little nervous by now. We then inquired about the cost for a full repaint, around €300. We then suggested that the Tuareg, who by now with some assistance had gotten the door almost back in shape, pay us €30. He started sweating a little and I suggested he give me his turban as compensation. He actually started to take it off, and looked at me a little sheepishly and then we both started laughing. He kept his turban and we were on our way to the border.

On our way to the border we traversed a desert that was so flat that I could not see anything sticking up in any direction, just a totally flat landscape. Amazing. The light was at it had been the last few days, blinding with a slight haze that didn’t come from the sea but from the Sahara. Close to the border I saw some majestic sand dunes that could have been five or fifty miles away, impossible to tell. They looked so mighty they were almost scary. Giving a hint of what was behind them – the endless sand desert of Sahara.

There was the occasional police control that we had become used to. We had prepared papers with all the personal data they required that we could hand out, saving us a lot of time that would otherwise have been spent filling out their forms. The police men were always acting correctly and also friendly, but would sometimes ask for a “cadeau”, a gift, o bribe if you like. We would just say no and they always accepted that. A few times we were stopped in Morocco for minor traffic violations where they ask for a fine, perhaps picking up a piece of paper and starting to write something. I learnt that if you ask for forgiveness and act with respect they will let you go. Knowing the French language really helps.

The border station itself was a slow affair that kept us for most of the rest of the day. A few hours before sunset our passports were finally stamped and we were let through the gates to Mauretania. There the pavement stopped and we were suddenly in a wild and roadless desert.


English Posted on 2008-01-02 14:26

In Laayoune, we first went to the bank to try and exchange money, but without success. Luckily the ATM (Automatic Teller Machine) worked. We then stopped at a mechanics shop to check the gearbox fluid and other things. Everything checked out ok, however. One Landcruiser leaks a little engine oil, probably at the rear main seal. That’s all. Looks like we’re going to make it.

With the car at the mechanic, I went searching for Internet on a side street. Didn’t find any, but an Arab that I had met at the bank invited all of us for tea. He was brownskinned with a short white well groomed beard. He lived in a very basic old building in an apartment on the second floor. He spoke fluent Spanish and here’s our conversation (condensed & translated):

“My name is Sidate Musbah. I am sixty-two years old and have lived in Laayoune all my life. Actually, I have barely ever left the city. This is my home. The reason I know Spanish although it is over thirty years since the Spaniards left is that I grew up speaking Spanish and Arab. Most older people here speak Spanish. Now we have an influx of French-speaking Moroccans that we don’t like. This is our country and we want to govern it ourselves. We didn’t like the Spaniards and we don’t like the Moroccans. This is West Sahara, it is our country.

If I belong to Polisario? No, I never fought with arms in hand. But here is my son, he is a guerillero. He even went to Cuba to study under Fidel for nine years. (His son enters the room, kneels before his father with his head to the floor, then kisses his father on the forehead.) How many children I have? Fourteen. I have been married thirteen times. A man can have four wives at the same time under our law, the Koran. Three white and one black. The black one can come from any place, Senegal, Chad, it doesn’t matter. Now I am looking for a younger wife, this one is getting too old! (He points to his wife making tea in the corner, and they both look lovingly on each other).

My profession? I am a jefe. I am the head of my extended family. Not a big jefe, mind you, just a small one. What I do as a jefe? Not much. I know a lot of people. That’s all. I don’t need to do much.

I used to smoke four packs of cigarettes a day all my life. Three in the day and one at night. Last year, I almost died from my lungs and had to give it up. I lost all my teeth, look!”

By now we had spent an hour and it was time to go. We were invited for lunch both at Sidates and his son’s place, but said we looked forward to it the next time. Insha’Allah.

Watch out for the mechanic, Sidate said. They’re all thieves, the Moroccans.

I left thinking about Sidate and his way of life. On the one hand, his values are totally different from ours. On the other, he has had a good life without ever having to do manual labour. He has had love and given love, now with three wives. They respect him and obey his wishes. He has many children, and they respect him deeply, almost to the point of reverence. Isn’t he living the dream of many Western men?

Guelmin, tan Tan, Terfaya

English Posted on 2008-01-02 14:25

We had a 1200 km drive to the border waiting for us. We decided the best way to start off was with a chicken meal, and then we headed straight south, or so we thought. There were no road signs and the road was more narrow and less trafficked than we expected. We stopped and looked at the starry sky ahead for leads. No north star, but the way Orion pointed indicated we were going – east? We turned and went back to the city and finally found the signs for Tan tan and Laayoune.

By the time we reached Tan tan it was getting close to midnight and time to look for a hotel. We found a good one on Tan tan plage, with even a warm shower – a real luxury in these parts of the world. We showered, drank wine, told stories and went to bed for six hours of sleep.

The next day we drove forever with the desert on our left and the Atlantic on our right. Stopping in Terfaya for diesel, the attendant suggested we check the gearbox for leaks since there was a pool of oil under the car. Terfaya is a port where there is a nice looking ferry taking passengers to Fuerteventura, only four hours away. This would be a good place for Africans trying to make it to European soil to make their escape, but we didn’t see any. Nor did we see any later.

Sidi Ifni afternoon 27/12

English Posted on 2008-01-02 14:25

When I was a boy, I had a stamp from the Spanish colony Ifni in my stamp collection.

It was a big, pretty stamp, showing a fortress by the ocean on the brink of the desert. The picture stayed in my mind and Ifni became a mythical and mystical place where I always wanted to go.

And now I was only 67 kms away. This turned out to be one of the nicest drives I have made. The desert meets the ocean, the beach runs forever, the Atlantic swell coming up and breaking with a roar. The road ran along a cliff, for the most part around 50 meters above the beach. On my left, a low mountain chain that was made for paraflying. On my right, the ocean and the setting sun. On a few places, there were coves and inlets where they had the most beautiful beaches. There were a few small villages and one town, Mirleft, that had a plage, but otherwise this coast was nearly virgin. I imagine it looked like the best part of the Spanish Sun Coast did seventy five years ago. I wonder what it will look like say twenty years from now. Perhaps like southern California?

Sidi Ifni itself was nothing like the picture on the stamp, but a very pleasant small town with perhaps ten thousand inhabitants, whitewashed houses, a hospital, banks with ATMs and a busy main street lined with cafés. A nice little Hotel de Ville where I would love to stay someday, a beautiful lighthouse built like a mosque by a steep cliff where the city ends and overlooking the beach far below where children were playing with a Frisbee. It appeared I was the only tourist in town. I spoke to a couple young boys and to my joy they spoke Spanish, which I muster much better than French.

I wouldn’t mind returning to Sidi Ifni and spend more time. But I had to leave to meet the others in Guelmin, 43 kms away at six o’clock for dinner.

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