4. South through Western Sahara and Mauritania

May 01, 2006

The move into Western Sahara, with forty hours of desert outside my bus window does wonders to clear my head. It is a quick exit from Euro Disney Morocco. I travel bus buses all the way to Ah Dakhla. Stopping rarely, seeing little but sand and truck stops. Agadir, Tiznit, Laayoune... People get on the bus and leave. I hold my ground watching as couples say goodbye, husbands allow their wives to leave to visit a sister or attend a wedding, boys leave their families to join the army. No one goes to Western Sahara without a reason. There is really nothing to see but sand and sun and the occasional military compound or prison.

Outside of Laayoune, we stop at what I think is another customary military checkpoint. But I start asking questions when we are detained for over an hour. It seems we are picking up new passengers. All the women move to the front of the bus and I am left all alone in the back with three empty rows behind me. A while later, a group of five convicts board the bus handcuffed together, along with two police escorts with their shiny white patent leather gun holsters. I am suddenly less interesting to the police when we stop at checkpoints and we raise an eyebrow or two at the canteens where we stop to eat from then on.

There is something remarkable about this place where the sand of the Sahara reaches the ocean. I don't know if I am looking at dunes or the beach, at the blue of the ocean or the sky on the horizon. For hours we drive along a cliff just above the water and I strain to make out the waves. I am happy to wander through these dusty towns - if only for a day or two.

As I move south, the land gets drier,
people become darker,
the light becomes sharper,
the tea becomes stronger.

I don't stay in Noudhibou for long enough.


Downtown Noudhibou


Noudhibou is a small, dusty border town full of beat up Mercedes making border runs, Arab businessmen with their flash cell phones, Senegalese boys sitting on street corners listening to Tupac, Arab women covered in meters and meters of beige fabric while the Senegalese girls strut around with braided hair and beautiful wraps in bright fabric flashing smiles at everyone. Its like I haven't seen sunshine in days. I'm captivated.

During my stay in Mauritania I am overwhelmed by hospitality, but there is always something a bit unwholesome about things. Everyone wants to be my guide, my driver, to take me to a friend's place. It is always like this, I know. Maybe it is because I begin to fall sick right about the same time that social graces begin to strain. I am tired. I come to Mauritania thinking that I could stay a month. I look and look and look. People welcome me into their tents, their homes. I am offered rides and information. But nothing feels right.  I try to hide the fact that I am ill and tired all the time.  I feel like too much of a burden for these families. With nothing to hold on to, I continue moving down the coast never stopping for long in one place, never heading east further into the desert.

Still, there is never a dull moment. I am taken to two weddings - one Senegalese and one Mauritanian. I am brought home often; I eat steaming couscous and millet out of huge basins with great awkwardness and western hands that burn easily. I drink dozens of foamy glasses of tea with drivers, shopkeepers, herders, grandmothers, and a herd of new suitors.

I get driven around for two days by an insane man named Moulai who spent the past three years living in Brooklyn and sort of speaks English. I am his immediate best friend and he takes me everywhere - a situation that would be better if he weren't possibly the most unreliable, bipolar, fierce, ego inflated, jackass I have ever met. One minute he loves you, the next he has tossed you out on the side of the road to flag down another ride in the middle of nowhere. Literally. amazing. Two days later, he is convinced we are going to get married. He is a small nightmare; the only consolation is that everyone knows it. His friends are helpful and sympathetic. I play along for a few days, then decide to leave Nouakchott.


Downtown Noudhibou