Nouadhibou & Cap Blanc, Mauritania, Oct 15, 2007

Trip Start Sep 19, 2007
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33
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Trip End Jan 05, 2008


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Flag of Mauritania  ,
Monday, October 15, 2007

Mauritania to me has long been a mysterious and intriguing country that fits neatly neither into Mediterranean-facing Arabic North Africa nor Sub-Saharan Black Africa.  The country is an Islamic republic whose territory is located almost entirely in the Sahara Desert, making its environment overall perhaps the most inhospitable of all the God-forsaken lands current national boundaries have created on the African continent.  The majority of Mauritania's people are "white" Maures (or Moors), descendents of Berber tribes who adopted Arab culture and speak a dialect of Arabic called Hassaniya.  The population also includes Haratins, Blacks of the same language and culture who used to be the Maures' slaves and a minority of Black Africans near the southern border from tribes like Wolof and Fulani who also live in adjacent areas of Senegal and Mali.  The country's total population is only around three million in an area nearly twice the size of Texas, and with most of those people living in the capital city or in a narrow wetter stretch along the southern border, Mauritania is overall one of the emptiest countries in the world.
Mauritania must also be one of the least visited countries, one that provides a true sense of being "out there" for those who do make it.  I posed the question via e-mail to my friend Brian, "I'm in Mauritania now.  I bet you don't know where Mauritania is?"  
His response was, "Of course I do.  It's right next to Narnia."
We spent a full day and two nights in Nouadhibou to relax and recuperate between the two stretches of our Saharan crossing.  Nouadhibou is Mauritania's second largest city and a major fishing and iron ore port.  From the looks of it, it's not necessarily clear whether the city has seen better times or if it's never really seen any good ones.  Our small walled campement in the town's dilapidated central commercial district provided a small bit of comfort in the form of two shower stalls with warm running water.  The camp, though, was surrounded by cinderblock slum houses sitting between sand dunes strewn with rubbish. The streets through town were a mixture of dirt lanes and disintegrating pavement, plied by more donkey carts laden with propane canisters than the disintegrating hulks that make up what must surely be the world's worst national fleet of automobiles.   
In what seemed to be one of the most unwelcoming places I encountered, the ATMs didn't work, the telephone lines were down so the Internet cafes (yes, there were some) were all closed, and the banks refused to exchange money.  I had to resort to the risky business of changing some cash with a money changer on the street. 
Our shopping for provisions for the next few days crossing the desert was nearly as disappointing, there being almost no fresh produce and only a narrow range of imported canned goods I'd characterize as ingredients rather than food that I couldn't figure out how to combine into dishes I would call food.  I finally found a butcher shop with, surprisingly, an English speaking proprietor who yelled at me gruffly, "Speak English!" when I tried to ask him for something in French.  The nice but slightly unusual looking meet he sold me as beef actually turned out to be camel (but more on that in a later chapter).  The town's only saving graces were two surprisingly good restaurants named Halima and Le Merou where I had lunch and dinner, the latter of which even sold me an over-priced liter-size box of Spanish wine, contraband goods in ultra-Islamic Mauritania. 
In addition to its fishing industry, Nouadhibou is the terminus of the train from Zouerat, the huge hell-on-earth iron mining center 600 miles or so into the Sahara, a rail line that exists for the sole purpose of transporting the ore for export.  At up to 1.5 miles long, the trains are said to be the world's longest and also transport people back and forth between Nouadhibou and Zouerat, far more it would appear outside on top of the heaps of reddish iron ore than inside the decrepit-looking passenger car or two we saw at the end of each train that passed
I joined "The Three Wise Men" and "The Warden", nicknames someone more creative than I gave to Ed, Blair, Ian, and Chris, the more senior members of our group and avid naturalists, bird watchers, and photographers, for a taxi ride to Cap Blanc at the end of the peninsula several miles south of town.  The cape is allegedly home to the world's largest colony of endangered Mediterranean Monk Seals. 
We spotted no seals that day, but the eerie and beautiful environment around Cap Blanc was one of natural splendor combined with manmade decline.  The derelict lighthouse at the cape looked to be in even worse shape than the rust-bucket of a taxi we arrived in.  Meanwhile, we counted 23 grounded rusting ships on the way from town to the cape as we passed the iron port facilities and oil storage tanks.  We more or less repelled down the sandy cliffs to the beach below, where I wandered around with Ed photographing seabirds and what must be the largest shipwreck I've ever seen.  Quite bizarrely, a man wearing jeans suddenly appeared perhaps 25 yards up on the wreck's deck, dropped a retractable ladder over its side, and waved to us as if inviting us to go up to his house.  I didn't intend to be rude, but that just wasn't going to happen.
Meanwhile the others made a mad dash along the rocks to beat the incoming tide to look for seals.  I seemed to be the only one concerned the tide might rise enough to block their return on the seaside base of the cliffs they were about to walk along.  "Ummm, I don't think you should do that with the tide coming in like that," I told them.  But there was a chance of seeing seals and maybe some seabirds, so the ol' geezers were undaunted.  They survived, so I suppose they made the right decision. 
Cap Blanc was also the location of the famous wreck of the Medusa, a French frigate that ran aground in 1816 and was immortalized by Theodore Gericault's painting "The Raft of the Medusa".  Although Nouadhibou is one of the world's driest places, the hot air over the Sahara and cold offshore current combine to create fog banks that often obscure Cap Blanc's rocky shoals to create one of the world's great graveyards of ships.
Way back in Essaouira, Morocco, Dave posted some information sheets about Mauritania on Daphne's memo board.  One of these had to do with the issue of slavery in Mauritania.  It seems slavery was officially abolished in Mauritania a whopping 27 years ago but is said to still be widely practiced in the country, as in Mali, Niger, and a few other West African countries.  The system in Mauritania is one of "white" Maures (they're not really that white) owning "black" Harratins, descendents of enslaved Black African tribes who were assimilated into the Arabic Maure culture.  In August 2007, only two months before our visit, the Mauritanian parliament again outlawed slavery, a reiteration of the 1980 decree prohibiting it at a time when 100,000 or ten percent of the population were estimated to be slaves.
Naturally, that night I asked drivers Dave and Ben if we could get ourselves a slave for our ten days in Mauritania to cook for us, put up our tents, clean the truck, do dishes, etc.  They said, "No, it's not politically correct!"
"Dudes, we have enough space.  It'll only be for ten days, and I promise we'll treat him really well.  And if we sell him back at a loss when we leave for Senegal, I'm sure we'll all pitch in." 
The answer was still, "No!!"
"But Ben, having a slave would be part of the local cultural experience.  It would be the type of cultural immersion we really haven't been getting on this tour.  We could even do a good deed and free him afterwards.  Dragomanites freeing Mauritanian slaves - just think about how good that would look in the list of community service projects in the Dragoman brochure."
I tried again over the next few days but didn't make any progress.  Additionally, our arguments over getting ourselves a slave quickly lost their entertainment value as Gordy began making it into a sexual joke.
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Comments

Aroldo Noriega on

Hi there; you really describe exactly what Mauritania looks like, I just returned from a trip to Nuackchot and Nohadibu. As soon as we boarded our plane in Gran Canaria, Spain I knew it was going to be something to remember; this was a small plane, (34 pax) but even though I live in a poor central american country, I felt that we are blessed by God to live in a place were if you have no money, still you can plant any seed and it wil produce; that is not the case of Mauritania, the sand and salt will never let anything to live.
I came home feeling so sorry for this people; but what makes me most sad is that this people do not like foreiners; yes they may have very good reasons not to trust strangers but if they were more open I am sure many people would came to Mauritania and help.
Blessings.

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