Chinguetti, Mauritania, October 19 - 20, 2007

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


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Flag of Mauritania  ,
Saturday, October 20, 2007

Chingeutti is a sleepy town now being engulfed by the Sahara's dunes but was once the ancient capital of the Moors where giant camel caravans laden with salt set out for the ends of the empire.  The city was a major educational and religious center as well and is still considered Islam's seventh holiest city because it was a place where pilgrimage caravans for the Hajj congregated for the trip from West Africa to Mecca.  The 16th century stone Friday Mosque in Chinguetti's old town is considered the national symbol of Mauritania while five old libraries contain valuable Islamic manuscripts from the town's glory days. 
Our digs at the Auberge des Caravanes camping compund were nice enough with traditional architecture and an electric generator for light at night.  This being Mauritania, though, there was sadly no beer available.  The trinket salespeople outside the gates, however, were remarkably aggressive for a place that sees so few tourists.   
In my travels over the last decade or so in developing countries I've noticed a real trend towards fewer good deals on handicrafts and other local products.  This is a broad generalization, but it seems to me that merchants have developed a better sense of tourists' willingness to pay for such items.  Perhaps now they can easily enough see similar wares advertised for fixed prices on the Internet and recognize the wide margins western entrepreneurs are making on the stuff they buy in developing countries and sell at home.  Although more merchants are expecting similar prices, I doubt that trickles down to better payments for the people actually making the handicrafts.  Thus when possible I try to buy from producers' cooperatives, but it seems savvy merchants have wised up to this and now many characterize their stores as cooperatives.  
This was certainly the case in Chinguetti where I would have been interested in buying something characteristic of Mauritania, but my bargaining skills weren't sufficient to get me any items of interest in a price range I could justify.  Many of the locals in Chinguetti seemed to have absolutely no sense of what their wares could sell for or just made up ridiculously high numbers, such as 1,000 Ougiya (over $4) for a postcard.  I felt like I was being charitable when I agreed to 100 and not an Ougiya more.  Then there was the man who saw I was interested in a set of three little carved wooden monkeys in the hear-, see-, and speak- no-evil motif who insisted on 20,000 Ougiya ($85) for the trio.  "You've got to be kidding!  They're cute, but look - they're not even made out of good wood.  How about 500 Ougiya."  No sale. 
I wandered around town, its streets being engulfed by sand dunes and wandered by rubbish-grazing goats, but its mud brick and stone dwellings still mostly inhabited.  The onslaught of little begger children soon began. "Bonjour.  Sava, Monsieur!  Cadeau?"  It seems like half the population in Mauritanian villages is under the age of five, reflecting some of the world's highest fertility rates in the band of countries just south of the Sahara from Mauritania across to Ethiopia and Somalia. 
"Non, you give me cadeau," I respond.  The kids usually squeal and laugh.  I did break down and gave a few coins to three adorable little girls who agreed to pose for a photo.  The little boys I met later on, though, wouldn't budge from their price of 1,000 Ougiya for a photo of them with the hedgehog they just caught - too steep a price so again no deal. 
The Friday Mosque in Chinguetti is a symbol of the Mauritanian nation but is quite tiny and closed to non-Muslims.  Gordy and I went into one of the ancient libraries, though, where the curator showed us several books of commentary on the Koran by religious scholars which were written on gazelle skin pages and 700 to 900 years old.  These were just part of a collection in the library that he claimed contained over 2,000 rare and ancient books
When one is in the Sahara Desert there are certain things that are simple must-dos, and riding a camel is one of them.  I've ridden camels dozens of times so riding high atop a big hump on a ship of the desert holds no novelty for me, but I couldn't help but think "Maybe Mauritanian camels are different."  And if they are different from Egyptian and Jordanian camels it would seem to be a matter of personality; these beasts seemed especially surly and temperamental despite being very healthy looking.  The ride in the desert was nonetheless very beautiful as the setting sun gradually turned the dunes a bright orange hue. 
It wasn't my turn to do the cooking in Chinguetti, but I suggested to Chris (also known as "The Warden" for her responsibility over truck security as well as overall take control personality) that she honor the name of the place we were staying by making spaghetti with a Chinese sauce and calling it "Chighetti".  My joke got a few chuckles, but Chris didn't see the humor in it and informed me, "I'm deciding what to make, and we're having rice." 
We were all sitting around in a circle after dinner chatting on another completely alcohol-free Mauritanian night, when Candice suggested we should all try to get to know each other better.  "OK, I'll start with a question.  What's your favorite color?"
Dave said his was maroon because it was unusual.  Ben picked orange - "That's why I drive for Dragoman; I look so good in an orange truck."  Candice said hers was red and gave a reason that had something to do with liking gore and it being the color of blood.  I suddenly decided my favorite color was plaid.
"That's not a color," Candice informed me.
"It is if I want it to be."
"That's cheating."
"You cheated at the board game we were playing in my dream last night."
"That was in a dream, not real."
"That's irrelevant."
"So why do you like plaid so much?  What is plaid anyway?" Candice asked in her role as discussion moderator.
"Because of its well-ordered complexity."
"What does that mean?"
"Well, it has a complex design with several colors, but it has a repeating pattern so......" I continued on at length with some more absolute bullshit I made up.  We continued on.
Kathie answered the question with, "Oh, I don't know.  I really don't know what my favorite color is," while Jordan's response was "I guess I like all colors.  They're all nice.  I like color."
I couldn't help but be a little disappointed by their lack of both imagination and desire to participate in our silly get-to-know-you chat.  "You'd male a great politician, Jordan.  We ask you your favorite color and you say you're all for color." 
The conversation continued with my question about everyone's favorite shapes.  Candice liked squares, Ben preferred isoceles triangles, Jordan used some imagination by saying "fractals", and Kathie didn't know again.  I picked double-helix because "they are the shape of the foundation of life and, thus, nature's perfect form".  I added some more B.S. and noted that gordion knots were pretty cool too.
"Why do you always have to pick such weird things?" Candice asked.  "Why couldn't you just pick a normal shape like a square or a rectangle or even a hexagon?"
"It's called thinking uutside the box," I retorted.   
And there I felt a revelation about myself.  "That's my predicament," I realized.  "I'm a plaid double helix in a world filled with red squares, blue circles, and pink triangles."  Now this could be the title for my autobiography - "The Life of a Plaid Double-Helix in a World of Red Squares, Blue Circles, and Pink Triangles."
Under the starry skies of the pitch black Sahara night the silence was broken only by sounds of the natural world.  That is, of course, if you wish to consider domestic animals part of the natural world, with the shrieks of mating cats, the braying of the donkey on the other side of the campement wall from my tent that sounds like it's being raped, and the roosters' pre-dawn cock-a-doodle-doos. 
The sounds of dawn, though, were mostly human.  Dave set the breakfast at 8:00 for a 9:00 departure since it would only be a short drive to Terjit Oasis.  Nevertheless, The Three Wise Men and The Warden were up before dawn slamming the truck door, banging pots and pans, and joking with each other at full decibel level, their laughter echoing off the walls of the small compound at the dawn's early light.  These were, of course, some of the same people who demanded a "quiet time" after 10:00 at night.  Western society's tendency to worship youth and shun old age is sometimes lamented, but I can't but find youthful inquisitiveness, exuberance, and idealism so much more appealing than the jaded set-in-the-ways "because this is the way I've always done it so everyone else has to do it to" attitudes of, shall we say, maturity.
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