Mauritanian adventure

Choosing some of the places I have explored in the world,has been motivated by words,stories and images of how I expect them to be. As I explained in my Abidjan experience, I am intrigued by distant,remote,unexplored,inaccesible and underdeveloped areas. I am not put off by news bulletins, as when I flew to Sri Lanka last year,during the continuing civil war with the Tamal Tigers. Rather than listening to news reports,I search for foreigners or locals who worked in the area and who have been there recently. In December the killing of four French people in Mauritania was spread across the news and as I found out after being in Maritania,completely destroyed the tourism. As I was already going to Ghana to volunteer,I had secured my business class mileage ticket with a return from Nouakchott,Mauritania. I had also mentioned to Renae and Kristin,the two women who had founded the women’s cooperative in Ghana,that I was going to Mauritania. Renae emailed me the name of an American girl, Brooke, who had volunteered with them in Ghana several years ago and was now in the Peace Corp in Mauritania. I found out from Brooke that there were 200 peace corp volunteers there,posted to small villages all over the country and they had no plans to evacuate them. I decided if the Americans could stay,I could go. Through email with Brooke, I discovered that there were no ATMS, and credit cards were only used in $250 a night hotels. Traveler checks were a nightmare to change,so cash was the easiest way to survive.
I had held onto about $550 in cash and withdrew another $600 from an ATM in Ghanian cds to change back again into dollars and euros.  If I was really desperate for money in Mauritania I would brave the banks with my $300 in travelers checks. I was so ready to leave Abidjan by the time I boarded the plane on April 4th at 4pm. There is no direct flight to Mauritania so I caught a glimpse of Bamako, Mali and Dhakar, Senegal from takeoffs and landings.  Mali is especially barren. I also meet an French jewelry designer on her way from Accra where she did a trade show to her workshop and store in Dhaka.  We discussed the possibility of my representing her in the States, finding galleries and boutiques to sell her jewelry. I was tempted to get off the plane in Senegal to visit her workshop but my luggage was on its way to Mauritania so I usually find it best to follow my luggage. In Dhakar we waited a few hours in the airport.  There were flights going to Paris,London, Madrid and then our flight to Nouakchott.  Walking out to the plane on the tarmac, I realized the plane we were boarding had gotten very small with only two engines and thirty seats. I think I was the only tourist traveler  on the flight. Several Africans and one Canadian peacekeeper  were going to train the Mauritania military how to function in the African Union forces, several others worked for embassies and had no interest in talking to me. I started a conversation with an East Indian guy who was traveling with his two supervisors to their office in Mauritania from their office in Dhaka,Senegal.  Their business was sheet metal. They bought used sheet metal in both countries,and shipped it back to Asia to sell.. The foreign companies doing business in Africa basically pay bribes to African government officials to fish, mine, extract oil and other natural resources from these countries.  The percentage to the African governments is usually ten to fifteen percent of value of what they take out of the ground or sea.It is like applying for a fishing permit only it runs into the millions of dollars. So the natural resources in Africa are being removed this time by foreign corporations,not foreign governments. Wallace,the father of the Ghanian family I lived with told me that the waters of Ghana were being emptied of fish by huge Chinese fishing boats that were not paying the government any money and Ghana does not have a coast guard with fast boats to catch the foreign vessels.  So the Mauritanian government sells the rights to fish, mine,and export out of their country all kinds of natural resources but as is the same story in most of the developing world, the money is never used to improve the conditions of its people. The plane landed about 11pm, the perfect time to arrive in a strange third world city, knowing virtually no one. The passport control did not like my visa, as I had gotten it at the French Embassy in Accra without an official |Mauritanian stamp. Expecting to start arguing or being refused entry, they assured me eventually it was not un grand probem and gave me an entry stamp.  Emerging from the airport I was overcome by several turbaned men with extemely bad teeth,wearing boo boos (known in english as caftans).  I had returned to the Arab world of my youth. Within minutes I realized these guys were all conmen so I searched for some civilized Europeans to help me get a taxi to the auberge(guest house) I had found in Lonely Planet West Africa. Finally after searching,we found a young kid that worked at the back packer auberge of the same French owner,to take us there. The only room available was a large five bed family affair.  Youba,the young Malian who managed it, promised he would not put anyone else in the room. My first thoughts on sharing a bathroom with several people were negative but the auberge was immaculate and Youba was so helpful and gracious that I ended up using it as my base in the capitol whenever I was there. The other seven rooms were rented to mostly French Embassy and NGO people who were temporarily posted to Mauritania for short periods of time.
My first day in Mauritania was not my best. The next morning I called Brooke, the peace corp connection.  We met and she impressed me with her language skills; she spoke good French and very workable Hassaniya, the Mauritania version of Arabic.  She got me a good rate in the market for my dollars which are not too popular these days.  After connecting with a new sim card and buying minutes, I made a bad choice of agreeing to go the beach with a group of  Peace Corp volunteers who had been in town for a meeting, and now hoping to party for the next several days before returning to their remote village outposts.                                       Joseph,a French guy(who I later met in the desert town of Atar) married to a Mauritanian,is a driver for hire so we each paid 1000 ouguiya and ended up on a barren,windy beach,miles from town and transport.  I was stuck for four hours with seven Americans who were experiencing the modern world after several months in the outback. No one was interested in listening to me talk about Africa politics, economics or injustice.  After sitting on the beach with them, I realized why I dont hang out in the Seattle in sports bars or university mess halls.  There was a pile of current People Magazines lying on the blanket, so I was able to catch up on my Hollywood gossip which I only do at the dentist or on line at the supermarket. Windblown, frustrated and a bit bored, we finally left the beach around five pm. On the ride back into town, I endeared myself even more to one of the Americans by complaining about the accomodations available in town at a reasonable price. She definitely was irritated with my bougoise attitude about comfort.  Brooke, the original contact in Mauritania, did her best but large groups of Americans dont appeal to me,especially those reminding me of camp counselors. The next day Brooke again persevering, turned me on to a great Pizza restaurant, took me to a women’s co-op to buy fabrics and dropped me at the grand marche to bargain on my own. My Peace Corp connection was disconnected.
My third day in town I roamed around the dusty city of sand, dodging ancient Mercedes taxis and photographing at the fascinating Port de Peche.  This is the garbage strewn, chaotic third world fishing port on the outskirts of the Nouakchott.  On the thirty minute taxi ride out of town ,we  passed  new housing developments built by the government for government workers. They were still under construction, painted in pastel colors and seeming so out of place in the middle of the desert.

My good fortune was still hanging in there when I found out I had arrived in Mauritania at the beginning of the traditional African music festival. I planned two more days in the capitol before I left for my desert sojourn. The people I met and the experiences I had are up and coming in my next entry.

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