IMPORTANT NOTE: This article is part of a 12-chapter series on my trip to Africa: Mauritania was the ninth country of twelve African nations I visited in December of 2016. It’s best to read the chapters in order, as they build on one another. To see countries number one through eight, please go HERE. It’s best to read the stories/countries in order.
Land Of Mystery
Mauritania was a country I found when searching Google for the “least visited countries in the world.” There it was, at number 13. I’d never even heard of Mauritania, and the little I found online just added to the intrigue. I think I insulted a Mauritanian who took offense to me calling the country “mysterious” on Instagram, but it was mysterious to me. Everything about Mauritania was an unknown that I was dying to delve into and experience myself.
I arrived past midnight from Morocco and by the time I got my visa and my guide Lemine dropped me off at the hotel, it was almost 2AM. I passed out.
The next thing I know I was being awakened by donkeys and roosters. I looked out my window and saw that the lodge I was staying in was right next to a camp. Not sure that’s what you’d call it—but it was a little area of makeshift houses without real doors and windows. This little hotel was probably the most “real” lodging I’d experienced so far on this trip of 12 African countries. Funny, because just the night before I was at the fanciest one of the journey: The Sheraton Towers Casablanca, which was ultra swanky and luxurious. And now, just hours later, I’m in a tiny guest house on a dirt road next to wooden shacks. If there’s one thing one must be able to do when traveling, is adapt.
“Breakfast” consisted of croissants, a banana and black coffee; on the second floor terrace. Then it was off with Lemine to see the capital, Nouakchott. It took me months to memorize Nouakchott’s spelling, by the way—but I finally got it down.
Mauritania was very tranquil compared to most of the other African countries I’d seen earlier in the month. Besides the very center of town where traffic seemed to bunch up, we drove down a lot of dusty, barren roads. Mauritania is part of the Saharan Desert and that meant sand everywhere, including in the back of my throat by midday. I figured that’s why many of the men here wore scarves covering most of their face, leaving just their eyes in view. This was the kind of gear I’m used to seeing Al-Qaeda wear, while toting their AK47s on the evening news. Yup, this trip was a lesson in prejudices and generalizations for me. Growing up as an American, the only time I’d see people who looked, dressed and spoke like this, was in movies about terrorists, or on news reports about rebels, kidnappers and general all around “bad guys.” I had to keep reminding myself that this was an entire culture of good people that simply practiced a different culture, dress and lifestyle than me; not necessarily made up of the caricatures and criminals that I’ve been presented on TV for my entire life. I did the best to shake off the decades of imagery and plot lines I’d been fed over the years. I imagined that maybe there was a foreigner visiting the U.S. for the first time, and that maybe he had the same kind of fears I did: that he had maybe watched American gangster movies his whole life, and thought all the US was about was crime mobs, gangs and drive-bys. Every second in Mauritania was enlightening.
Our first stop of the day was the city’s Mosque Saudique, where we snapped a couple photos and then headed to the market. The market was cool, and like the streets of Nouakchott, a tad more relaxed than the chaos I’d seen at my previous stops in Africa. We stopped to ride the elevator to the top floor of the Al Khaima building and take some photos from the tenth floor balcony before moving on. At a crafts store we met up with another gentleman on tour with us, Hasan, and then the three of us headed to lunch.
Friends: How Many of Us Have Them
I’d lucked out on this trip: not only was Lemine an outstanding guide, but his other guest, Hasan, ended up becoming a good friend of mine. Hasan’s story was pretty incredible. He was originally from Syria, had moved to Russia and spent decades there, but was now living in Algeria. I was taken aback when he told me that he still had family in Aleppo. He told me of a meeting between him and his son at the Syrian border; and that Hasan wasn’t allowed to come in, and his son couldn’t leave. This was the kind of stuff you hear about on the nightly World News, and here I am, cruising around the dusty streets of Nouakchott, hearing it first hand. Unbelievable!
I came to know both Lemine and Hasan very well over the next 48 hours, and both were stand up gentlemen. Lemine was just an all around cool cat: a family man who took his work, religion and work very seriously. And Hasan must have been one of the most considerate people I’ve ever met in my life. He bought Lemine and me Snickers bars and mandarin oranges at the supermarket, and would even peel the fruits and hand them to Lemine while he was driving. It was a fun trio, and we exchanged non-stop stories and learned about each other’s cultures throughout our journeys.
After lunch and some chill time back at the hotel, we all headed over to the port and watched the fishermen come in after a hard day’s work. This was super interesting and I’m pretty sure the main attraction for visitors of Mauritania. There must have been thousands of these wooden, colorfully painted fishing boats, at sea, at shore and in between. The men who’d come to shore would get their boats up on to the banks by placing empty metal tanks under the heavy boats, and then rolling the boats forward, using the tanks as “rollers” to move the heavy crafts. I quickly learned that most things in Mauritania were done by hand. The boats built by hand, the fish caught by hand (with nets), the boats pulled up onto shore by hand. There just wasn’t any of the machinery you’d normally see automate all the hard work; it was simply bare hands and brute strength.
I made a two-minute video of the action here at the port, check it out:
A couple hundred feet from the water you could see the people selling their “catch;” mounds of fish piled up on the concrete waiting to be bought. There were big wooden tables where folks were cleaning, cutting and de-scaling their goods. Lemine and Hasan soon excused theirselves for 5PM prayer, as they joined a hundred or so others gathered in front of a small mosque, just a few feet away from the fish.
Ramblin’ Fact: Most of the fishermen here aren’t Mauritanian, rather they’re immigrants from Senegal and The Gambia.
After the port we headed to dinner, where afterwards Hasan and I enjoyed hookah (I was an amateur, he had to show me the ropes), and some amazing mint tea. We ate outside and the weather couldn’t have been more perfect.
The next day Lemine let me in on a real treat: the old Nouakchott International Airport. Exploring closed and abandoned buildings, ships, planes, etc. has always been my thing, I don’t know why. I soon learned Lemine was the guy with all the connections. A few words with the security guard at the front, and we were in, given free range to roam around this closed airport. It’d actually only been shut down for six months—a new and bigger airport had just opened 15 miles outside of town, leaving the old one empty and without purpose. It was like an airport “ghost town,” as we explored the tickets counters, conveyor belts and departure lounges; all with a thick layer of Saharan sand on top of everything. This was one of the coolest stops for me!
After the awesome airport visit, we headed to Lemine’s house, where he’d invited Hasan and me for tea. This was another experience money couldn’t buy, as we all sat around in Lemine’s living room while he prepared a special mint tea for us that we sipped while eating croissants.
We grabbed Nutella crêpes at a restaurant called NKC Ice, and then drove over to a craft store. But the craft I loved the most was being “crafted” outside on the street. Two boys were hammering away on some wood. Curiosity got the best of me, and I approached to investigate. Turns out the kids were making a box out of wood, hinges and a lock; a homemade safe or piggy bank. Hasan made the first contribution to the bank, followed by me.
Ramblin’ Fact: One thing that I found super-interesting about Nouakchott, was the amount of Mercedes Benzes. Every taxi was a Benz, same model, and beat to death! Thousands and thousands of Benzes, all around–most of them looked like they had lost a fight with a wrecking ball! Different color panels, missing lights, dragging mufflers–I was amazed that these cars still ran, but they did indeed! I was just taken aback by the sheer number of Mercedes–every cab was a Benz, no other model!
Guess What Day It Is???
As my visit winded down, Lemine had saved the best for last. Our final activity as my two-day tour of Nouakchott wrapped up was a trip forty minutes out of town to drink tea on the sand dunes with the camels. What an experience!
Before setting up camp to chill, Lemine stopped to buy camel milk from the local herders. This was insane–we were served bottles of warm camel milk straight out of the udders! After we were presented with a couple bottles of the white stuff, we headed out on the sand to kick back on a blanket while Lemine brewed up some of that amazing mint tea!
After our trip to the desert, it was back to the hotel to pack, and then off to the airport. My two days in Nouakchott were amazing and like nothing I’d ever experienced. It was like the Old West, mixed with Africa, mixed with the Middle East, all rolled into one interesting land. And I was fortunate enough to explore it. Unlike some of the other places I’d visited on this journey, I wanted to stay longer in the country–there were more things I wanted to do, like ride the iron ore train and see the shipwrecks. I hated having to leave so soon.
I stand by my description of “mysterious.” Mauritania, to me, still carries so much mystique. I arrived with a dozen questions and left with hundreds.
If you go:
Tel : 00222-22338522 / 00222-45252336
E-mail : firstname.lastname@example.org
Skype : Mauritaniatours
Website : Chinguitty-Voyages.mr
Twitter : Twitter.com/Chinguityvoyage
Video Channel: youtube.com/Chinguittyvoyages
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