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Of women, bandits and a fake tan

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Ouadane Ksar / oasis
Chez Zaida is run, ofcourse, by Zaida. She’s a veritable powerhouse of a woman; black, fairly muscular, dressed somewhat in between Western and traditional styles, and giving her almost all-male staff orders in a calm but extremely authoritative way; there’s no doubting who’s boss here. Not that Mauritanian women are generally the stereotypical meek lambs; despite, or perhaps because of, the Arab culture and Islam placing much of the power with men, many women here have a whole lot of attitude.

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Echoes of songs

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His voice isn’t a pretty one; it’s rough, dry, and has only a limited range before it breaks. Neither is he a particularly talented singer; he’s off-pitch much of the time (and not in the desired quarter-tones of Arab music either), and changes between high and low notes are never smooth. Still, it’s an evocative sound; full of soul, and with a sparseness that perfectly matches the desert around us. The pale pink light at the horizon announces another day; he just finished his morning prayers. Now he’s singing verses from the Quran, while making tea on the camp fire that drives away the morning chill. This morning is the same as countless desert mornings experienced by his father before him, and his grandfather before that. His name is Salima, and he’s from a centuries-old line of Moorish goat herders. Sometimes he makes some extra money guiding tourists on his camels. That’s why we’re sharing breakfast in the middle of the Sahara desert this morning.

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1/5th of a tourist horde

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‘About five’ says Cheich, the owner of Rose des Sables, when I ask him how many tourists there’re staying in Chinguetti today. Chinguetti was founded in the 13th century, and it used to be a famous stopover for caravans of salt, gold, ivory and slaves making their way from sub-Saharan Africa to Moroccan and European markets, as well as a major center of Islamic learning.

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The best job in the world

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What follows is a short description of the process involved with sending a package in Atar, Mauritania.
Asking around to find the unmarked post office of Atar: 5 minutes. Knocking on the most obvious door, hearing no answer, walking all the way around the building without finding an open door, and asking a mailman where to enter the building: 3 minutes. Sticking finger in a hole in the tiny little door right next to the obvious one and pull hard, then making the lady sitting next to the door (who must’ve heard my knocking but didn’t respond) understand that I want to send a package: 3 minutes. Seeing package being passed around by the 5 people working here, while everyone tries to understand Pays-Bas (apparently they don’t know the French name of my country, and my S looks like a 5): 2 minutes. Waiting for the man who knows how to deal with this to arrive: 5 minutes. Waiting for the man who knows how to deal with this to start and then finish doing other stuff, while all the other employees watch him: 10 minutes…

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Magic Carpet Ride

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I feel the urge to pinch myself; am I really going to do this? The train isn’t here yet (although it should be), and the madness of what I’m about to do hasn’t really sunk in either. Finally, more than two hours after its scheduled departure, the train arrives. Three diesel locomotives chug by; five minutes later, the lone passenger car, at the very end of the train, becomes visible. Inbetween are somewhere between 1.6 and 2.3 kilometers of open-topped freight cars. This is Mauritania’s economic lifeline; the iron ore train – one of the longest trains in the world – on a continuous journey back and forth between the mines of Zouerat, deep in the Sahara desert, and the port of Nouadhibou.

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NouadhiBoum

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‘How long will you stay in Nouadhibou?’
‘I think just one night.’
‘Do you know where you’ll be staying?
‘Not yet, there’re a few options in the Lonely Planet that seem okay…’
‘You can sleep at my house if you want?’
He says it casually, as if it’s nothing special. Considering that I’ve known him for all of six hours, and we’ve spoken no more than fifteen minutes during that time, I find it incredibly generous. His name is something difficult that sounds like (but probably isn’t exactly) Boumalniène. He tells me to simply call him Boum, just like the Dutch engineers from Mammoet Salvage did when they were clearing shipwrecks from Nouadhibou’s harbor, and he was their local fixer. For now, my soon-to-be-host is still my taxi driver. He’s taking me, five other paying passengers, and as much cargo as will possibly fit his Hyundai van from Dakhla across the border to Nouadhibou, Mauritania’s second largest city.

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Much Ado About Nothing (or: To be, or not to be)

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‘This is not really Morocco, you know?’ I’m surprised to hear the man sitting at my restaurant table say it at all, let alone out loud in a public place, let alone at a border crossing. It could get him in a lot of trouble if the omnipresent Moroccan police hear it.

After a short stop we continue our journey, and for the first time I get to see the landscape we’re driving through. It’s literally awesome. Western Sahara is probably the most appropriately named territory in the world; it’s simply the Western end of the desert. Beyond it, the desert abruptly stops and the ocean begins. It’s a wild coastline, with cliffs and small secluded beaches, sometimes with a shipwreck slowly being broken down by the elements. It stretches on for more than a thousand kilometers, and apart from three small cities, a few tiny settlements and the odd fisherman’s shack, it’s completely deserted.

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