March 6, 2021: Nouakchott
After 3 days in the Adrar region with my friend Jordan, today was our day to see Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania and home to one-third of the country’s 4.5 million residents.
Our tour was led by Hademine himself, the man who organized our entire tour.
Hademine is from Zouaratt, a city in the north of the country. He studied English in school and excelled at it. After school he took a few odd jobs before deciding to found his own tourism company, Time4Mauritania, in 2018. As probably the best English speaker in the country, Hademine has a unique ability to capture the non-French segment of the tourism market. Later this year he is opening his first hotel, located in Choum, a city where tourists can catch the famed Iron Ore Train. In the long term, Hademine wants to become Tourism Minister of Mauritania. I believe he will achieve this goal. Hademine is truly one of the most impressive and driven people I have ever met.
Our first stop for the day was a COVID test at the national laboratory, currently the only place in the country offering tests. The testing site is only open to travelers who are about to leave Mauritania by plane (the land borders are closed). The test was free. As expected, this place was hectic. In order to get a test, you had to put your name on a list. A guy would then call out names and then you would line up in order to check in at a window. Then you wait 10 minutes to get the actual test, which takes just 2 seconds.
A few funny things from the COVID test. First, only about 80% of the people were wearing masks. Nobody wears masks anywhere in Mauritania, but if there is one place to wear one, it would be at the COVID test site. Second, when the guy was calling out names to stand in line, there were 4 Chinese names that he could not pronounce. Instead of struggling, he said “quatre chinois” (4 Chinese in French). Everyone knew what he meant and laughed. I was reminded of this Youtube video.
Finally, when I asked Hademine if I should be worried about getting a positive test, he replied,” I have never heard of anyone testing positive.” Mauritania has had almost zero COVID deaths (about 1/month), so it is very possible that there is no COVID here. But it is also possible that there are so few cases because the doctor did the quickest swab I have ever seen. Mauritania is strongly incentivized against releasing positive tests because infected individuals are a liability for the country. It is much easier to give out negative tests and export the problem.
With the tests out of the way, we headed to the city center, which has a few high-rise buildings. Nouakchott has lots of wide boulevards and did not look pedestrian-friendly. We parked outside a beautiful mosque built by the Saudis. We could not enter, but I heard the inside is stunning.
Across the street, we went to the top of a tall hotel. On the roof, we stopped at the bar for a drink. Mauritania is a dry country so we ordered hibiscus juice and enjoyed a stellar view of the dusty city.
Here we talked a bit about the history of the country. Mauritania was a French colony until 1960 when it became an independent country. This date was deliberate because Morocco became independent two years earlier and France was determined to ensure that Mauritania did not become part of Morocco (for reasons I do not know). While the country is officially an Islamic Republic, Mauritania is and has always been a secular dictatorship.
Nouakchott was founded in 1958 on top of a small Berber village to be the capital of the future Mauritanian state. It officially became the capital in 1960. Originally envisioned as a small city, it has experienced exponential growth and now has a population of 1.5-2 million- about 35-50% of the entire country’s population depending on the population estimate.
Hademine mentioned that Mauritania is currently in a bit of an identity crisis. Is it an Arab country? Is it a North African country? Is it a West African country? Nobody can seem to place Mauritania in a box! In theory that sounds like a good thing because it makes Mauritania unique. The problem is that Mauritania often gets left out of lists and organizations such as ECOWAS.
Next, we visited the electronics market. Hademine said that if you lose your phone in Nouakchott, you can re-purchase it here the next day.
In the center of the market, there were a few food stalls. Here, we had tea. We also spotted the first person in the country other than Jordan to be wearing shorts. He was Black and dressed in Western clothing, signs that he was most likely an immigrant from a Sub-Saharan country.
For lunch, we got Ivoirian food: chicken with salad and a delicious spicy sauce.
Jordan loves the beach and insisted that we go. So we did. Hademine drove us a bit north of the city to a beautiful beach. It was relatively empty except for a few kids and some men with camels. The kids came over and tried to chat with us. We ended up discussing various football players. Eventually, we decided to ride the camels for about $1.50. Riding camels on the beach was super novel.
We went in the water which was surprisingly cold. I was expecting the water to be more like The Gambia, but it was more like Los Angeles in the winter! I am sure that in the summer the water is much nicer. The weather was 30 degrees outside- perfect for sunbathing!
After a few hours relaxing, I went into the bathroom to change back into my pants. When I came out, I noticed a camper van with a Swiss license plate. How strange!!
I then saw a couple walk out of the van so I decided to talk to them. Back in late 2019, this couple drove their van from the Italian part of Switzerland to Cote D’Ivoire via Spain, Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania, and Mali. On the way back in March 2020, they got stuck in Mauritania because of COVID and were forced to ditch the van. In January 2021, they came back to Mauritania to take the van back. Unfortunately, the Moroccan border was still closed to overland travel, so they instead decided to travel around Mauritania for two months. By travel around Mauritania, I mean taking their van across the desert where no roads go. With two possible exception (Noah, an American I met in Brazzaville, Congo and Felix, a German I met at a nightclub in Ilulissat, Greenland), these are the hardest-core people I have ever met. To go solo in Africa with no support is beyond badass and I have the utmost respect for them.
They said that they now plan to ship their car to Switzerland. They told me that the next time I go to Mauritania, I really need to visit these sand dunes 300 kilometers northeast of Chinguetti. There are no roads, but it is apparently amazing and you can find 5,000-year old fossils lying on the ground. You heard it here, first!
The couple mentioned to us that the National Museum, normally closed on weekends, is open today for an event and recommended we visit. Hademine said we would, but first we had to see the fish market.
The fish market was located just a 5-minute walk south of the beach we were at. There, we saw hundreds if not a thousand brightly colored wooden fishing boats. The sight was overwhelming! I have been to a similar fish market in The Gambia, but this one is considerably larger.
At this point in the day- around 17:00, the boats were all coming in with their daily catch. Most of the boats could hold 8-10 fishermen, but there were a few enormous boats that could easily hold 30 people. I have no idea how those can get pushed ashore.
One of the smaller boats landed right next to us. Jordan and I helped the fishermen push the boat up the beach. The boat was extremely heavy! One fisherman spoke to us in English- he had actually worked in the very similar fish market in The Gambia for a few years!
Something that stood out to me was that 100% of the people at the fish market were Black, despite Black Africans only making up 30-40% of the country. Hademine said that is because the fishermen here all are Senegalese, who have better fishing know-how than the Mauritanians.
We walked through about 600 meters of boat landings before reaching the part of the market where people actually sell the fish. The fish were plopped down on the ground in piles. Surprisingly, the market was not too smelly! Compared to the number of boats, there were relatively few salespeople- most likely because much of the fish will be sold in markets all over the country such as in places like Atar.
After leaving the fish market, our last stop of the day was the National Museum. However, it was rush hour and we got caught in some insane traffic. Remember when I commented how wide the streets are? Well, I was wrong. The streets were overcrowded with cars, pedestrians, tuk tuks and animals. Some of the cars were going the wrong way on the road or stopping for no reason. The driving was also as aggressive as possible- you took every inch you could get. It was pure insanity…and I loved it!!
Eventually we did make it to the National Museum after a quick stop to pick up the COVID tests- negative of course. The previously mentioned event was still going on: approximately 100-120 unmasked individuals were listening to a lecture that I could not understand.
The museum director asked us why we arrived so late- after their normal hours. We explained that we did not plan on visiting, but the Swiss people told us to come. He understood and agreed to let us into the museum for double the entry free ($3 instead of $1.50). After we paid, Jordan nudged me and said that 100% of our entry fee was going into the director’s pockets.
Due to the placement of the stairs, we had to walk across the event stage in order to reach the second floor. This was very funny for us and we most certainly attracted LOTS of attention.
Upstairs, we checked out a bunch of ancient traditional artifacts. They were a mix of “African” and “Arab” style items. A second room on the 1st floor contained archaeological artifacts from sites around the country including Chinguetti. All the exhibits were in French, but Hademine was there to translate for us.
We then headed back to Hademine’s house for dinner and to rest up for the flight.
That night at 00:30, we left for the airport. Just like on the way in, we passed by 15-20 police checkpoints.
In the airport, we had to show our COVID tests, boarding passes, and passports a ridiculous number of times. I counted 5 COVID test checks, 4 boarding pass checks and 3 passport checks. This included two COVID test checks on the jet bridge. So silly, but, hey, TIA – This Is Africa.
Mauritania is spectacular. The street life and blend of cultures is unique. The natural beauty of the desert is pristine. And the country is so untouched by tourists that it feels completely authentic. Yes, there are some minor difficulties and uncomfortable moments, but that is part what makes the journey fun. In conclusion, Mauritania is one of the most interesting countries I have ever visited and I cannot recommend it highly enough for the adventurous tourist.
I also don’t discuss it much in this post, but I was very fortunate to have Jordan on the trip with me. He is better at languages and more outgoing than me. As a result, we were able to have better interactions with locals than had it been a solo trip. Also, it was so nice to be able to talk with someone because I could not communicate with any of the Mauritanians besides Hademine. I would have been very bored for much of the time. It was also nice to share some of the crazy experiences together. I am a big fan of solo travel and usually consider it to be my preferred style. However in this case, having Jordan as a travel companion undoubtedly made the trip better.