March 3, 2021: Into The Sahara:
My friend Jordan and I arrived at Hademine´s Nouakchott apartment at 3 AM after a long journey from Barcelona. Unfortunately, we were only going to get 3 hours of sleep. The alarm sounded at 6:45 and we were out the door by 7:15. Hademine drove us to the long-distance bus “station”. I use the term station loosely because it is really just a stretch of road where all the minibus companies have offices.
To prepare for our bus ride, we bought some water French bread that weirdly tasted exactly like challah (a traditional Ashkenazi Jewish bread) and turbans for fun.
We then checked in for our bus to the Adrar- a mountainous region in the north-center of the country. The ride was scheduled to take 5 hours at which point, we would be met at a checkpoint by Jemal. Not very specific, but oh well. In order to stay in touch, Hademine gave us local SIM cards. He also handed us a large stack of index cards containing our passport information and planned itinerary. In Mauritania, these cards are called Fish. “How many times will we be stopped on our way?” I asked Hademine. “Hopefully less times than the number of Fish you have,” he responded.
Our bus had some interestingly dressed people just like on the plane. In typical African fashion, we left once every seat was taken. There was not a lot of legroom, but the ride was bearable. To prepare for the hot journey, Jordan chugged his water.
The bus took off and suddenly we were in the middle of the desert. Sand dunes everywhere as far as the eye can see. Camels and Berber (Arab desert nomads of North Africa) tents scattered just off the road. And a bunch of nothingness. The ground was very flat. The road quality was very good! I suppose it is easier to maintain a road when it never rains.
We passed 5 police checkpoints along our way. 4 of them asked for Fish. Again, no bribes. Why were the police asking for the info? Perhaps they didn’t want us to join Al Qaeda. Who knows?
2 hours in, Jordan really had to pee. Unfortunately, the bus was not stopping. Finally, 3 hours in, we reached a town called Akjoujt. It was literally the only town of any size that we had seen since leaving Nouakchott. Here the bus took a 15-minute break and we were able to use the pit toilet. Ahh sweet relief!
We got back onto the bus and continued for 2 more hours. For the last 30 minutes of the ride, the scenery changed dramatically. Instead of flat nothingness there were desert mountains and mesas and huge sand dunes. This was the Adrar, Mauritania’s crown jewel.
The bus driver let us out seemingly in the middle of nowhere at an intersection of two roads. There were two people here. One was a police officer. The other was an exceptionally tall turbaned Berber man in his 50’s. This was Jemal.
Jemal let us into his dilapidated forest green Mercedes E class. It was in such bad shape that we had to close the door by pulling a chain. Luckily, the engine still worked!
The car wobbled side to side as we cruised down a nicely paved road, most likely due to an old axel warped by the desert heat. Then we pulled onto dirt. Jemal sped up as the dirt suddenly turned to sand. We skated across the sand onto a jeep track. For 5 minutes we bumped around until we reached Jemal’s hotel/compound, Chez Jemal in the town of Terjit.
The compound had 6 buildings: A kitchen, dining area, rest house and 3 Berber huts for guests. Jemal’s house was a few minutes’ walk away. Accommodations were very basic but also very authentic.
The town of Terjit has just 8 families living here. The same 8 families have lived here for many generations, so they are pretty big. I would estimate that 200-300 people live in Terjit.
Jemal and his staff served us traditional Mauritanian tea (similar to Moroccan tea) and lunch. The food was similar to a Moroccan tagine. The meal also included the best dates in the world – they came from the trees adjacent to his property.
We were so tired from 24 hours of travel that we took an hour-long nap.
In the mid-afternoon, Jemal led us on a hike to the Oasis of Terjit. Here the water flowed from the rock and created pools of water. The water was maybe 50 centimeters deep so you could not really swim. There were also many palm trees here. The whole setting was very idyllic and certainly a change from the dry and sandy desert.
Everyone who arrived at the oasis drank some of the water which flowed from the rock and into a plastic bin. It seemed like a ritual. Jordan and I tasted the water. It was very minerally and refreshingly cold.
Jemal left us to ourselves. We decided to keep hiking. We walked to the end of the oasis and then attempted to climb a nearby mountain. Along the way we passed as dead donkey. The skin was still attached and the bones perfectly white.
The landscape of the Adrar was truly incredible. This is one of the most beautiful and majestic desert sights I have ever seen. It reminded me of a cross between the mountains and mesas of the Colorado Plateau and the flora of the low deserts of California.
When we returned to Chez Jemal, Jemal was hanging out with the two staff members. We tried to chat but we had no mutual languages. They spoke French, Standard Arabic and Hassaniya and we spoke English, Portuguese, and Spanish. French is a bit too different from the other Romance language for us to understand anything.
The staff invited us to climb a rock on the compound to watch the sunset, which we did.
Dinner was couscous and vegetables with a delicious sauce. Still exhausted from the events of the last 24 hours, we went to bed early. Crazy to think that in 24 hours we could go from an IESE classroom to Terjit.
March 4, 2021: Chinguetti
We did not sleep well in the Berber tent. There were no blankets and the temperature dropped considerably overnight. I managed to stay warm by covering myself in extra clothes. Also, the pillow was stuffed with palm leaves. All part of the experience!
Jemal’s staff made us breakfast outside our tent. We had bread with jam/Nutella and tea. At 10:00, Jemal drove us in the Mercedes to Atar, the main city in the region. The drive took about an hour.
Once in Atar, Jemal handed us off to a Jeep driver who took us and 7 others even further into the desert. Past Atar, the road turned to dirt. 20 minutes in, we reached a paved road that took us over the dramatic Amojjar Pass.
Beyond the pass, the landscape changed dramatically. Instead of mountains, we were suddenly in a dusty plain. It reminded me of an African savannah, but much drier. There was some semblance of life here in the form of shrubs and small acacia trees. I wouldn’t call it a vibrant landscape but there was more flora here than the rest of the country.
We cruised through the plains for an hour with a grand finale of 10 minutes driving on sand. Eventually, we reached the legendary town of Chinguetti. The driver dropped us off at the Eden Hotel. The name was accurate, because after two hard days of traveling, a real hotel with real beds in the middle of the desert surely felt like paradise. The guesthouse also had some exotic mushroom-shaped doors.
The guesthouse staff made us lunch of chicken, rice and vegetables. It was fine but not as good as Jemal’s food.
We rested and at 15:00, a man named Aly showed us around.
Chinguetti has two sections: the old and new towns. We were staying in the new town. To reach the old town, we had to cross a sandy wash called a Wadi.
Chinguetti was founded in the year 777 and was a famed center for trans-Saharan trade. Berbers and traders bringing goods between the Sub-Saharan Africa and the Mediterranean would stop here. Chinguetti became an important center of Sunni Islamic learning. According to some West Africans, Chinguetti is the 7th holiest city in Islam. Most of the buildings date from the 12th century when the city was rebuilt as a fortified ksar. In 1996, Chinguetti was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Today the old city is largely abandoned due to the construction of the new town. The buildings, however, are perfectly preserved. The place reminded me of the equally old Hopi villages in Arizona such as Old Oraibi.
As we wandered the silent town, we passed by the famed Chinguetti Mosque, built in the 13th century. Its minaret is topped with ostrich eggs. The mosque is widely considered to be the national symbol of Mauritania and has remained in constant use since the 1300’s even though the town has been abandoned. Incredible!
Another in-use building in the old town is the library.
Inside, the old caretaker took showed us various texts from the 12th-16th century using gloves. We viewed Qurans, grammar books, astronomy books and other Islamic teachings. It is hard to conceptualize now, but during that era the Islamic world was the center of science, learning and progress.
It felt awe-inspiring to be so close to books this old without the barrier of museum glass. At the end the man asked for a donation, which we gladly paid. The library was undoubtedly the highlight of the trip so far. The experience would have been even better had we spoke French because, according to other tourists, he normally really puts on a show and tells interesting stores.
Aly took us back to the new town where we purchased water. He then led us into a massive sand dune field. When I say massive, I mean it. There were dunes as far as the eye could see. The sand dunes are actually a major threat to Chinguetti. There is a worry that the town will soon be swallowed by the dunes.
On one sand dune, the local kids were doing cartwheels, backflips and gymnastic routines off the dunes! They were unbelievable.
As we trudged through the endless sand, we would occasionally encounter people also wandering through the sand. What could they possibly be doing?!?
After 2 kilometers of sand, we reached what appeared to be an abandoned hotel. The buildings here also had the mushroom shaped doors. We walked into one of the huts and Aly made tea for us. A random guy appeared OUT OF NOWHERE and joined us for tea.
Tea is an art in Mauritania. Almost every Mauritanian learns how to make and pour it at home. The process to make tea is actually quite complex. The first step is to create the foam. This is done by boiling a mint tea and then pouring it into a series of shot glasses from high up until the team foams. Typically, cups are filled 1/3 with foam, but more foam is considered to be more hospitable and means they care more about you.
Once the foam is done, the mint tea is discarded. Then the real tea can be boiled, which is a bitter green tea mixed with a lot of sugar. The exact amount of sugar varies with each person, but it is always a lot. The final step to making Mauritanian tea is pouring. The tea would be poured from glass to glass at high distances in mesmerizing fashion multiple times similar to the cider pouring in Asturias. It looks like a magic trick or gimmick, but everyone does it.
After 10-15 minutes, our shot glass of tea with foam is ready. Mauritanians generally drink their tea fast- within a minute or two. Then, the process begins again. We drank 3 glasses of tea.
The other random guy disappeared as quickly as he arrived.
Aly, Jordan and I walked back to town with a detour to climb the high dunes.
The sun started to set over the endless sand. What views!
Halfway back, we managed to hitch a ride on top of a truck. Back at our hotel, we got another couscous dinner and went to bed.
March 5, 2021: The Long Day Back
This was our transit day to get back to Nouakchott, 8 hours away.
At 9:00, we got into a truck to take us to Atar. The ride was…snug. There were 4 of us in the back plus 3 in the front. In the bed of the truck there were another 2 people and 2 goats.
This driver was faster than our driver yesterday. For no good reason, he decided to take us on a Jeep trail through the desert. The route was way slower, bumpier and less direct than the main road, but we didn’t really care. We had nowhere to be and the scenery was beautiful.
Jordan coined this drive a “Mauritanian long-cut”
Eventually, we reached the real road, but our driver continued to stay off it. The driver then turned left into the desert. We continued into nothingness for 5 minutes until the driver suddenly stopped. Two people got out and paid the driver about $5. Lo and behold, 200 meters away was a series of huts where they presumably lived. I cannot fathom how people live out here. What do they do? How do they get water and food?
Speaking of water, it was pretty hot outside – about 30 degrees Centigrade. We offered one of our seatmates a sip of our water. To our amazement, the man chugged the entire bottle in one sip. Clearly, he needed the water more than us. Dehydration must be a serious issue out here in the Sahara!
After the drop-off, the driver finally got onto the main road and zoomed. Despite the detour, we somehow completed the drive to Atar 30-minutes faster than the driver yesterday, meaning that the other driver was slow or that this guy is a madman.
Atar is a dusty place. As the capital and largest city of the Adrar region, it is a jumping off point for travelers going to all points of the desert. Everyone in town was dressed in traditional wear, giving the town an extremely authentic feel. The town also had a lot of goats. I felt like Luke Skywalker and Obi Wan entering Mos Eisley.
Hademine did not have any contacts in Atar so we were on our own. He did assure us that the town is completely safe.
Our first stop was the office of the bus company taking us back to Nouakchott. They said that the bus was scheduled to leave at 15:30, giving us 5 hours to enjoy Atar.
Next, we walked to the market, which had pretty much anything you could possibly want to buy: meat, vegetables, packaged goods, household items, furniture, mats. We definitely got stares walking around as the only foreigners, but the people treated us respectfully. Vendors didn’t hawk us much.
Despite being a small town, the center of Atar had a lot of traffic. Cars were piled bumper to bumper in the market area. Mixed in with the cars were men riding very unhappy and tired donkeys. The men would beat the donkeys as they struggled in the heat. PETA would have a field day here, but hey, Mauritania isn’t really known for treating others well. Slavery was only officially outlawed in 2007.
A few sandy blocks north of the market is the 17th century mosque. We couldn’t go in, but outside we met some kids who spoke basic English. They were very nice.
It was now 12:00 and we were hungry. The bus company recommended two restaurants in town: one Moroccan and one Mauritanian. We picked the Mauritanian place.
The restaurant was run by a local family who took a real interest in us. They put us into a private room with chairs and a plastic table. We negotiated (in French) a local meal for 500 (12 euros). We didn’t know what it was, but they said to wait an hour. In the meantime, we were given tea which was almost 2/3 foam! Wow!
Our lunch was two courses. The first course was a lamb leg. The second course was couscous in a gray mushroom-like sauce. I really enjoyed it.
Finally, at 15:00 we walked back to the bus company and at 15:30 boarded the bus. The ride was scheduled to be 6 hours.
This bus was full of very religious people. Almost immediately after leaving, one guy in the back started chanting in Arabic. I assumed it was a prayer for travelers but he kept continuing, so I think he was actually reading the Quran. This continued on for an hour. Afterwards, the driver played sermons on the sound system. The imam sounded extremely fiery and passionate.
The middle-aged man sitting next to us spoke basic English and was intrigued by us. We talked a little about our trip and Spain. He showed us the construction project he was working on.
Midway through, we took a bathroom break in the same town as on the way there. The English-speaking man bought me tea. As we left the town, the children of the town pointed at Jordan and yelled “Corona”. Since it is mostly the white countries that have suffered from the virus, their assessment of us does have merit.
The second half of the trip felt much slower. The road quality deteriorated considerably. At sunset, the bus stopped for a prayer break.
All the robed and turbaned men lined up in a row pointing towards Mecca. The three veiled women stood in a group 20 meters behind them. As they prayed in the stark desert backlit by the colorful sunset, I couldn’t help but marvel at the sight so different from anything I have ever encountered. How incredible is it that humans can live such different existences?!
Right on time at 21:30, we arrived in Nouakchott. Hademine was there to pick us up along with a friend. We stopped by a local restaurant to get takeaway, which came in a silver buffet tray! We then drove back to Hademine’s house. Our long day had come to an end.
We ate dinner, which ended up being Mauritania’s national dish: fish and rice. Since the desert cannot support crops and livestock, fish is the main food source for the Mauritanians. Luckily for them, the waters off the coast are among the most abundant in the world. The fish had West African spices. Hademine said that Mauritania has a bit of an identity crisis: they do not know whether it is a North African/Arab or West African country.
We ate and drank tea until 12:30 when we finally went to bed.