Mauritania Stories and Tips

Part 1: Borderline Issues

Yes, I know Nioro is in Mali but the Mauritanian border post is there. I gather it’s been moved some time recently and before, once through the Malian border post, there was a sort of limbo area of some miles before you reached the Mauritanian border post. Of course, like much of the stuff you’re told in this neck of the woods, this could be just another one of those things you hear that may or may not be the case. As both border posts are out in the sticks and in the middle of a particularly uninspiring stretch of scrub, it certainly seems a good idea socially to have the posts within shouting distance. At least the guards can chat loudly to each other until one of the posts gets moved again. Oh and, when I say border post, I should perhaps be more specific and say border "tent."

So anyway, there were two of us in the truck and we were heading back to the UK. The driver was Claire who had been our trip leader round Mali and I shouldn’t really have been there at all, but that’s a different story. Claire had driven down through Mauritania the previous October with a male colleague so she had a fair idea of what to expect, particularly at police checkpoints and border posts. We drove up to the border post in our long-sleeved t-shirts and headscarves. The truck was an alcohol-free zone; we’d hidden our cigarette supplies, put cameras away and, to be on the safe side we’d sprayed the cab with deodorant to mask any lingering whiff of nicotine – not that it did much for the lingering whiff of us! Both of us had also suddenly lost any ability we may have had to speak anything other than the most rudimentary French. I’d taken another handful of painkillers half an hour before and, whilst I hadn’t managed to rustle up a friendly smile, I could at least manage a friendly grimace. We were ready.

Well daahlings, was I the disappointed one. I’d been expecting at least some sort of minor shake-down but in fact it was more like watching someone revising for, and then sitting a GCSE – and just as exciting. The guy not only studied our passports as if they were the set texts for the literature exam, unusually he was even reading them the right way up. He asked a few pertinent and intelligent questions, thought for a moment then opened an enormous ledger. Time slowed. I’ve never seen anybody write in slow motion before – it’s fascinating. The only noise was the breeze flapping the side of the tent and the faint scratching of nib on paper. In the corner of the tent, lying on his side on a blanket, was a similarly clad camouflaged soldier holding a glass of mint tea to his mouth. A small enamel teapot sat on a tiny pile of glowing embers on the ground. Even the sweat running down everyone’s foreheads was in slow motion. It was very peaceful. Bizarre eh? I’d gone in expecting hell and came out having had some sort of nirvana like experience. Can you believe that some people actually pay thousands of pounds to go to exotic locations to be taught how to do stuff like that?

Anyway, it didn’t last. Maybe 50 yards or so after the border tent there was another checkpoint. It was unclear which of the small cluster of reed huts on either side of the road was the actual checkpoint. But you had to stop because one half of the road was blocked by three upturned oil drums and the other half by a red and white striped bamboo pole. In the shade of the huts a few small groups of men were talking. I waved at the guys on the left and Claire waved to the guys on the right. We had already locked our doors but had the windows rolled down. A guy on my side of the road got up and strolled over the pitted tarmac to my window. His left hand reached up and tried to open my door. He spoke to us in French but mysteriously, we didn’t speak French anymore.

"Hello! How are you?" shouted Claire over the top of me at the "officer," "Do you want our passports?"

Well that shut him up for a few moments. He then spoke, at length, in French. We looked at him blankly. "We don’t speak French." I said and handed him our passports and photocopies of the relevant pages. Now he was an upside down reader. He walked back across the road and handed them to a figure reclining on a mattress under a scrubby tree. This was, apparently, a police checkpoint and although we didn’t know it at the time, it was the easiest checkpoint we would experience in Mauritania. The reclining boss didn’t seem to be in the slightest bit interested in us once he’d had a cursory flick through the pages. He took the photocopies and without looking up said something to the "officer" who came back over to my window smiling. I put my hand out for the passports. He put them behind his back and smiled. "Cadeaux?"

"Eh, sorry mate?"

"Cadeaux pour moi. Vous avez une cadeaux pour moi?"

"Terribly sorry officer, but we don’t speak French. Er, vous speeek English?"

"T-shirt pour moi?"

"Do us a favour eh? You do your job and we’ll do ours - you give us the passports and we drive away OK? So stop hanging from the wing mirror and pass them over please."

He did. We left. Interesting observation here; police checkpoint personnel in Mauritania tend to "wind-down" in the afternoons. In the mornings though, it’s a different story. In the mornings the exchange of pleasantries could often get as far as being asked for a "fucky fucky" before we could get our passports back. I’m pretty certain this is not much of a problem for guys, unless someone knows better? What made it all so tedious was that you knew you weren’t going to give in and you knew they’d eventually give up but you still had to go through the whole drawn out process which could take forever. We never once felt threatened at a checkpoint though, and in some places they were charmingly persistent. And this was roughly every 50km or so. Claire and I had a theory. Both of us agreed that the last thing on earth we’d ever want to be, would be a Mauritanian checkpoint officer. The only entertainment must be when a vehicle pulls up, especially a foreign vehicle. So we figured that if that had been us and two western females in a bright orange military style truck pulled up, then off course we’d have kept them there for as long as possible. Wouldn’t you?

So my advice to any female travellers who may find themselves in this position is, think outside the box. If you don’t, you’ll just get more and more peed-off with it. Think of it this way instead – it is, whether you like it or not, an authentic cultural experience. Isn’t that what you went there for in the first place? Or how about, they probably didn’t choose to be there but you did? But if you really want to reduce the stress factor then think of it as providing an essential service. Think of it as "entertaining the troops" if you like. Trust me, you can make life a lot easier if you dump the notion that these guys are the "bad guys." I really don’t think they are – I think they’re the "bored guys." Now, I have a problem.

The only things I can remember about the drive from the border to Ayoun el Atrous are a couple of the more "entertaining" checkpoints, and even that’s a bit fuzzy. I had a raging temperature and hurt all over, and there was an excruciating pain in my left-hand side when I breathed in but not out. I’d had it in Bamako for 3 days the previous week. but it just suddenly went away and I’d been fine for a couple of days before we left for Mauritania. It had returned with a vengeance by the time we reached Nioro. I think there were two things that kept me going. One was the desperate need to find a pharmacy in Ayoun el Atrous. The other, strangely enough, was the thought of seeing some "interesting rock formations." Rough Guide to West Africa (2003) ed. Hudgens and Trillo. So I apologise for this lack of scenic description due to my comatose state, but if it’s any consolation Claire told me that the landscape was nothing to write home about.

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