So we reached Ayoun el Atrous with Claire hungry enough to eat her own leg and me ready to trade my first-born for a truckload of drugs. I’m not usually one for praying but, as we crawled along the main street all I kept thinking was, please, please God can we find a pharmacy before we find a food shop. I know it was selfish – but she wasn’t going to die, whereas I was.
Well, what a funny little place it is. I guess it must’ve been around 5ish in the afternoon so there was that nice warm orangey glow you get at that time of day. The trouble was that it was still too early for the place to be open again after the long midday break. The majority of shops had the shutters pulled down, there was hardly anyone around and the only thing missing were balls of tumbleweed gently rolling in the warm breeze. Yes, they certainly know how to roll up the pavements in Ayoun! On the other hand you did get a chance to see the buildings without the people getting in the way. Quite a few traditional red sandstone buildings but nothing particularly awe-inspiring. The majority of shop buildings lining the road appeared to be your standard concrete box about the size of a single car garage. No windows, just shutters or doors as wide as the unit itself and usually the whole façade would be painted in either shades of pastel blue or a muted red colour.
There was a lot of sand about. On either side of the road between the edge of the tarmac and the concrete steps leading to the shop fronts were strips of sand about 2m wide. Blown by the wind, in some places the sand had formed small drifts up against the shop steps. In other places it encroached on the road like the tide coming in. If the place had been busy I’m not sure I’d have noticed the sand so much. So then it got me thinking about what a nightmare it must be to have so much sand in your life. We’d been at the Festival au Desert in Tombouctou two weeks earlier and, on the second morning we woke up to the breathtaking awfulness of the harmattan. If it had been just a wind then that would have been bearable – it was the sand carried by the wind that made it unbearable. It was everywhere; we were eating it, breathing it and thinking it.
We were lucky as well, it could have lasted for days but by mid afternoon it was dying away. It would be no exaggeration for me to say that my few hours experience of the harmattan took me to the edge of my sanity. Imagine having to live like that for days on end, unable to open your eyes, to speak or to breath with ease. I don’t think I want to try. Now in Mauritania this hot, dry desert wind is called the sirocco and although I’m no expert on post-sand storm evidence evaluation, it looked to me like Ayoun had also been hit fairly recently by something very sandy. There was very little traffic, most vehicles were parked up on the side of the road and most of them were covered in a thick layer of orange dust. The town had an abandoned feel to it like you get in seaside resorts in England between October and April. Although obviously not as cold, damp and windy.
Yet it was here that my prayers were answered and I now concede there may well be a God. There, in the distance, a guiding light – the neon green cross that had been the focus of my mantra for the last God knows how many hours. We rolled of the tarmac, into the sand and came to stop outside the pharmacy. I leaped out of the cab. When I landed there was a stab of pain in the ball of my right foot, everything went red, my eyes watered and, although I can’t remember, I damn sure my language would’ve been pretty ripe. I whipped off my wafer thin but oh so comfortable fluorescent pink left flip flop and there, embedded in the sole was what looked like a pea-size sea urchin. ‘Oh’, says Claire, "that’s camel acacia." Well let me tell you something, the cram cram in Mali is nothing - a mere pinprick compared to this camel acacia stuff.
Those pointed barbs really hurt and they draw blood. A few small giggling boys had gathered and they watched with interest as I hopped towards the pharmacy steps. Money! I hadn’t got any of whatever it was they call their money in Mauritania. I hopped over to Claire’s side of the cab. The "laying of hands" on some cash took time but eventually I hopped up the steps and into the pharmacy. Minutes later I was clutching a small plastic bag containing 50 cherry red anti-inflammatory tablets. I propped myself up against the shop counter while the pharmacist disappeared down the street to get change for the large denomination note I’d upset him with. The giggling boys sat outside on the steps. Suddenly and silently the silhouette of a tall figure wearing a boubou was standing in the shop entrance. Kicking off his leather sandals he took a step into the shop and into the cool blue of a strip light. He was very handsome and very tall. His robe was that wonderful shade of sky blue favoured by the Mauritanians but the brilliant white of his head scarf made my eyes hurt. He took a few steps towards me. Was I bothered? No – too ill to care. He spoke – in French.
I replied in English, "Look, I’m really sorry but I don’t want anything."
"Anglais?" he queried.
"You want to change money maybe?"
‘No thank you... very much.’
"Life insurance maybe?"
"Sorry? What did you just ask me?"
"You need life insurance?"
OK, I thought. Maybe we need to try this in French. I just couldn’t understand why I was being offered life insurance by a Mauritanian money changer. Maybe he thought life insurance meant "somewhere to stay?" But no, the run-through in French was the same. I was positive that I’d heard the words "assurance-vie" so I was in the middle of politely declining when the pharmacist returned. He was clutching a large wad of notes, which he proceeded to count out loud into my upturned hand, while "tutting" his displeasure in between every increment. I’m amazed I still had it in me to offer my profuse thanks as I limped past the local business diversification award winner, out of the shop and down the steps. Back in the cab I threw a few "cherries" into me, washed down by half a litre of warm, warm, warm, water. My mantra changed to "I will feel better soon."
Funny little place with funny tasting bread. We eventually found a young boy carrying a large flat tray of what looked like baguettes but about a third of the usual size and a bit pointier at the ends. They were also a strange, even, reddish-brown colour. I think we bought about half a dozen. Interestingly, they were also considerably heavier than you’d expect for a loaf of bread. Whatever they were, I managed about two bites. You know that rule of thumb about the ratio of ingredients used in baking that says "half fat to flour?" Well, this stuff certainly isn’t made using that particular method. I’d hazard a guess and say it was more like equal parts fat to flour to sand. Days later we speculated about whether it was a local speciality, because we never saw it anywhere else, or if in fact we’d actually bought some sort of sheep fodder.
What I saw of the rock formations on the way out of town looked good for about a mile or so. I was glad to have seen them before I died. Which is what I was pretty sure was happening to me. I had to lie down. I wanted to die in relative comfort and I couldn’t wait until we got to Kiffa. I’m still not sure whether I fell asleep or passed out. Whichever it was, there was this huge wave of blackness that washed over me as I was on my way down to, rather than already lying on, the mattress on the floor. You could have tortured me with Mauritanian baguettes and I wouldn’t have moved. And sometime I really must ask Claire what she said at the police checkpoints to explain the presence of a corpse in the back of the truck