I’d tried it in the truck cab, on a mattress on the floor of a large decorated tent and on a bench in the shade, but it didn’t matter – everywhere was just too hot, uncomfortable or both to read. Not enough room for air to circulate in the cab, the bench was too unsteady and the tent could have turned out to be an unintended act of sexual provocation.
We weren’t even supposed to be in Nouakchott any more. Should’ve been half-way to the border at Nouadhibou by then, not wasting time reading. Actually, I didn’t mind the fact that the explosions we’d heard the previous night were New Years Eve fireworks and not another bloodless coup as we had speculated before drifting off to sleep. First thing in the morning Claire had got to do something bureaucratic to do with the truck and as soon as that was done we’d be off. First thing in the morning was when Claire discovered it was New Years Day.
"New Years Day? Who’s New Years Day? What?" I asked rolling over in my sleeping bag and peering at her through the mosquito net. It wasn’t a stream of Antipodean invective that came from outside the truck, it was a flash-flood with boulders and everything. It wasn’t my fault that Nouakchott was closed for the day so I didn’t take it personally. I was also quite happy at the idea of a day without motion – it felt like a day off. There was a bit of me that was raging because I wasn’t going out to explore. That’s what I’d normally have done if I found myself somewhere unexpectedly. But fortunately the bit of my brain that deals with "sensible" is bigger. I still wasn’t well, I was very tired and it was really hot. I wasn’t meant to be in Nouakchott so I’d just pretend I wasn’t. I was going to get a big cup of tea then find somewhere to sit comfortably with a guide book and a map of West Africa.
This was the first time I’d ever travelled any distance in a foreign country without having a guide book if not surgically attached to my hand, then at least within easy reach. I’d had a read through before we left Bamako but that felt like light-years back in time. I needed to know where I had come from, where I was and where I was going. And whilst I realise that people might think I’m being metaphysical here I must stress that I’m not. I had to get physically orientated as a matter of some urgency, not philosophically. Not knowing where I was geographically was like having someone steal my security blanket. I’d worry about the metaphysical once I got to grips with my physical whereabouts.
Anyway, I wasn’t even sure I really wanted to leave the sanctuary of the auberge compound. As we’d rolled into town with the setting sun the previous day there’d been a marked increase in traffic heading our way. It was moving at a steady pace and not by any means heavy so it was a bit of a surprise when, barely a stone’s throw from the centre of town, everything just stopped. Well, we did move but it was literally inch by inch with long periods of stillness in between. We were trying to get down a road that was about seven cars wide that narrowed further on to about four cars wide. The road was covered in cars but they were all pointing in different directions. At one point we were front bumper to front bumper with a clapped-out yellow Merc taxi. The only advantage we had was that because we were higher up than most people we could see movement before anyone else. It would also have made an excellent photo opportunity. However, the disadvantage with being high up was that we were eyeball to eyeball with what seemed to be an awful lot of military types with guns hanging about on walls and roofs.
Now I know that taking photos in the vicinity of anything military is not a good idea in a lot of countries. We used to be quite laid-back about it in the UK because I remember being amazed at seeing loads of plane spotters sitting at the end of a runway outside an RAF base once and nobody gave a toss. I guess they’re not allowed to anymore. Anyway, the thing about the military in some countries is that it doesn’t look like the military in our country. Firstly our military don’t tend to walk around in uniform holding hands regardless of gender. I’m not saying they shouldn’t, just that they don’t. And secondly, our military and strategic buildings look like military and strategic buildings, while theirs could be any random structure they catch you taking a photograph of. The rules I’m afraid, are not clear so, be careful out there, things aren’t always what they seem – that might not have been a simple gridlock we were in, it could have been an anti-government demonstration for all we knew. It wasn’t – but it could have been. You never know.
Once we reached the auberge and parked up in the compound I already felt like I’d personally met the entire population of Nouakchott in the space of an hour and that was about as much cultural interaction I could cope with for a while. Except that, for some inexplicable reason, I had to have some Twinkie Milk. Claire had to have a camel sandwich and some Twinkie Milk, also inexplicably. We’d wandered away from the strange sanctuary of the Auberge Menata along a pleasant, sandy, tree-lined side street, the pavement illuminated by overlapping pools of street lighting. We turned left onto a busy tarmac road lined with shops, the majority of which were closed. Claire stopped suddenly and gawped across the road. Her next words, here edited so as not to offend, could be roughly translated as "Oh dear me, what a dreadful shame – the camel sandwich shop is closed."
"Well I expect they sell camel sandwiches at the Twinkie Milk shop." I was a woman obsessed by now. "Let’s keep going shall we?"
We came to a road junction that really would’ve worked a lot more efficiently if it had been a roundabout but it wasn’t so it was bedlam. The cars were all moving quite fast, there were loads of near-misses and some of the driving was pretty abysmal, but nobody seemed to mind. And, the other slightly odd thing was that every car seemed to have a family in it, like on a Sunday afternoon at home except that in Nouakchott they looked like they were enjoying themselves. Even though the roads were heaving, there were only three shops open out of the many around the junction. One had Twinkie Milk, another had kebabs and one was a big modern patisserie that was doing a roaring trade. Not only were folk queuing up inside for baguettes, there was a sort of makeshift "drive-thru" arrangement from a side door that opened onto the road. And they weren’t buying just one either, some folk were buying them by the sack load. We were just too tired to think about whether people normally bought that much bread on a Monday night in Mauritania or to worry about military coups once in our sleeping bags.
So I had to read the guide properly. If I’d already done this then I’d have known it was the eve of the 1st of Moharem and that just maybe people in Mauritania behaved differently from usual, just like a lot of us do on New Years Eve. But this is also a moral tale- having rejected the truck cab and the suspect bench I found the perfect spot to read. It was hot but bearable and very comfortable. I’d been lying like this, stretched out on my front, elbows supported by a pillow when I came to the bit in the guide book about how not to laze about taking it easy in Mauritania if you are female. Now, if I’d already read the guide I wouldn’t have been in the position of realising I could have been giving the male hotel staff the come on for the last hour or so. In future, even if I’m so ill the Grim Reaper has to read it to me, I want to know what the guide book says before I get there. Especially the stuff about sexually suggestive behaviour.