Nouakchott is a very windy place apparently. In fact the name means something like ‘meeting of the winds’ or ‘place of the winds’ in Hassaniya, which is a dialect of Arabic spoken in Mauritania. In 1957 someone decided that the capital of Mauritania had to be situated somewhere where fierce sand storms blow for nearly 250 days a year. The day we spent there fortunately, was not one of them. No, we were there for one of the other 115 days or so that it’s almost too hot to breathe. Not even the hint of a breeze from the sea. I found it really hard to believe that the tribal elders responsible for this decision really couldn’t find somewhere a little less inhospitable to run the country from. But then, what did I know? There may well be some benefits to having your capital city continuously blasted with sand that I just can’t appreciate. Maybe it’s a defence strategy of some sort—why would anyone want to invade a place like this? What on earth would be the point? God knows, there’s so much military around the place that you have to assume that the Mauritanians must think somebody wants to invade them. If I didn’t already know the history then the noticeable increase in military vehicles, police checkpoints and bunker things as we headed north out of Nouakchott would have suggested the perceived threat to be from Morocco. It also meant it was hard to take photos, again. Not only did the military keep spoiling the view but most of my photos were taken from the cab of a moving truck.Once I knew I was going to Mauritania rather than straight home, some of the folk from the Mali trip gave me their spare films before leaving Bamako. ‘You’ve got to take loads of pictures and keep a journal’, they said, in unison, well not quite. But the consensus was that I should keep some sort of record. I promised I’d take photos if I could but they’d be ‘tell it like it really was’ rather than works of art. As for a journal, an ‘as you go along’ sort of diary, well I couldn’t do one of those. Well I could, but it would be a tad heavy on the descriptive side and somewhat deficient on the information side. Sometimes I need to know what it is I’ve actually seen before I write about it, and sometimes I can’t find out until I get home. I usually take notes inside my head but as a concession to convention, I took real notes this time. Sort of. Most of the notes are about the Auberge Menata which is hardly surprising as I could have written a book about the place. Actually, not the place, but the people there. God alone knows what I’d been expecting as we drove into the compound, but it wasn’t having to wait for some white guy with dreadlocks to finish cart-wheeling about on the sand in front of the truck. Then there was the whole bunch of ‘professional’ type travellers, mostly male, varying styles and shades of functional khaki – you know the type? Well they all appeared and stood watching with a certain amount of scepticism as Claire started to reverse the truck neatly and efficiently into a truck-sized space between two modified Landover type vehicles. I did note a modicum of begrudging admiration from this lot but nothing too excessive mind you – nothing that would upset their immaculately dressed khaki-clad fully co-ordinated partners. How do they do it, these people? How do they stay so clean? I used to think these people only existed in adverts, fashion magazines and the occasional movie. The first time I ever came across travellers like this were those people who could do long haul from London to Sydney and skip off the plane looking like they’d just done a luxury spa weekend. They were usually female and wearing white. On the ‘overland scene’ however, the look was gender neutral, khaki and freshly ironed. I don’t know how they do it, but what a way to spend your time in Africa—ironing.Dreadlocks had retreated to the al fresco dining area where he, and his assorted mates appeared to be doing a variety of activities ranging from meditating in the lotus position to juggling with their flip flops. Meanwhile their assorted dogs were racing around the compound causing a severe case of over-excitement in a naked Italian toddler covered in chocolate choking on a banana. We left the ‘professionals’ casting their eyes over the truck like a bunch of bored traffic cops and dumped our stuff on a table in the shade next to meditating man. Claire went off to find the owner, Olivia, to arrange picking up some form or another for the truck at the post office the next day. I went off to organise a cup of tea. When we met back at the table, I handed Claire her cup of tea and she sat down muttering because there wouldn’t be an Olivia until the morning. ‘Excuse me, but do you like Madagascar?’ We both turned around to look at the speaker. ‘Do you like Madagascar?' ‘Never been, sorry.’ I replied. ‘Do you mean the film or the island?’ asked Claire.‘Oh, the island of course.’ said the mid-twenties man of the world as he fiddled with the socks up on his sandaled feet. He looked expectantly at Claire while I admired his obviously new black t-shirt with its fluorescent green printed jungle sprouting from the bottom, the random but equally fluorescent tropical birds of indeterminate species flying therein and the words MADAGASCAR – I LOVE IT! emblazoned across the front.
‘Never been, sorry.’ said Claire. Madagascar Man, who had been sitting a table over from us then slid himself along his bench and onto the one facing us at our table. He reached for his bottle of coke, took a long noisy sip and put it down in front of him, and us. ‘There’s a place in Madagascar that looks exactly like Scotland’. Now this may have been a traditional form of greeting where he came from but where we were from you don’t just plonk yourself down at someone else’s table and start lecturing them about Madagascar. It’s just not cricket. We left.I can’t remember a conversation with anyone at the auberge that wasn’t a little bit odd. At one point the next night this late 20’s, arm waving, overdramatic, French woman came into the compound ranting and raving about a car or something. It was like watching a bad audition. Anyway, a whole bunch of folk who looked like they worked at the auberge disappeared out of the compound with her wildly gesticulating form. It had been a mildly interesting incident and it hadn’t bothered us so we went back to our books. We’d been invited to share dinner with Olivia and some of her friends so we were reading by lamplight in the eating area. A few other people were dotted around, there was music coming from the kitchen. It can’t have been more than an hour later when the queen of the amateur dramatics was back and heading for the kitchen. Still waving her arms around and being very French but clutching her stomach from time to time she emerged from there moments later and walked over to us.‘You av crem?’‘Crem?’ I enquired.
‘ You Eengleesh? You av crem for le malad? Now it took a while but we got there in the end. Having established that she thought she had pulled a muscle in her abdomen, it hurt, she wanted pain relief but not ‘peeels’, we were able to provide her with some of that Deep Heat cream. Problem solved except that we never did work out how she had done it. ‘I av peek up beeg moolet.’ ‘You peek up quoi?’ I asked. ‘Beeg moolet. Too beeg.’ We hadn’t a clue what she’d peeked up but I suggested that she try bending her knees next time she found herself picking up moolet. She said, ‘Oh! You mean like ze African weemin?’
While I was politely agreeing with her I swear I heard Claire whisper, ‘No you airhead—like any sensible person would when peeking up a beeg moolet.’
It was late, the dinner invite had been for 6pm and it was now 10.30pm. We couldn’t cope with the idea of having to talk to anybody else that might’ve been mad and we were too tired to be hungry any more. We’d been told every ten minutes or so it would be ready in ten minutes or so. And we’d believed it, just like we believed, when we crawled into our sleeping bags, that we were going to be up and off to Nouadhibou at the brake of dawn.