Mauritania Stories and Tips

Part 7: There's More to Beige Than Meets the Eye*

Travel Photo by IgoUgo member

At last we were well on the way to Nouadhibou and the border with Western Sahara. Of course we didn’t leave at the crack of dawn-even though we were up then, we didn’t leave until 11:30am. Nouakchott doesn’t open until 9am and that’s it. At least, not the place you go to get the form for the truck that’s been posted to Olivia that she has to collect from the post office to give to Claire because we can’t go anywhere without it. So we breakfasted on coffee and a packet of halal biscuits we’d bought the night before and were now addicted to. Eventually this guy Amadou who worked for Olivia was packed off to the post office at 8:45am. We’d paid up the bill and were ready for off the minute he got back. The minute he got back he told Claire that she had to go in person to the post office because the envelope was addressed to her and not Olivia. So I had time for another cup of tea.

Then we were stuck in the compound because some French "professionals" had parked their vehicle opposite the gates and we didn’t have tight enough steering on the truck to get out. They’d only gone up to the shops but still somebody had to run and find a driver. This guy arrived with a lot of Gallic expostulating and Claire expostulated back the way they do in New Zealand, which turned out to be the same way we do it in the U.K. as well. Just what exactly, is meant by an open-handed, palms-upwards gesture accompanied by a shoulder shrug and raised eyebrows? It could’ve meant "sorry," but I have to say it really did look much more like "Oh, it’s them, is that all," with a touch of "our truck’s better than your truck" thrown in for good measure. Either that or it was a dodgy impersonation of Marlon Brando in The Godfather. But no, we knew we were right, we’d seen them and heard them the previous morning. Pointing and laughing at our beloved Madge. Nobody disses our truck and gets away with it! There wasn’t a cat in hell’s chance that the good Monsieur would able to misinterpret in any way, the instant reflex-like right-handed gestures we felt he deserved in response. Git!

Yeh, OK, childish but it made us feel better. As did the trip to the grocery store for supplies once we’d filled up with diesel. It was a tiny little shop on the way out of town and I think we bought more in 10 minutes than they usually sell in a week. No way were we going to resort to eating sheep food. This time we were setting out well stocked up. Real fresh baguettes, more Laughing Cow cheese, crisps, more halal biscuits which, according to the picture on the packet, were daffodil flavoured, some APPLES! and of course, a couple of bottles of Twinkie Milk. We had a feeling the apples might be a bit lacking on the taste front and we were right, but they were apples. There had to be some vitamin C in them somewhere. What really made the shopkeeper’s day though, was that we decided to do our "duty-free" shopping in his shop and we bought his entire stock of Dunhill and Marlboro Lights off him. So, just in case there are any social pariahs out there who’re either travelling there now or planning to travel overland through Mauritania, then this is the cheapest place to buy your cigarettes.

Once you’ve bought them, hide them or they’ll be "confiscated" off you at a police checkpoint. Alcohol is a no-no and if they find any in your vehicle, not only will they take it from you, but they’ll then give you a pretty hard time too. Seems fair enough – it’s their country, their law. However, they’re not supposed to "confiscate" cigarettes but they can and do. And they get away with it primarily because, although your average non-Muslim knows that alcohol is forbidden, they’re not really sure about smoking. I know there are Muslims who smoke, and I know there are Muslims who drink alcohol. I know the Muslims who’re drinking are breaking the rules, but I’m pretty certain the smoking issue is one of those open to interpretation. Sometimes the rules can vary slightly from country to country or even town to town, just to add to the uncertainty of the situation. So if a policeman at a checkpoint sees or smells evidence of cigarettes, he’ll tell you they’re forbidden in Mauritania. He’ll then want to search the vehicle and you’ll decide to hand over the pack of cigarettes because it’s so much easier and less hassle if you do and he was bound to find them anyway because there’s only so many cartons you can hide in a truck and if he found one he’d just keep at it ‘til he found them all and it would take ages as well and then you’d have to safely re-pack your vehicle, equipment and personal stuff which would be just intolerable because for all that time you’d been standing on the tarmac under the midday sun. Of course you’re going to hand over your cigarettes, firstly because if they are right then you could end up in a local prison or be subject to some fairly gruesome traditional punishment and secondly, because you’re going to die of heat-stroke if you don’t. Of course not everybody’s at it but you’ve got to admit that it’s a pretty clever scam and I gather quite a few travellers have been stung by it.

A friend of mine recently seemed to find it amusing that I could find anything other than ‘beige’ to write about Mauritania. The 460km of brand new tarmac road between Nouakchott and Nouadhibou was certainly beige compared to the some of the areas we’d driven through along the Route de l’Espoir. But just what is beige exactly? Next time you’re in a DIY store pick up one of those paint colour strip charts with samples of what you might call the beige colour collection on it. Now look at the colours - never mind the pretentious names – how many different beiges are there? Loads. Especially when you start comparing different paint brand beiges with each other as well. So, it’s the same with the beige bit north of Nouakchott, it’s not just beige, it’s every beige you can imagine and therefore not as beige as you’d have been expecting if you’d been talking to my friend. And, there are people living and working out there in all that variety of beigeness too. We kept driving past these ruined structures built out of orangey beige clay bricks. Some had been weathered down to a sort of cigar shaped pile of rubble covering an area about the same in length and breadth as four estate cars parked nose to tail would cover. They were set back off the road some way, many had the vestiges of tracks leading to them, and they appeared at fairly regular intervals in varying degrees of dilapidation.

Once we saw one actually being used it was obvious what it was, but before that we could’ve been looking at some early Moorish earthwork for all we knew. They were ramps used for sand-mining or quarrying or whatever it’s called and they’re for loading sand onto the back of trucks. The sand was dug from the area around the ramp, carried or pushed up it on a cart and then tipped from the top edge into the back of a waiting truck. At some point they decide eventually to up sticks, move a few kilometres further up the road, build another ramp and start all over again. At the time we couldn’t figure out how they decided when it was time to move on – it didn’t look as if they’d ever reach the sub-marginal, non-economically viable reserves of sand in any of their lifetimes. It was only later we were told, although it’s still not clear why, that it was a question of beigeness. In the world of sand apparently, there is not only a standard of quality required for the Mauritanian building trade but an aesthetic standard as well. The sand has got to perform well, but it’s got to look good too. It can’t be just any old beige, it’s got to be this year’s beige! *I am indebted to Davie Ramage for providing the inspiration for the title of this section.

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