Chingetti to Ouaidane

Trip Start Sep 13, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Mauritania  ,
Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Back in Atar we finally found and settled on a price for a taxi ride to get to the 7th holiest Islamic village; Chinguetti. However we were to loose Antonio, who decided to try his luck at hitching a ride there, as a result I wasn't to see him again for 3 weeks and instead found myself with Jean-Marc clinging to the back of yet another Toyota Hiace with a four year old staring at me wide eyed, only blinking from the stinging, when her mother poured water over the mass of knots of hair and flaky skin that concealed quite a serious scalp infection.

Between Atar and Chinguetti is about 80 km and part of climbs up onto a plateau. Only some of the road is sealed and the rest is just a dirt strip, but I don't think you have to have a 4wd to get there. The 4wd was loaded with so much stuff we couldn't make it up the hill, so halfway up we got off the back and walked up. While walking up we saw the results of an accident when a huge truck that had gone around the corner too fast had bounced a few times off the concrete retaining wall before going through it, then plummeting to the canyon floor.

When we arrived and climbed down off the truck we were approached by a young guy wearing a suit. He explained he had the Auberge across the road at 3 euro the night. This was how we met Abdu, one of the various personalities of Chinguetti. At this moment we were pretty keen to have a shower and rest as we were still suffering a bit for the previous train trip and the night trip to Atar.

I ended up spending 4 days at Chinguetti, generally just resting and checking out the village in which there are a number if Islamic libraries. Which you can visit and a tour guide will talk to you about the various scrolls and manuscripts dating back to the 15th century collected from Mecca, Iraq, Morocco and Spain. The library that I ended up going to had some you guy who looked liked he would rather have been else where and seemed to regurgitate a memorized series of phrases and then proceeded to respond laconically to any further questions. So was somewhat disappointed from the entire experience. Still other tourists with who I spoke to afterwards told me that their tour guide were brilliant; so we must have just struck out. I did find out that it was 6 months to Mecca from here and 6 months return by camel.

Abdu the owner turned out to be 22 years old, descendant from his grandfather the nomad of which he still has a lot of family that roam the desert with their camels. He has remarried 2 years ago to a nomadic girl who at the time was 13 years old and with whom they now have an 8 month old baby. She doesn't speak much French but is very beautiful and had the most perfect teeth I'd ever seen. While having tea under a tent she turned and pointed to me and told me that I had a very pretty beard.
Abdu only managed to buy the Auberge by borrowing money off various European tourists and paying them back. He has nearly paid everyone back and is looking at expanding.

The moors in the region have always been slave owners, Abdu remembers his grandfather had 5 of them, but before he died he divided up his land and gave it to his slaves before freeing them. I learnt a fair bit about the rules that govern how one can have a slave. They are reasonable complex and while you can't ever justify the idea of slavery, there are a lot of cases where slaves have not wanted to be freed because they would then have to worry about feeding, clothing and housing which under slavery is all provided for them. Abdu tells me his aunty still has a slave.

Wanting to see more of the desert, I talked to Abdu who organize a guide and a couple of camels to take me from Chinguetti to Ouadane, which is the eastern most town in this area before only desert remains. The trip takes 5 days and covers about 110 kilometers. Abdu having organized this trip many a time before, went out and brought all the supplies and organized the logistics. The next day I said goodbye to Abdu and the others in the Auberge and met the guide and the two camels with whom I spent the entire day walking along sand dunes direction north east.

In general, each of the days resembled, except for the landscape that changed. To summarize, having slept on a mat on a flat stretch of raised sand, I generally always woke when the sun was just rising. The guide had always woken earlier for prayers and was generally in the process of making tea. With a 'Bismillah' ("In the name of Allah") he would serve the first oxygenated mint syrup. This always occurred thrice per meal and for breakfast I had a small baguette which each day became staler and staler, but not being much of breakfast eater, this suited me fine. When we were ready, he would go off and find the camels that had wondered around at night looking for bushes to eat. Sometime it would take him 40 minutes to find then and bring them back. Afterwards I'd pretend to help him tie on the luggage but he probably would have been quicker working alone. Still by 7-8 we would have left, sometime with me walking, sometimes I would jump into the broken saddle and ride.

Riding camels at first takes a bit of getting use to as 3 hours of pelvic thrusts to accommodate the natural movements of the camel's back seems a bit strange. At first it was seriously uncomfortable and thought it was some type of sick joke until I realized that the saddle was designed to accommodate small Arabs as well as being half broken it took me a bit of time to readjust various blankets and pillows so that my buttocks would over hang at the back but relived the rest.
Then apart from a bit of camel sickness, I really enjoyed riding camels. If you ever get to ride camels in a caravan then you will always notice that there is a guide walks in front and pulls the first camel, this is because unlike a horse, if you don't pull the first camel it just stops. Abdu also told me that it is traditional for desert guides to always walk, even if there is a spare camel because otherwise they get lazy.

Sometimes we would stop at 10 for some tea, but this wasn't mandatory and at first we continued till lunchtime, when we would find a suitable tree that had good shade and unpack the camels. I'd walk around gathering firewood and we would cook lunch on a wood fire. Bellies full, we would lay in the shade and sleep the heat away till 3.30 at which time we would have some more tea and the Guide would be off to go find where the camels had gotten to. The afternoon walk would last till 6 which gave us enough time to set up camp and to begin cooking dinner before the sun went down. It was the evenings at dusk that I most enjoyed in the desert.

My guide as you can tell from the pictures is about as authentic a nomad as one can expect. Although not much of a conversationalist he made up for it in authenticity. At first I tried talking to him in French and we had simple discussions, the problem occurred when I wanted more detail on a certain topic. At which time if he didn't know how to respond in French, he would just repeat 'Yes' until I stopped talking. This was a new strategy to me, but as a result I didn't push him further into uncomfortable territory. One day apart from 15 "Bismillah" every time he served tea we spent an entire day without saying a word.

The landscape was sand dunes for the first 2 days which later gave way to a rocky savanna plains which lasted another couple of days before the last day it reverted back to sand upon arriving at Ouadane.

A few times we would walk pas a village that might consist of a couple of stone houses and various huts made out of palm leaves. At which time maybe a camel herder or villager would cross our path. It was interesting each time we met people because instead of changing your trajectory to go directly towards the person coming to see you. Each would carry on in the direction that they wanted to go towards and change the walking pace to make sure that at some point the two parties would meet.
As a result, if both people were going generally in the same direction, then you would find yourself walking quite close to the other for quite awhile before finally greeting.
The greeting was quite an elaborate affair, each time the visitor asked about the health of the other and then for all the rest of the family members. This could go on for ages and it was only by the time the other had asked the same series of questions did they only really had a conversation. My guide for some reason or another always seemed to perch on one foot and lean against his stick while looking in every other direction then at the person he was speaking to and at the same time they would talk with out pausing to listening to the other until all of a sudden it was all over and we were on our way again.

On the final day having been 5 days in the desert without washing, I was starting to smell pretty funky. Although I was enjoying the solitude of wondering in the desert, I was looking forwards to the social Auberge life again. It was around midday that we spotted Ouadane, perched on a little cliff and headed for it. Early afternoon I found myself back in civilization and got me a room at "Chez Zaida" one of the personalities of Ouadane.

Found myself a little bit stranded at Ouadane due to the local elections that were to start within two days of my arrival. It seemed that a lot of cars where coming to help out with various campaigners but not leaving in the other direction, so I just stayed put for a few days. Four days later was the official start date and each of the 3 candidates held a party that began at midnight. With a few locals and two French guys I went and attended Mohammed's campaign party; whom I would later have the chance to converse with at his Auberge in Atar. We all entered and sat on mats while men in their robes sat around the outside and women and children on the floor. In the center was a small fenced off area in which sat a few musicians with drums and funny looking guitars with two cords.
On the strike of midnight the band started up, women started trilling their tongues; guys yelled and kids were setting off fireworks off the roof. In this hullabaloo, some of the women and young men got up and did some traditional dancing. Speeches were also made specifically by the Mohammed the candidate of which I understood zip. But it was interesting to see the democratic process at work.
The election campaign lasts 15 days and during which from each campaign headquarters is blasted as loud as possible, day and night, propaganda in the form of a song that hails the virtues of its financer. If I were Mauritanian and lived next to one these candidates I sure as hell wouldn't vote for them after having put me through hell for 15 days.

The next day I got offered a lift to Atar with a couple of French guys who were traveling around in a 4wd they were hoping to sell in Mali.
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