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Four shoes and a bike pump

February 28, 2009

The journey down to Nouakchott was in in itself pretty uneventful, save for spending the last two hours with the gear stick jammed against my thigh. And the taxi ride between the long distance taxi garage and the centre of town posed no real problems either. It was when I arrived at the auberge that the trouble began, for I soon discovered that I had left my boots in the back of the pick-up truck that had brought me down from Atar. Finding an enormous pair of decent quality waterproof boots is hard enough at the best of times, and, not rating my chances of replacing them locally, I was understandably a little downhearted.

My one small hope was that the owner of the place that I had stayed in in Chinguetti was friends with the taxi driver that took me from there to Atar, and that he in turn had handed me over to an acquiaintance for the onward journey; but alas the second driver could not be found. It was suggested that I try go back to the Garage Atar on the outskirts of Nouakchott in the morning, with the hope of finding the same driver preparing to set off on the return journey, so at 7am the following morning that is what I did. Sadly, neither the driver nor his vehicle were anywhere to be seen. However, a kindly old chap called Melainine, who appeared to be the man in charge, took me under his wing, and we eventually found someone who had seen me arrive the night before (quite how he recognised me I do not know) and seemed to think that the driver might turn up at somepoint later on. I was sent back to town with reassurances that they would keep an eye out for him, and instructions to come back later on.

I obediently did so, but with ever dwindling hopes of success. My fears looked to have been realised when I returned to be told that the driver had not arrived. My pal, however, had managed to somehow discover his name and phone and registration numbers. He dialled the number and passed me the phone, but after 10 seconds of my stuttering French the line went dead. After a long conversation that I didn't really understand we went off to find a police officer, who took us to find another police officer, who said more things that I didn't understand, and then, after a while, phoned the driver again and shouted at him. It was was reported that he was on his way, and I was told to wait in the local shop that doubled as the local police post, where I sat for quite a while wondering why on Earth I still believed that my boots had any chance of reappearing. After a while the first office reappeared, and after some general shouting between those present, and some fiercer shouting down the phone I was informed that the driver was now definitley on his way. I was nonetheless very surprised when he did indeed appear 10 minutes later, sheepishly sporting a carrier bag inside which was a large pair of boots. Before being allowed to leave I was made to open the bag in front of a crowd of about 20 other drivers, all of whom were very keen to know exactly why such a fuss had been made over a pair of shoes.

Over a leisurely breakfast the following morning we noticed a very large bicycle pump standing against the wall. This, we concluded, had been forgotten by an Irish cyclist (a cyclist from Ireland, rather than a practitioner of the art of Irish Cycling, whatever that may be), who was in the middle of a journey from Dakar to Europe. Fed up with cycling into a head wind, he had left half an hour earlier with the intention of cycling to the Garage Atar and finding a vehicle to take him and his bike in that direction. Given my great fortune the day before I thought it only fair that I should head out there and find him, and without further ado jumped into a taxi.

Upon arrival I was greeted by Melainine, who had a puzzled grin on his face, and I assume the thought "what the ...?" in his head. I quickly explained that this time it was not I but another that had forgotten something, waving the pump in the air as evidence. There had been no sighting of any kind of cyclist that morning, but it was agreed that I would wait around for a while as he had probably got lost on the way. To kill time I went for a stroll along the pretty roadside, figuring that he would pass me en route should he appear. He had indeed got lost, but by going past the garage, and so had arrived before I returned, to be greeted by a large crowd telling him that he had forgotten his pump, much to his confusion. I reappeared just before he was about to leave, and it turned out that he had bought a smaller pump the day before, most people being not so daft as to leave a piece of essential equipment behind.

All this toing and froing gave me a good chance to experience Mauritanian urban driving, the likes of which I have never seen before. It is not that people drive at reckless speeds, for none of the vehicles are capable of such, but more the lack of rules, of which there seem to be approximately none. I suspect that the driving test consists of a quick check to make sure that you know how to sit in a car, a friendly pat on the roof, and away you go, Inch'Allah. Who gets right of way depends on who wants it most. The best stunt that I have seen is a u-turn in the middle of a crossroads through four directions of oncoming traffic. No need to waste time with mirror and signal, just cut straight to the manoeuvre and let everyone deal with the consequences. The rear view mirror is much more sensibly used for in-transit personal grooming. If you really need to check what is happening behind there is a perfectly good door that you can hang out of.

I spent the afternoon visiting the local fishing port with an American girl who was modestly dressed by Western standards, but evidently not so by local ones. We spent a very nice couple of hours watching the boats come in, taking photos of all and sundry, and having locals take photos of us (many more, I must admit, of my companion than of me; I am not fully sure what use a young Mauritanian chap has for a photo of an attractive white girl, but I suspect that it carries with it a considerable risk of blindness). We decided to walk the 5km or so back into town, not quite remembering the way but confident that we would recognise the right route. I was sure that turning right at the big roundabout was correct, and then decided to atone for my mistake by suggesting that we navigate using the twin minarets which surely belonged to the big mosque near the auberge. I am no student of Mauritanian religious architecture, but I now know that the twin minaret motif is rather popular.

The next morning a met a Italian chap who had arranged that he and a Morrocan girl he had arrived with the night before would continue on to Dakar with the same driver, and so, thinking it a handy and hassle free way to head onwards to Senegal, I made a quick decision and packed up my stuff with the intention of joining them (yes, that sentence does include the words quick and decision; it sometimes happens). It soon became apparent that he was only happy to go as far as the border, for which the price that had been agreed was extortionate. The Morrocan girl didn't care, but after an unsuccessful negotiation with the driver and a more fruitful negotiation with our fellow passenger we ended up doing what everyone else does and heading for the Garage Rosso and thence to the border. The crossing at Rosso has a bit of a reputation for hassle, but other than a bit of a todo over the price of a pirogue across the Senegal river it was all very straightforward. Much more so than the hour and a half taken to clear emigration at the Morrocan border, and the 5kph drive through the 3km of minefield that followed. Once in Senegal I bade my companions farewell and quickly found a taxi to St Louis, driven by a portly gentleman in a Vanessa Paradis t-shirt.

It was only after I had checked into the auberge that I discovered that, at some point in the day, an enterprising individual had stuck their hand into my rucksack and fished out my other pair of shoes. At least I have recovered my enormous boots, which I are proving to be the ideal footwear for walking around in tropical heat.

I am now off to wash my feet again.

Posted by jamesb at February 28, 2009 11:42 AM


All I say is lucky that it was just a gear stick against your thigh!
Pls humour me with the names of the currencies of Mauritania and Senegal. My favourite so far is the "kip" of Laos which amuses Netherlanders as "kip" is Dutch for chicken. The Mongolian togrog sounds quite revolting.
Have fun in Senegal, sounds like a fascinating palce. I once shared a house in Seoul with an one eyed Senegalese guy who waxed lyrical about his homeland.

Posted by: emma tariket at March 2, 2009 10:20 AM

All I say is lucky that it was just a gear stick against your thigh!
Pls humour me with the names of the currencies of Mauritania and Senegal. My favourite so far is the "kip" of Laos which amuses Netherlanders as "kip" is Dutch for chicken. The Mongolian togrog sounds quite revolting.
Have fun in Senegal, sounds like a fascinating palce. I once shared a house in Seoul with an one eyed Senegalese guy who waxed lyrical about his homeland.

Posted by: emma tariket at March 2, 2009 10:20 AM

Ahh Jim you make me laugh - I enjoyed reading your last two updates after a long day decorating and looking after Holly as well - a day back in the office would be much less tiring just messing about speaking to people and updating wspan q's and options :-)
You really should take up writing "for real" when you have finished your travels
Take care and I hope the boots hold out!

Posted by: Vicki Moss at March 2, 2009 4:28 PM

Great stuff...
Can you by any chance send me the link to the story of your Asia tour in 2003 (?)? I just want to check if you eventually found your Gibbons?

After I left Laos, I eventually got stuck in China (it's the 15th month) and I hate it. Please tell me more about the outside world!!!!

Posted by: Richy at March 9, 2009 9:14 AM

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