Sun-Earther

irregular burbling

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February 28, 2009

Four shoes and a bike pump

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 11:42 AM | Comments (4)

February 27, 2009

Sahel Ore

Before I start, I must point out that the ore I am about to refer to is mined in the Sahara, not the Sahel; but can anyone spot the clever and hilarious anagram of the title? Now I shall begin.

At a length of about 2.3km the trains that bring iron ore to the coastal town of Nouadibhou from the mining town of Zouerat, a few hundred kilometres beyond the middle of nowhere and left and the third camel, are the longest in the world. Once a day there is one that has somthing that was at one point in its life a passenger carriage hooked on at the back. The night before I planned to try and be on it I was variously told that it left at 2, 2.30 and 3pm, and made my way out to the station early just in case. Upon arrival I was told that it left at 5, 5.30 or 6pm, and it was at this point that I began to suspect that, rather than official departure times, people were telling which slip they had pulled out of the hat in the office sweepstake.

At 8.30, after a couple of non-passenger trains had passed, I and two Polish chaps who had been similarly misled, boarded the train by the prosaically conventional door, rather than being given a leg up through a window, and found ourselves one of the beautifully tended compartments. We were soon rattling our way through the darkened desert on our way through to a collection of sheds poking through the sand, goat turds and discarded plastic that goes by the name of Choum. As the night ebbed away, we chucked our bags from the train (one Pole cleverly cushioning the impact by making sure that the bit of his bag that held the litre of whisky was the first bit to hit the ground) and boarded a bush taxi bound for Atar, at the edge of the Adrar Plateau.

As well as quite a lot of sand, the Adrar Plateau contains a handful of World Heritage listed caravan towns, where salt traders crossing the Sahara would stop on the way to their holidays in Devon and Cornwall. I spent a few nights in and around one of these, Chinguetti, including one in the desert as part of an overnight camel trek. I would say in the middle of the desert, except that at no point did we venture far enough from town for the guide to lose mobile phone reception. It was, however, well past the 500m wide ring of rubbish surrounding the town, and definitely far enough away that I would have been in quite a bit of bother if left alone. It was also incredibly quiet (bodily functions of chamelle and chamelier aside) - so quiet that as I lay half awake in the morning I could hear the wingbeats of a crow flying 10 metres overhead.

During the trek the majority of the time spent not walking was taken up by the making and drinking of tea. Drinking tea is the major past time in Morocco and Mauritania, and some people have even given up their day jobs to focus on it more fully. The process involves a fair bit of ceremony. The firt step is to fill half the teapot with tealeaves and set it to boil. One then adds sugar - either a generous fiustful straight from the bag, or several lumps. I have seen sugar lumps the size of full grown Weetabix. Next comes the complicated bit, as one pours tea from pot to glass, then to another glass, then back into the pot, then in to a different glass, and so on, until a quick taste indicates that it is right for drinking. At first I suspected that some sort of magic was involved, but I think the actual intention is to make sure that all the lovely sugar gets dissolved, for one does not want to run the risk of not inducing type 2 diabetes in later life. It is not uncommon to get through at least 20 glasses a day, and you cannot go into a shop, hotel or roadside cafe without one being offered. Recent DNA studies suggest that the entire population of the region is directly descended from Mrs Doyle.

Another curious ritual that I have noticed in the desert is a bizarre and lengthy greeting. Often when people meet, both parties launch into a long string of questions and set answers that roughly translates into "Peace be with you. And also with you. How are you? Fine, thanks. And the wife and kids? Fine too. Grandma? Yep, her as well. Going anywhere nice on holidays this year?...etc etc etc". As far as I can tell, no significant information is exchanged, it is just a formulaic recital that one must go through. The overall effect is reminiscent of the episode of Blackadder featuring the superstitious actors.

A custom that I have tried to observe myself is that of only using the right hand to eat, this being one of many parts of the world where use of the left is reserved strictly for tending the needs of the other end of the alimentary canal. Left handed people are easy to spot, for though they smell very nice they have bits of dried food smeared all over their chins.

I would, as an aside, mention that although slavery in Mauritania was made illegal in 1981, and some sort of punishment was actually introduced in the early years of this century, the buying and selling of people is rumoured to still happen. But to do so would be a blatant and outrageous lie. If one asks about its continuing existence, the answer is a short, sharp and very truthful No. Followed by a swift change of subject.

It seems that most of the rest of the time between now and when I last wrote has been spent in shared taxis. Very intimately shared taxis, seating two in the passenger seat and four in the back. Not the most comfortable way to travel, particularly if you are 6 foot 5, or have the misfortune to find yourself sharing the same vehicle as someone who is. More often than not there is an outbreak of mirth after about five minutes of the journey following a comment from the poor soul wedged between me and the door (for I invariably lose the game of who can stand about outside for longest so as to avoid sitting in the middle), which presumably translates along the lines of "For fuck's sake, have I got to endure sitting next to this big smelly git for the next four hours?". Battered old Mercedes seem to be the vehicle of choice, although it was in my old friend the dual cab Toyota Hilux that I bid my farewell to the Adrar Plateau and made my way to Nouakchott, capital of Mauritania. But therein lies a tale for another time.

Until then, goodnight.

Posted by jamesb at 8:36 PM | Comments (3)

February 7, 2009

Contenders: you will go on my first whistle

As you hopefully all now know, I am away on my travels once again. This time the plan is to try and get from Huddersfield to Cape Town without flying, although there may be one or two small obstacles in central Africa that spoil the plan. I admit that it all seems a bit Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman, but there are a few fundamental differences. Whereas they used motorbikes I shall be sticking to public transport, as my lack of anything even remotely resembling coordination makes the former a bit of a silly idea. Rather than waste time on months of meticulous planning I am instead relying on a generally Panglossian Weltanshaung and grinning like a fool. And sadly the BBC have not given me suitcasefuls of cash to make a telly programme. Personally I think they have missed out on a sure fire hit. The storyboard for the pilot episode mainly consists of footage of me farting about on the internet whilst pretending to myself that I am doing thorough research, before some frenzied last minute rushing around doing the things that definitely do need doing (and the odd thing that doesn't). The finale involves me staying up until 3am the day before departure finishing off grouting the tiles in the bathroom.

So anyway, I finally left the shores of good old Blighty about two weeks ago. All was fairly relaxed as far as Paris, where I decided that I should set the bar high by taking an unpleasantly long journey right at the outset. With this in mind I took an overnight bus to Madrid, and, after a lovely four hour connection, continued on to Algeciras, on the south coast of Spain, a further nine hours away. There I also set a good marker for grubby flea-pit hotels. The place itself was not too bad, but the thing that made it stand out was the brightly coloured blocks of paradichlorobenzene that had been placed in the plug hole of the wash basin. I know that neither I nor any male reading this would ever use a sink for the purpose that their presence implies (but am not so sure about some of the females).

From Algeciras I took a day trip along the coast to Gibraltar, principally to go and make sure that the monkeyometer is properly calibrated. I'm not entirely sure that the Barbary Macaques that live there fully meet the regulations, as although they roam free they get fed every day, and were probably introduced (amittedly a couple of thousand years ago); but they were cheeky nonetheless. I also took the opportunity to have a long overdue haircut, reasoning that it would be better done in my mother tongue. Trust me to find the only hairdresser in Gibraltar that doesn't speak English. Luckily a waiting customer was able to act as an interpreter. Although the hair is now gone I have been unable to bring myself to have the silly moustache put down, and so rather than looking like a member of a '60s supergroup I now look like something from Ice Road Truckers. Or, at least in the eyes of the local stallholders here in Morocco, Ali Baba. Mind you, some of them don't seem to feel the need for anything so inventive and simply make do with shouting "Oi, moustache".

It was from the top of The Rock (sadly not named after the wrestling and silver screen legend, but more prosaically because it is a big rock) that I had my first glimpse of the North Coast of Africa. It all made me feel rather nervous, and the following tune started looping in my head: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-bzWSJG93P8

The following morning I took the plunge and bought my ticket for the 1:30 express ferry to Tangiers, which turned out not to be the express and left at 2:30. I had got no further than the door of the ferry terminal when I had my first experience of being accompanied to my destination on the expectation of being paid a fee for this very welcome assistance. I am still learning to recognise the point at which the free conversation ends and the meter starts running. I'm not quite there yet, but it may not be too long before I decide to learn some of the more colourful phrases that the Arabic language has to offer. I have tried to pick up some more polite bits and pieces. Hello is Salaam al-aykum, to which the standard response is al-aykum salaam. I'm sure Bruce Forsyth would approve.

To be fair, I have also met lots of genuinely nice Moroccans. Someone even invited me round for a home cooked tajine. I momentarily stopped chewing when my host described the meat as "inside of shit", but luckily in transpired that he had meant sheep, and a bit of intestine never hurt anyone. After dinner we completed the authentic Morrocan experience by listening to the Gypsy Kings.

Next stop was Rabat, the capital, so that I could call in at the Mauritanian Embassy to sort out a visa. In a characteristic display of cunning and foresight I managed to do this on a Friday (when they close early), meaning that rather than have it all done and dusted in a day I instead found myself with an entire weekend to fill. What better way to do so than to go looking for monkeys?

It was for this reason that I found myself tramping through a snowy forest in the mountains above a town called Azrou. The monkeys there are the same species as those on Gibraltar, and, although some of them do get fed by tourists in summer, they generally have to fend for themselves. Anyway, I reckon that they are wild enough for the monkeyometer to have officially registered its first sighting. Chasing monkeys in the snow was all in all a bit of a bizarre experience. I imagine that Vernon Kay would be as surprised as I if when the audience survey were asked "where would you expect to find monkeys?" one of the top five responses given was "in the snow". That is if his daily quota of surprisedness is not used up in the first few minutes of each day when he remembers what he has acheived with such a finite amount of talent.

I am currently in Marrakesh, and am trying to summon the courage to begin the long journey south to Mauritania. It is raining. A Lot. As they say across the channel (and do please pardon my French) il pleut comme une vache qui pisse. Which is a bit like the famous Vache Qui Rit. Peut etre la viche pîsse par ce qu'elle rit? Ou peut etre elle rit par ce qu'elle pisse? I know I would.

I am being silly now, which means that I am probably tired, and must go to my bed. Goodnight and God bless, wherever you are.

Posted by jamesb at 9:04 AM | Comments (7)

February 6, 2009

Proof that io9 are clueless

I'm with JWZ on this one.

Example:

You're probably already a fan of British comedian and writer Ben Elton ... But did you know he's also a kick-ass science fiction novelist?

Sweet raptor Jesus, Ben Elton fanboys. Pass the ammunition.

Posted by Jonah at 8:49 AM | Comments (2)