We crossed the land border to Mauritania just before sunset. It didn’t differ much from the Moroccan Sahara- there was still nothing but sand dunes around us. We were quite lucky to catch a ride only after few minutes of waiting. The two young guys who helped us were very religious and sympathetic men, unable not to refer to God whenever they spoke. Both were wearing very unusual outfits called boubous which turned out to be traditional Mauritanian clothing. Their wide, light blue sleeved robes were worn over their regular clothes and open underneath their arms. It didn’t look comfy at all! The huge amount of fabric, which was supposed to cover their shoulders, was constantly falling down and had to be fixed all the time. Those two gentlemen gave us a ride to Nouadhibou, the second biggest city in the country.
Once there, we have met our first couchsurfing host. Paulo- a cheerful and funny guy who was also, to our big surprise, a local rapper. He first showed us around his neighborhood and introduced us to his music. Back at his place we tasted our first cheb-u-jien, a national Mauritanian dish which is nothing else than rice and fish. As it turned out to be also a Senegalese and a Gambian national food, we happened to eat it almost every day for far too long. Even though it’s delicious, we genuinely hate it.
Nouadhibou and its immediate surroundings were, sadly, the ugliest place we have ever visited. The whole sea shore was covered with garbage and corpses of animals left there to rot together. It was an extremely sad view (and a repulsive smell) but what’s really pitiable is the children playing on the trash hills. Loud and cheerful, they were running around barefoot as if the dump was their playground.
Before coming to Mauritania we have heard about the supposedly longest train in the world. Its track starts in Nouadhibou and has an end in Zouerat- a city in the depth of the desert not accessible by road. We also got to know about people hopping this very train to travel through a big part of Mauritania for free. Paulo explained us all details and we decided that it was going to be our first big adventure in this, for us very unknown, country.
We were not going to travel alone though. Our team enlarged by one crazy traveller. We have met Pierre (which is not his real name but easier to pronounce for westerners) while applying for the Mauritanian visa in Morocco. He turned out to be a very special person. Originally from South Korea, he walked the Camino de Santiago and afterwards decided to travel down to South Africa and back to Egypt. After a short chat in front of the embassy in Rabat we kept in touch and decided to meet again whenever we would get the chance. Long story short we all ended up at Paulo’s house planning our first train hopping. The journey of the transporter, heading to collect an iron extracted from the mines in Zouerat, was supposed to take over twenty four hours. Our plan was to leave it after nine hours, at the first stop near the village of Choum.
We were waiting together with a bunch of people who were also going to travel. Some of them illegally- like us- and some of them in a special wagon for passengers. It was already pitch-black when Pierre realized that he has lost his Ipad. We advised him (well, almost forced him) to look for it at Paulo’s. Both of them rushed back together, hoping to get back on time. Luckily they did! The bad news was the tablet remained missing. It was the first time we doubted Paulo’s honesty. Nevertheless since Pierre was already reconciled with his loss, we reminded silent. Finally the train arrived and we set off. Sharing the wagon with the local fisherman, apparently Paulo’s acquaintance, we felt a bit safer.
Soon the ride turned out to be much harder than we expected. It was very loud and cold. The iron dust covering the wagons got in our eyes, ears and mouth as well as the sand blown from the desert. Whenever the train was speeding up or slowing down a bit, the wagons were banging one another with an enormous strength, throwing us off our feet. As if that was not enough it started to rain. We couldn’t stand nor sit. Laid flat in our sleeping bags, we were hiding under some fabrics provided by the fisherman. At the end of the ride all our staff would be completely soaked and dirty. Covered with dirt we arrived at our final destination right after dusk.
Unfortunately it was impossible to hit the road unnoticed. The three of us were stopped by the police and had to register at the station. Soon we realized what a great peculiarity we were. All the villagers were eyeballing us while walking through the main square. The officers gave us directions on how to find the main road located about ten kilometers away from Choum. Guided by the local policemen we started walking towards the national road N1 in pouring rain.
There was no road or even a path to follow. Fortunately Pierre had a GPS on his phone which literally saved our lives. It took us four hours before, covered in mud and extremely exhausted, we finally reached our destination. To be honest if Ben wouldn’t point it out and tell us that this is what we are looking for, we would easily miss it. The main national road number one was nothing but a direction marked with stone piles. There was obviously no car and therefore no hope. And then, out of a sudden, we saw a car passing us a few hundred meters away. Ben dropped his backpack and run towards it, screaming and making wild gestures. Unluckily the driver ignored us cruelly or simply didn’t see us. Out of hope, we all sat down together to think of the best solution. Pierre spontaneously (leaded by his Korean sixth sense) decided to check his bag. He found out that he was three hundred dollars short. Getting suspicious, we also took a look at our emergency money. It wasn’t a big surprise to find out we were lacking one hundred Euros.
We were all robbed by Paulo, there was no other option. He was the only person in possession of the key to his bedroom where we left our bag-packs. Perfectly aware of where we kept the money, he invited us for a meal in other room to keep us occupied. Meanwhile he stole our savings. We thought it through very meticulously as there was a lot of time to do so while walking back through the desert. The next town was almost one hundred kilometers away, that’s why we collectively decided to head back to the village we came from. After another five hours we reached Choum and went straight to the police station. We have made quite a mess there, already. Now we told our story and asked for a place to sleep. The officers turned out to be very kind. They let us stay at the station overnight and prepared a supper for us!
It was high time to get the hell out of there. The hitchhiking option didn’t really exist and we were at the mercy of the locals. They disinterestedly helped us and offered a place in two cars already fully packed with people and their luggage. We were going to the next town called Atar. Marta was lucky to sit inside (it was still raining) but Ben and Pierre had to take a place on the roof and had to hold on tight to avoid falling down. The journey wasn’t easy and the drivers had to manoeuvre not to get stuck in the mud. Our trip took us over four hours and had an extraordinary ending. We were stopped in the middle of the road by two guys pointing at Ben and shouting “You!”. We were a bit shocked at first. It turned out that one of them was…our next couchsurfer- Mustafa with whom Ben was talking to the previous night. He and his companion (later introduced as a high-ranking detective) were looking for us worried as we didn’t reach Mustafa’s place on time. Apparently they knew everything what had happened to us, even about the things Ben didn’t mention on the phone!
The guys helped us with the robbery issue and phoned Paulo- threatening him with police raid on his family house. Little time has passed when we got to know that his real name was Omar and instead of 21, he was just 17 years old! We also found out he was in the capital at that moment which was a great opportunity to confront him once we got there.
The company Mustafa was working for had its headquarter in a marvelous place surrounded by mountains and seasonal rivers. That was the place where we were going to spend the night. A hot shower and a delicious Lebanese dinner in great company made us feel like home. Warm, soft beds and wonderful people around us was exactly what we needed to load our batteries and hit the road again and find Omar. We have spent a wonderful evening together with our new Lebanese friend and his co-worker. They even invited us to drink some whiskey (alcohol is completely prohibited in this region).
When we arrived in Nouakchott the next day it was already dark. As usually we asked someone around for his phone to call our next host- Muhammad. We have spent a wonderful evening dinning and listening to the live performance of a popular Mauritanian singer (check out his music here). When Muhammad got to know our story he decided to help us. Frankly speaking if not him we wouldn’t have been able to get anything done. Together with his friends he managed to convince Omar to show up at the police station. Once there he was arrested for robbery. Unfortunately Pierre, with whom we split after arriving in Nouakchott, was not with us this time. We managed to report the theft but without Pierre we couldn’t submit a statement concerning his loss.
In case you find yourself one day at the police station in Africa, don’t have any illusions about help offered. There is no one to protect you. Even though you will be told that as a foreigner you have some sort of a special rights. This is nothing but bullshit. What happened in Mauritania is only one of many examples we can give. The chief officer informed us it is our fault we were robbed. We shouldn’t have stayed at Omar’s place without knowing him and checking his background. Without a proof of guilt, they couldn’t do anything for us. Nevertheless Omar was arrested and to be released after 48 hours. We didn’t have much hope to get our money back, but at least we did everything we could to make him suffer a bit. And then something totally crazy happened! It turned out that as a minor he was going to face some bigger problems. Unless we dropped the charges within the next two days he would have to spend some time in jail after all! To our big surprise the money he has stolen from us then was given back by one of his relatives the next day ! We also have witnessed a bribery at the police station, which seemed to be the most usual thing for the locals as it was given openly in front of our eyes and landed inside the officer’s pocket.
There might be people who would think that Omar’s family gave us their own money to save the innocent boy. Well, NO. After all this mess we have contacted all the couchsurfers he has hosted before us. All of them were robbed at Omar’s, just couldn’t prove or believe it. He still keeps on opening new accounts with different usernames after being deleted by the couchsurfing system. In order to warn the public, together with a fellow couchsurfer, who turned out to be a journalist, we even published a newspaper article in Nouadhibou Today (check out the article here). Now we could move on.
We enjoyed our last days in Nouakchott a lot and finally spent time with some wonderful Mauritanians and got to know their country. After a few days we continued south, to the craziest border crossing- Rosso. Pushed and pulled by the locals trying to cheat us and sell fake tickets for the ferry (you don’t have to pay for that!) we finally crossed the river with a Moroccan truck driver. Confused with all this mess, we left without the exit stamps which should be given by the border police! But was it really a problem? Apparently not for the Senegalese customs officer!
The second chapter of our African trip was over. Honestly Mauritania was more exciting than we expected. We had some unforgettable adventures and met great people. Yet, we didn’t know that from now on it was only getting crazier.