We landed at the small airport with something of a thump. It offered no challenge in terms of formalities, nor services in terms of a taxi or a bank, but a five dollar bill was enough get me a ride in an old car with a bloke who was hanging around. The hotel I’d booked on line turned out to be just around the corner.
The main thoroughfare and its sizeable roundabouts were smart enough but the other roads seemed to be little more than tracks of sand with piles of garbage at either side. Such was the street along which I was delivered to the door of L’Escale des Sables, an elegant-looking hostelry that seemed to belong in an entirely different world. Beyond the buzz of the security door its interior was more stylish and sophisticated than I could ever have imagined, adequate compensation I hoped for its remote and somewhat squalid setting.
The plan was to stay for two nights then head off into the desert. The best I could hope to achieve that first evening was to change some cash and find a place to eat, so all fell into place when my host, Mohammed, offered a lift into town. Daylight had all but gone when we pulled up at the kerb alongside three men (probably Mohammed, Mohammed, and Mohammed) entirely wrapped in robes and turbans, six eyes poking out of the semidarkness.
The crinkling of my three 100 Euro notes sparked much animated dialogue (in Hassaniya I was told, a version of Arabic) and thanks to my man’s negotiations 110,000 rubber-banded Ougiya came in through the open window. As with most African banknotes they were presented in large bundles, worn to the point of disintegration and so utterly revolting to touch that any form of skin contact would be kept to an absolute minimum.
A few more blocks and I was dropped on a dismal, unlit street outside a pokey little café. I was grateful for my chauffeur’s help but it seemed an odd recommendation for dinner and a weird place to leave me to my own devices. Why here? It felt like an industrial estate where all the businesses were closed or abandoned and only a burger trailer remained open for trade. Nonetheless there were lots of robed and turbanned people milling around in the darkness, none of whom, I observed with relief, paid me the slightest attention. I looked in all directions, trying to figure out what they deemed to be so millworthy and headed off through the sand to find the town centre.
A crossroads with traffic signals and a filling station brightened my hopes but they turned out to be the highlights of twenty minutes brisk pacing. Other people were also walking and plenty of cars filled the streets but in a strict Muslim country with no chance of a bevvy, where did people make for on a Saturday night? Or perhaps they weren’t actually heading for anywhere, the drive and the walk in themselves providing the evening’s entertainment? I found a small shop that was open and hugged its lights to illuminate the pages of my guide book.
Having broadly figured out my location I set off for the area on the map with the cluster of dots and numbers that indicated activity. But the plan went awry when I discovered my direction was the opposite of that intended, the penalty for knowing the road name and nothing more. Another thirty minutes of frustration followed with just the sound of car horns and the occasional belly-dance music floating through the darkness. Everywhere looked exactly the same hence my tether, not known for its lengthiness, was nearing its end. So I plucked the name of a restaurant from the book and, the last resort of any proud man, asked assistance of a local person. It would be just two turnings and three more blocks he assured me, ten more minutes of trudging through the sand.
And he was right. Ten minutes later, I was there. I was back at the very spot Mohammed had dropped me an hour before, outside the very caff that he, and my guidebook, had so enthusiastically recommended. This was it.
This was Downtown Nouakchott. Unbefuckinlievable.
I refused as a matter of principle to enter the establishment and instead walked in the other direction to a sort of tea shop with a restaurant menu. The place was almost empty – 8.30 pm, Saturday – but the pizza was fine and the opportunity to take stock of my visit to Mauritania was one that I welcomed. Decisions had to be taken and, upon returning to the incongruous surroundings of my boutique hotel, the most important of those was announced to my host. I would be leaving Nouakchott immediately after breakfast.
Extract taken from Ten Letter Countries.
9781780880754, £10.00, published 10th April 2012
The Ten-Letter Countries is an insight into the history, geography and politics of twelve fascinating countries through the eyes of The Alphabet Traveller. Each country David visited had 10 letters to its name. It follows on from his earlier adventure, The Four Letter Countries
Both books can be ordered from www.troubador.co.uk or www.alphabet-traveller.com
Copyright © 2014 David Jenkins