The journey from Nouakchott to Atar

Sorry. I know I’m going to keep losing more readers with these excessively long posts. This one is a monster. It’s basically a novel. If it were a novel, it would lack cohesion. It would be shit. It goes off on rambling tangents, and then comes back. Basically like when you chat to someone at the pub. I don’t ramble when I speak, just when I write. The good thing about my rambling is you’re not forced to politely endure it. Unlike when I talk to someone at the pub who has a spectacular inability to tell a story within the 20 minute allotment. And also lacks any ability to see that I’m so bored I’m about to cry. Oh for fucks sake, get to the bloody point man. In fact, don’t bother. I’m leaving.

But I invite you to stay, and click through to the other side….

It’s time to head to the nether regions of Mauritania. The red zone. Time to battle with Mauritania’s minivan service, again.

After a few hours on the road, we stop for another session of call to prayer. We have already stopped for one. I look at my watch and think, ‘This isn’t even one of the scheduled five a day. This is just greedy’. That’s when my patience ran out. ‘Guys, for fucks sake. Can we speed things along, please. It’s already dark, and it’s another 4 hours before we arrive. I haven’t booked any accommodation. In fact, I don’t even know if there is accommodation in the lawless parts of the Sahara. I actually don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m scared’. That’s when they tied me up and forced me to ride up top with the goat. ‘Oh, I know you. I saw you back at the slum’. To be honest I was happy to get some fresh air, the van was getting a little stuffy. Plus, I hadn’t eaten all day, so when I swallowed a wayward dune bug, I actually felt quite content. The goat looked at me jealously.

As we journeyed further and further, it grew darker and darker. Until it was just black. No stars. No moon. Just black. Me and the lads. All packed into the van like sardines, with a guy on the radio humming something in Arabic. Occasionally a car would hurtle past. But apart from it was pretty quiet. I rationed the battery on my phone to ensure I could enjoy some intermittent music. And write notes to myself when thoughts knocked on my head.

One thing I love is that in these situations, people generally look out for you. Whether it’s making sure you get all your change, or making sure you come back in time after your whizz in the desert. I might be travelling on my own, but I’m not alone. The other thing I love is that I blend in. No one looks twice at me. Yep, I’m one of the lads. We’re all just here havin’ a break. I got my milk and biscuits. Hangin’ out. Some guy is shouting over the speakers in Arabic. No idea what he’s on about. Sweet.

Time to get going. I was helped back onto the roof to continue the journey with my goat. She looked at me as if to say, ‘Thought you’d done a runner, wish I could’. ‘Nah, we’re in this together. We’ll both probably be dead in a few days, but we’ll remember this moment for ever’. ‘I appreciate you staying up here with me, they probably would’ve let you down by now’. ‘Don’t mention it. As I always say, I love man not less, but nature more’. ‘When have you said that?’. ‘Actually, never. I read it on George Monbiot’s Twitter page’. The sentiment made her awkward. ‘Alright, enough of that. I have a husband back in Nouakchott. He’s waiting for me at the fish market by the Atlantic. That’s where we met. He had found some discarded meat and he brought some to me. Right there and then I knew I’d spend the rest of my life with him’. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that she was being transported to Atar to be killed. Tomorrow she’ll be dead. Her husband is probably already dead. I looked at her innocent naivety and felt sorry for her. I wonder if in some parallel universe, she was thinking the same thing about me.

The journey rolled on for another few hours. We came to a stop. Yet another military checkpoint. Military checkpoints exist for a reason. Best not to think about it. By now I’ve probably crossed the border into the official red zone. The point at which the government says, ‘Don’t go, it’s too dangerous’. I don’t completely disregard what governments say, I just think that like everything, it should be used in conjunction with your own research. Every anecdote I’ve read from people who have actually been up here said it was safe.

I wonder if I’ll ever stop. If each trip simply increases my appetite for more and I just keep pushing the limit further and further. Until I get killed. Addiction runs in the family. And I wonder if this is my addiction. The greatest irony being that my addiction is probably the most dangerous. When will I stop? Is there a trajectory I’m now on?

My phone was getting wet from being in my hand for so long. Down to 38%. Sometimes I think I want to do one of those 2-month cargo cruises across the Arctic, just to see what some profound isolation opens in my thoughts. We never have time to just exist. There’s always distractions. That’s why I often love the journey as much as the destination. Not in a life-as-metaphor sense, but when I travel. Sitting on a bus or train you’re forced to think and reflect, with the time and space to actually achieve something with your thoughts. Most of my aspirations in life have been conceived while abroad.

My legs get locked into a position until they are in pain. When I do a readjustment, the first few minutes are comfortable bliss. Before the cycle of pain begins again.

Another military checkpoint. A copy of my passport has now been handed to 5 officers. After this I became the centre of attention. People wanted to know my name, where I am from. And they are surprised I can’t speak Arabic or French. I always get by. At certain points they all laugh at me. Affectionately I’m sure. They’re now beginning to get really raucous. When people are talking about you, or at least thinking about you, they always look at you. Even if just for a fleeting moment. I was looking at them, but no-one was looking at me. They were just having a laugh (not at my expense).

Time for another track to get me in the mood. A track that will inspire my muse as I look out the window with a glint in my eye. The track? Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. I turn the volume up and bop my head from side to side, singing the chorus aloud. People are alarmed. So I move my arms up and down while singing, like I’m on a choo choo train. I complement this with an affectionate wink at anyone who looks at me. Half an hour later, I’m back up on the roof with my goat. ‘What did you do this time?’, ‘Bopped my head to Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’. She awkwardly looked the other way. ‘Ah come on love, don’t be like that’. I started doing a little dance for her, but nearly fell off the roof. ‘Just try and be normal’, she said. ‘You can do it’. ‘Ok, I’ll try’.

The van comes to a screeching halt. Oh shit, we’re fucked. Just a camel. Just a camel. Why am I here? What am I doing? Jesus Christ. It’s 10:30 pm. I’m in the middle of the desert in Mauritania. With a bunch of guys I’ve never met. None of whom speak a word of English. Several times I imagined the van being pulled over at gunpoint, and Al Qaeda asking for the white man to get out. And that would be my story. I do get a thrill out of fear. When my brother and I were young, we’d venture for an hour or so into the bush of Echuca, where there was a mining plant. The enjoyment was partly from the bonding, but mainly from the knowledge that at any minute a truck could come round the bend and we’d be caught. Once we were. We said that our dad had dropped us off at the river down the road and now we were lost. At home or abroad, playing dumb never fails.

I used to have a naive and casual belief in destiny. And I was raised to believe in God, so I believed in him. Then I started thinking about it. I respect faith. People of faith believe God is with them, which gives them strength and perspective. It helps them through difficult times. I’ve seen more good from religion than bad. But I don’t believe in God. And the more I see of the world, the more I’ve come to realise there’s no such thing as destiny. Nothing is ‘meant to be’. It’s a middle/upper class thing. We’re simply the most advanced species that’s ever existed. But we’re still just animals. And for most, it’s a brutally unfair life. There’s no destiny or God looking out for the people who live in the world’s slums. A lot of the world lives in abject poverty. So why is God so selective in his aid? Why is God a man, when it is women who are more emotionally intelligent? It is women who keep the world together.

The more I travel, the more I realise our habits are unsustainable. So many countries are swimming in litter. Nouakchott is only a few decades old, but if it continues on its current trajectory, it’ll have descended into a dystopian megacity slum by the time I retire. But for now it still has some childlike innocence about it. Like when a kid is in a slum, they don’t quite realise how poor they are. In a few years they work it out, and life becomes tough. I guess it’s like that for everyone, but the children of slums have it a little tougher than most.

The van began getting very stuffy. Smelly feet springs to mind. Oh shit. Another checkpoint. I know the checkpoints are good. It’s just what they symbolise. Eventually the moon makes an appearance and I can see the terrain has become hilly. One guy keeps talking to me in Arabic. As though if he persists long enough, I’ll eventually start responding to his questions in fluent Arabic.

Arrival in Atar. One guy seems to have taken responsibility for me. He’s asking people for a hotel. Another guy presents himself and says he can drive me to a nice hotel. Sounds dangerous, but it’s not. Never underestimate the power of instinct. I know I can trust the people around me. I’ve never had a single negative experience abroad. For all the irrational fatalism in this post, my experience of the world is not consistent with the media’s depiction of it. Most people are good-natured, and instinctively want to help. These people never make the news though. The easiest way for a government to be re-elected is to arouse fear of the unknown. The best way for a news organisation to attract audiences is to entertain with trauma and grief porn.

I saw my goat being ushered away. She looked in distress. I ran towards her. Sometimes all we need is to hear that everything will be alright. Even when we know it probably won’t be. ‘Don’t worry love, you’ll be ok. Here, take this’. It was my iPod nano, set to loop on girls just wanna have fun. It made her smile.

Writing this now, lying on my bed in Atar. I made it. What was I so worried about? Tomorrow I’ll find a ride to Chinguetti, somehow, and then I’ll be in the Sahara.

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