Language, linguistics and travel. A blog that tries to bring them all together.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Kiffa, Mauritania to Kayes, Mali

The BOFs had been assured by their acquaintances at the Nouakchott chapter of the Rotary Club that the road from Kiffa to Kayes, the western most city in Mali, was easily negotiable with two wheel drives. If they ever come across those individuals again I hope they give them a good slapping.

The condition of the road from Kiffa began to deteriorate the moment we left town and became a one lane, rutted track with a high central ridge that often defied the best efforts of our low slung vehicles. Often we had to navigate it with the set of wheels on one side of the car skirting the furthest edge of the track while the other set ran along the ridge. Deviations from this routine risked ploughing the underbody of the respective cars into the sand, effectively bringing the vehicle to a complete stand still. Once the Volvo became so badly stuck we had to dig back thirty feet in order to reverse the car on to solid ground before attempting an alternative route. At the frequent wadis progress came to a temporary halt while the terrain was surveyed for the most likely path through then, one by one, each vehicle would make its mad dash across the soft sand, the passage emphasized by wild fishtails and sprays of dust. Any loss of power or hesitation on the part of the driver unfailingly meant getting stuck. Eventually we had to abandon the track entirely and weave along beside it, all the while hoping there weren't any appreciable holes hidden by the tall yellow grasses and that the thorns for the ubiquitous acacia trees wouldn't puncture our tires.

The BOFs, who'd been leading the way, stopped at a rise in the land. Roger and John had a GPS and for the last twenty kilometers had been worried that we been going the wrong way as the coordinates exhibited by their machine didn't match those attested by the Bamako Run Road Book. I thought the best way to find out was to simply ask a local. The question was who? This region of the world was very sparsely populated. We'd passed a goatherd about a kilometer back so I turned tail and went in search of him. I found him wher standing atop a small hill surrounded by his flock. Fully aware that being questioned by a white foreigner wouldn't be among the usual litany of his daily events, I approached him wearing the best disarming smile I could muster and waving familiarly. His eyes widened perceptibly but he stood his ground. He was younger than I'd supposed; barely a teenager.
"As-salaam aleikum," I said, hailing him with the most widely accepted Arabic salutation. He didn't respond.
"Ca va?" I tried again, this time in French. Again he said nothing and eyed me with such incredulity you'd have thought I had horns growing out of my head. I generally rely heavily on my linguistic abilities when traveling; usually I'm able to find some common language even if it's just a greeting or a few odd words. This time I was stumped. It was a testament to how far off the beaten track we'd placed ourselves. Falling back on the clumsiness of sign language and place names, I cleared a small patch of ground and drew a map with a stick. It was all to no avail, I may as well have been trying to theorize about black holes with a tree. He listened politely to my gibberish and offered a few soothing murmurs. It was pointless. I thanked him profusely for his pains then gave him a couple of cigarettes; probably not the best gift for a pre-teen but it was all that I had.

We decided that continuing onwards was the best idea and eventually our decision proved to be the correct one. A quartet of battered trucks was laboriously coming the opposite way. We ran into them on a crest where the track had become nothing more than deep sandy grooves that were a struggle even for their immense wheels. The driver of the lead truck, a jovial fellow who delighted in seeing our motley convoy, affirmed that we were indeed on the route to Koudoudjel, one of the few villages named on the Michelin map. Making a wide and difficult sweep away from the impossible track we drove on, more relaxed now, knowing that if nothing else we were at least going the right way.

Koudoudjel was a haphazard place of mud compounds sitting amidst strands of dried out foliage. As soon as our vehicles came into view, the village bounded into life. Crying "Donne-moi un stylo" (give me a pen), and "cadeau, cadeau", children raced toward us like a mob converging on enticing products at a post Christmas sale. Their imminent arrival presented a problem; desert driving demanded we go as fast as humanly possible in order to skim over the ankle deep, sandy thoroughfare through the village but the risk of running over a gift obsessed child ruled that out. One by one ours wheels dug in and the vehicles came to a defeated halt. The cars were immediately surrounded by eager, smiling faces and outstretched hands. While Trygve sat in the driver's seat with pursed lips, I waded through the mob to the back of the car to retrieve the sand ladders. A collection of the more helpful children helped me dig out the wheels and place the sand ladders. Once that was done, I turned to the sea of expectant faces and announced that now it was time to to give me a cadeau. As though playing a thrilling new game, we all leaned into the car and with a mighty push set it in motion. Slowly it gathered enough speed then ponderously made its way to solid ground under its own steam.

Whether traveling through villages or crossing wadis we used our sand ladders extensively. Unfortunately their inherent usefulness does come with a down side as, under certain circumstances, they have a propensity for flying out at odd angles. Glenn was hit first. As the car we'd been pushing struggled away, he stood rooted to the spot, teeth clenched and staring straight ahead as though transfixed by a hallucination of a giant serpent. He hobbled off to one side and pulled up his pant leg. The skin on his shin had been smartly split with an angry flash of red defining its limits. It was my turn next. I wasn't nearly so stoic. The ladder came flying out at a peculiar angle, smacking into me just above the left knee. Casper, who'd been driving, thought I'd been shot. Despite my dramatic fall, the skin wasn't broken but I ended up with a nasty, thick welt that had me limping the rest of the day.

When the day began, we'd been optimistic about reaching the border with Mali. Now all we aimed for was the village of Konkassa, only one hundred paltry kilometers from Kiffa. As evening drew near we finally reached its outskirts. Despite our best efforts there didn't appear to be any way around the village so in grand style we ploughed along the main street with the cars becoming stuck with merciless regularity. Finally the track hardened and we arrived in the center. As the inevitable crowd gathered, several of our group nipped into a shabby, little store in search bread and bottled water. I went to join them while Trygve stayed in the car surrounded by a growing mob of curious children. Then it happened; while her attention was diverted by one child, a couple more reached in through the passenger window and stole my sunglasses and a pair of binoculars from the dashboard. Theft is severely looked down upon in the Arabic countries and the air around the car automatically became electric as people milled around in shocked expectancy. Some children ran up to me, beckoning. Excitedly they told me to follow them into a compound. I did so, surrounding myself with gravity I didn't really feel. A worried boy came around the side of a building and shakily handed me the binoculars. I don't know if he was the one who took them, nevertheless I was very surprised to get them back. Back in the street the adults in their authoritative blue and white robes had gathered. They made a circle around me and fired off questions trying to figure out which child took the sunglasses. Despite what had happened, I found their concern admirable. They recommended I go to the police. I told them there was no time; the sun was sinking and I explained that we needed to find a camping spot for the night. Strangely enough, I'm certain that if I'd stayed in Konkassa, my sunglasses would have been returned and the child roundly punished.

After bogging down several more times on the southern edge of Konkassa, we finally found the stretch of land that another group of Bamako Runners had selected for their night's stay. Collectively they'd developed a different attitude to Africa than we had and had encircled their vehicles in a tight laager then blocked the gaps with lengths of caution tape and rope in an attempt to keep the gathering of curious villagers at bay. In the center, an enormous campfire was roasting the night air. Our own group parked close by but without defenses and certainly not in a circle. In dribs and drabs the Mauritanians came over from the laager to inspect us until eventually a sizable crowd had gathered. They meticulously studied our every movement, passing whispered comments as they did so. It was like being an animal in a zoo. Georgina made a move and said she love it if she could use some of the scant excess water to wash off the day's dust. That gave me an idea.
"Does anybody here speak French?" I asked in that language. A fellow in the midst of the crowd put up his hand.
Aware of the Arabic ideas of modesty, I told him that one of our women would like to wash herself and would it be okay if everyone left for a while? It was like Moses at the Red Sea. Within half a minute we were alone, and all felt that a small miracle had just happened. After Georgina had sponged herself partially clean, the villagers slowly filtered back. This time I went over and got into conversation with them, explaining the hows, whys and wherefores of our being in their village. Later, when the time for bed had arrived, Trygve urged me to make an attempt at repeating the miracle.
"Excuse me," I said raising my voice, "My friends and I are going to bed now. Would it be okay if everyone left?"
After handshakes all around we were left to ourselves once again.
From the laager we could hear irritated English accents telling their unwanted guests to "bugger off".

The laager uncircled itself early the following morning and drove south, leaving behind a still smoldering fire and copious scraps of trash.

It was a further 50km to the Malian border. Although the track wasn't much better south of Konkassa, there were far fewer snags and, for the most part, the area on either side route was easier to navigate. Terry had already proven himself a desert driver and I found that following along in his wake, though at an appreciable distance because of the dust, almost guaranteed a through path. Only once did he falter. I have visions of him still, jacking up the front wheel of their red station wagon to put the sand ladder under it while muttering swear words at himself for having been caught in a "badger" hole. Despite trying to follow the coordinates on the GPS, we still managed to lose the way. By the time the error had been recognized, we had already gone ten kilometers down the wrong track. A pair of charitable villagers put us right and with out too much fanfare we arrived in Hamid, the last sizable habitation before the border. Like all the villages we'd passed through, it was a squat, mud brick affair that blended perfectly into the sepia tones of the dried out, tree strewn landscape surrounding it. The one difference was that it had a innocuous building at the far end of town with a ragged, green Mauritanian flag flying above it. This was the border post. A trio of Mauritanians greeted our convoy when we arrived. One of them, the governor of the province as it turned out, told us that the gentleman who stamped the passports was in Konkassa and that we should just continue on. We didn't need telling twice. Somewhere in the undefined landscape we crossed the border. The only indication that we were in a different country was that the road improved imperceptibly until we found we could actually drive on it.

In the early afternoon we stopped in a clearing to have a cup of tea and a bite to eat. As so often happens in the Sahel, a couple of blue robed, tuareg shepherds soon discovered us. While we stood greeting them, a gang of children, entralled at the idea of foreigners being in their midst came to examine us. For once they didn't ask for cadeau but stood around ogling us and chattering excitedly. Trying to put things in context, Georgina assumed that the two blue clad adults were teachers taking their pupils on a nature walk. I looked at her quizzically. There were no houses nearby let along a school. When the two adults left, the children remained. Georgina was confused. "They're leaving their class behind", she said aghast at such breach in student/teacher relations. Big hearted Terry and John couldn't resist handing out gifts to the children. They gathered around him in an excited mob with outstretched hands and amazed expressions; another group of "cadeau kids" had just been created.

For the rest of the afternoon we drove on stopping only to reconnoiter rut strewn wadis before attempting the uncertain crossings. It was proof of our newly acquired abilities that we were able to traverse them at all. Prior to this journey, I would have taken one look and declared half of them impossible and turned around to find another route. When the sun's rays began diminishing we still hadn't reached Kayes and camped for the night beside the road once more, though this time far from any habitation.

The following day we were driving an ever improving road when we suddenly came across a white Volvo sedan that belonged to the other Bamako Run group. It was parked in the middle of the road and was surrounded by ominous scatterings of rubbish. There was no one around and all the baggage had been removed. Our first thought was that they'd been victims of foul play but as we found no trails of blood nor bodies in the undergrowth, we assumed the vehicle had broken down and that the people who owned it would return later. We were told the real story later that day. Desperately trying to reach Kayes, the group had driven into the night - not the wisest idea in this part of Africa. As they'd been hurrying along one behind the another with visibility cut to a minimum because of the excess of dust, the Volvo had run straight into a tree stump that then pushed the gearbox into the heart of the cab. The vehicle was a write-off and had been abandoned. The following morning the driver and his companion had given the keys to a local telling him the car was his

As the road continued to improve significantly, I took the lead and went zipping along far ahead of the others enjoying the rediscovered joy of speed. During this section, we came across our first Baobab trees, the unofficial emblem of sub-Saharan Africa. With their overly fat trunks and wizened demeanors, each one is a personality unto itself. I never tired their company. They accompanied us down the road and into Kayes, where on the outskirts of town we were immediately pulled over by a pair of moped cops. They incongruously asked for nothing and instead made a special point of leading us to the main road into town where we once again joined legitimate tarmac. It was like waking from a rough night's sleep and finding yourself in paradise.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Nouakchott to Kiffa

We stayed in Nouakchott for a single day and a night which gave us just enough time to accomplish all the chores that traveling through the desert demands: repairing cars, buying provisions, washing clothes and changing money. It was a shame not to spend longer, Nouakchott's seedy, dilapidated atmosphere of trash strewn streets, decrepit buildings and its vibrant, if basic, market cried out for more careful attention. It was like being given a broken, rusted clock and not being allowed to take it apart.

The following day we drove out of the capital, passed the final band of plastic bag strewn scrubland that demarcated the its boundary and arrived once more in the pristine terrain of the desert. On all sides golden sand dunes undulated toward the horizon like great ocean waves frozen in time, camel herds snorted and swayed by the roadside and herds of innocent goats wandered blithely into the path of oncoming traffic. Towns became a rarity. For long stretches the only forms of human habitation were the elegant, white tents of the nomads and the aesthetically challenged mud hamlets of the more permanent residents. In its march to modernity, Mauritania finally got around to abolishing slavery in the 1980s and it was highly likely that the denizens of the hamlets still remained there under indefinite servitude to their tented masters. Heading eastward drew us inexorably deeper into Africa and gave us our last, long glimpse of the vast expanse of the Sahara. Our aim for the day was the southern town of Kiffa, some 600 kilometers distant and fortunately reachable by a tarmac road. The only hinderance, according to the Michelin map, was the possibility of blowing sand.

At the extremity of the sand sea we entered Aleg, our first Sahelian town. It was a dismal affair of colorless, one storey, cinder block buildings that housed the most basic needs of life. Stopping for gas in the center of town brought a plague of "cadeau" enthusiasts upon us. They gathered around the cars like locusts and demanded gifts as they eyed the contents of our vehicles with ill disguised avarice. I almost felt that if I'd stumbled and fallen while being surrounded by them, they'd have descended on me leaving nothing afterwards but a red stain on the desert floor.

After Aleg we drifted back and forth between desert and sahel. The latter was a land of cattle and goat herding. For both creatures and their compatriots, the ubiquitous and hardy, grey donkeys, this section of road had proved to be a death trap. Large road kill became so common that Trygve and I started playing a morbid game in which a dead goat earned one point, a cow two, a camel three and a donkey four. We stopped playing when we passed the first massacre; over half a dozen lifeless goats lay by the roadside, their bellies already starting to bloat. A short while later we passed a small herd of dead cows; a person's livelihood gone in a second. On that one section of road, I witnessed more large road kill than I've collectively seen the rest of my life. We could only conclude that it was caused by pumped up truck drivers racing through the night. The members of our group discussed the subject later and were at a loss to understand why it was that the animals were simply left where they died and not butchered and eaten. The only rational explanation was that, having been killed by a wehicle, the meat was not halal and therefore it was a sin to eat it. That still didn't explain why they didn't skin the animals for their valuable hides.

Low slung, scruffy and crowded with both horse drawn and motorized traffic, Kiffa was a quintessential Mauritanian town. Before going to investigate the heart of of it for hotels, we made a pit stop at a tire repair stall. The Freewheelers needed a dent hammered out of a wheel rim and the tire filled with air. After finishing this meager piece of work, the repairman demanded the equivalent of twenty-five dollars. Mauritanians have one of the world's lowest living standards, generally make about a dollar a day, as such foreigners are seen as a quick and lucrative way to make money. Terry was stunned by the price but as he hadn't settled it beforehand it looked as though he was going to get stung. As the argument heated up, a crowd began to gather. Unable to resist a good battle, I joined the fray. Using rhetoric as a weapon, I appealed to the repairman's good nature by explaining the charitable nature of our mission then added that my client would be happy to pay twice the local rate, as it was understood that foreigners should always pay more and said I thought a more realistic price for the work would be 400 Ouagiya (about a dollar fifty). I could feel the crowd around me murmuring in agreement. A cloud of conscience passed over the repairman's features and the price started dropping. Grabbing the advantage, I pressed my case by theatrically turning to address the crowd, who were evidently reveling in the evening's entertainment, and asked them to judge. They mumbled and shuffled their feet, caught between the need for justice and fairness and a desire to support their countryman. The repairman offered an even lower price. I was trying to pull it down to five or six hundred ouagiya when Terry suddenly caved in on a thousand. A generous soul by nature, he passed over the cash then reached into the recesses of his car, pulled out a football jersey and gave it to the repairman. The last shred of tension evaporated and we left the stall surrounded by a sea of smiles and well wishes.

After questioning several locals, we managed to track down an auberge at the edge of town. A gaggle of small boys heralded our arrival with excited screams then gathered around the cars menacingly. Leaving a sentry, we went to examine the place. The center of the auberge was dominated by a large, open walled structure comfortably laid out with mats and cushions. Terry and Georgina immediately began enthusing about it. For my part, I felt uneasy sensing something amiss. The robed owner came out of a door and measured us up with a critical eye. I asked if there were rooms.
"Yes," he answered, "But they are all occupied."
I scanned the compound taking in the closed doors on all the cubicle sized buildings forming a "u" around the central structure. It was odd that at this time of day and especially in a town like this that all the rooms were taken.
"You can sleep under this," he suggested swiveling his head around toward the structure. "It is only 4000 ougiya per person." It was excessively expensive but it didn't matter, I'd already decided I didn't want to stay.
"This place is a brothel," I hissed to my friends.
Terry and Georgina looked askance at me then a willowy, young woman in shape enhancing brown outfit leisurely sauntered into the compound.
"I think I'll trust Jon's judgement here," said Terry eyeing the girl with interest.
On the way out, one the owner's friends asked how many hours we were planning on staying, effectively putting an end to any further debate. Along with the rest of the Bamako Runners, we ended up sleeping in walled in camping ground on the other side of town.