All aboard! On the train in Mauritania

There’s a train in Northern Mauritania. It’s the longest train in the world. Not like, the length of the journey, but length of the train itself; it’s over 2km of cars! And it’s travelling back and forth to bring iron ore from the mines to the port.

Now this in itself is kinda cool, I guess. But the real reason people like me end up on this train is because you can ride for free… if you ride in the iron wagons.

When I told my dad what I was doing, he thought I was a little nuts. When I called him at 3 in the morning (8PM for him) when I was getting on this train, he thought I was definitely nuts.

There’s a few ways you can do this train thing. If you’re travelling overland from Maroc, many people hop into the empty cars in Nouadhibou in the afternoon, and hop off about 12 hours later in Choum; then take regular road transit to the capital in the south. But there is a big empty vs. full debate, so others say it’s best to do the reverse, so you actually ride on top of the iron ore.

Originally this was my plan; Choum to NDB, in the full cars. But then I realized that the train kept going to the actual mining town of Zouerat, and that that was only about 5 hours from Choum. So I decided to make it one long day by getting in the empty cars in Choum, spending the morning in Zouerat, and then returning again once the cars were full; that way, I was getting the taste of both experiences, without making a full 12 hour commitment.

So, I caught a ride from atar to Choum, in the back of a 4×4 (alongside 3 dudes and a goat, naturally).

My ride from Atar to Choum

Then I somehow landed myself in the home of Barkar, a fellow passenger, with his wife and daughter. They fed me, dressed me, and the wife had her girlfriends over for a Choum-style spa day (henna, hair braiding, face masks, etc.)

My hosts, Barkar and his lovely wife

All dressed up

I slept there until 2am, when we went to catch the train. I donned every warm piece of clothing I own, wrapped myself completely in all the scarves I have, and topped it all off with a melefa, the traditional saharawi women’s dress (this I bought specifically for the ride, and have since repurposed as a sleeping sheet).

The ride to Zouerat wasn’t as cold as I expected, and was quite pleasant, relative to the dusty return trip. There was wind, and sand, but nothing that didn’t brush off. In the morning when the sun rose, it was beautiful, and actually quite cute to see all the heads poking up out of the other cars. I also had the moon illuminating the mountains all night as well, which was really cool. Just me in the desert in a cart full of nothing.

When we arrived, I met a few other travellers who turned up in Zouerat – they missed the stop in Choum, where they had intended to get out! We wandered the town (nothing special) and went to wait for the next train back. We may or may not have walked through a minefield to get there (not shown here). Eek.

The train was late, as things often are in these parts, but we finally boarded around 3. We had all had the impression that the iron ore was in chunks, which isn’t supposed to be comfortable to sit on, but would probably be less dusty than finely ground particles we were presented with. The boys, therefore, found some other, non-iron cart to sit in, but me, Little Miss Stubborn, I had to do the real deal.

The “train station” in Zouerat

So I picked a car and settled in. At first I thought that it wouldn’t be so bad; I touched some of the iron and didn’t notice any resides. So I made myself a little nest in the corner and thought I was set. It was actually pretty comfortable, and the sun was out so I was happy. The guys in front of me were real pros; they knew what was coming. Instantly they set to work to flattening completely one of the four heaps, laid down a tarp, and even set up a kitchen! They were making tea in no time. Meanwhile I was realizing how long these five hours (which turned into 7 by the time we finished loading all of the carts at the next stop) were really gonna be.

My travel companion, who soon proposed, of course.

I had been thinking in the first trip how nice it would be to sit on the iron, so I could actually see the landscape without having to stand up. Little did I know that I would eventually cover my face entirely with 3 different layers in an effort to deter the iron from getting so effectively into my eyes, nose, and mouth.

This is only an hour or so into the trip…

Eventually I was coughed back up in Choum, tired, sore, and black. I’ve washed my clothes 3 times since and they’re still not all clean.

So, you know. It’s one of those things, I’m glad I can say I did, but I’m not exactly itching to do it again.

The next day; SO happy to be clean!!!

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In a tent: Auberge Bab Sahara

I really don’t know what my standards are anymore. Some places I can hardly sleep, I’m so obsessed with the lack of cleanliness. But then I arrived at a campsite in Atar, and instantly loved it.

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Inside my tent at the Auberge Bab Sahara

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My lovely little tent

It’s pretty cool, there seems to be a lot of these “campsites” around, where you can stay in a nomad-style tent thing for fairly cheap. I arrived at this one and crawled in. I’m instantly elated by the presence of clean sheets, a pillowcase, and a blanket. But the lady is apologizing for all the sand and leaves littering the floor, which I had yet to even notice…

So I don’t get it. I guess it’s a different kind of dirty that I’m still making peace with. Like the human kind of dirty, as opposed to the Mother Nature kind of dirty.

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In a book: my Lonely Planet guide

So I managed to make my way through the whole of Morocco without a guidebook. It was a bit annoying at times to be dependent on the battery life of my phone, in case I needed to look something up. But there is so much info on Maroc that it was never a problem to find whatever I needed, and there was almost always internet access/wifi everywhere I went.

And besides, I no longer want to be one of those guidebook travellers, who only goes to, stays in, and eats at the places in the book. And those places are so… vanilla. Not to mention packed with all the other guidebook travellers! Boring.

But then there’s Mauritania, and even Western Sahara for that matter, where you’d have to go looking for white skin. And as well, there exists very little information online, and the connectivity leaves much to be desired.

So I bought a West Africa guidebook. An e-version, mind you, because as if I’m gonna find it in paper, in English, anywhere out here. But I can print out the countries as I go, which seemed like a logical solution.

Until Lonely Planet let me down.

I mean, I know things change, and I know that the “September 2013” version wasn’t actually written in September 2013, but the information so far has been completely off the mark, for all but one guesthouse. The rest of the time, there are a multitude of places that aren’t listed; the ones that are listed are often totally different than the description (or they have closed, 3 years ago..); and the majority of the transportation info is completely wrong.

So here’s hoping that I can stay better connected in Senegal, and can stick to my old method!

On the border: Dakhla to Nouadhibou

Well, I made it. After 12+ hours on the road, I landed in Nouadibhou, Mauritania. For such a place and after such an adventure, I had really hoped to be in touch ASAP, so I was disappointed when my Moroccan SIM no longer worked in Mauri! Come on guys, let me roam! So this post is slightly delayed, but my writing can now benefit from the aid of a little bit of sleep 😉

I had arranged through my hotel in Dakhla to have a driver take me across the border. I thought it was a bit pricey (350DH, about $50CAD), for being 1 of 4 passengers. But, it turns out that it was just me and the driver. Which is ok for that price, but I would have preferred to share the cost! We met at 8, but we spent a good couple hours running various errands for him (vegetables are very expensive in Mauritania, so we were stocking up for his family) before officially departing around 10am.

Within 20 minutes, this middle aged guy had decided that a) he was going to call me Mariam, because Megan was too hard, and b) that I should be his wife. He didn’t seem to think much of my “husband” Kyle, though I’ve got that story so well-rehearsed now that I know he didn’t doubt the validity of my claim; he simply didn’t care.

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The highway out of Dakhla, Western Sahara

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Attention: camels crossing!

Eventually, off we went. The drive was actually quite spectacular. Lots of brief, yet beautiful views of the ocean, set against vast expanses of white sand (why it’s white here and orange farther north, I’ve no idea). Gorgeously weathered rocks. Great white dunes appearing out of seemingly nowhere, shrouded by a whirlwind of dust. There was even a man in a tractor who looked to be employed solely to manage a particular dune’s tendency to spill across the road; I wish I got that photo. As well, set a personal record for biggest camel herd seen; there were so many! A few times we had to shoo some off the road – something that’s followed by a chorus of that peculiar sound camels make, which is something akin to a broken foghorn.

After tea here, and tea there, lounging about the floor with random strangers (or the drivers brothers), we arrived at the border. And, man. I thought there were a lot of roadblocks on the way, but I hadn’t seen nothin yet.

The border is a bizarre and slightly terrifying place. It’s not meant to be, I’m sure, yet it is. It’s so very typically African (on the Moroccan side), in that within the span of less than 100m, I had to check/register my passport at least 7 different times. My driver had by this time decided that it was somehow easier to tell the officers that we were married. Now, I don’t know about anyone else, but to me, a poor, unattractive saharawi man who does not speak English, claiming to be married to a young Canadian woman, does not define the way to make anything easier. He said it was to keep the guards from hitting on me, but I can say that it didn’t make an ounce of difference. Especially when they found condoms in my bag; I’m sure it was the highlight of their day.

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No man’s land between Morocco and Mauritania

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More abandoned cars and electronics in No Man’s Land

Finally we make it out of Maroc, and we enter no man’s land. Immediately, you know it belongs to no one; it is a wasteland of trash, abandoned cars, televisions, and various other electronics, all stripped bare. There are a million tracks in the sand, and I’m instantly enormously grateful that this new “husband” of mine knows where he is going: I know that the earth here is peppered with landmines.

My god this is sounding quite dramatic, isn’t it? All I can say is that it was an incredibly fascinating and bizarre place to witness, but not somewhere I’d ever want to spend a lot of time.

I think my driver can tell that I’m grateful for his navigation through that place, because he spent the remainder of the drive asking me if I would sleep with him (referencing the “protection” I have in my bag), communicated through a combination of crude hand gestures.
“Por favor! Por favor! Por favor! Mariam!!”
“La! La! La! Shuuuukran.” (No! No! No! Thaaank you.)

Upon arrival in Mauritania, it was pretty standard.. register the passport here, buy the visa there, re-register the passport here again, check it at the gate with the police, and another 500m down the road with the military, and another 5+ times in the 20km to town… Standard.

What I hear is that Mauritania had recently had some terrorist activity (as well as ongoing threats from the Polisario thing happening in the north, and also spillover from Mali’s conflict). The impact this has had on Mauri’s economy is so great that the government wants to do everything it can to keep visitors safe. So what this means for me is that no matter how I’m travelling, I will always be the one passenger that gets out at least every half hour, to confirm who I am.

I’ve also heard that preparing a printed document summarizing all your passport info will help with this process, but so far it’s hit and miss. More than once have I seen an officer simply pocket the info…

Anyways, it’s definitely Africa here. I said before that I was worried about not being able to handle it down here, but in some strange way, it’s almost like I’m more comfortable here, even though it’s way less accommodating. Morocco and it’s stable, tourism-based economy raised my standards, but it seems I’ve been able to apply them to Morocco only. And it’s a good thing, too, because I suddenly have a lack of sheets and blankets, and an influx of cockroaches, but I don’t really mind.

Welcome to Nouadhibou!

On the web: hello, world!

I’m struggling to compile my thoughts on nearly 11 weeks in Morocco, all into a handful of posts. How to condense such an experience into a few little notes?

I’m in Dakhla now, the last stop before crossing the border into Mauritania. I have heard that it’s something to be prepared for: more basic than I can maybe imagine. The food, the accommodation (sleeping on the floor isn’t my favourite thing to do – these hips have feelings, too!)… the poverty.

I think some of my past travel experience has partially prepared me for this, but a part of me is worried that maybe not, and maybe I will not be able to hack it. So, the thought of “oh, I can just stay in Dakhla a little longer, so I can set up my blog” was so convenient. Now I’m feeling like I should stop with the self doubt and just get on with it!

I think, too, that the results of a google search for “how to start a travel blog” gave me the idea that it could maybe, you know, be something, but in reality, that’s probably never gonna happen. So for now, those of you that read this will just have to bear with me and the random order that my thoughts will spill out 🙂

Oh, and also, I think I have grown more accustomed to using my phone than a computer! I sat in that Internet cafe all damn day and barely accomplished a thing! Now, 5 minutes with the trusty iphone and I’m rolling. I love it.

And finally, a few pictures of Dakhla! It’s a peninsula in the far south of Western Sahara (a disputed territory of Morocco, but which is still Moroccan controlled). It’s a famous spot for wind and kite surfing, which means, as you can guess, that it is more than a little breezy here! Temps are high enough to keep me warm enough though – a welcome change from many other parts of Morocco right now!

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Sunset from the western coast of Dakhla

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The port in Dakhla (but, shh, I wasn’t supposed to take pictures!)

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Sunset from the Eastern coast and city centre

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Suburban streets