scared thrilled scared thrill scared thrilled

I find most things in life both scary and thrilling. I suppose I should hope it's always this way, but sometimes it feels like an awful lot of work.

Friday, March 14, 2008


I forgot to mention earlier that what I'm writing here are the transcripts of things already written on pen and paper in my journal. I don't like writing with pen and paper, despite the romance of it, as I find it difficult to actually compose and find myself simply recording instead. These entries are recordings. Some day maybe they'll find their way into compositions. that would be nice!

March 9. Writing from the village of Tay-Arrette near Atar, Mauritaia.
Some borders are aptly called borders, others are frontiers. Crossing from Morocco into Mauritania is crossing a frontier, and the experience is accompanied by all the accoutrement thoughts and feelings associated with the term, at least for me. After getting your stamp on the Moroccan side you go through a gate and the road disappears immediately, our crumbling van trundled slowly through a dusty swirling wasteland of blowing plastic bags and debris, scrubs of grass and the hulking and charred masses of burned out cars. It continues this way for 9km before one reaches another gate and encounters the Mauritanian border officials. I had heard horror stories of this literal no man's land. The 9km stretch is claimed by neither maroc nor mauritanie and it is officially administered by the UN, though no administration is apparent. The area has beome a garbage dump for all materials which don't have the required paperwork or enough baksheesh to get into either country. It is also filled with people who have the same problem, stranded in no man's land without the papers required to leave. All are refugees, most are from Africa but some come from as far afiel as Bangladesh. They wait, trapped in this nether zone, for the chance to float their way to the Canary Islands. Because neither country claims the territory neither country claims the problem, and the refugees are left to beg for water from the few who do pass through the frontier. While the only figures I saw were far away, walking along distant dunes and silhoutted against the setting sun, the knowledge of what exists in that godforsaken stretch made me sick to my stomache. The shock that people can live in such a condition without anyone seeming to know or care is multiplied by the feeling that this must be one of many such places in the world.
The border offices themselves gave a clear indication of what the economic difference between the two countries. On the Moroccan side, a well-used but neat cement block row of two offices and a mosque served by electric lights and a toilet with a plumbed faucet. On the Mauritanian side, a shack made of sticks and used linoleum with a gas lantern for light and men working on an old board for a table.
I continuied on to Noadhibou and was treated to some fine Arab hospitality as I waited for my host Ibrahim to fetch me from the grocery store where I borrowed a phone, was given a special and comfy chair and bottles of water and fruit juice. Free, with smiles. The next dya I left for the East of the country and the deep Sahara. The trip on the train must be its own entry.

It remains a necissity for me to write about the epic journey on the iron-ore tain, but for now I will record the passing of the last three days in the village of Achmeddan. Here's a teaser for the train:
The world's longest train (2.5 km) carries iron ore from the mines in the Sahara to the coast for loading onto ships. On the return journey into the desert the cars which carried the iron ore are empty, and hundreds of people hop aboard for the epic, 12 hour journey through coal dust and sand storms to arrive in the middle of the night in Choum. It is epic. From my ore car near the back of the train I can hear the train beginning to pull up at the front, 2 km away. As the cars pull taught there is a slam of iron on iron with the passing of energy from car to car. The sound comes rolling like thunder and you hold on like hell cause when it hits your car there's a shocking shudder and a lurch forward into motion. If you're caught outside the car, or even worse on the ladder, when you hear the thunder beginning it can be a very scary thing. It's terrifying.

Like the sound of the bomb on its way to your town, or the air round his fist on its way to your mouth.

More about the train later:
The train stopped at Choum before continuing on to its next destination. It was about three or four am when we stopeed. Complete arkness and lots of scurring around, people throwing packages to the ground and jumpin gfrom the waagons with haste, making sure they got everything unloaded, bags, tea sets, stoves, my guitar, and as I learned later, goats, before hte train left again. In total darkness I descended, jumping from the ladder with my pack on my back having refused the help of Adam the Cote D'Ivoirian. I wiped out on the landing, of course. Pridefall. I said goodbye to Adam who had been a big help, and moved to a waiting truck. I loaded myslef into the back and was carried a short distance to a spot where I joined with the other four tourists who had ridden inside the train's passenger car and anyone else travelling to Atar. After some uneccessary and fear-induced haggling by the Canadians and the dutch guy we finally settled the price, the same as the price quoted intitally, and loaded 9 people with bags and five goats into the back of a tiny toyota hilux. I don't want to travel this way, afraid of everything and certain everyone's trying to rip you off. Certainly, you will pay more than you should for some things when you travel in places like Africa. But you have to pick your battles, and the middle of the night in a 1 goat village in the sahara when there's ONE truck going anywhere and the people have been generous and helpful is not the right battle. Before leaving we swung through the dark village to pick up a very elderly and ill woman for the trip to Atar. Before getting in the cab of the truck she performed what seemed to me a very efficient and interesting bathroom ritual. With one quick and smooth movement she dug a small trench in the sand with her bare foot, then squatted over the spot, her long robes touch the ground ensuring full privacy. After a few moments she stood, filled in the trench with her foot, washed her hands with sand and was helped into the truck. It was beautiful and shocking at the same time. Like real life, I suppose.
The trip was very pleasant. We passed through fields of sand dotted with rock outcroppings and thorned trees under the incredible light of the desert night sky. With no light around save the lamps of the truck, the stars were out in full force. Of course the guitar was revealed and I spent the next few hours singing for the other passengers, for the Sahara and for myself. We followed what was at times a track, a road, a collection of sets of tracks or simply nothing at all. There was a really nice Mauritnaina man travelling in our boatload. The goats were his of course. He and I traded singing back and forth and he sang with me a bit. From his manner I thought him to be younger than me. His turban covering his face made it difficult to assess his age. He spoke French and was very patient with me. We made good conversation and after a couple of hours he invited me to stay with hima nd his family in his village just shy of Atar. This is where I have spent the lat few days. His name is Achmeddan.
Achmeddan lives in a tiny village 9km west of Atar. As it turns out he is 33 years old. He lives in a little compound with his parents, his two sisters and their two little girls. We jittissoned the Toyota Hilux, the onlky truck in the desert it seems, and walked throught eh sand to the square mud house where his family was, of course, sittin gand making tea. He introduced me and I sat in silence while his family, quite happy at his return, chatted. Along with the ea I was offered my first taste of zrig, a drink made of sweetened curdled camel or goat milk. It was ok.
Over the next few days I enjoyed the legendary hospitality of the Mauritanian people, exhibited in exemplary style by Achmeddan and his family. We ate couscous, drank a kind of breakfast drink made of grain and sour milk, had heaps of tea, visited his friends in teh village and so on. His neighbours were hosting a grande fete for the marriage of one of the dauhters and there was nearly constant singing carrying through the dusty air for two of the four days I passed there. I was invited to dance in front of everyone to the frantic and savage sounds of the traditional Mauritanian wedding singers, groups of middle aged or older women singing fiercely into microphones and making driving rythms on drums, steel bowls, bottles, whatever. I love to dance, and the experience was wonderful.
On arrival at Achmeddan's I was offered a place to wash, welcome after the 16 hours en route. With a bucket of water drawn from the family well I washed an unbelievable amount of dust/iron-ore from every nook and cranny. The family lives much like they must have for hte last hundreds of years. The ony modern accoutrements I could see were the occasional plastic bowl, a butan gas burner for making tea, though coal was used just as often, cigarettes and cigarette lighters, flashlights, a battery powered radio and, amazingly, cellphones! They would need to take trips to the city every few days to charge the phones.
power just went out on the other side of the room so i'm going to publish this quick so i don't lose it. then, hopefully, come back and finish.


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