Marie ventures south into Mauritania and discovers the best driver in Saharan Africa ... when it's too late
"Please, you come to see my hotel."
A thin Moroccan man in a crisp shirt and jacket had approached me as I waited for the shared minivan taxi to be packed up for the journey south to Mauritania.
"But it's 7:30 in the morning and I'm leaving Dakhla right now," I said.
"For when you come back."
"I'm not coming back."
"Well, you can 'like' us on Facebook then."
"Um, maybe. Does your hotel have wi-fi?"
"You want to know if I have a wife?"
"You are very lucky today. You have the best driver. This is the best driver, right here." He pointed to my driver, Bamba, a thin man in eyeglasses who was wrestling with my rucksack and a boxed 32" flatscreen television. I hoped driving skills were unrelated to packing skills.
What makes the best driver for this route across the Sahara? The roads were paved, weren't they? Was there a special skill needed here? I vaguely remembered reading something about the border crossing being tricky, which was why I'd negotiated a seat to Nouadhibou in Bamba's 1993 Renault minivan instead of taking the 9 a.m. CTM bus that goes straight to the border for 160 dirham. But I didn't recall the details, and rather than researching this, I'd spent my two days in Dakhla being sick after the 20-hour bus journey from Essaouira had left me dehydrated and vomiting.
I'm sure I was made of sturdier stuff ten years ago, during my first trip around the world. I hoped I'd toughen up soon. I had ten months of travel ahead of me, including four months of public transport through West Africa between here and Cape Town.
The other passengers showed up – a tall, quiet man (who may or may not have been Tuareg) swathed in blue cloth, three plump squat Mauritanian women draped in bright colorful fabric, and two hip-looking 20-something men in new jeans, fashionable T-shirts, and studded belts. The latter two, who were Senegalese and Mauritanian, carried no luggage.
Later, they'd explain to me that they were working under-the-table in Morocco – one in Marrakesh and one in Agadir. They were both on visa runs, going to Mauritania overnight so they could renew their tourist visas when they returned to Morocco the next day.
"It's a little hard to explain..." the Senegalese one had begun nervously.
"Not at all," I said. "I used to have to do this when I was working in Kuwait."
He'd looked delighted at that, and I'd quietly considered that if he'd tried to sell me – a tourist – a trinket in Marrakesh's Djemma el-Fna, I'd have given him the brush-off. If he'd tried harder, I may even have fled or been rude. But here we both were, stuck in a long taxi journey together without the barrier of commerce between us. I was relieved that he spoke decent English. My communications with Bamba and the other passengers mostly involved pre-school level French, trying on each other's sunglasses, and pantomime.
I resolved to try harder to be more patient with touts and souvenir-sellers in the future.
Bamba drove the Renault three hours through the desert, before stopping to force us all to drink tea together at a roadside stand. Mauritanians take their tea seriously, and he poured it from cup to cup, creating a frothy head on each glass before presenting one to each of his passengers.
And then it was border time. I was stamped out of Morocco quickly.
"Where are you going next?" The border guard was curious.
"After Mauritania? I'm going to Senegal, Gambia, Mali..."
"No, then Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria..."
He drew in his breath.
"You are crazy to do this alone. Mali and Nigeria are very dangerous. And you..."
I waited for the obligatory comment on my gender.
"With this passport! With an American passport! This is crazy."
I laughed. So it wasn't my gender but rather my nationality that was likely to get me into trouble. I was pleased. That's progress, to not even notice that I was a woman travelling solo.
Bamba and the other passengers finished up their border formalities and we drove into no-man's land.
The tarmac vanished and before us was a long stretch of sand. Bamba had started to concentrate intently and now, he suddenly jerked the wheel and the Renault pitched left, following almost invisible tracks. He slalomed the vehicle as we drove, back and forth, back and forth, then suddenly one way or the other based on some nearly invisible landmark.
And then I saw an overturned, rusting car. Then I noticed lots of overturned, rusting cars, all around us. That's when I started to remember something about landmines and getting a guide across no-man's land.
I wasn't worried about the Renault. Bamba drives this route all the time. He IS the guide. He wrenched the steering wheel left and we all swayed to the right. He seemed to have some kind of innate knowledge of the route.
"Left at the half-a-Toyota with one door. Right when you pass the upturned hood of the Peugeot." I imagined guides passing on info about the way across.
I tried to ask what had happened to the wrecked cars. "Qu'est-que...cars...?"
"Shocks," said Bamba.
I almost laughed right at him then. Really, shocks? Did I look that fragile that I couldn't know that there had once been land mines here? Though I suppose it isn't wise to frighten your passengers.
We made it through the formerly-or-maybe-still mined border intact – probably due to our good shocks – left the two visa-run guys at the Mauritanian side of the border, and proceeded down the road to dusty, sprawling Nouadhibou, pronounced Naughty-Boo. Bamba circled around the town's back alleys, carrying each of us to our destinations. Finally, the only passengers left were me and the 32-inch flatscreen television.
Bamba dropped me off at an overlander's lodge. Outside the gate, I tried to give him an extra 50 dirham. He'd certainly earned it.
But he looked offended.
"Absolutely not." He pushed it back at me along with his business card.
"Call if you need anything."
By now, I really did believe the hotel-man back in Dakhla. Bamba probably was the best driver. Maybe I should have taken a look at his hotel after all.
Marie Javins writes books, teaches aspiring comic book colorists in New York, edits Kuwaiti comic books and travels the world by public bus. You can read more about her current expedition – a second round-the-world journey – at MariesWorldTour.com.
Missed Marie's earlier adventures? Check out the Wander Woman blog page