Saturday, August 17, 2002

"She could be from anywhere," Juliette said quietly, looking across the cafeteria surreptitiously. The object of her gaze was an olive-skinned woman, sitting down with her coffee and croissant. Her face showed allegiance to no nation. Had she been dressed in something like a nightgown, we'd have guessed Moroccan, although Moroccan women rarely travel alone. As it was, however, with batik-dyed pants and woven net over her hair, she was clearly more emancipated than the local women.

From outside came the honk of a horn; we finished our coffees and returned to our seats on the bus. The 20 hour ride was the longest so far on this trip, removing any doubt from our minds that we were really traveling now. The foothills of the Moroccan Atlas mountain range had given way to the endless rocky plains of the Western Sahara desert. We slept, accepting the rhythm of the desert drive, waking for gas breaks and police checkpoints.

Only foreigners must show their passports at the checkpoints, so gradually we got to know the other two aliens. Sylvia, the enigmatic woman wearing tie-dye, turned out to be from Argentina, though she lived in Spain. Even more unusually, she spoke Arabic in addition to Spanish and French -- no English, which limited communication between her and me to half-awake smiles. She too was headed to Senegal, and seemed to know as little as we about the details of the journey.

The other foreigner, Mohammed, was a round-faced black man in a pastel shirt and slacks. He was on his way home to Guinea, just the other side of Senegal. He offered to help us on our way, since he'd come up from there already. We were grateful for his offer, having so little idea what we were getting ourselves into. He'd been in Morocco, he explained in fair English, on a project to send children from Guinea for education.

We arrived in Dakhla late in the afternoon. From the wasteland we'd come through to get here, it seemed like the middle of nowhere. But we knew it was just the beginning of nowhere. The Moroccans we'd shared the bus ride with scattered quickly, leaving the four of us collecting our bags and wondering what to do. Mohammed, the Guinea man, was hot to trot, even after a full day on the bus. He wanted us to leave with him -- immediately; as soon as we could find a vehicle. The three of us weren't in such a rush, preferring a shower and some time to weigh our options -- really we wanted to check out the tourist overlander situation, to see if any free rides were forthcoming. Mohammed was getting frustrated with us, turning from a gentle round-faced man into a thwarted tyrant. He nipped at our heels as we found a room, then we lost track of him. Bon voyage, Mohammed. We hoped, for his sake and perhaps a little for ours, that he found the ride he so desperately wanted.

The three of us -- Sylvia, Juliette, and I -- spent the remainder of the evening doing reconnaisance for our mission. We checked the campground where tourists with cars usually stay, and the Spanish bar where they drink, but found nobody going our way. It felt like, and indeed it was like, an old western where our heroes visit the local saloon searching for a legendary guide to take them through the badlands. Meanwhile, we're occasionally approached by Mauritanian middlemen, tall as trees and wearing huge billowing robes, persistent but never lowering their price.

In the morning the meetings continued. Speaking no French, I observed from the sidelines as the negotiations escalated. We sat at the plastic tables in front of the restaurant downstairs from our guesthouse, drinking coffee with a Frenchman who'd come across Mauritania from Senegal. He'd been living there for five years, and was now on his way to meet his sister in Marrakech. Soon we were approached by a Mauri with bad teeth, whom we'd met the day before. The drivers weren't awake yet, he told us pointing across the street to the white vans with blue Mauritanian plates. Even so, he offered their services for 500 dirham -- $50. The Frenchman thought that was reasonable and urged us to take it, making him an unwitting friend of the pushy middleman. We still harbored hopes of a free ride from tourists, so we declined. Soon a second man entered the picture, offering space in some vegetable trucks. 300 dirham seemed to be the price, but an agreement was far from final. I spied a new tourist on the street, so I ran after him to see if he had any information that might help us. Nope, he'd just arrived, stubbly beard to prove it. He wore a round cap and carried a small backpack, dusty and threadbare. He was French, perhaps his name was Luc. I told him about our negotiations but he wanted to check the camping area first. He'd been warned by the Mauritanian consulate not to take rides on vegetable trucks because they often ask for "police money" along the way.

Meanwhile, Juliette and Sylvia were bargaining with the vegetable truck driver, the middleman, and a new Land Cruiser driver, all at the same time. There seemed to be a bit of a competition among them, and finally the vegetable truck driver offered 200 dirham, a significantly lower price than we'd heard before. That sounded great to us, but then the Land Cruiser came down from 500 to 300 -- leaving now.

"Take it or no?" Juliette asked me, translating the negotiation.

The seconds ticked by. I tried to weigh the advantages of the fancy new Land Cruiser with the better price of the vegetable truck, and as I pondered, the Land Cruiser drove away.

"I think that was a bad decision," Juliette told me. "Yes, a bad decision."

Tension was already high from the negotiations and now it became personal, touching a sore spot between us. I accused her of making decisions for both of us and she accused me of not making them at all. The Frenchman from Senegal, sitting next to us outside the cafe, was subjected to an emotional argument between Juliette and me.

After we cooled down, the next character in the saga showed up: the Big Boss of the vegetable truck caravan. He was tall and thin, flowing robes topped by a black turbaned head. He was an imposing character, expressing unusual confidence merely by the way he stood. His driver, he said, had not been authorized to offer that price; the cost remained at 300. That, it was clear by now, was the standard price. The question was, could we find a cheaper way?

Over lunch, the waiter brought an answer. A new player, the driver of another vegetable truck, was brought to our table. His offer was a little unconventional, but still sounded good; 250 each, less 50 because one person would have to sit in back with the veggies. It wasn't clear whether this was only during checkpoints or for the whole trip. In any case we agreed to check it out, and they took us to the truck. The cab was small, but we thought we could fit three of us in the two-person bench. We'd just begun loading our bags in the back, when who should show up? Luc, the French backpacker I'd met on the street earlier. the vegetable truck deal I'd told him about had fallen through, but we happened to be in the same place at the same time. He'd had no luck finding tourists, so here he was, looking for a ride.

Sorry, there's no room, I apologized. But he wasn't really listening; he started talking with the driver. It wasn't long before we'd acquired a fourth passenger with whom to share the tiny front seat. He insisted at first that we would all fit, then after some time he realized it wasn't possible and suggested a rotation scheme, where one of us would sit in back. This would have been fine and good if, as he seemed to believe, this truck were the only way out of town. I told him he was making the trip unnecessarily difficult by squeezing in, and that he should find another ride. He'd gotten into a state of desparation, losing connection with reality and with us as human beings. He was doing what he had to in order to get out of this place as fast as possible. At the same time, the driver asked us for "police money." Astoundingly, Luc -- the one who'd been warned specifically about this shady practice -- paid the money, and began using that fact as a claim to the front seat. This marked a kind of tension peak; the deal had gone from good to bad to worse, and now it was so bad Juliette and I no longer wanted any part of it. We said as much, and walked across the street to the police checkpoint office, a two room cement cube.

Perhaps our willingness to give up the ride brought our French friend back to his humanity a bit; in the final moment, he sat down on his backpack and offered to stay behind if that's what we wanted. It was too late, however; we'd lost trust in the driver, with or without Luc.

We found our bargaining position much better once we'd lost interest; the police started negotiating for us, and ended up with two seats in the back for 150. We declined, content to hang out at the checkpoint. Sylvia came to say goodbye, and we wished her luck. She and Luc climbed into the truck, disappearing into a cloud of dust, into the Sahara. We chatted with the friendly policeman and waited for the next chapter to begin.

Waiting was no problem. We'd done it before, in worse conditions and for longer times. Actually, it was a nice rest after this morning's hectic activity.

The shadows began to lengthen. The cops through I looked like a ninja; I'd covered my face with my turban to keep out the sand and sun. We met a pair of French guys who shared our itinerary; Thierry with a buzz cut and Tugdale with dreads. They seemed like cool kids, second trip to Senegal but first time over land. Their bus took them into town, revealing a round-faced black man across the road. He walked toward me and waved, his pastel shirt flapping in the late afternoon wind. It was the Guinea man, Mohammed, back from the dead.

"You're still here," I exclaimed.

"Yes, yes. Going tonight. Come!" he beckoned me, pointing at a man across the street, putting oil in the engine of an old van.

Nothing to lose, I went. "How much?" I asked.

The negotiations started once again, at first between me and the driver, using the pushy Guinea man as a translator, then Juliette came to clarify the details. Mohammed was the only passenger so far, but the driver insisted he was leaving at 11:00 tonight no matter what, so we agreed on 300 if we found nothing cheaper.

How funny to find ourselves with the Guinea man after all. He was a little annoying when he was trying to convince us of something, but at least he wasn't mean. The driver seemed okay, just desparate for more passengers -- he had trouble competing with the vegetable trucks, he said. We weren't sure why he needed to leave so badly that he'd go even nearly empty, but it would be nice to have plenty of room. The van itself seemed in poor shape, so we hoped he knew how to fix it if it broke down in the desert.

Juliette and I returned to our post at the checkpoint in case of new opportunities. A wooden cart rolled by, pulled by a couple donkeys. It hauled some hay, some Moroccans, and two tourists -- Thierry and Tugdale waved from the cart. Crazy kids, what are they doing? Getting a ride into town from the campground, it turned out -- they hopped off the cart to see what was up with us. We told them about our appointment; they seemed nice enough, and there was plenty of room in the van, so we didn't worry about the Luc incedent repeating itself.

The police at the checkpoint got us all a ride into town to do some last minute preparations, and Juliette and I returned just after ten, early for our appointed leaving time.

"The driver is looking for you," the checkpoint officer informed us. "They even went into town to try to find you."

Strange. Why would they look for us so urgently, when we already had a plan? The officer took us to try to find them at the lot across the street.

"Here they are," he told us. It wasn't Mohammed at all, but the vegetable truck convoy from the morning's competition -- with the driver whose offer had been vetoed by the Big Boss. Sure enough, they wanted our business. Big Boss, head still wrapped in a black turban in the middle of the night, was proud and stubborn, but against Juliette's formidable bargaining he was powerless, and soon we had seats for 250.

We didn't feel too guilty about abandoning Mohammed and his driver, because he'd turned down our offer to commit for a cheaper price; now we got the better price along with better vehicles, more confidence in the Boss, and plenty of vegetables in case we got stuck somewhere. There was a final point of contention that could have broken the deal; in order to give ourselves a little security, we refused to pay up front. We wanted them to have some incentive to keep their side of the deal and drop us somewhere reasonable -- we didn't want to get stuck at the border, 50 kilometers and a land mine field from the nearest town.

Not only did this stipulation violate convention, but it seemed to hurt his pride -- it meant we didn't consider him trustworthy. Once he understood that we wouldn't back down on the issue, he preserved his dignity with sarcasm. "You can pay me in Hamburg!" he exclaimed, walking away. The deal was finished, though it took us a few minutes to confirm that he'd agreed.

Big Boss and his crew went on a dinner break, so again we found ourselves waiting at the police checkpoint. The shift had changed, and the cover of darkness increased the paranoia of the police -- no longer eager to chat, they just made sure we stayed out of their way. The two French boys showed up and we told them about the change in price, driver, and vehicles.

"Okay," they said. No fuss. Good.

It was after midnight by the time things started to roll. I was getting a little antsy, all dressed up with no place to go, when the first driver showed up. No sign of Mohammed -- which was just as well, though I couldn't help but feel sorry for him. He'd been the most eager to leave at the beginning, and his van still sat there as our three-truck convoy pulled out at 1:00 AM.

A strange behavior modification was taking place for us here in Africa. Normally we aspire to maximum openness and trust, which usually comes easy with others in our position. Yet, for the second time today we found that this openness wasn't in our interest, as Thierry and Tugdale climbed into the cab of the truck with us. We'd naively assumed that when the Boss said there were more seats, they were in one of the other trucks. "Pas de problem" -- No problem, the Mauritanians say whenever there's a problem. But we were all prepared for a little adventure, so we managed.

Discomfort aside, we were finally on the road to Mauritania; the road through the Sahara. Juliette and I felt confident with our sixteen liters of water, as did the French boys with their four liters, and the Mauritanian driver with perhaps one bottle floating around the cab left over from the trip up.

An hour or two into the trip, the trucks pulled off the road. "The other drivers are tired," our driver reported to us. He was the same one who'd offered us the bogus price at the beginning of this long day, which had caused us to miss out on the comfortable Forerunner, but we didn't hold a grudge. "We sleep here until six in the morning." Sleep where? we wondered, looking at the five of us crammed into the cab.

"We have to sleep outside," Theirry told us after talking to the Boss. The wind was fierce outside, carrying a payload of sand wherever it went, as well as the chill of the night desert. I'd acquired a cough a few days earlier and felt pretty miserable, so when the driver offered to let Juliette and I sleep on the passenger seat we didn't protest.

Morning. Driver slumped in his seat. Juliette still sleeping, perched on top of her backpack. Boss carries a small mattress and his blanket from where he slept -- against a wall to block the wind. His turban is still intact. Theirry and Tugdale follow, looking amazingly spry after what must have been a hard night. Things happen fast; we're moving again before I'm really awake.

Van in front pulls off the road. We stop too, to find out what's wrong. Passenger gets out, rushes back to us. Our driver rolls down his window. He turns around and hands us two cups of freshly brewed tea. Convoy rolls on.

It was the first gas station since we left Dakhla. Now we were really in the middle of nowhere. Surprisingly good coffee, all of south Morocco, actually. And croissants with a touch of chocolate. Six French twenty-somethings chattered enthusiastically at each other while waiting for their lunches. They'd all come from France together in a van, which they were planning to sell in Senegal and fly back.

In the gravel parking lot, a young black man worked on a motorcycle tire, sometimes hammering, sometimes prying. Looming over him was the owner of the motorcycle, a large German man who looked like he probably rested his upper body during long trips on the dense mass of his bulging belly. He'd logged something like 50,000 miles on his bike in Africa. Incomprehensible, I thought. It puts him in a different class, to whom one only speaks after being spoken to. Not only was he still alive and in good health, he was still riding, beginning another tour -- alone on a motorcycle through the Sahara.

I leafed through my passport to find the exit stamp for Morocco. Normally I forget to check, but Juliette reminds me. It's easy to find, as the pages were blank when we entered the country. Juliette is happy to discover that the stamps are tidy in her book, the exit stamp neatly below the entry. The only other blemish on my new passport is the Mauritania visa, taking up a whole page. Just like they do in India, which is why I had to get a new passport in the first place; my old one was nearly full. Oh yeah, and I put it through the wash by accident.

We drove on. The asphalt disappeared some time ago, so we're following the dirt track made by previous cars. They call it a piste. We begin to scan the surface of the sand for land mines, which the driver says are visible sometimes when the sand blows away. As close as a meter away from the road, he says. We don't really know what they look like, so everything is a land mine -- petrol barrel lids, tin cans, and perhaps even an occasional genuine land mine, who knows. We pass a few empty shells of cars, seems like they tried to blaze a new trail. Near one of the rusty frames is a ribcage poking out of the sand, and I convince myself it's human. The driver sometimes strays from the route the two vehicles in front take. I wish he wouldn't do that.

Some cars are parked off the road, in varying conditions of disrepair. Several men are there, and a young boy. We haven't formally entered Mauritania yet, but we've been driving through their country's mine field for some time. Our caravan parks in the sort of sand parking lot with the other cars. I'm feeling a little high strung from the ride, and I don't have a particularly good feeling about this stop. Mauritania is a big black rectangle in the world map of my mind -- I know nothing good about it so far. Our drivers seem to know these guys, but that doesn't mean much to me -- everybody knows everybody. Something about dropping some vegetables off. Trucks are unloaded, our backpacks lie on the ground. We're invited up to the cave -- a depression in one of the rock hills covered with a patchwork of plastic and other found materials. One truck leaves, chauffeured by the Boss. For some reason even in my state of enhanced paranoia I trust him.

We sit in the mouth of the cave. Flies are everywhere, crawling over my fingers and the sticky glass of syrupy mint tea. The men seem to live here. They're guides, making their living by escorting people through the mine field. They answer Juliette's questions in French. They mark the locations of mines with stacks of rocks when they find new ones. There are quite a few camels around, we mention. Yes, the camels find the mines too -- two days ago over there, and last week the other side of that hill. I'm nervous about going to the bathroom. I don't walk very far. They live here, I think. The mines are our security, they explain. Security from neighboring countries.

I feel a little claustrophobic here. Each step I take is tentative, even though I know so many people have walked here before. I'm glad when we finally leave, when we finally reach the official point of entry before it closes for the evening. We're not through the mines yet, but soon. We pick up a fourth car in the caravan, a French couple driving a Land Cruiser. They were lost because the piste had split and they took the wrong fork. I expected them to be more distraught than they were, after wandering through a mine field, though they stuck pretty close to us now.

We leave the explosives behind us, and soon the sun as well. We enter Nouadhibou nearly 24 hours after setting out from Dakhla. Tired, hungry, hot, dirty, and coughing, coughing, coughing.