Monday, August 19, 2002

24 Hours in the Sahara

"She says the train leaves at three o'clock, not every three hours," Juliette translated for me.

"What time is it now?"

"One thirty."

"I guess we should go."

The Nouadhibou train station was a three sided cement room nestled between sand dunes and the Atlantic.

The man in military fatigues with a rifle greeted us as we walked in. We'd grown comfortable with authority figures of late, so we relaxed a little even though he wasn't particularly helpful. It was only when he began giving his rifle to other people so that they could shoot balloons to win prizes that we realized he wasn't there to protect us.

The closet-sized ticket office was closed and locked. It seemed reasonable to expect that if it weren't open now, a half hour before the train was due to leave, it was probably never open. It made sense. The train only ran once a day, and it wasn't a passenger train anyway. Iron ore and coal were its passengers, from the mines in the east to the port in the west, along Mauritania's only rail.

So if it wasn't a passenger train, what were we doing here? And what were all these other people doing here, with their rice sacks and goats and refrigerators, sitting in the sand in the sun, waiting for the freight train to come? Perhaps because in Africa, at the risk of being overly dramatic, people aren't considered much different from cargo. Or so it would seem in the next 24 hours.

We sat in the sun along the railroad tracks with everybody else, waiting for the train. Sitting beside us was our new friend Dan, a warm-hearted young traveler with a New Zealand twang.

"It's supposed to take about eleven hours," I told him. "It's either the third or the fourth stop, but it'll be the only one around two in the morning. It only stops for about five minutes, the French woman told us, so we should be careful not to sleep through the stop -- or we'll end up very far from where we want to be."

"Good to know," he replied. At first we'd been wary of hooking up with another traveler, not knowing what challenges this ride would have in store for us, but we liked him and it seemed like more people would be safer in this case. Strange how fear closes you off from people, often even those who can help you.

"She also said that people sometimes get hurt if they climb up the side of the train car while it's moving -- it jolts really hard and they fall." The freight cars are empty on the eastward journey, so people ride in the cars that normally carry the coal -- four walls, open to the sky.

"Oh yeah, and she said that if we get out during a stop, stay on the south side of the tracks -- there are land mines to the north." The rail was laid along the Moroccan border, and land mines are how Mauritania maintains a peaceful relationship with its neighbor.

"This woman was full of encouraging information," he observed. I hadn't really noticed how crazy this mode of transportation sounded. But at least it was free.

"How many people fit comfortably in one car?" Juliette asked a Mauritanian who'd invited us to join him and his friends.

"A hundred people, no problem," he replied unconvincingly. But at least by going with them we weren't likely to miss our stop; they'd done it many times before.

"She said we should bring some sand into the car," Juliette remembered, "for going to bathroom." It was a good tip -- it absorbs the liquid, like a litter box for humans. It wouldn't be very nice if it ran freely across the floor, and there was no way to safely go outside the car. I began filling a plastic bag with sand.

"He says," Juliette translated for the friendly Mauri, "that he can carry enough sand in his turban for all of us." A little extra won't hurt, I thought, knowing how much water Juliette drinks, and continued filling.

And so it was. Dan's face was a featureless red mask, covered with his sweater to keep the sand out. Juliette's too, only black; and I suppose I looked the same. The wind wasn't strong, but contant -- the sand attacked us one grain at a time, infiltrating every gap. It seemed that the eyes were its main objective; left unprotected for one moment, they would be barraged with tiny scratchy antagonists.

The train snaked ahead of us for as far as we could see -- not far, with so much sand making visibility terrible, but the French woman had been right up until now, and she'd told us the train was about three kilometers long -- the longest in the world.

Everyone offered food when they had some. Our bread topped with spreadable cheese wasn't a huge hit, as it attracted extra sand. The sun fell, leaving behind its legacy, a hot breeze. I tucked my alarm clock into my turban and laid down on the floor of the coal car alongside my Mauritanian brothers. I was so dirty already that the coal residue was no deterrent. The moon followed us, assuring us that like everything, this too was only temporary.

When I awoke, I discovered crystals of sand in the corners of my eyes. These little spherical conglomerations inspired a momentary feeling of awe for the human body; I marvelled at the work that had gone on while I slept, at the smoothness with which I could now look from side to side.

I nudged him. "Hey Dan, wake up, I think we've got about ten minutes."

He stirred a bit, perhaps mumbling thanks.

In the distance was a single light marking our destination. I realized that this morning we hadn't been in the middle of nowhere after all; we'd been on nowhere's western shore. Now we were in the middle for sure.

The moon still liked us, and illuminated some distant plateaus for our entertainment.

Often when approaching a village, the first light turns into two, five, and then many. The light of the village of Choum remained stubbornly as one, even by the time the train had stopped. We climbed down the iron ladder onto the soft sand, happy to have completed what we expected was the most difficult part of the entire trip.

Bush taxis were waiting, so we followed the lead of our Mauritanian friends and piled into one, headed for Atar, the only city in eastern Mauritania. After two minutes, the truck stopped and everybody got out.

Arriving somewhere in the middle of the night is a strange feeling. Arriving after having just woken up is stranger. Arriving on a freight train in the Sahara in Mauritania must be the strangest of all.

The brief ride we'd just gotten was, it seemed, merely to the place from which the taxis depart. So when would we leave? Tout de suite, the man said. In French, that means immediately. In Mauritanian, we were to discover, it means as soon as the vehicle is full.

After some time, our bags were unloaded and the truck drove away empty. Not enough passengers, somebody explained; try again when the train comes tomorrow.

What? Tomorrow? Waiting for a whole day in the middle of the desert? What happened to all the other people on the train, how did they get rides and we got stuck? We'd already bought our tickets -- tickets, in this case, were torn off pieces of graph paper upon which some numbers were hastily scribbled -- and the man with the money had magically disappeared. Things did not look good. Even the locals we'd been tagging along with were flummoxed. Nothing made sense.

Suddenly, there was word of another truck. Our group of dazed and confused travelers followed our flashlights to the new truck. It had no passengers except us -- bad luck, Allah only knew when it would leave in that case. Next to it was a pickup brimming with Africans and luggage and a bicycle and a goat. Full. Drat.

Sometimes being calm and rational is a good way to find solutions to problems. It didn't seem to be working in this case, so Juliette took over with an alternative approach: irate irrationality.

"We're getting on this truck," she said to me, pointing at the one that was overfull and preparing to leave.

"I guess we're getting on this truck," I said to Dan.

"Okay, well, it was good to have met you," he began to say goodbye.

"I guess we'll see you again in a minute," I said, cutting short his farewell, sure that there was no way this zany plan would work. Luggage filled the bed of the pickup, and was also hanging off the back in a rope mesh. Sitting on top of it all, elbow to elbow and knee to shoulder, were the passengers themselves. It made sense now why they charged extra for luggage; it was nearly interchangeable with people.

Without talking to the driver, without asking permission, up we went. First response wasn't the best imaginable; the woman closest to me shoved me repeatedly until I found a comfortable spot nearly over the edge. But perhaps that was just the normal way of defining boundaries. Soon enough, some men came to tie our backpacks onto the already precarious webbing hanging from the tail of the truck.

Dan, seeing that we'd secured a ride successfully, joined the bandwagon, adding his bag and squeezing in.

Apparently we could add infinite people -- I wasn't even sitting on the truck at all, but on the strapped-on luggage. So as long as each person added another bag...

The engine started. We began to move. Score one for irate irrationality. Juliette felt a little guilty for having behaved badly, but I had to admit it had worked.

Still dark, we're cruising along balanced on the back of a Toyota 4x4, probably stolen from Germany. It feels like a speedboat, bouncing and swaying over waves and wakes in the sand.

Juliette begins to laugh at me. What? She points at my hand. I'm holding on to the handlebar of a bicycle to keep from falling off the truck. The bicycle is tied onto the back of the truck even farther back than I am, and more precarious. I smile at the humor, but I don't let go of the handlebar.

Dawn. Truck stops. Everyone climbs down from the back of the truck. They face east. They bow. Shortly, we're all back in our places. Until sunrise, when the situation is repeated. Two down, three to go, so passes a day in this Islamic Republic.

There was a time not too long ago that I was a little bit cold, I remember fondly as I begin to sweat. The wind helps, but dries out the body more than it cools it. We've been traveling in the open air for too many hours now. My cough from Morocco hasn't gone away, and this treatment isn't helping. There was a time when I would have stayed home from work if I felt this bad, and now I'm riding in the back of a pickup in the sun in the Sahara. I'd get more rest if I went to work.

Waiting two hours in the sun for a two hour ride. Typical Mauritanian tout de suite. I never particularly liked that term, and now I grow to despise it. We finally leave Atar around noon, sitting in another pickup, in the beginning of the hottest part of the day. I'm drinking water, trying to get rid of the headache that could only be from dehydration.

Overheated engine. Par for the course in this country. We pull over. Seems like we're half way up the hill. A camel herder leads his camels down the slope, greeting his friends from our truck as he passes. We find out later that it used to take an entire day to ascend this particular slope. Then the Prime Minister of France scheduled a visit and the French government paid to have the road paved. Lucky us.

It's three in the afternoon by the time the truck drops us off in Chinguitti. At this time yesterday we were preparing to board a train. We haven't stopped since, or even set foot since, or even set foot inside away from the sun. Now in an oasis in the desert, perhaps we can rest.