Sample Agenda Mauritania. Mauritania is a big boy, the 11th largest country in Africa. It is bordered on the west by the Atlantic Ocean and on its other borders; Western Sahara, Algeria, Mali, and Senegal. Mauritania is primarily a desert country with 90% of its land found in the Sahara. These areas were originally settled by the Berber people, an ethnic group found in Northern Africa. France began the process of colonization in the late 19th century. Mauritania became an independent nation in 1960. Less than 5 million people live in Mauritania with nearly the entire nation being Sunni Muslim. Arabic is the national language with Hassaniya being the local version. French is also spoken by many, making it a useful language when traveling. Mauritania is a poor country despite being rich in natural resources. Iron ore contributes over 50% of its exports. Most people still rely on agriculture and livestock to subsist. Slavery was not outlawed until 2007 and still unfortunately exists currently. It is estimated that 2% of people live in slavery today.
I was excited to travel to Mauritania. I wanted to witness the beauty of the Sahara, see the libraries of Chinguetti, and visit the libraries of Chinguetti. I will be sharing my experiences visiting these sites and others.
Previously, Nouakchott was just a small village of 15,000 on the Atlantic Ocean. Nouakchott started its growth to 1,000,000 when it became the newly independent capital of Mauritania in 1960. Part of the population growth is driven by desertification pushing people into the capital. Nouakchott is a dusty, sandy sprawl with little touristic value. This is the economic engine of the country with a deep-water port and a university.
I arrived at Nouakchott in the evening. The newer and compact Nouakchott International Airport was constructed in 2016. I arrived in the evening and took advantage of the visa on arrival. Only several people lined up to get the visa making it a short, painless and corrupt-free process. A quick photo and 55 Euro, and I was welcomed to Mauritania with my new visa (my 135th country). Read more about Nouakchott here.
The airport was nearly empty and my arranged car from the hotel apparently had not arrived. After employing Google Translate and some broken French, I spoke with Abdul who worked at the airport and called my hotel. The clerk informed Abdul that the hotel car was not coming. The airport is nearly an hour from the capital and quite remote and isolated, resulting in a scarcity of taxis. Maybe, one of the few airports in the world where taxi touts are not hovering over you upon your arrival.
Abdul with a smile on his face, offered to drive me to the hotel for a quick 30 Euro. I didn’t have any other reasonable options. The road was car free and I arrived at Hotel Iman, not too happy. Abdul was self-satisfied to point out a building or two as we progressed down the highway. Maybe, that is how he justified the 30 Euro.
The arranged car for the hotel had been negotiated at 12 Euro. When I arrived at the hotel, I asked the clerk for 18 Euro, the difference I was charged for the missed ride. Of course, this was not a viable solution. The clerk demurred and refused to provide me the difference.
Hotel Iman had just made my enemies list. It was a charmless hotel that was overpriced and located next to the fortified US Embassy. Oh, and the wifi did not work.
Morning came and after breakfast, I met my guide, Baba, and driver, Elboo. Baba and Elboo were dressed in traditional clothes including requisite turban accompanied by a sturdy yet weathered silver Toyota pickup truck.
There were three provisioning stops before we began our journey. Baba brought me to some money changers to exchange my Euros for Ouguiya. The money changers were desperate for business, as the throng descended and crowded me to make a couple Ouguiya. There are a couple of ATMs in the capital but not always working (though I did get some money at the ATM at the airport). Other stops included filling up the gas tank and another stop to get some snacks at a store.
Terjit is not much more than a village, an oasis in the desert, set between some mountains and populated with towering palm trees. Several hundred people find their home here. And city folk make their way here to relax at the oasis and cool off by the water.
The road was paved and decent as we speeded to Terjit. And as you will hastily learn, life in Mauritania revolves around tea. A lot of it, with a lot of sugar. We made a brief stop at a village on the road and retired a tent to provide shade. We were served sugar with a dollop of tea and mint.
We made our way to Terjit in time for a late lunch. We were staying at a tented camp, set on a hill.
I entered the dining tent and plopped myself down on some cushions. Many meals are taken, sitting a series of cushions on the ground. A salad and a stew were produced. You will learn that all meals seem to be a derivation of the same meal.
After eating and some resting, Baba and I walked down the main thoroughfare of the village, a dirt road. There seemed to be two general stores in the town, one of them open and unmanned. Baba greeted all who passed, including the equivalent of the mayor.
Terjit is part of Baba’s tourist circuit. So over the years, he has become a familiar face. In many less industrialized countries; I have noted a warmness and familiarity not seen back home between strangers or acquaintances even during brief interactions.
A further bit down, several people lounged on a mat in front of their straw home in an enclosed, walled-off area. One of the men, dressed in a royal blue robe, beckoned us over. Within moments we were seated on the mat and the compulsory unofficial tea ceremony began. I slurped some incredibly sugary tea as a light drizzle fell.
We arrived back to the tented camp, had dinner, which was quite similar to the lunch. I crawled into my tent, plopped down onto the bedroll and slid a blanket over myself. Desert nights grow cool and chilly. And I was due for a surprise as rain thundered down as I hoped that my tent would keep me dry. I was visiting Mauritania in winter so the locals were surprised with the heavy rain.
The rain had ended by the time I scarfed down my breakfast of fresh bread, Nutella, and of course some tea.
Chinguetti makes it home in the Sahara Desert. It previously played a role in the trans-Saharan routes, as caravans ferried gold and slaves across an ocean of sand. Chinguetti also served as a waystation to those on pilgrimage to Mecca and is considered one of the holiest cities of Islam. It traces its roots to 777. Chinguetti is also well-known for its libraries housing precious Islamic manuscripts.
We departed the tent camp of Terjit taking in the amazing and desolate scenery.
At one point, we perched ourselves on the edge of a cliff overlooking a small village, isolated in the desert. A bit later we stopped a stunning oasis, set in the sands with palm trees waving in the hot wind. A mat was thrown down on the edge of the water, as Baba and Elboo prepared our meal.
Later in the day we arrived in Chinguetti, a small town, really just a village. Homes and structures are constructed in reddish dry stone, nothing more than two stories. The streets are unpaved with sand being ubiquitous. Not surprising, I am in the desert. In fact, the desert is encroaching Chinguetti, with some homes overtime being abandoned on the outskirts of town.
Sunset was spent on top of a hill that overlooked Chinguetti in the distance. Otherwise, I was surrounded by undulating sand dunes that stretched into infinity.
I was joined by nearly ten tourists and a contingent of political VIPs from Mauritania and France. This was the high-water mark for tourists during my travels throughout the country.
Today, Chinguetti is the home of five libraries. The libraries house ancient and historic Quranic manuscripts. These manuscripts passed and traded hands across the sands via the caravans that plied these routes in ancient days.
I entered the first library and was greeted by a snow-white bearded man draped in white with a turban. The old man gingerly showcased the highlights of his library. He narrated the signifigence of these crumbling texts. Over 1300 manuscripts are housed across the five libraries. Two of these libraries are open and accessible to visitors.
Afternoon included a desert ride to another oasis. A walled-in farm of daunting palm trees and other fruit producing trees that can sustain in the desert. Baba threw down the mats and served another meal. After lunch we napped in the thick heat.
We returned to Chinguetti and ambled through the marketplace. This was the least crowded African market I have ever visited. It was near empty and sedate, lacking the action and crowds I typically encounter on the continent. I approached a group of elderly men sitting in the shade lined up in a row. I offered greetings in Arabic and asked for a photograph. The unofficial spokesman of the group agreed. As I snapped away, I realized one of the men was the white-bearded librarian I had met earlier in the day.
Ouadane is another UNESCO World Heritage site and another port on the Saharan trading route. Ouadane is a village of only a couple of thousand people.
The drive to Ouadane, a village of a couple thousand, is just 100 km from Chinguetti. The trip was stunningly beautiful and relaxing. There are no roads. Just the desert. The pickup trick slid across the sand like a sled on a newly fallen snow. The 100 km would take approximately four hours, and I would have been happy with eight. The window was rolled down, my elbow rested on the door, my arm getting burnt in the Saharan sun, just staring into the horizon.
We had two stops during our road trip. The first was visiting a nomadic family, who were lounging in the expansive open-air tent. And as you might imagine, we were beckoned to sip the sugary, mint tea, shaded from the heat.
Our next stop was visiting a camel caravan that we encountered. Three men led their herd of camels seemingly in the middle of the desert. While for centuries caravans trafficked in goods between Chinguetti and Ouadane; today these caravans are mostly for tourists. Tourists can caravan between these two towns over a several-day period.
We arrived at Zaida’s Auberge in Ouadane. I had booked my trip with Baba via Zaida who organizes tours in Mauritania. Zaida welcomed us with a warm smile and with her son prepared us lunch.
Later in the day, Baba brought me to the old and abandoned part of Ouadane. Unfortunately, this is one of those places where you need a lot of imagination. Piles of sand-colored rocks formed the old walls of buildings in the ksar (Berber castle). This part of Ouadane was perched on a hill, overlooking the surrounding desert.
We returned to the Auberge where Zaida informed us that we had been invited to a local wedding. In darkness, we entered a courtyard. Weddings in Mauritania are separated by gender, celebrating the festivities in different locations. I assumed I was allowed entry due to my effeminate nature. It was a starless night and the entire courtyard was only illuminated with two lights. Dozens of mats were strewn across the grounds with many women gathered in the courtyard. The women were donned in colorful robes accompanied with head scarves. Two of the women produced drums, creating rhythms, while other women joined in with singing and dancing.
Every trip has an agenda, but many times the most memorable experiences are the ones not planned. Being able to witness and participate at this wedding was one of those special and unique experiences.
Sample Agenda Mauritania.