The sands of time in lively Mauritania
I ARRIVE from Paris in Mauritania’s capital of Nouakchott, a city being slowly consumed by the Sahara Desert.
The view from my aeroplane window of its suffocation by sand is replicated at close range later in the day when I wander the backstreets in search of food. The almost-coastal air is as warm as the grains sifting through my thongs.
The willowy trees and easy exchange of French and Arabic greetings lull me into believing this city — in fact, the whole of this West African country — is a tranquil oasis. But I am deceived.
I find a bakery and step inside to join the throng of locals.
‘‘The woman can go to the front,’’ a man in a long robe shouts in my general direction and I move forward into a sea of blue and white tunics. Behind a glass panel three young men are in perpetual motion within their confined space.
After I’ve observed several transactions, I poke a note through a hole in the dividing wall, lock eyes with the next pair that sweep past me, and call out in French for one baguette.
A moment later the money is whipped from my fingers and a red plastic bag skids down the counter containing my purchase. I step back into the quiet lane, clutching my bread.
I haggle for richly coloured bedding in the disconcerting halfdark of a merchant’s shop. I change money on the street with serious young men who jab their calculators and talk faster than I can understand. I take a highspeed taxi ride for a few hot blocks in a beaten-up Mercedes emitting smoke and distorted Arabic pop.
Beyond the city, where the afternoon heat is as heavy as camel’s breath and the open spaces far greater than my imagination, I explore the desert for a fortnight by fourwheel-drive.
Interminable stretches of silent, sand-swept bitumen are interrupted only by explosive arguments in Arabic between my driver, Mohamed, and armed police. They demand that his passenger, who is obviously a tourist, must pay to pass their checkpoints. But Mohamed wins every time.
A private tour one morning of an ancient dwelling, elevated high above a rocky plain where foot-sized scorpions patrol like tanks, ends abruptly when a snake appears. The custodian flies into a wild flap to kill it.
Days later, in the protective shade of a Bedouin tent, I am roused from my afternoon nap and challenged to a game in which the winner of each round must pelt a camel’s dropping out into the dunes with a warbling yell.
The further I venture into Mauritania and the more space and silence I experience, the more heightened and dramatic these moments seem.
There’s the screech of brakes when Mohamed stops the vehicle to chase and catch a native lizard. There’s the voracious devouring of camel meat scraps by a tethered jackal at a tiny roadside market. A goat cries as it’s about to be slaughtered in a village square; the stabbing pain as a thorn of biblical proportions nails my thong to my foot and my panicked shouts cause several people to rush to assist in its removal.
The journey ends back in Nouakchott and I board my plane to return to France. Looking down again at the sandy city through the window, I see what appears to be a tranquil oasis. Then my bandaged foot throbs in my shoe and reminds me not to be so easily deceived.