Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Along the Mauritania Border

Rather than trying to slip into Mauritania for two or three days and subjecting myself to its treacherous roads and nerve-racking border officials, I simply rode along its border for a hundred miles, stopping in at three border crossing sites across the Senegal River--one over a dam and the other two by ferry.

It was a relief to be approaching a border without having to worry about going through all the rigmarole, but I still couldn't help but feel a little tension, especially at the main crossing at Rosso with its swarm of hustlers and touts and money-changers.  Several jogged alongside me telling me I had passed the office where I needed to get my passport stamped.  None wanted to accept that I had simply come to give this ferry crossing a look.  

A primitive, small barge provided the transport. It wouldn't take much for an overloaded truck to capsize it. I didn't mind at all that I wouldn't be boarding it.  If I had decided to venture into Mauritania I would have chosen the dam.  It's a bit out of the way off the main highway, but said to have a minimum of hassle.

The river was rarely visible from the road that somewhat paralleled it.  The terrain alternated between barren desert and stretches where there was decent soil and irrigation had turned it productive.  There was sugar cane, rice, ochre, onions, melons and more.  One night I was able to camp on a path between rice paddies, but another night I was caught in a stretch of emptiness and ducked into a walled in compound of farm equipment when I noticed a security guard sitting at the entrance.  I assumed he was there for the night.  He was happy to let me pitch my tent inside.

Now that I'm shoulder to shoulder with the Sahara, the air has turned browner than ever with the wind stirring up the sand of this vast, ever-increasing desert the size of the continental US.  There were occssional irrigation canals where people went for water and could take a swim.  At one a cluster of women frantically waved at me as I passed.  I was surprised so see that several were topless and seemed to be beckoning.  None objected to being photographed.

No more baobabs, though I did have a glass of its juice specially prepared for me.  As I was sitting in the shade of a tree beside a village cemetery a young man, who introduced himself as Alieu, sauntered by and asked if I needed anything.  He had grown up in The Gambia so his English was fluent.  He had recently returned to the village of his grandfather and father, who were both buried in the cemetery, to farm their parcel of land.  He had been trying to make a go of it as a fisherman in St. Louis, but that is a tough life with lots of competition, so was glad to give the farming a try.  He resorted to the Internet regularly when he had questions of what to do.  I asked if there were any baobabs in the vicinity.  There weren't.  Next I asked if he liked baobab juice.  He said he did and said if I'd like some there was someone in the village who made it.  

He had already invited me to come hang out at his home in this heat for the next few hours as he would until five o'clock, when he would return to his fields.  I was actually getting ready to be on my way when he had stopped by.  I told him the breeze I created as I biked made the heat not so bad.  I would ride an hour then cool off in the shade for a spell and was just fine.  This sun though was intense.  The Brazilian cyclists said their solar panels had never worked so well as during their time in Mauritania.
I had my day planned out and didn't care to linger too long, but couldn't resist the opportunity for a freshly made glass of baobab juice.  It was a tough slog through the sand to his village on the other side of the road.  We joined a cluster of folk who were laying on rugs in the shade of a three-sided shelter.  A young boy brought me a glass of cold water.  

When I asked if I could take a picture of everyone, Alieu said in their culture the men and women sit separately, so that meant two photos of the group.  Alieu is in the middle.

I asked if I could watch the preparation of the baobab juice.  Alieu said it would take a while and it was best if I just waited with the others in the shade.  After a few minutes a woman brought me a soft pad and pillow, which I declined.  Alieu said his friend beside us had a bad shoulder and wondered if I knew any remedies for it.  I showed him an exercise I used when I had a broken collarbone and my shoulder stiffened up--bending over and letting the stiff arm dangle and then slowly rotating it like a butter churn.  Shortly after that a woman presented me with some x-rays of her son's withered arm.  Alieu said everyone assumed I was a doctor, as volunteer doctors are the only whites they have contact with.

Half an hour later Alieu said it would still be a while before the juice was ready.  I was  headed to check out the ferry in Dagan, just six miles away, and then would return to St. Louis.  I told Alieu that maybe I should continue on my way and come back in an hour or so.  He thought that was a good idea.  I was delayed though by a flat tire and more rough sandy roads through Dagan to the dormant ferry, just a pirogue that could take individuals across the river.  There was no immigration office.

Alieu and a dozen others were still under the shelter when I returned an hour later than I thought I would.  They had awaited my return for the final touches of the juice, a prolonged hearty stir and addition of sugar.  During the procedure Alieu excused himself to go pray at the nearby mosque, accompanied by the other men, while the women remained.

When the juice was completed they let me sample it to see if I would like any more sugar.  It was plenty sweet, enough so that I asked for it to be diluted with more water, which would add to the volume of the  bottle they were sending me off with.  It was the fourth or fifth time I had had the juice.  All were divine, but this was extra special. Before I was on my way we went on line and became Facebook friends.  Alieu said it was important for the Sengelese to be hospitable and was happy to have had the opportunity.  Someone the day before had also invited me to his home "to show how we live" but there haven't been as many examples of this as I was told there would be, probably because my French isn't fluent enough.

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