The Endless Journey

I gave up on mainstream news and network television almost twenty years ago.  After several trips overseas and an opportunity to look in on the U.S. from the outside, I no longer believed in the dominant narrative.  “America” has an agenda and the corporate mass media force feeds the public that agenda however and whenever it can.   I prefer to avoid exposing myself to that agenda.  A couple years ago, however, I joined facebook.  I am no great enthusiast for the time drain of social media but I am self employed and I thought it would be a good way to promote my business. Unfortunately, facebook comes with a newsfeed.  And the only thing worse than propaganda from the empire is propaganda passed on by my “friends.”  Ugh.

Honestly, I really can’t handle the Islamaphobia.  I realize that the Empire is waging a number of wars for asset control throughout the Islamic Middle East.  I’m aware that they have to demonize the people who live there in order to justify their imperialism.  But seriously, how can ordinary humans take that shit seriously?   I’m no expert.  I haven’t studied the Koran or taken college courses on the subject matter but, in the course of four separate journeys, I have spent over 16 months wandering around Islamic countries.  And my impression of Muslim people is so different from what I am exposed to through the media that it seems like a whole other universe.

For the next several weeks, I will be posting stories about my travels in Muslim countries.   This week’s story is an excerpt from one of my books.

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Attar, Mauritania; Jan. 19, 2009

The Endless Journey…

It’s five in the morning and there’s a knock on my door. It’s hotel reception informing me that my ride awaits in the street below. I stuff my pack full and descend to the dark street to find four Africans putting various belongings into the trunk of a 1970s era Mercedes. I approach the group and say “Noahdibou”; the name of my destination which is 400 kilometers away on the other side of the Mauritanian border. They don’t speak English but my meaning is clear. They nod yes, take my pack and stuff it in the trunk. Generously, the three younger guys crowd into the back seat and allow me the front with the old man driver. In a few moments we are driving through the dark streets of Dahkla, Morocco and on our way to Mauritania.

I arranged the ride the day before through a contact at the Hotel Sahara because there is no official public transport between Mauritania and Morocco. The reason for this is the long history of animosity between the two nations. The Western Sahara province of Morocco was once a Spanish Colony, was once independent, was once part of Mauritania and is now part of Morocco. The border area between now has a whole lot of landmines and many people have died in the relatively recent years trying to gain control of this territory. As the sun slowly rises and we make our way down the road, I can’t help but wonder what the hell they were fighting about. Nothing but sand and rock and dirt as far as the eye can see. Sure, it’s beautiful in a desolate, empty, awe-inspiring way. It brings to mind images of human insignificance by its vastness and endlessness. But fighting, dying, and killing for such nothingness just seems pointless. Actually, I had the same thought the day before when I made my way from Essoiara to Dahkla.   It was a 28 hour bus ride that only passed four towns but there were six different police checkpoints where they examined my passport and questioned me about my profession and family. Why all the fuss about infinite sand?

Anyway, the ride from Dahkla, Morocco to the border of Mauritania is uneventful.  We drive 350 kilometers and see not a single village or town. We stop once at the only gas station/cafe and I get the chance to meet my fellow passengers. The old man driver is Moroccan while two young guys in the back are Senegalese and the other is Mauritanian. They are surprised to discover I am American and they express their intense dislike of George Bush and his apparent war against Muslims but do not blame me personally. They even pay for my tea as they wish me welcome.

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When we finally reach the border; it is a serious hassle. I always hate immigration and nation state boundaries and this particular one just seems absurd.   There is infinite desert on both sides with oppressive government apparatus in between separating the nothingness.  The wait on the Moroccan side is several hours for no apparent reason. Our luggage is searched but not thoroughly and our passports are eventually stamped and they let us through to the no man’s land. Honestly; the four kilometer stretch that separates the Moroccan border from the Mauritanian border is a microcosm of the madness of human beings. The pavement ends at the Moroccan border and begins again 4 kilometers later at Mauritanian immigration. As soon as you cross the border there are guides waiting to show you the way.   Guides?   For only four kilometers?  Why? The answer is simple… landmines….lots of them. It’s a rocky scrub desert where the tire tracks are blown over with sand. If you don’t know the way, it’s very difficult to see the path and if you wander off the path, well….kaboom.  Indeed, rumor has it that a French tourist refused to hire a guide and got blown up because he went the wrong way.  Thankfully, my driver knows the way and we arrive safely at Mauritanian immigration. There is another long wait and a fairly serious search of our belongings before they finally stamp our passports and let us through. We made it to Mauritania. Another hour of driving with three police checks and we arrive at the small Mauritanian city of Noahdibou. I am dropped off alone in the center of town.

Mauritania is to Morocco what Nicaragua is to the U.S.; two nations, same continent, totally different realities. Mauritania is as Third World as it gets. It’s Africa, it’s poor, it is everything you imagine the undeveloped world to be. The streets are littered with garbage; the buildings are one-storey, falling down, built of almost anything. The heat, wind and dust are intense. Most of the people are dressed in turbans and no one speaks English… I am as out of place as an apple in a bowl of potatoes. No matter, I am used to being out of place. I look at the map in the guidebook, figure out where I am and make my way to a recommended auberge.

Immediately upon arriving at the auberge, I meet a friendly French tourist named Patrick. He has been stuck in Noahdibou for three days because he came here to take the train to Choum and the train broke down. After three days, he knows his way around town and he proceeds to show me. I check in, change money, eat some food and follow Patrick around the market. Since the other Patrick is French and very friendly he can communicate with the locals and that greatly enhances the market going experience. Over a period of about 2 hours we meet about 20 locals. Once again; there is a fair amount of surprise at the discovery of my American nationality and expressions of disgust concerning America’s war mongering ways in the Muslim world but once Patrick interprets that I don’t like Bush I am as welcome as any other foreigner. All in all, it is a fascinating afternoon.

The next day, my friend Patrick makes his way back to France by way of Morocco and I head to the train station hoping that the train to Choum is repaired and running today. …  The train that travels the route from the town of Zoureat, deep in the Mauritanian desert, through the village of Choum and then on to the coastal town of Noahdibou is the longest train in the world. Over 2 kilometers long, it brings iron ore from the mines in the deserts of Mauritania to the coast where it is shipped to the U.S. and used to build skyscrapers. Some years back, a couple of passenger cars were added to transport people across this part of the desert where there are no roads.   The train is supposed to depart at 2:30 pm and I arrive at the “station” at 2:25 thinking I am late….. The “station” is a three sided cement building with a tin roof on the side of the tracks in the middle of the desert. There are about 40 Africans there when I arrive but no westerners or tourists. A few women sit on the floor with blankets selling fruit; bread, water, and cigarettes. There is a single wooden bench. I lean my pack against the wall; sit down and wait… and wait…..and wait.

Time passes and more and more Africans show up but no westerners. Most of the Africans wear turbans with scarves so I can only see their eyes. A few people try to talk to me in French but it is impossible. One guy who looks just like a younger Osama Bin Laden is extremely friendly. He gives me an orange and then cookies and then a cup of tea. He tries so hard to talk to me but unfortunately, it is impossible. Damn I should have learned French before I came here. In the late afternoon; I meet a Mauritanian man who has lived in Spain for the last nine years. Finally, because I speak decent Spanish, a conversation is possible and it is a fascinating exchange. We talk about cocaine from South America coming to Mauritania on fishing boats and then making its way to Europe from here. We talk about a rumored new U.S. military base in Mauritania with 1500 troops and advisors. When I ask why, he says it is because the U.S. has an interest in the iron ore and the newly discovered oil and natural gas fields here. We talk about the rise of Muslim fundamentalism and the possible presence of Al Qaeda in Mauritania.   I can’t help thinking about action and reaction. Two evil monsters locked in perpetual combat. The U.S. sends its military and Al Qaeda rises up in response….or the other way around. Of course, this is just uninformed speculation to occupy my mind while waiting for a train but what else can I do while waiting for hours and hours in a cement building in the middle of nowhere.

By sunset, there is close to a hundred people crowded in and around the cement building. And then suddenly, there is movement. About two thirds of the people get up and head out into the desert towards the tracks. At first I think the train is arriving but then I realize it is only time for evening prayers.   An amazing sight; fifty or so people in turbans on their knees in the desert bowing down and praying to Allah with the sun setting behind them. I want to take a photo but do not want to offend so I keep my camera tucked away.

Finally; about ten at night, eight hours after its scheduled departure, the train arrives and the mad dash….stampede to get on board begins. No electricity, so no light, fifty to a hundred people rush across the sand to squeeze first into the three doors because there is limited seating on the train. One hand on my money belt, one hand on my flashlight and my pack on my back I join the stampede. Pushing and shoving; caught up in the crowd; I try for the doorway. Some people climb through windows, luggage passes from person to person, they work together to reserve seats and push their way through. I am crushed and almost trampled as a woman steps on my shoulder to reach the stairs. But somehow I manage to make it on board. The train is dark; no light except flashlights and cell phones. So many people squeezed together fighting for seats, I accept the fact that I will be sitting on the floor….

“Hola amigo, vienes aqui.” It is my Spanish speaking friend from earlier. He and his buddies have saved me a seat…. a miracle.

It isn’t much of a seat. A wooden bench with barely enough room for my skinny ass but it is a seat. And so, the crowded train heads across the desert. The ride itself is fairly uneventful.   At one point there is a conversation in Arabic about politics peppered with the words “American” and “George Bush”. They ask me if I like Bush and I say no and give two thumbs down sign but that is the extent of my participation. Mostly, I sit there in the dark, twisted into a knot; trying to sleep with a turbaned covered head snoring as it leans against my shoulder.

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When morning comes; I stand by the window and look outside at the passing desert…. blowing sand; dust storms, nothingness as far as the eyes can see. It makes me feel insignificant, unimportant and irrelevant…. a tiny speck of life in a vast incomprehensible world: The locals sitting on the floor make tea on a tiny gas stove. Someone offers me a cup.   Ahh humanity….. something wonderful binds us together.   Despite all the madness and stupidity in the various wars for control of the earth’s natural resources, a Muslim man will offer a stranger American a warm cup of tea and say welcome and good morning…. you see, there is hope for the world.

After 13 hours of discomfort, the train arrives in Choum at about eleven in the morning. Choum is a village like I always imagined African villages. A cluster of mud, rock huts surround a dirt square. Sand and bits of garbage blow about in the wind. Children dressed in rags scurry about. They see a westerner and come to ask for presents. I have two oranges in my backpack and I give them to the kids. They devour the fruit like they haven’t eaten for days. Choum also has transport to Attar which is the tourist and commercial center of the Mauritanian desert. A cluster of people surround three ancient, beat-up Toyota four by fours. I join the cluster, pay and old guy from the village 2000 ougiyas (8 bucks) for a seat in one of the vehicles. My backpack is tied to the roof and I squeeze into the vehicle with nine other people. Once again, my body is twisted into knots. But soon, this leg of the journey will be over.

There is not a road between Choum and Attar; just a dirt track blown over with sand. The scenery is more desert and rocky scrubland with a few rock outcroppings poking above the terrain. Incredibly; there are three police checkpoints in the middle of nowhere and we have to stop so they can examine everyone’s documents. The police are not surprised by my presence as other westerners have made this crazy journey before. There is no hassle only politeness. After about an hour of driving the truck breaks down.   But the driver manages to fix the problem in a half hour or so. Actually, the breakdown is a relief as it gives me a chance to stretch my legs. After a couple hours, the dirt track becomes more defined and we drive up and over a small mountain pass. On the other side of the pass, the dirt road connects with a paved road and shortly thereafter we arrive in Attar. After a lengthy search of the sand blown streets, I finally find an auberge called Bab Sahara at about two in the afternoon. I check in; eat some lunch and collapse into a long and blissful siesta.

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This story is a chapter of one of my books:  The Way to… Timbuktu.  If you would like to purchase the whole e-book for a couple of bucks or any of my other books for very reasonable prices, click on the link here. Thanks.




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