24 Sep Out of Nowhere
Nouadhibou : Mauritania
Growing up in the states, drives Out West had their own personality, a romantic atmosphere of unending, clear skies, feathered horizons, and a pleasant level of detachment. Within the borders of Western Africa, traveling out west may offer similar sweeps of soft sands and star-lit nights, but there are no off-ramp luxuries, no neon-lit reprieves, and no roads leading back home.
The flight to Mauritania didn’t feel like the rest. It was uneasy and heavy, no excited laugher, no conversations. In the back of my mind, and in the pit of my stomach, I couldn’t help think that this was more than a short stint in foreign territory, more than a few days of self-prescribed isolation. This flight felt like the final approach to an impossible adventure.
Upon arrival, there are only two possible outcomes for us. We could let our own fears cripple our enthusiasm; turn around days later and leave defeated. Or, we could allow a place we know nothing about, and a series of uncomfortable situations, guide us to the notoriously unpredictable Iron Ore Train. Neither outcome seems terribly comforting, neither helping to alleviate the tight knot steadily growing in my chest.
As we begin our descent into Nouadhibou, I start weaving together my childhood memories of the Sonoran Desert with photos I’ve seen of the Sahara, attempting to find similarities, something I can grasp. Our landing gear drops and the earth below seems like a backdrop from a Wes Anderson movie.
The Atlantic Ocean shifts in pools of vibrant greens and what I swear looks like Caribbean blue. The water clashes with the thin, sepia-toned stretch of land that appears in the distance. It is flat, dusty, and barren. As we approach, the land grows wider, but it remains oddly lifeless and surreal. A haze of heat and dust mute the entire scene, filtering the colors.
On the ground, the skyline is unassuming. Stubby tan buildings blend in with the earth, trying not to draw any attention to themselves. The air is dry and hollow. It sucks the breath from my throat as soon as I open my mouth. I can feel the skin on my face and hands tightening, shrinking and drying in the sun-drenched climate.
The entire town sits under a thin veil of dirt and sand, the horizon blurred beneath it. There isn’t a single cloud in the sky, not a wisp, nothing to block the searing white rays of Saharan sun. The reflection bounces off windows and ragged cars, burning my eyes.
We hoist rucksacks on our backs and walk a mile to our hotel following a weak GPS signal on my cell phone. After giving a very unamused immigration officer the last scraps of our dollars, euros, and random coins to pay our unexpected entry fees, we have no money left to barter for a ride.
Tired camels lay in dirt lots next to parked cars. Transportation is a fluid concept here, uniquely abstract. Some locals walk by at an achingly slow pace, others snap frayed lines of rope at donkeys strapped to the front of wooden carts, some run impromptu taxi services from unmarked cars, and others sit on the cloth-covered back of a camel.
Our hotel room offers slick tile floors and strong air conditioning. There is no running water, no on-site amenities, no soft edges. From our room we can see no less than four speakers stretching high in the air from the surrounding mosques. The call to prayer is frequent and loud, reverberating through our walls, reminding us we are nowhere near home.
The evening breeze floods in our small window and smells of salt water, sand, and a tangy, earthy scent I haven’t quite placed yet. Later, I will recognize this smell as the incessant mixture of nearby fish farms, piles of garbage roasting in the day’s heat, and heavily seasoned local meat. We find an unlocked door on the top floor of the hotel and let ourselves out on the roof.
The sun begins to set and colors the horizon and the facades in soft pinks and yellows. The golden hour turns the world pale and softens the exposed skeletons of crumbling buildings. Even from here, the town looks like an old movie set; backless, rootless. Like a good push or strong gust of wind might knock it all over. As the sun falls and the streets clear and any fringes of comfort are snuffed out by the growing cover of unending black sky, we retreat to bed. Tomorrow we begin our journey into the heart of Mauritania, into open, endless desert, into the middle of nowhere.
Out of Nowhere : Part 2 – Coming soon