As I jump in the passenger seat of Limame’s 4-wheel drive Mitsubishi he explains to me that he doesn’t want me to think about money or costs.
For him, money is not important; he is just happy to have me join him and for the chance to show me his country. I’ve heard this line before in Morocco, and of course I was sceptical. However, I soon learned that Mauritania isn’t Morocco, it isn’t even close.
We set off through the town of Atar headed for his home, the ancient city of Chinguetti, which embraces the heart of the Mauritanian Sahara. Leaving town we can hardly drive a block without stopping to have a chat, say hello, or even just shake someone’s hand. For many from the developed world, this pace of life could be frustrating. However, I can’t help but worry for my friends and family back home. We have lost this closeness, this sense of community. We are so entangled in the need to work, be online, and on our cellphones that we forget to connect with the world around us.
Finally, we escape the lazy capital of the Adrar region and head towards the ancient city, a place that has beckoned me ever since I first read about it. We pass through desolate orange sands dotted with shrub brush and the occasional dry acacia tree. In the distance, a great plateau forms like a step within the arid landscape. We head directly for it.
However, as we begin the steep climb signs of trouble begin to form within the depths of our truck’s hood. We have blown a hole in the radiator.
“No problem,” Limame says casually without a worry in the world. “We will go slow and stop occasionally for water.”
It’s a pace that both excites and worries me. It is 40 degrees outside, and there are no signs of life in any direction. However, the hole in the radiator – I will soon find out – is a blessing in disguise. Without it, I may have never learned of the welcoming nature of these people so eager to help. Thanks to our now urgent need to constantly fill up with water and cool the engine, we are forced to stop at nomadic tents, military outposts and pretty much any other form of life we encounter along the way.
At each marking point, I am put in touch with the beautiful care, and warm hospitality of the people. Each tent we stop at we are required to sit down and relax. Almost instantly a bowl of camel’s milk is placed at my feet. Moments later I can see the tea making equipment rolling out. In some cases, we have to forcefully tell them that we’ve just eaten, as they demand we eat some food with them. They roll out the red carpets not to earn a dollar or two from weary travellers, however, they do so to be good hosts, to be good people.
Mauritania is rarely in the news. Its obscurity is its downfall and its strength. Sure the people here don’t benefit from the riches of tourism, but they also haven’t been blinded by the almighty Dollar, Euro or Pound.
A couple days earlier in Atar, the owner of Auberge Bab Sahara told me that every door in the Adrar is open. And if you’d like you can walk in any single door not as an intruder but as a friend. To me, it sounded more like an ideal catch phrase than something that is put into practice. But as I found out on trip from Atar to Chinguetti, one that was meant to last an hour and ended up taking four, there is no such thing as private property in Mauritania, at least in the way we know it.
As we enter Chinguetti, a stone city encompassing some of the richest history in North Africa, I am awed by the location alone. But in reality, this is a place of vast importance beyond its beauty. This was more than a stopping point for the great trans-Saharan caravans; this was home to scholars, religious men and students alike.
As I lay my head back and look up at the powerful night sky before closing my eyes for a night’s sleep, I can’t help but think that it’s a shame that so few foreigners come here. I am sure that if they got even the smallest taste this warm people’s friendliness they would fall in love the same way I have.
“Maybe its best they don’t know about it,” I think to myself selfishly. “Because right now, having it all to myself is the most beautiful thing in the world.”
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