Ever wondered what it would be like if you had your passport, all your credit cards, and all of your traveling cash stolen at the very beginning of a long trip? If you have, my good friend Andrew Cyr can fill you in because it happened to him.
After an all night bus ride from Casablanca to Taghazoute, three of us got surf boards and surfed into the late afternoon. After packing up, Andrew realized that his bag with all his important documents and money was gone and nothing else was taken. We were meeting two others in Inzigen that night so that we could catch the transport trucks into Mauritania, but traveling is hard to do when you’ve got no ID or money, and entrance visas also are great to have. So, Andrew went back to Rabat to straighten things out which meant he’d be behind us.
We had spent more time than we’d expected in Mauritania, which is actually a hell of a place, giving Andrew Cyr a chance to get closer. Now Mauritania makes it difficult on visitors because it has what is known as a closed currency. The currency, named Ougias, cannot be brought into the country or be taken from the country and the entire country only has two towns with banks. Also, nowhere in Africa can one use credit cards. In some countries there are ATMs, but not in Mauritania. The only option you have is to bring cash and enough to last you for your entire stay. If you run out of cash, you’ve got nothing…absolutely nothing.
One guy I met came to the country with three thousand dollars strapped to his body. For me, that would be an unnerving stay. In a land with average annual income of $1,800 dollars people would come from far and wide to kill you. There would be no salvation for you, if the word got out.
As convenient as a closed currency is, what is even more fantastic is that the banks won’t exchange currency. In review, you have to use cash because credit cards aren’t accepted. You can’t bring Ougias into the country since it is a closed system, therefore you have to acquire them in country. Banks won’t exchange currency, so you can’t get the local currency even in country and no one accepts foreign currency. Where does that leave you, well that was answered by my traveling companion Andrew Walsh in Noudibou.
Andrew couldn’t believe that you couldn’t exchange money except through vagabonds in the desert that storm your car at the border, so he went on a mission. The mission consisted of two tasks, (1) find a bank, and (2) exchange money. Amazingly he found a bank, marched in and said in broken French, “I want to exchange money”. Without hesitation, the clerk answered back “you must do this at the Marche Noir”. “Ok” Andrew said, “where’s that” not realizing that Marche Noire was not just another market but the Black Market. The clerk pointed out the door and said “there”. Though I’m not sure, I think Andrew figured it out before he started asking people on the street directions to the Marche Noire.
Needless to say, the Mauritanian black market is a shady place. Further, it’s pretty intimidating for a foreigner. Luckily I had no money so I didn’t have to experience it, but Andrew pointed it out to me as we passed by in a cab. He cussed at them as we drove by, since he just realized that he’d gotten a bad exchange rate. “Really” I thought inwardly, “you got a bad exchange rate from a couple guys on a street corner holding grocery bags of cash in the middle of Mauritania, who would have figured”?
I digress, this portion of the journey was to get us from Nouakchott, Mauritania to Dakar, Senegal and in the process meet up with Cyr, somehow. Since money was a problem, we had to boogie through Mauritania and reach an ATM in St. Louis, Senegal as quickly as possible. We spent two days in Nouakchott to get Visa’s for Mali (they cold, free water at the embassy…heaven!) and see the fishing port, which really was spectacular. Eventually we hired taxis to take us the rest of the way to the Senegal Border to a town called Russo.
Russo has a very bad reputation so we were expecting the worst. During the taxi ride I rehearsed how I would react to the bribes they would demand of us using the tips of the Scottish camel herder I spoken to the night before (don’t ask). Some of the techniques include sitting down and screaming and if all else fails, taking off all your clothes. Apparently the last one works like a charm. For the four of us getting into Senegal was easy, though getting out of Russo wasn’t. Later I would talk to Cyr, who didn’t have such a pleasant experience. They border officials took his passport and made him a wanted criminal in the computer system. That was an effective technique and since Cyr and the friends he was with didn’t know to strip, they paid the “entrance tax”. I don’t think they are wanted criminals anymore, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if they forgot to delete them out of Mauritania’s Most Wanted database. Try to explain that one to a bored solider at a road block at 2 A.M., in Arabic.
After paying our “guide” 100 Ougia and dealing with several hours of harassment, we arrived in St. Louis and it was dark again. The taxi drivers that were going to take us to the old town took 14 minutes to decide where the Auberge was that we wanted to stay in. We pushed off and within 2 minutes were obviously going the wrong direction. Another late night taxi ride through hell and high water was upon us. We picked up a friend of the taxi driver to help us out and he gave up. Then the driver wanted to drop us off at at a 3 star hotel, we refused and he didn’t understand. Africans think that if you are white, you have so much money that cost is not a factor. It is impossible to explain that we also have limited resources. If I sleep in a 3 star hotel, it effectively reduces the time I can spend in Africa by 3 days…comprendo? We drove patterns through the town until we found what were looking for and got out. The driver said, that will be 10,000 cfa…funny because we had agreed on 1,000 cfa. Another frustrating thing is the lack of accountability. If a taxi driver gets lost he will charge you more because it took him longer than he had bargained for. This can become extremely annoying. We said no and he followed us nearly to our room shouting “you give me”. That night Houman nearly punched me in the face. He came back from the showers and I said “you give me” which made him think our dude was back. The first gut reaction from a pacifist was to throw down. That’s how annoying people can be.
We waited in St. Louis for a couple of days, found some families to stay with and eat with and hoped Cyr would catch up. I got an email that said he was in Dakhla with no ride prospects. Walsh and Aprile decided to head towards Dakar while Houman and I thought that an island retreat was in order. We caught a ride to Parc National Langue de Barbarie and spent two nights in a tent on a thin strip of an island with largely the entire coast to ourselves. The only requirement for staying at the campement was that we purchase dinner, which was expensive but also awesome. We wondered devilishly about how Walsh and Aprile were doing, knowing full well they were suffering while we ate our three course meal served under a lavish tent complete with wonderfully comfortable couches.
After a couple days, we made our way back via a ride on the “friendship bus”. It was an old bus with missing windows and the floor stacked with 50 kilo bags of salt and lots of riders. Everyone was super nice and showed us their babies, fish, and whatever else they had along. It was the best ride of the trip and only cost 200 cfa for two of us. We got in town in time to find out that Andrew was nowhere to be seen and we decided to hit Dakar the following day. In reality, Cyr was really close and would make it to St. Louis the day we left. C’est la vie.
In Senegal sheep were especially white and clean. on a Sunday we found out why. Sundays are sheep washing days, just like you’d see a Camaro parked out in a drive being washed every Sunday. When I say it’s like seeing folks wash their cars in the States, it’s actually exactly like that. They pull out the bucket, brush, and soap (which they don’t even use on themselves) and scrub their sheep down. I didn’t stick around long enough to see how they applied wax, but I am sure it was entertaining.
Getting to Dakar was fun. Again we got stuck in a bus with 40 or so people and took off for our five hour ride. Neither Houman or I had the luxury of having a back rest, so we kept ourselves occupied by focusing on our posture. The great thing about Senegal, for me, was gingimbre. Gingimbre was some sort of juice similar to ginger beer. At any rate, they’d put it in a plastic baggy and freeze it to sell to bus goers. This stuff was like antidote, cool, cheap, and damned tasty. People would pass it through the bus windows and you’d pass them 50 cfa, what a deal!
We plowed through the five hours got to Dakar and wanted to make it to a place called Yoff which looked to be 20 km from Dakar. Bargaining didn’t work and it only ended up being 10 km maximum. We got ripped but got to Yoff and talked some people into letting us sleep on the beach. We setup the tent and walked the beach. Returning around 10 p.m. we were all of a sudden no longer allowed to sleep on the beach and had to go to a nearby Auberge. We packed our tent and went for a walk. It’s always something. Some of the most simple things become ridiculously complex in this land.
The next days we waited for friends to arrive. Houman awaited Michael Kagan, I awaited Mathew Kerr, and we were both expecting Andrew Cyr. We stayed at the Auberge for 2 nights and then moved on. In those days we went surfing, did some snorkeling, and lazed around. It was an excellent time and occasionally we’d venture into the hectic margins of Dakar.