Nouadhibou, Mauritania * October 17, 2008
It was to be a big day. Finally, after more than two weeks in Morocco and Morocco-controlled Western Sahara, we would enter another country – Mauritania. Nearly the size of Texas and California combined, half buried in and sand, Mauritania is a vast and underdeveloped desert republic with one of the lowest population densities in the world.
It would be an early milestone on the long journey south, to Cape Town, South Africa. We made a late and leisurely start from the peninsula city of Dakhla in Western Sahara. Our destination, Nouadhibou, with 80,000 residents the country’s second largest city, was 200 miles south along the Atlantic coast.
We stopped halfway for coffee and a bite at a fuel stop. We got to talking about Nouadhibou and prospective accommodations. Peter Cullen had stopped in Nouadhibou several years ago, and had a place in mind. I mentioned I’d seen some promising listings in my Rough Guide to West Africa.
“Oh, and there’s a Burger King in Nouadhibou,” I said.
Geoff’s ears perked up. Burger King is his favorite fast food. Then he thought twice about it. “Yeah, right,” he said. “Right next to the Wendy’s.” An inside joke. Back in Tiznit, I’d asked him if he’d spotted any eateries other than the ordinary Moroccan tajine and couscous joints, and he told me there was a Burger King downtown – right next to the Wendy’s.
Geoff had been yanking my chain a bit lately, so I decided to yank back.
“They’re even open until midnight,” I said, embroidering the tale with plausible detail. “Open at 7 a.m., close at midnight. You wanna see the listing in the book?”
Yes he did. But just then, Peter Cullen piped up.
“Oh no, I’ve seen the Burger King,” Peter offered. “It’s a fine-looking restaurant, right downtown.”
Peter is the senior member of the group. He’s a young 68 years old, knowledgeable and articulate and gentlemanly and credible, with a dulcet British accent. It seemed a bit out of character for Peter to play along with a gag, and I had to suppress my smirk when he volunteered his corroboration.
“Really?” Geoff said. “Huh. Well, Burger King it is!”
After months of motorcycling through foreign countries, one begins to long for certain comforts of home. Empanadas and tajine and couscous and poisson et riz and poulet avec frites are all well and good, but they can become tiresome. The motorcyclist finds himself susceptible to food fantasies … gustatory longings that he knows will not be sated.
The fantasies may begin to torment him. On a long day’s ride, with nothing but the white noise inside his helmet, he may be tortured by visions of a Whopper or a Quarter Pounder with Cheese or a Big Mac or an ice-cold beer and spicy chicken wings and a seat at an Applebee’s, right in front of a good old American baseball game on a big flat-screen TV.
He can see it … taste it … feel the heft and warmth of that big juicy Whopper with Cheese in his greedy hands … but in fact there is nothing ahead but 150 miles to a ramshackle town named Bobo or Chinguetti or Timbuktu and the inevitable dubious meat, soggy rice, and maybe some wilted vegetables.
I’m not a huge fan of American fast food. I’ll find myself in a Wendy’s or a Burger King or a McDonald’s maybe eight or 10 times a year. But riding South America, somewhere in Peru, the idea of a Whopper with Cheese fastened itself upside my head with the ferocity of a junkyard dog. I was nearly four months into what would be an eight-month, 30,000-mile motorbike journey.
By chance, browsing ahead to Bolivia in my Lonely Planet guide, I spotted a listing that set my salivation glands into overdrive. My God, you must be kidding! I thought. There’s a Burger King in La Paz?!
Indeed there was. It was several blocks from my hotel in the Bolivian capital. Fellow San Francisco adventure rider Joe Ortega and I hied ourselves to that fine establishment and I sat quite ceremoniously for the most delicious Whopper with Cheese I have ever had.
I had told Geoff that story back in Casablanca, and he empathized. He’d done years of military and bodyguard service in Iraq, and is accustomed to being deprived of the palliative comforts of his native England. And back in Casablanca, we were still licking our chops from the McDonald’s we’d found in Rabat.
I tore across the Sahara en route to Nouadhibou and chuckled at the thought of Geoff dreaming about a Whopper with Cheese for his supper. The ride seemed longer than its 200 miles. The motorbike droned on at 72, 75 mph – watch the odometer click up towards the Mauritanian border. The desert in this southern section of Western Sahara seemed to grow even flatter and more barren.
Road signs warned of the danger of mines in the vicinity, planted during a conflict over Western Sahara. People had built hundreds of cairns along sections of the road, artistically stacked slabs of rock that I was told were meant to signify the presence of mines in the desert. In other words, don’t go wandering off, jackass.
We stayed straight, and reached the border of Western Sahara and what is officially called the Islamic Republic of Mauritania a little after 3:30 p.m.
Entering a new country can take an hour or two, even more, by the time you clear immigration (to have your passport stamped) and then customs (for authorization to enter the country with your motorbike). Leaving a country is usually faster and simpler. Passport stamped, customs cleared, and done. Thanks for your money, now good riddance. Half an hour tops.
Not so for leaving Morocco-controlled Western Sahara. The process proved agonizingly slow. We turned our passports in and waited. And waited. And waited. Hurry up and wait. We milled about in the hot sun and made small talk. Drank water, snacked on dates, smoked, and looked hopefully into the building in which Moroccan officials held our passports. A few dozen others, mostly Mauritanians and Moroccans and some Senegalese, were in the same listing boat.
I sighed deeply. “Well, this is gonna make that Whopper with Cheese allllllll the better,” I said, sure to be within earshot of Geoff.
“Fucking A,” Geoff said. “If they’re open until midnight, I’ll be heading back for seconds.”
No one knew. “Maybe it’s German,” Geoff said, “for Krap Touring Motorcycle.” And we all laughed. KTMs are not renowned for reliability, and we have our fingers crossed that Migo’s will keep running strong.
A Mauritanian boy about 14 years old in line with me spoke splendid English, and asked many questions about America, which he hoped to someday visit. It helped to pass the time, and it was heartening to encounter such a bright young man. We greeted and marveled at a mute, sun-broiled Dutchman. His face was the color of ketchup. He was evidently walking around Africa, with only the shirt on his back and his sign language.
After an hour and a half of standing around admiring my riding boots, I said, “This has got to be the longest wait I’ve ever had to get out of a country.” Migo and Peter agreed. I looked at my watch. It was pushing past 5 p m. The Mauritania border was said to close at 6. If we got out of Western Sahara but not into Mauritania, we’d be camping for the night into the no-man’s land between the two countries. Enough people are forced to do exactly that that Rough Guide noted the option its West Africa guide.
Finally, a bit after 5:30, a flurry of action. The Moroccan officials returned all passports to the three or four dozen people milling about. I had to wonder if they’d intentionally delayed just to make life difficult for their Mauritanian counterparts, who by 5:45 p.m. would be watching the clock and thinking about a Whopper with Cheese at the Burger King at Nouadhibou.
With passports in hand, it was on to customs, and a final, seemingly redundant, check of documentation by a Moroccan military officer in a tiny hut beneath a low palm tree. It was nearly 6 p.m. by the time we set off to run the nearly 5 miles of unpaved piste (dirt/sand track) to the Mauritania border crossing.
Later, I would find this note in the Rough Guide to West Africa:
“The tarmac comes to an end as you enter no-man’s land, the road degenerating into 8 km of rough bitumen interspersed with soft sand, surrounded by mines. Make sure you keep to the well-marked tracks as the mines are still live; many travelers choose to hire a guide, though it’s far from essential.”
The tracks were not well-marked, and we didn’t keep to them. Peter was in the lead, having traversed this no-man’s land a few years earlier. I was the last of the four. As we took off on the piste, a couple of men hopped in a white van in pursuit.
The van pulled up alongside me and a man hollered in English, “Bad road … you need guide!”
Geoff was just ahead of me. A few decades ago, the track might have been bitumen, but now it was rocky and rutted with pockets of deep sand. Geoff hit a rut full of soft stuff and went down. I stopped behind to take the obligatory fallen-bike photo, but he was already hoisting his XT.
“Hold on, we need a photo!” I hollered. He flipped me off.
Ahead, I could see Peter was in trouble. The rear tire on his big 650 BMW Dakar was shooting up rooster tails of sand and he was moving at maybe 5 mph. He started padding along with his feet and inching ahead until finally the sand became too deep and soft and he found himself royally stuck. Then Migo was stuck, too. Then I was stuck, and Geoff behind me.
Four big off-road adventure bikes, trapped in the sand in no-man’s land. I had to laugh.
One of the men from van hopped out and ran over to Peter’s bike, pushing him from behind. The other guy came over to me.
“I get you out for 50 dirham, oui?” That’s about $6 USD. He wore a white turban and a predatory look. Sure bud, I said, let’s go. We struggled ahead for about 30 yards through deep sand, until the track was solid enough to ride unaided. I removed my helmet for a breather and got out 50 dirham. The other guy came trotting over.
“Oh c’mon,” I said. “You boys have had a good day’s pay already. You saw us coming and thought, ‘Those clowns are bound to get stuck, let’s go make some money off them.’”
“My friend, he is poor, he has family,” the guy implored. All right, I said, 20 dirham more, and I take your photo. OK.
It was about 6:30 p.m. by the time we reached the Mauritania border crossing. Remarkably, it had remained open past closing time. The immigration and customs office was a single weather-beaten, cockeyed wooden shack in the wilderness. Our information was painstakingly recorded by hand in a ledger. It seemed hardly befitting as one of the country’s main border crossings, but Mauritania is an impoverished country. The average per capita monthly income is $77 USD, by UN calculations.
“Mine too,” I said. “That road would have been tough any way you cut it. Even at speed, it would be a bitch to ride sand that deep with this load. I’ve gotta ship stuff back to the states.”
In smaller wooden shacks, men changed money and sold insurance. There was nothing else here, just shacks and some broken-down vehicles and the forbidding desert. We traded in our Moroccan dirham for Mauritania ougiya – oogy-boogy for short. The sun fell and set, rouging this primitive outpost in crimson and purple. In darkness, we took off for Nouadhibou at 7:15 p.m. The entire crossing had taken 3½ hours.
A few years ago, the road from the border to Nouadhibou had been 30 miles of sandy track. It had recently been paved, and that made possible a nighttime ride. We kept speeds at 55 and 60 mph … too fast for conditions, perhaps, but then again, we had a dinner date in Nouadhibou.
The outskirts, and then the center, of Nouadhibou were strikingly poorer than we had seen in Morocco and Western Sahara. Even in the dark, there was a wild and desperate and edgy feel to this city of 80,000. The narrow streets were lined with sand. Hundreds and hundreds of pedestrians ambled about the sandy lanes.
Women in colorful dress with baskets atop their heads and little children in their arms. Men wearing full-length gowns and houli, headscarves that wrapped around their faces, leaving only a slit for their eyes and protecting against wind and sand and sun. Other men, black Africans, from Senegal and elsewhere, their skin darker than dark.
The occasional streetlight cast a sickly glow; otherwise the only illumination was from naked lightbulbs at streetside shacks cooking up dinner in open-air pots or selling meat or fruit or vegetables or phone cards, or from the vehicles trundling along, many of them broken-down and beeping like insects and spewing black exhaust.
In their headlights, I could see sand and dust swirling. A car was pumping out music at high volume. Donkeys and goats wandered along the streets. There was a beat to the place, a rhythm, something raw and primal and unbridled. Suddenly, it felt as if we had arrived in the real Africa.
We turned down a side street in search of our auberge, and dozens of children leapt and jumped and yelled and hooted and waved and ran alongside – the largest group of Welcome Wagon youngsters I had seen yet. Careful, don’t smack one of these little kids, I told myself. Unlike the others, I hadn’t bothered taking out insurance at the border, figuring it would be worth little more than the paper it was printed on.
Camping Baie du Levrier was smack downtown, such as downtown was – a sprawl of darkened, dusty, sandy streets and crumbling concrete lined by small, shabby shops and shuttered doors and clusters of men on street corners. Trash was strewn liberally about. For $6 USD a man, the manager, Ali, had a large Berber-style tent with about eight dirty old mattresses atop a carpet, atop the sand. It was perfect.
We sprawled about the mattresses to relax and relive the eventful day. Ali entered the tent with a pot of tea, a customary gesture in Islamic countries. We sipped the hot tea and chatted and kicked off our sweat-soaked riding boots, and in due time Geoff brought up what had been on his mind all afternoon.
“Anybody see that Burger King when we came in?” he asked.
“What, you didn’t see it?” I asked. “It’s back there, from the way we came in. Two blocks down I think, or three, on the left – right next to the Wendy’s.”
Just a moment of pregnant pause. “Oooooooooooh, MOTHERFUCKER!” he exclaimed and leapt on me and beat me and tweaked me and tickled me and poked me and cursed me until he was satisfied that I had been appropriately punished. Tears were streaming down my cheeks, I was laughing so hard.
“Damn it! I was thinking about a Whopper all afternoon!” he said. “Then riding in, I kept looking around and thinking, ‘No way – no way there can be a Burger King in this place.’ Thanks, bud – you ruined my frigging day!”
Migo took a break from laughing to say, “I think you left a trail of drool on your way in.”
“You,” Geoff said, wagging a finger at Peter. “What you said, there’s a Burger King, I wouldn’t have believed it otherwise.”
We did, however, find a Chinese restaurant called Hong Kong run by a friendly Chinese family. They took a break from watching a Chinese soap opera at ridiculously high volume on their TV to serve us supper.
The chicken fried rice and fried noodles with shrimp and vegetable soup were a welcome departure from the usual fare, and to our satisfaction Hong Kong flouted the law (alcohol is prohibited in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania) and offered cans of cold beer, Budweiser even, if at the rather usurious price of $6 USD.
Next best thing to Burger King.