Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Weekend In Mauritania

As I said, I'm back in Aberdeen now, and suffering the glum stares and frigid attitudes of this oil-spoilt city, but I return with thoroughly good impressions of Mauritania and its capital, Nouakchott (pronounced, "Noo-WA-K-tchzow-(silent double t)", probably). In all I had about six days there: a day and a half before I went offshore, and about three and half days upon returning from the rig. You may add up that to total five days, but Mauritania has an extra bonus day between Friday and Saturday that most other countries don't have.

It was the final weekend that stood out though, as I only had to do a little logistics-related work, I wasn't ill or hungover, and I took the chance to have a mini-exploration of the city, plus was fortunate enough that the Saturday night at the bar was a terrific one.

The little voyage into the city centre was probably the standout part. Enclosed in my World Of Hangover the day before, waking on Saturday morning, fresh, bright and alive, I decided to thrust myself out into the dusty streets of Nouakchott and buy some music. Mauritanian music specifically, and to achieve this I needed to explore the city. And so armed with a page ripped out of the Lonely Planet guide to West Africa, and after studying the Google World images, I found myself weaving through a maelstrom of goats, cars and donkeys.

Goats, cars and donkeys, yes, but moreso than any of that: sand. It is impossible to overstate quite how much sand is in Nouakchott, as it is all pervasive and even more a part of life than the rain in the West of Scotland, but I suppose if you realise that Mauritania is mostly desert - and the Sahara at that - you can get an idea. Lots of sand. Though the roads, mercifully, are well tarmaced, by a mixture of Chinese and Arabic investors, sand is everywhere else. Walking by the side of the road was not unlike walking on a beach, on the soft sand that your feet sink into, hindering walking. A gust of wind would send particles sweeping through the streets, and leave you shielding your eyes. It was good quality sand too - light, soft, grainy - that would have the pasty bodies of the mainstream British flocking if only Nouakchott could shift itself 5km to the west, thus by the ocean, and build a series of high-rise hotels and English-themed pubs, perhaps with bulldog statues outside.

But Nouakchott is not a place for tacky tourism, and for now can rest safe from this dire fate. No, it's a dirty, dusty, sandy place, with stray dogs and goats, and over-worked donkeys; with cars and vans defying the sum of their ancient, dented parts, filled with cheery people, horns beeping; with bustling, colourful markets filled with bantering money-changers, rows of cheap watches and ties and sunglasses and anything else lain down on the pavement like an obstacle course, and innumerate item-packed shops and stalls vying for your attention. Finding myself, after a 45 minute walk through the noon heat, in one of these markets, I wandered for a while in search of somewhere selling CDs, which was proving elusive here. This ultimate goal was only half my objective though, as just seeing the city centre was an experience in itself. This is their capital of 600,000 at least, making up a fifth of the Mauritanian population, but it was not like any capital I've seen before. I've seen a few out of the way capitals in my time, such as Vientiane and Tirana, both of which were humble but still had definite signs of the modern era; but with Nouakchott it was like being in some dusty, forgotten village in the middle of nowhere, and nowhen.

Which I suppose it what it is really. Over 90% of people I've mentioned Mauritania to have immediately said, "Where's that?" or even, "What's that?" Four times the size of the UK, it's almost invisible to the world, and being the capital of an invisible nation isn't of much significance to anyone, except those from the even smaller and more invisible villages around. The city centre, though fun and interesting, was resolutely undeveloped, without any buildings over two or three storeys, without cash machines or international financial infrastructure, without malls or chain stores or advertising. It was grimy, litter-laden, stifling, and refreshing, sincere and good-natured. Some touts, in French of course, would try and sell me sunglasses or a watch or change my money, but were never pushy, and a smile was invariably met likewise.

I found my shop eventually. I'd been expecting, in the nature of most other ramshackle cities, there to be stalls dotted around pumping out some ridiculous local or Arab pop tune, audibly garish, but by this expectation I had grossly miscalculated the abundance of CD players in Mauritania. They have slightly more necessary things to do with their money. However, tape players do seem to exist, and lured by the sound of an appalling Arabic tune pumping from some soundsystem, I spotted a shop seemingly carved into a building, with a wooden sign displaying a picture of a tape. Inside - it was clear because there was no door, windows or external wall - I could see a vast array of tapes, and a man just waiting for my custom.

And my terrible French. I launched in with the line, "Bonjour! Je voudrais acheter la musique de Mauritania!" and must have said this fairly well because he started speaking to me fast in French before my blankness twigged him on to my ignorance. But he was unperturbed, and took this as an enjoyable challenge, as I conveyed across to him I wanted to get some music that wasn't Arabic but actually made by Mauritanians, and preferrably used fast drums. I stopped short of saying I wanted the Mauritanian equivalent of pounding German minimal house. Because the motion of the drums is easy to do, and that the French word for drumming, helpfully, is "le drumming", I was successful. He started to play a selection, most of which I can kindly say were not what my ears are attuned to, but eventually I selected two tapes, one apparently of slow drumming and the other of fast. Then, finally, I bought a tape of what is popular for the modern Mauritanian. At least I think so - he may have misunderstood the meaning of my badly pronounced "populaire" and interpreted it as "chanson populaire" which actually means traditional music. Listening to the tape doesn't clear things up much. And as all the tapes were just copies, thus no cover image, there's not much to go on really.

Still, that's three more tapes for the collection I'm building up for the tape player in my Ford Escort. My Ford Escort, incidentally , with its rust and tape-wrapped bumper, wouldn't look too out of place in Nouakchott.

With my mission successful, I returned to my guesthouse, only getting a little lost on the way. Lunch followed, and then an afternoon of listening to the sport of the radio via the internet, before the evening's entertainment took hold.

I was staying in the guesthouse of the hospitality agent my company were recruiting to house and feed me, plus arrange my visa, letter of invitation, transport and logistics of sending our equipment back to the UK. The guesthouse was a charming one. Whether new or not it's hard to say, for although it seemed worn and dusty, it had a great internet connection, decent showers, an air-con and a TV with one channel repeated twenty times. But it was cosy, comfortable and friendly, though if you tried to find any staff during the afternoon you were on a quest doomed to fail. Also, mystifyingly, although it had phones in every room, none worked or were even connected.

It also had a bar: the most popular bar. Mauritanians are 99% Muslim so you can probably guess that it wasn't Mauritanians getting drunk and annoying, but lots of stupid Westerners. I say stupid, because honestly, we must seem that way to them sometimes. The security guard who manned the main entrance, strolled around occasionally and, during that night at least, must have thought to himself, what is wrong with these people. When I mention that the bar was outside and there was also a swimming pool, you can probably see why he might later have thought this.

Anyway, I shouldn't venture on to more Westerner-bashing, because most of the expats here were very friendly and good fun, and there was a good atmosphere to the place that night. And also, although I wasn't too drunk or stupid that night, I must admit it has been known...

A pub quiz was on. It was for charity, with a £2 entrance free. There were about fifty people present, or £100 worth, but the total prizes for this pub quiz included about fifteen bottles of wine, ten cans of beers, loads of crisps and sweets, and lots of other trinkets like caps and corkscrews, so I do wonder if charity was the primary motivation here. Still, charity is not exactly my primary motivation in life (I wouldn't want to say what is) so I was more than happy to enter a pub quiz with loads of alcohol as the prize. Also, I have significant pedigree in pub quizzes, having more or less single-handedly won two national finals, and prizes such as all-expense paid holidays to New York, return flights to Cairo, music festival tickets, and likely an accumulative total of over 1000 litres of beer. For years I was part of a weekly team, the bastions of which included Varwell, Green, and also the lovely but decidely off-key Robert, who has not appeared in public for over five years to my knowledge. There were many other sometimes-members, plus even a few groupies: the Renault girls. I call them groupies because they couldn't be termed equal members of the team, simply because the two (very occasionally three) of them only managed to answer about one question a year correctly. In fact, they surely had a net negative result, because they would sometimes make us change a right answer to one they thought was righter. I wouldn't go as far to call these girls stupid, because that wouldn't be very gallant of me, but they had an ignorance of general knowledge that stretched to awe-inspiring levels.

But these girls weren't here, and neither were the others; nope, it was just me - the semi-self titled Nev 360. Just me, and three other random scrags that eventually gathered round to form a team. There was a 60 year old man called Bill, who'd quit drinking but was still smoking a giant cigar, and spoke in a deep South Carolina drawl. He knew nothing, except about Western films. There was some minky Scot, no different to the multitudes of other minky Scots that make up the offshore world and make me ashamed to be part of this nation. He knew nothing, except that Mike Tyson bit off Evander Holyfield's ear. Then there was some English guy, with an upper class moustache that actually suited him. He actually knew quite a bit, especially about 80s metal.

Well, although I'm sure you'd deeply love to hear a question-by-question account of the five rounds, with all the highs and lows and crazy hijinks, I'll keep it brief: we won. Yes, with 35.5/50, we brushed aside the feeble opposition, many of whom had teams twice the size of ours. I feigned modesty for the achievement, which all and sunder recognised as my own, but went up as team captain to receive the seven bottles of wine and the plaudits of all. Some say the glory of the victory will never fade.

Bill started drinking again.

By this time, the hours had rolled on, and merriness was in the air. The quiz had been good fun, and very social, and our seven bottles were worryingly quickly polished off. Somehow, the idea got around that it would be hilarious to shave someone's hair off. A volunteer came forward - a minky Scot - and I remembered that I had a set of clippers in my room. So the minky Scot was shaved bald, then he jumped in the pool. Somehow, this display encouraged another to repeat the feat. And then the quizmaster decided to join in. The security guard was surely shaking his head in wonder.

A bunch of us then went to some club, which was playing a bizarre set of early 90s techno hits, including Haddaway's "What Is Love?" The DJing - initally at least, it seemed to change later - was, remarkably, at around about my level. Enthusiastic, impatient, and completely abysmal. It included a lot of volume changes, trying to whip up the crowd into a frenzy but in fact just missing out giant portions of the best bits of songs. I eventually got tired of the dancing, and the packed crowds of people, and wandered back to the guesthouse, and I regard it as a modern miracle that I located it with only slight difficulty.

That being at 4.30am, I only got about four hours sleep before having to rise and face a day I was hoping I wouldn't have to. It seemed the equipment had arrived at the port and I'd have to go there, offload it and send it on its way. This was a real pain in the ass, but there was no other way around it, so I contacted the base manager of our hospitality agent and he picked me up to help deal with it all.

Last night's clippers returned to prominence.

He saw them on the guesthouse counter, and immediately exclaimed awe. You couldn't buy such things in Mauritania, he said, and what you did buy would just bite chunks out of your flesh. He was from Tunisia, and he had a beard that testified to his words. I said nothing but thought lots, and he took me to the port, where it turned out the kit wasn't, and then I made him a deal. He could have the clippers, I said, if he could get hold of a bongo drum for me. This sounded like a good deal to him, so we headed into town and he found a little hut spilling over with bongo drums, and we negotiated a drum, plus a really cool little Mauritanian mini-guitar, for about a tenner. Both of us were extremely pleased.

Some hours at the guesthouse followed, then the flight home via the perenially awful Charles de Gaulle airport, and thus ended my small jaunt in the delightful Mauritania. Perhaps not your usual destination, and perhaps more challenging than most want from a holiday, but I found it a genuinely charming place, very relaxed and laid-back, very safe and friendly. After being in the hell that Nigeria is becoming, it was very refreshing.

Mauritania, on Sunday, also had its first ever presidential elections. You'd never have known. Some evenings before had some people on the street to promote a candidate, but otherwise the place rumbled on a sleepily as ever. I don't know who is destined to win this first free vote, but I hope it's someone who actually cares about the place, and utilises some of the resources it has - fishing and oil - to improve the overall state of the nation, which is still very poor (though not, superficially, as desperate as some other place I've seen). And I hope they can do this without becoming pawns to the might of some Western oil company, some Arabic nation's contractors or some of the legions of new Chinese capitalists that are venturing into Africa.

I have photos of some of the above, which I will endeavour to show when I get round to it. Don't worry - someone at the guesthouse gave me a bunch of their photos, so I've got some that actually look like something.


Anonymous said...

Brilliant story, and it sounds like an amazing place.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post and good description of the city. However,you do pronounce the double t (Nou-WOK-shot). Also, I don't think I've been to the bar you mention but there are a few Chinese restaurants that are really underground bars with quite a few Mauritanians getting drunk.