A Brief Overview of Mauritania
Mauritania is an up-and-coming tourist hot-spot…at least as far as the intrepid traveler is concerned. For years it was considered a no-go zone because of it’s reputation for kidnappings and being the last country in the world to abolish slavery (in 1981). 90% of the country is vast, sprawling, endless desert, making it a difficult country to govern and secure. Military coups were an all-too-often occurrence in the decades between the late 70’s and the mid 2000’s, which never bodes well for a country’s security apparatus. However, it seems Mauritania has been getting it’s shit together in the past couple of years and the country today is more or less safe to visit.
Although you are not likely to end up as a “travel statistic” when going through Mauritania, it is still a very difficult place to navigate. When we travel we do not prioritize places that have an established backpacking route, so we are used to things not making sense. We are used to pointless bureaucracy that seems to exist just for the sake of someone being on the payroll and not at all to make things more efficient or transparent. We are used to there never being a fixed price for anything and knowing that we are still paying more than we should, despite our fine-tuned haggling skills. We are used to noisy cities filled with stifling pollution and streets that are more litter than pavement. We are used to arbitrary operating hours and having to scavenge an entire city for seemingly necessary household items and sometimes still coming up short. However, Mauritania takes things to a whole new level.
Mauritania is difficult in a very different way. These things certainly still apply but there is something about the addition of a relentlessly harsh environment and the subtraction of music or a the presence of social life outside of the house that makes travel in Mauritania seem like so much more of a chore.
The headache that can comes with traveling through Mauritania begins with crossing the border. Border crossings, especially in the developing world, are by nature a bit of an annoyance. Things are never a straightforward process and it seems that something is always broken or someone important is always on break. When crossing into Mauritania, both of these things are happening at the same time. Nevertheless, with a little luck and a lot of patience, we managed to secure our visas before the border closed. We were even able to hitchhike to Nouadhibou from the border very easily, although this would not be par for the course.
Hitchhiking was much more difficult here. Nothing in Mauritania is free and we often struggled to convey the concept of hitchhiking to rides that would stop for us. We made a rookie mistake by not discussing payment at the beginning of a particularly long ride to Nouakchott and ended up in an awkward situation at the end when our driver demanded payment for his services, despite the fact that he was going to the city anyways. Ultimately, we ended up caving and offered him 50 Ouguiya, which offended him more. We did have some really great rides, including the lovely two men who picked us up at sunrise outside of Choum and took us through multiple checkpoints, having to answer questions and give personal information to officers, and let us unintentionally fall asleep for part of the ride when our exhaustion from a previous sleepless night got the best of us.
It is hard to get a read on people in Mauritania. Maybe it is the level of face coverage that people dawn because of the incessant winds, which make it impossible to tell if people are smiling. However, even when people’s faces weren’t completely covered, we found we were often scowled at, even after exchanges pleasantries in the local languages. The other side of the coin was often fake smiles accompanied by a demand that we buy something and a long guilt trip while following us around when we didn’t. However, the people we ended up spending time with in Mauritania were quite lovely and extremely hospitable.
We stayed with arguably our best Couchsurfing hosts in Nouadhibou and were offered a standard of living that was higher than we we used to even back home. We were given our own room with an ensuite bathroom (complete with a bumgun AND a hot water shower/bath!); we had meals prepared for us for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; we were chauffeured around the city and taken to places off limits to most tourists because of our host’s family connections. However, we couldn’t shake the feeling that there was a darker side to the hospitality we were receiving. We had asked about the prevalence of modern slavery and were told that it, and racism in general, were a thing of the past. For those who haven’t heard, any time people tell you that racism doesn’t exist in their country, they are, at the very least, willfully ignorant of the social stratification that most certainly does exist in their country.
In Mauritanian culture, we were told that it is the duty of the wealthy to help out the poor by employing them in their households. In this way, the elite were doing their part to ensure the less fortunate had stable jobs and roof over their heads, as most “housekeepers” live with their employers. However, for the most part, the employers are Arab or Moor, the employees are black, and while they don’t necessarily make a wage, the employees are free to leave anytime they wish (to most likely get another job as a housekeeper).
There are so many inconsistencies in Mauritania, which make it such an enigma of a destination. Even though we encountered so many people begging us for money or to buy their products, we were often told that Mauritanian people are not as destitute as these actions led us to believe. When we told one man that we had to work for a living and that our family would not just give us money, he was aghast and laughed at the absurdity of it. We were told that many Mauritanians rely on family members to support them and since the family structure is so large, there is bound to be at least one wealthy member who can afford to do so. As a result, work ethic doesn’t really factor into the job application process.
Even though the country is so religiously conservative, divorce is commonplace. I asked what happened to the women afterwards and if their life prospects decreased afterwards. Again, men laughed and said that they prefer women who have been married before. It struck me as odd but in country where men can have up to 4 wives legally, it wasn’t too surprising.
I found myself thinking of Mauritania as Morocco’s red-headed-step-child: they both have beaches and sand dunes, which draw thousands of tourists to Morocco each year; however, Mauritania has been much less successful in marketing itself as a tourist destination (for obvious reasons) and in the end, the desert makes up too much of the country to compete with Morocco’s diverse scenery. What’s more it is far more conservative and traditional than Morocco. In Morocco we met artists, skaters, stoners and hippies, and though I’m sure their kindred spirits exist in Mauritania, they are certainly less encouraged to express themselves and therefore harder to find.
We went through so many towns that seemed completely bereft of people. We would go through the centers trying to find cafes or restaurants to meet Couchsurfing hosts as we often did in Morocco, but would struggle to find any. We would pass through places where none of the kids were playing games but instead were just sitting in the shade or running up to us asking for money. But in a place where the informal economy reigns supreme, work ethic is a more of an afterthought for getting a job, and religion is the primary source of cultural expression, I guess it makes sense.
Maybe this is what made Mauritania so frustrating (and fascinating) is that people just didn’t seem to care about maximizing their potential and the potential of the country even though it does have quite a lot to offer. We managed to experience a lot of the country for free, through luck and being patient and insistent. It is not a cheap country to tour through, and there is still the mentality that all travelers have limitless sources of cash. Mauritania is difficult and different, which give it character, even if you have to accumulate layers of desert sand and iron ore to get to it.
However, if you are intrigued by the desert, there are plenty of excursions to take and there is even a Nomad festival where fellow desert-lovers converge for two weeks of workshops and gatherings culminating in a multiple-day-long camel ride into the desert. There is the epic iron-ore train that takes you 500km into the desert. There are classic oases tucked in the harsh desert offering a bit of respite from the arid conditions. There are some beautiful ancient cities with UNESCO heritage sites and even some primitive cave paintings. One place in particular deserves honorable mention.
Concise Advice on Mauritania:
- Be patient with everything. Especially if you are hitchhiking.
- Accommodation is not cheap, Couchsurfing is your friend but be aware of people trying to use it as a front for their businesses
- You can get most everywhere without paying for a tour, but some places will take a few days to get to on your own and renting a car is expensive
- Be upfront about whether you are willing to pay for rides when hitchhiking and if you’re not, be prepared to wait awhile.
- It is not a dangerous as people make it out to be.
- It is dry AF, bring moisturizer
- Water filters and bladders will make your life easier, there is no way to overstate how much water you need to drink to stay hydrated.
- If you are a women, bring something to cover yourself up with. People are more used to seeing tourists now so it is not super taboo to have you hair and shoulders showing but being respectful puts people at ease, which automatically makes your life easier (especially if you are trying to hitchhike)