That Africa!

Diary of one journey (part 2)

THE JOURNEY OF RELATIONSHIPS, TOWARDS THE DESERT

We continue and leave Essaouira. We say goodbye to Morocco, the country that surprised us so much. A country where there is a mosque, a madrasa, a cafe where you can drink beer, a glass skyscraper, and a medieval medina next to each other! What awaits us in Western Sahara, a desert country? And in Mauritania? Step on a throttle! Step on it! Motto, to travel is necessary, to live is not still follow me. I am looking forward to a curious sense of the future possibilities of this trip. The opportunities await us. We passed Agadir, Legzira, Sidi Ifni, and Tarfaya, the last great place before Western Sahara. Tarfaya, my thoughts are distracted by the recently read information that the famous French pilot and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery set up a post office right here. Namely, from 1926 Saint-Exupery regularly performed the duty of a flying postman from France to Senegal, so every year takes place rally Toulouse – St. Louis (Senegal) in his memory. We passed part of that route on our Pegasus, and I hope we will go the whole way. Maybe we will meet the Little Prince in the desert or find a well and a perfect oasis unless we have an engine failure such as the respective gentleman on a plane in the Sahara! Although, if Saint-Exupery had not had the accident, he might never have met the Little Prince. Enough! It is the last thing we need now. It is enough an adventure to be in the Sahara! The largest desert in the world! I laugh. My brain is impossible. 

We enter Western Sahara, a desert country. The difference is not noticeable because the last kilometers of Morocco subtly presented the future scenery. Desolate spaces and sandy beaches as a hint of the desert. I doubt that anything created by human hands will amaze us in this country. Mother nature certainly comes to the foreground here. The road is perfect, deserted, and flat, and the only one across the Sahara.

To have that scene in the frame of a movie that shows the sequence of a road trip would be excellent. Whether a romantic type theme or a classic escape along a long road before the hand of justice. Yes, all sorts of thoughts crowd when your whole sight is endless. Infinity on your right, on your left, in front of you, and now behind you, us. And so thousands of more miles! Moving away, we approach the shore. The Atlantic opens before us. It is like he is right next to us. So powerful, furious. The feeling of driving on a perfect road where on one side stretches kilometers of desert and dunes, and on the other mile of the ocean is – priceless! I got goosebumps. Two opposite infinities, and we in the middle. Two worlds. One who cannot live without water and the other who has learned to live without it. And we, we running in-between. Towards the end of the day, we see a beautiful sight, a landscape like a dream. Meadows of red cacti opened in front of us and behind them in the distance dunes. 

We set off in search of the perfect place for our little camp. We come across a couple of nomadic tents and decide to try there. The cheerful desert people welcomed us. We find out that these are workers working on repairing electrical installations in roadside substations. After that evening, one of them approached us with cups of tea. ”My name is Muhammad, Muhammad Ali, as a famous boxer, you know. Do you want some tea?” We laugh. It turned out that our guest was a real Sahrawi and that the other workers were Moroccans. Surprisingly, he was the only one who approached us. So, we take the opportunity to learn a little more about his country, about the current situation. ”There are more and more Moroccans. They settle here because their government offers them many benefits. Taking everything from us and exploit us. We do not have such rights. We want independence!” I ask him what that means to him. He answers decisively: ”Freedom; having your own country means being free.” The occupying Moroccan government rules the country. If you ask any Moroccan about Western Sahara, everyone will claim that it is southern Morocco. Morocco is colonizing the country, integrating, investing in infrastructure, and exploiting natural resources, mainly phosphorus. Western Sahara declared itself a state, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, 35 years ago. The UN recognized her independence in 1991 and promised her a referendum that had not yet taken place. The Sahara government also exists. It is Polisario, a government in exile based in Algeria. Polisario holds the southern and eastern part of the country, separated from the western Moroccan, by a ”wall”, a mined sand embankment. A large number of Sahrawis live in refugee camps, partly in Algeria. 

In three days of sleep, we flew across the desert of the seabed. We were sleeping next to dunes, next to small lakes, yes, lakes. Also, on the edges of high cliffs that beat the wild Atlantic. It was raining, and it was chergui (the local name of the desert wind). Who would have thought that the desert would be so wet and colorful? The desert was anything but expected. Driving through this most desolate land, a land that tempts you so much to explore its barrenness, its infinity, we too felt a breath of freedom. The desire for independence is a sacred thing. The right to liberty is the right of every human being, I think. Hypnotized by routine, driving, scenery, and in a slightly transitional mood, we wished this road would continue to the end of the world.

At the exit from Western Sahara, on the Moroccan border, the magnificent road stopped. A challenge awaited us, four kilometers off-road to the Mauritanian frontier allegedly -paved- with mines. We have heard all kinds of stories. Like those, there are no mines to those that one passenger ended his journey by stepping on a mine. He took the wrong step, one wrong step, off the beaten track that leads through no-man land. I was kind of not relying on a single story. Perhaps there are mines further in the desert, but there are certainly none here where the tire tracks of hundreds of motor vehicles that have passed there we can see very well. They are still going through! There, I see them, three trucks, five cars, two motorcycles! So who is crazy here?! It immediately became clear to me.

“Madam, for a hundred dirhams, we will surely transport you to the border. The boy can follow us from behind on a motorbike!” One of the “taxi drivers” addressed me. At first, we did not want to agree to malversation, but in the name of life, after a bit of bargaining, we went on this adventure. In the end, it turned out to be a good idea. Not because of the mines, but because the road was in a desperate state. Large pits full of sand would make riding a motorcycle together impossible. 

Again free, we rush to meet a new country. It is the country of the Muslim Arab world and the world of black Africa, Mauritania. The desert landscape continues to be a lively variant. The landscape revives the lonely trees of a typical African look, known from numerous documentaries about wild African animals and the safari adventure films. Yes, my brain is not at peace, again. I laugh. These perceptions, pictures, and expectations are interesting. We pick up selected parts extracted, torn out of context, not to say embellished, and then be disappointed because we do not get the expected. That is a bad thing. We should not get to be illusory and expect! It is hard, but it is possible. Rain shook me out of thought. Who would say the desert will be so wet and colorful! 

After all this beauty, the shock welcomed us. We enter the capital of Mauritania, Nouakchott, the most unattractive city so far. No plan and order, full of garbage. In one hundred meters of a street, we find examples of beautiful villas, dilapidated gray houses, and rows of tin and cardboard cubes. People live in each one. One hungry, sick and dirty. Other obese, rich, third fed, and clean. One happy, second sad, third unconscious. One rush in expensive SUVs with air conditioning, others in rusty cars without windows from which blast African drums, and the third pressuring a donkey to hurry up. And all in one hundred meters of one street. I wonder if a man becomes more sensitive to someone’s misfortune if served every morning under the nose or gets used to it. We settled in a beautiful house with flowers. We decided to do the necessary and hit the road and move toward Chinguetti, considered the seventh most sacred Islamic place on earth. The city is famous for the old libraries where books and manuscripts are old for thousands of years. The city on which edge the dunes connect with a horizon. 

We arrive in Chinguetti. Sand streets, sand formations, sand in the eyes, sand is everywhere. The wind seems to be having a little fun. The sun is high on the horizon. This game of nature plays with our nerves, but we do not give up. Probably it is not intended but only wants to brighten the vision. And indeed, the glittering movement of sand grain is magical. We walk through the city, half-empty. It can take an hour before you meet anyone. The narrow passes and streets on whose ends you can hardly see a piece of someone’s heavenly blue dresses disappearing around the corner because every time you miss to see who it wears. I have a feeling like I am in the city of spirits, but I am not afraid. You can only hear the wind, the sheep bleat, and the silent child laughter. We pass by the stone and muddy houses. Sometimes our visual range is in the window level, sometimes in the door level, sometimes in the roof level. We are walking on the dunes! The desert swallows this old town and slowly prepares it for oblivion. Like it wants people not to forget that everything is temporary. Transient as a form of dunes in the wind. I like 

I like Chinguetti. Here I feel like I am far away from the world. We are staying at our Mauritanian host of the atypical name Sheggy. We have been listening to all kinds of stories. This evening the theme was the perfect oasis. Perfect oasis must be within the dunes. In the midst should have a well or pond, palm over the thicket surrounded by the nomadic tents with camels and real nomads. After some thinking, Sheggy starts drawing on paper. “Is that it?” “Yes, that is it. I do not believe it! That is right what we imagined.” “I will take you there tomorrow. I will prepare a camel and find a guide. Are you for it?” he asks us. “Of course we are!” We both roared together in the late-night hours. Desert. Dreamy wilderness. We walk toward the oasis, not even a day walk from Chinguetti. A cheerful companion, Sheggy, camel, its guide, and we. As if we fell out of a cartoon. We are wading silently through deep sand as we defend ourselves from the wind-blown sand in the face. Oh, how can such petty nonsense throw me off and distract me from enjoying this kind of beauty? It is not that I do not enjoy every moment, but it feels as if every third one slapped me. I want to learn to release such things. The meditative rhythm walk soothes my thoughts – peace and silence of expanse. I wonder what is so appealing in these wastelands, in this wilderness. Maybe it is that people here somehow find it easier to alienate themselves. I do not know. I think the desert is attractive because it is so naked and yet so hidden.

The oasis, of course, was not perfect. It had palm trees, a well, nomads, some tents, and houses made of straw and palm leaves. It did not look like it did on Sheggy’s drawing, but again it had it all, just in a different layout and with a few more additions. Well, there were no camels, except for one. One but valuable. We could have blamed Sheggy but still decided not to because of his probably professional deformation of the tour guide. Ah, promises, pictures, and expectations; classic. Yet we spent two beautiful days in our (im)perfect oasis. We are driving towards Nouakchott along the runway (unpaved road, mostly dirt-gravel, sometimes sandy). Our Pegasus, Peggy – as we call him from endearment, began to behave strangely. Although I am not an expert, the sound reveals that something is wrong, as if it is choking. Now he started bouncing, a long ugly sound and – done. Pegasus stopped. Our engine stopped working! It will not work!? And what now? Our engine broke down in the middle of the desert, in the middle of nowhere! I do not believe it! We are trying to turn it on, nothing. We try to discover the problem, but it does not work. We decide to call our acquaintance named Just, who has a place to stay and a mini-workshop a hundred kilometers from here. He sent a track for us.

Waiting, I tried to get busy and started reading The Little Prince. The last time I read it as a kid. It seemed appropriate to bring it with me to the Sahara if the opportunity arises. And there, an opportunity has created itself. I read the preface and start laughing: The place of the action takes mainly in the desert, so the Sahara region was chosen as a place of desolate waste, but also a place where you can experience mirages, that is miraculous events. In such an environment, a step away from civilization is necessary to start looking at life differently to become more aware of all the devastation of modern-alienated life. The truck has arrived. Nothing was funny to me anymore. As we drove, I sank into thought. Is this the end of the journey with Peggy? If they do not fix Peggy, how do we get it back home? Are we going to continue the travel without him? Is this the end of our journey? End?! All our other problems and nonsense have lost their importance. They never actually had it, but unfortunately, we need reminders. Sorry, I need them. After four days of tinkering, the malfunction was discovered. The Mauritanian car mechanic Tizian solved the malfunction, but we still had to pull up to him at Nouakchott. And that by bus, with Peggy in the luggage compartment! Yes, it is Africa. Everything is possible. After the desert, which was anything but expected, we move towards the coast to Senegal. We did not find the perfect oasis, nor the Little Prince, but it does not matter because I do not think we would find them there. They are hiding somewhere else. 

A JOURNEY OF PERSONALITY, TOWARDS CELEBRATION

Senegalese border. It is already late at night, and we are still waiting to sort out the engine paperwork. Our new German friends, whom we met along the way, Uwe and Bernie, are waiting for the end of the shift to bribe the customs officer. We have Carnet, and they do not. Some African countries require a vehicle passport Carnet de passage to prevent the sale of these vehicles. Yes, Senegal is particular in many ways. For instance, Croatia is not on the list of countries for issuing visas because no one cared what happened after the breakup of Yugoslavia. And by the fact that it is at the top of the list in terms of corruption. We waited for a Senegal visa for four months, and simultaneously, we were exhausted by yelling, knocking, putting pressure, and looking for ways. And now we are still waiting at the border! As if this country does not want us. It is over! Finally! We decided to wait for our new friends to look for accommodation together because they know the country. Uwe enters Senegal for the sixth time in a row to sell the vehicle in one of the following countries. This time he took a friend Bernie, a retired banker eager for adventure. “I am sick of this country!” shouted Uwe, returning frowning. “But everything is settled. We have three days to get through it, and we do not need more than that.” “Yes, it is Africa,” added Berni. 

We arrive in Dakar, a famous city. We have to spend a few days here arranging a visa extension. We came to Senegal primarily for one reason, the famous Mardi Gras carnival on the island of Sao Vicente in the Cape Verde archipelago. Dakar is the only city on our route that has flights to that archipelago 455 kilometers off the Senegalese coast. As we have already struggled with the Senegalese visa, we did not want to experience it again with its extension. But things got complicated nonetheless. And this time, we also did everything in our power, but it just was not enough. Our documents have reached the last link in the chain, the minister, and it stopped there. The gentleman was on a business trip. We were left to our luck. All depended on the time of his return, which was relative, and on his goodwill, which was also relative. But, relatively is better than the impossible. Reconciled by fate, we decided to give Senegal a chance. We decided we wanted him anyway, even though he did not like us. We headed to its farthest corner, a corner among whose hills hides the oldest Senegalese tribe, the Bedik tribe. 

The climb is steep, and it is damn hard for me. It is 48 Celsius, and I am still carrying a load! I stubbornly rushed upstairs. And I was out of breath. Another world opened before my eyes. There was a clearing filled with mud houses with thatched roofs, tall palm trees, and century-old baobabs. Loud shouts and children everywhere. Groups of ornate girls bounce on the rocks and make a noise by banging an iron rattle. The boys come, take the two girls, and put them on their shoulders. They start singing! Everyone from the village joins, and a merry mass rolls down the path. They pass between rocks and giant baobabs. Everything is rising, clouds of dust and noise. Drummers are coming too. Everyone is heading for the clearing. A circle forms around them. Song, dance, and happiness! 

The festivities continued deep into the night to the rhythms of the tam-tam. There were bonfires and torches. The head of the village told us that it was in honor of the young men who initiated (circumcision) a month ago. We forgot everything during our stay in this village. People so relaxed and modest, who still live in harmony with nature, have grown close to our hearts. Everything they live on comes from nature. Their calmness is so opposed to life in the city. Ah, love is in the countryside. As much as the fulfilling moments spent here gave us a reason to stay, we needed to go back. Visas greeted us ready! We are flying to Cape Verde tomorrow! This small island state, with a black history (once a center of the slave trade), today boasts the beauty of its inhabitants and islands and the most colorful African carnival. A carnival that everyone calls little Brazil! In that euphoria, I think for a moment, Senegal has forgiven us. We redeemed ourselves! Ah, that is Africa! At the same time, it drives you crazy and brings to bliss!

INTERMEZZO, TOWARDS THE CARNIVAL

 

It is the night of the second day of the carnival. All groups are in their places. The group on the square by the waterfront decides on the departure. The boys are ready. The girls are doing the final checks, fix makeup, put on sequins. They are checking all knots of tied props once more. The wings are on the back; the feathers are in place; the crowns are on the head. Everyone has a smile on their face; musicians silence their instruments. It is time. The leader of the procession shouted: “You all know the choreography, just cheerful! Drums!” The parade is moving! Like confetti from a punctured balloon, the energetic force dissipated. Slowly it touches everything, the masked, observers, children, dancers, journalists. I dance with the procession; the steady rhythm of movement is precise enough to meet. All the groups eventually merge into one in the main square. Participants know the dance steps and lyrics of the song. They are aligned, harmonized in a dose of euphoria and ecstasy. Everyone is alone, and everyone is together. The drum beats are so strong, and you can feel them in the body! It fascinates everyone present. Carnival madness intensifies. Wind and dance stretch the cloaks; sequins, beads, colorful glasses glitter under the dim street lights. The variety of colors contrasts the night. Bodies glow. Some bodies are coated with a bright color, while others are sweaty. The temperature is rising. All present become kings, divas, and queens! The streets of the island are permeated with sex appeal and sensuality. Like intoxicated, all indulge in dancing. Carnival night is just as it should be. I feel maximally alive. I dance, I dance, I dance. I do not want to stop! I never want to forget that life is a dance and I am a dancer! 

GAMBIA

After returning from the archipelago, we decided to spend the weekend in The Gambia. This strange country, the smallest in Africa, is almost surrounded by Senegal. Except in the west, where 80 kilometers of coastline touches the Atlantic. The rest of the country, 300 km long, is made of banks caressed by the Gambia River, which stretches its entire length. The Gambia has six national parks and reserves. We headed to the only chimpanzee reserve, River Gambia National Park. 

After a classic river tour, we sat down to talk to Gambian Aleu Kamara, the man in charge of feeding and caring for the chimpanzees. We wondered how he got the job and why he was doing it. “As a kid, I caught a rabbit. People from the camp came and took him. They put him in a cage and said I could visit him on the weekends. They once said it was time, and they would let the rabbit go. I got angry and said I would catch it again, but they explained they belong to nature. From that day on, I educated the peasants. You know, in the ’20s, chimpanzees were hunted for meat and money. If they continue to hunt animals like that, there will be no more of them!” Aleu loves his job. He says chimpanzees are like humans as they should be. “Chimpanzee mothers look the child in the eye while breastfeeding and do not separate from them even after death. Chimpanzees can also cry. When they are afraid, when they are sad and when they are in pain.” As much as we enjoyed listening to Aleu, we also enjoyed the harmony of nature that evaporates from every pore of River Gambia Park.

TEXT & PHOTO – Maja Tanasovski