It was another early morning and another uncomfortable “ taxi” seat to the border town of Rosso, Senegal, two hours North from St. Louis Island. I was squeezed beside a larger African lady who used half of my seat and half of the passenger’s seat to her left. She proved to be my guardian angel; my own Big Momma. When we arrived at our destination she said to me “Mauritanie?” I nodded and she gestured me to follow her.
I followed Big Momma to another taxi that had no windows and not much upholstery. I ran the touts gauntlet who were all giving conflicting information, My chaperone would turn and snarl enough for them to leave me alone. The journey sitting on the metal floor of the taxi hardly was worth the effort and a few hundred metres later we were at the Senegal River. Once again I followed her to the Senegal immigration office, where they stamped my passport out of the country, with a smile and a wave.
Once again Big Momma gestured for me to follow her to the riverbank, where pirogues ferry you across the river. At the opposite bank, I was greeted by a uniformed border guard with his arms folded, He asked me to accompany him to the immigration office. I looked at Big Momma, she looked at the floor and then went in the opposite direction, I was on my own.
The guard spoke English and he quickly asked how much cash I carried. I said it was all locked away in my pack and I was unsure. I was clutching a $20 note in my hand, and my other money was secreted in a secret pocket I have stitched to the inside of my trousers. He noticed the bill in my hand and waved away another officer who approached me to “help”. He then even warned me not to engage with another officer, as “they only wanted your money” I kept a straight face. He did stamp me into the country, eventually, but would not hand me back my passport. He wanted to accompany me to the gate out of the immigration area and into Mauritania and also secure onward transport for me to Nouakchott.
He quickly arranged for a driver for me as we walked toward the exit gate (he was getting a kickback I presume) and at the gate I asked him for my passport, He refused and threatened to take me back to the office to fill in a currency declaration card, at the same time staring at my hand with the note, held tightly in my clenched fist. I offered my outstretched hand in a handshake gesture and he passed my passport back with the other hand in a swap. I deposited the note into his hand when we shook and I sped off through the exit with a taxi driver in hot pursuit. What the immigration officer was about to discover was I swapped the $20 bill for a $1 bill while he was processing my entry stamp.
I got into the taxi and asked about the price,and I was quoted a ridiculous amount. I jumped out, followed by an angry driver shouting abuse. In seconds another guy roadside ushered me into his new bright and shiny minibus-taxi, he was only looking for one more passenger and I was in the front seat no less.
The driver of the vehicle was how I had envisaged a Mauritanian to look like, he had a turban that wrapped around the head and down across his mouth and chin, covering most of his face, what was visible was hidden behind aviator shades. I was soon to find out why in the Sahara Desert we immediately were hit by a sandstorm. It lasted up to the first checkpoint of the day. With the shenanigans at the border I had almost forgot about the security situation, This was to be the first of many checkpoints today, each time I would have to hand over my documents and the opportunity presented itself to the guard to solicit a bribe. However, I was never targeted it was always an African on the 12-seater bus who was asked to leave, each time he or she returned to the bus with a tale of woe regarding a small discrepancy found in their documents that required a “fine”. I lost count of the number of checkpoints we encountered, after the 35th time I fell asleep.
When we finally approached Nouakchott one guy asked me if I was pushing on further north today and told me of another bus that did the journey to Nouadhibou, a town right next to the Western Sahara border.
I was keen to move on, Nouakchott with its sandy streets and little else, did not look that enticing, the border crossing did shake me up a bit. We had just over an hour to wait until the next bus was due to leave, this time it was a fairly big bus with about 20 passengers for the 480 km journey north. It gave me just enough time to find some food, first of the day, before we were to head off again.
Next stop ……….the Sahara……..