Friday, January 23, 2009

Drinking Champagne In The Desert

From Nouakchott I headed northeastwards towards the oasis towns of the Adrar which form the cultural cradle of the Moorish civilisation. Along the way I've managed to hook up with a couple of crazy Slovenes (although, from my experience with their compatriots that's a bit of a tautology) who are driving down to Senegal in an old, bright orange Dyane. Slovenes seem to have different priorities from most people. Whilst it's true that they have a couple of spare wheels and plenty of other kit to fix the car, most of the space in the back is taken up with homemade preserves, salami, pickles, conserves and, taking pride of place, booze. Grappa, wine, mead, plum brandy and even champagne - anything and everything A particularly impressive achievement as Mauritania is an Islamic republic and alcohol is officially banned. "No problem," says Alfijo the driver, "10 euros at the border and they don't check." Amongst all the random flotsam they have, however, made a little space for me and taken me on board with a hearty handshake, smile and a couple of shots of slivovice.

Although the region is true desert it doesn't conform to the sandy, dune-filled stereotype. Instead much of the Adrar is a flat, gravel-strewn wasteland where a few hardy plants eke out a meagre living. The most revered town in the area is Chinguetti, which used to be on the old trans-Saharan caravan route linking the Ghana and Mali empires to the south with the Mediterranean to the north. Like its rival Timbuktu, which eventually superseded it as trade routes shifted, Chinguetti was a centre for Islamic learning and scholarship and to this day there remain a dozen private librariess each with envious collections of priceless, medieval Arabic manuscripts spanning a wide range of subjects, from Koranic study to mathematics. Chinguetti also claims to be an town of particular religious significance, claiming even to be the seventh-holiest city of Islam. Being a born pedant it was a claim that I was rather suspicious of and so whilst I was there I kept asking people what the other holy cities were (the first three are universally accepted to be Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem). Every person I asked gave me a different answer and in the end I had about 10 other cities that were vying for the three intermediate spots. I suppose it's a case of making a claim that isn't so improbable that it offends people whilst being impressive enough to attract them. Chinguetti lives from tourism and has been severely affected by a huge drop in visitor numbers (down to about 25% of their normal levels) due to the credit crunch and murder of four French tourists last year which also provoked the cancellation of the Dakar rally. This makes it easier to find cheap accommodationn, but theflip sidee is that there is greater competition for the tourist dollar which is manifested in being continuously hounded by women selling trinkets from local co-operatives who will not take no for an answer. We were followed for a good half hour by a particularly persistent gaggle, easily the most tenacious hawkers I have ever come across.

We also paid a visit to a secluded oasis hidden down at the end of a narrow valley which had one of the rarest and most valuable things in the desert: perennial water. Not only that, but as the water trickles out of the cliff and into the palm grove it's at a very pleasant 26 degrees - very nice on a Sahara winter morning where the temperatures can drop surprisingly low. Alfijo had visited the village a couple of years before and had such a good time that this year he wanted to give something back and so he had brought a whole trunk-full of notebooks, pens, games and other knick-knacks for the kids. The people running the campement where we were staying, however, warned us to give the stuff directly to the children and be careful of the teacher who would keep a lot of it for himself. This had me slightly worried and I understood as soon as we arrived at the school why. The teacher was black in an entirely Moorish community. After only a minute or two speaking with him it was obvious to me that he was a friendly, mild-mannered man. The invariable hangers-on who had followed us from the campement were trying to take control of the situation and boss him about despite their having no business there. I even caught a couple of them trying to pocket material destined for the kids for themselves. From what I have seen myself and having talked to several people who work for NGOs I have become sceptical as to the real effect such gestures. undoubtedly well-meaning and generous, actually have when there doesn't seem to be the requisite change in attitude and mentality that is required to make full use of them.

Last night was my last with Branko and Alfijo and they opened one of their two bottles of champagne to say goodbye, which really touched me. Travelling with them for the past two days has been a little bit crazy, somewhat uncomfortable, slightly strange but lots of fun. But one bottle of bubbly is nowhere near enough and so we polished off their bottle of apricot schnapps as well.

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