Return to Sender

You’d think that my drawn out experience on the thin, rough seam between Mauritania and Senegal would’ve extinguished any faith I had in humanity (or any confidence I had in my ability to interact with it). But happily, after a solid sleep and the care I’d received from my kind, quiet and genuine host in Rosso, I felt less upended than I had the previous evening. Though maybe a little scratched and dented, my view of the general good nature of people was still intact.

Places like this (where not all the civilisational creases have yet been ironed out) are rife with the corruption and opportunism which we in the West are so laughably sheltered from. Yet ordinary, decent people here are just as ordinary and decent as people the world over despite differences in culture, language, government, religion, geography and opportunity. Most just want to be left in peace to deal with their own worries, and lend a hand to those with bigger ones than theirs.

Wanting to regain some independent control of my existence I decided it best to return to Nouakchott and plan for a second attempt (third if you count the first, non-starter of a day when I was hunting for tubes) from there. This was despite the instructions of banker Mohammed who had suggested the day before that I go to a hotel and await further instructions while he attempted to pull some strings on my behalf.

I trusted Mohammed, but felt that I needed to be back in the saddle both literally and metaphorically, and returning to Nouakchott to try and arrange a visa seemed like something that I could wrap my hands and head around, rather than waiting for someone else to tell me my fate. I was also keen to move on from the tainted town of Rosso—not exactly idyllic at the best of times.

When Daouda arrived at “huit heures” that morning I was already geared up and indicated my intent to leave Rosso. He understood, and we set off to the bank to pick up my bike and make some copies of my “fiche”, which I’d need to hand out at the many checkpoints along the road back. At reception, my attempts to pay for the room were swiftly blocked—someone had already taken care of the bill for my room and meal.

At the Rosso branch of the National Bank of Mauritania Daouda fired up the ancient copier while I went out to the courtyard to load up my bike and chat to the guardian who had enjoyed a thankfully uneventful evening beside it. He flat-out refused a generous tip I offered him, but I used a trick I had learned earlier in the trip and insisted it was for his children—“pour les enfants”. Particularly the older gentlemen in this country are very honourable and won’t accept charity for themselves no matter how rough things get.

After Daouda and I shared a heartfelt goodbye and an exchange of WhatsApp and Facebook details I got moving, stopping for fuel (hard to find), to deplete my bank account a little further (easy, at the ATM I’d been escorted to by the scammers the previous day) and to pick up something to eat (a delicious fresh baguette with sweet jam, from the corner shop where I’d been propositioned).

At the petrol station which was near the border gate a young man with budding dreadlocks and white headphones resting fashionably over—rather than in—his ears approached me. I recognised him from the day before. He had been milling around but didn’t seem directly involved in any of the festivities. “Hello,” he said revealing his heavily accented but not terrible English.

“I see you. Yesterday.”

“I see you are very tired and they take too much money from you.”

“I am sorry. They are bad people. I am sorry for you.”

I smiled. I sighed. I thanked him and got on the road. I made my way back along that poor, potholed strip of bitumen masquerading as a lifeline between North and West Africa. Being back on the road felt good and better with every kilometre I put between myself and Rosso. I had no tyre problems that day and made good progress towards Nouakchott.

When I stopped for a break I noticed I’d missed some calls from Mohammed in Nouakchott, but I was out of cell range so couldn’t return them. I rode on, keeping an eye on the phone and once it had a bit of signal I pulled over again to see what trouble I was in. Be I even got my gloves off my phone rang. It was Aïssata, one of the executive assistants from the bank. She spoke impeccable English and explained that I was to come directly to the bank and we would deal with everything from there once I’d had some lunch and gotten cleaned up.

I arrived at the headquarters a couple of hours later and was met by Aïssata and Mohammed’s own EA and right-hand-woman Aïcha, a wonderfully maternal presence who made me feel like a son. Taken to the top floor I was plonked in a cool, quiet room of big leather sofas and given an espresso and a fresh orange juice. Lunch was being prepared and I was ordered to relax. I obeyed.

Feeling very scruffy in the presence of these lovely and immaculately presented people I summoned what I could remember of my table manners and diligently finished my delicious, three course lunch with a waiter keeping close watch should I need anything.

Calls to the Senegalese embassy were being made on my behalf and eventually I got word that “the director” would be arriving back at the office shortly and would see me. When Mohammed arrived I was given a light but thorough scolding for returning to Nouakchott. He had been on the verge of getting me into Senegal through some of his important government contacts there, and I had embarrassed him by wasting a favour. Having put me in my place, and with my sincere apology accepted, the slate was wiped clean and Mohammed insisted I join him for lunch. He never eats alone as a rule.

We discussed many things about the world (he did most of the discussing). My world and his world could not have been more different but as always it wasn’t our differences that surprised me but our commonality. A reminder that we are all so much more the same than we are different. I told Mohammed about my challenges at the border. He wasn’t surprised and was sympathetic to my situation. I was humbled to be his guest, and to have received such support from him when I had absolutely nothing to offer him in return.

I took a moment to thank him directly and sincerely for everything he had done for me, but he brushed me off. “David, do not worry. I am a businessman. You are not a businessman. You are a man who is trying to see the world.”

This was touching, but also didn’t bode well for my business back in Australia.

So after my second, even larger lunch (a feast home made at Mohammed’s estate, because he prefers the work of his personal chefs to those at the bank) good news came from the Senegalese embassy. Aïcha had succeeded in getting through to them and the ambassador was willing in good faith to stay after hours and issue a visa to this honoured guest of the bank.

A driver took me to the embassy and after 15 minutes of jovial chat with the ambassador one malodorous Australian had a Senegalese visa in his passport. A mock argument with the driver ensued because I refused to allow him to pay the visa fee. I was reprimanded for insulting my patron Mohammed by refusing his generosity.

We returned to the bank’s offices to collect my bike and a second driver followed me back to Auberge Samira. Mohammed had insisted that the driver escort me there and settle the account. He had never heard of the hotel and it took some convincing that it wasn’t a mistake or somewhere I was likely to get myself into more trouble. I gathered he was more familiar with the more upmarket hotels that most of his international guests typically stayed at.

After explaining my (second) return to Samira to the chuckling staff I stumbled into my room from the previous night and collapsed on my familiar bed—absolutely reeling.

Although there was no doubt that I’d found the previous couple of days tough I was also buoyed by the excitement and adventure that had come with them so the next morning I woke up strangely optimistic. The worst-case-scenario had manifested and although I wouldn’t want to experience the feelings ever again, the scenario itself had lost its power and had shown once again that in the long run you will be OK and someone will be there to help. My fears about what lay between there and Cape Town were (momentarily) subdued.

It was morning, and time to set off for attempt number three at arriving in Senegal. This time I was adamant that I would go to Diama not Rosso, would leave myself plenty of time and would be in Saint-Louis, Senegal for dinner.

I stopped along the way to get a bit more cash out but only succeeded at the fourth ATM. Petrol proved easier to find this time and I also got some fresh bread and a packet of La Vache Qui Rit for the journey, making sure to put the food in my backpack so I didn’t end up starved at the border again.

About 10 km into the trip a silver sedan travelling in the opposite direction honked at me and as it started to u-turn I recognised the driver: it was Ibrahim. Oh man. He waved me down and I pulled over.

As crazy as it seems I still wasn’t sure exactly what his role was in the drama of my previous few days. In retrospect it sticks out like dogs balls but my trusting nature still refused to let me think the worst. Why? I don’t know.

As a few street urchins gathered around us with their rusty tins, begging for money, Ibrahim inquired as to whether I managed to get my visa. I said that I had, and that I was on my way to cross at Diama. He seemed surprised that I wasn’t going back to Rosso. I explained that I didn’t particularly enjoy having money extorted from me so I was going to pass this time.

Ibrahim indicated that what had transpired was all news to him and he was furious with Mohammed and Mamadou for taking advantage. He said he often sent people to them for “help” and that €10–20 was normal to pay for this, but that what they did was wrong. He was going to call the chief of police and “fuck them”.

He sent one of the urchins off to buy him a voucher to top up his airtime and then made a show of calling Mohammed and Mamadou in front of me to rant at them on the phone. Whether this was real or staged I didn’t know, but I suspected it was for show. The more I thought about it, the less I believed it.

Ibrahim said he was very sorry and sent a second street urchin off to buy me a coke. After a few more minutes of bragging about his connections he asked if I was keen on getting involved in any cocaine trafficking. Apparently he did it regularly with friends from all over the world. He could hook me up with all his contacts in the military and police and I could make €40,000, easy. I declined politely and got back on the road to Diama, happy to write Ibrahim and his cast of characters out of my travel story for good.

The trip down was once again interrupted by a flat. Luckily, I had patched the second tube the night before at Samira so I found a good spot (no shade) and took my time. I tried to mimic the Moroccan truck driver’s technique and although it took me about an hour it was pinch-free and held till Diama.

So many nice people stopped to check on me while I was fixing it, making sure I had everything I needed including water. Many offered help or to take me into town. Slowly but surely the damage done to my faith in humanity was being restored, and the contrast between my “ordinary people” and those out to take advantage was being revealed. I was starting to recognise the wolves for the sheep.

At one of the checkpoints I was (as is usual) asked what my intended destination was, and I answered truthfully that I intended to go to Diama. The official seemed a little pained and said I should wait because his commander would want to have a word with me. The commander emerged from his hut and came over to convince me that the road to Diama was closed, and that I needed to go to Rosso. He gave me the number of a man who would “help” me there. I thanked the wolfish commander and assured him I would obey his instructions.

At subsequent checkpoints I confirmed with each official that I was on my way to Rosso, and that I had a contact there, Mohammed, who was going to assist me with “the formalities”, but at the turn-off to Diama I slipped off the main road quietly and stuck to my plan.

It seemed that I wasn’t the only tourist to take this approach because as I made my way along the bumpy dirt road of dried mud that followed the river west I came across some other, interesting travellers. First, a Russian girl travelling alone on a brand new KLR. I had stopped to admire the view of the marshland beside the raised road along the river when she happened along, heading north from Senegal. Her English was not great, though better than my Russian, and her looks more than made up for her choice of bike. We chatted clumsily for a while and in fact discovered that we had a mutual Facebook friend—fellow rider Andrej who had given me some great Mauritanian tips when I was still in the planning phase of my trip.

Next, I happened upon a group of four young English boys in a lowered golf GTi with a huge canoe on the roof. I had to look twice. The lads were stopped at the entrance to the national park in which the border crossing lies, arguing with two officials who were demanding a fee. One official appeared to be from immigration and the other was a park ranger of sorts. The English boys were convinced they were being held up and bribed by the officials, but I somehow knew enough French by that stage to be able to resolve it for everyone—drawing on my many years of experience in corporate workshop facilitation. The park fee was genuine and a receipt would be provided, and the immigration guy was actually offering to pay them so he could charge his phone in their car!

A little further along, at the quiet border post itself I met a couple of Italian bikers, Filippo and Valerio, from Arezzo near Florence. They were making their way to Dakar on their commuter bikes wearing nothing but hiking boots and leather jackets. Valerio’s bike had a barbecue grill hanging off the back of it and Filippo had two top-cases screwed to the sides of his bike with a bit of angle-iron. I liked what I saw.

As we each got on with our exit and entry process we checked in with each other to make sure that everything was above board, but this time there was no shouting con-man to break up our party. This time I was well prepared with food, water, a pen and paper to note prices and officer names, currency conversion rates preloaded on my phone and—most importantly—this time I had a visa.

All in all compared to my experience at Rosso the Diama border crossing could only be described as a very wholesome joke. There were some half-hearted attempts to get a little tip here or there (such as when the boom-gate operator let the Englishmen in their GTi sweat it out for about half an hour before he “noticed” that he needed to raise the boom for them) but no unnecessary currency was disseminated by me, at least.

Frankly, the process was a breeze and I would go so far as to say I had fun. I chatted cheerily to some of the locals selling fruit and SIM cards while I waited for the officials to lazily stamp stamps or fill forms with officious diligence and questionable literacy.

When it came time to change my money, the money-changing touts arrived to have their way with me. I whipped out my currency exchange app and demonstrated to them that I was no fool—I had been through Rosso twice and knew how the game worked.

Playing them off against each other I negotiated a very favourable rate and as I handed over the last of my Ouguiya to the unwitting money changer who had accepted the deal my Mauritanian chapter drew to a final, welcome close.

My executive suite
My executive suite
My executive lunch
My executive lunch
Economic oversight
Economic oversight
It's official
It's official
Mercedes Bents
Mercedes Bents
Sand market along the road
Sand market along the road
N2 traffic
N2 traffic

© David Baskind · 2022