My Royal Air Maroc flight from Casablanca touched down in Nouakchott, Mauritania just after midnight.
I was tired from my day and a half of travel from Algiers to Casablanca, and then Casablanca to Nouakchott, and wanted nothing more than a smooth ride from the airport to my hotel in the city. As luck would have it, the cosmos had something a little different in store for me.
I was seated near the back of the plane, which, as any off the beaten traveler knows, is trouble if you’re trying to get through a visa on arrival queue with any kind of expediency. It took about 90 minutes for me to get my visa and proceed to the baggage belt, at which point my bags were the only ones remaining, slowly circling the arrival hall.
My well packed bags had been in transit for around 30 hours, and it showed – they were wrapped in plastic and looking like they’d been run through a meat grinder. My guide, Asif*, met me outside of customs, at which point I hurriedly tore the plastic off my smaller pack. You see, I was made to check my pack in Algiers at the last minute, and in the kerfuffle, I had forgotten to remove my cash stash – the money I was to use to pay for my tour program in Mauritania.
Sure enough, when I opened the bag, my cash was gone.
The ride to the city was similarly ill-fated. No sooner had we set off that the car started emitting a horrendous death rattle. We paused, took stock, made some phone calls, and waited. As it became clear that no one was around to help us (no surprise there, it was nearly 3am, and the Nouakchott International airport is nearly 50 kilometers from the city), we started off again, only able to travel at around 30 kph without our trusty steed keeling over in a retching fit.
The ride into the city was a comedy of errors. At one point, a pack of desert dogs joined us on the brand new, empty highway (I’m guessing a gift from the Chinese), chasing our sputtering jalopy toward the muted lights of the largest city in the Sahara Desert. It was nearly 5am when we arrived to the hotel, and I was both emotionally and physically drained, ready for the panacea of sleep.
Nouakchott: A Primer
Tourists in Mauritania don’t come to spend time in Nouakchott (read here for a great sample itinerary for the country as a whole) – rather, it is the simplest entry point into the large-in-size (bigger than Texas), small-in-population (at 4.1 million, just under that of Kentucky) nation.
Nouakchott is also a city that should not exist – it was made capital of Mauritania in 1958, and originally built to accommodate only 15,000 people. Economic modernization and desertification propelled many traditionally nomadic peoples to settle in Nouakchott, and the city is forever expanding. Today its population is nearly one million. In my mind, Nouakchott was an African Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, a city made by modern necessity, yet contrary to the place’s human culture to that point. Both cities are home to far more people than was originally planned, a large proportion of whom are from indigenous nomadic groups. Just no yurts in Mauritania.
Nouakchott gets a bad rap. It’s another busy, chaotic African capital, or there’s nothing to see, or it’s just plain dirty, they say. But to me, Nouakchott was fascinating. I don’t believe a destination’s worth is defined by its flagship attractions – rather, by the feeling it gives me as a place outside of my comfort zone. And one would have trouble identifying too many similarities between my home in Seattle and this urban center on the fringes of the largest desert in the world.
I rolled out of bed around noon, still reeling from my evening’s adventures the night before. Frankly, I was bummed. In my many years of travel, I’ve never been robbed or ripped off other than a slightly overcharged espresso or coconut here and there, and I was a bit shaken – not to mention the fact that I had no money to cover my tour for the next four days.
I was waffling – should I cut my losses and just go home? I chatted with David and my parents over WhatsApp, and decided to soldier on, albeit on a protracted itinerary in my guide’s 1980s-era Mercedes instead of the previously booked Land Cruiser. After all, how often does one find oneself in Mauritania?
And speaking of Mercedes, the Mercedes w201 is unexpectedly ubiquitous in Mauritania. Turns out, the hardy w201s (built between 1982 and 1993) are just tough enough to withstand the heat and dryness of the Sahara, and Germany exported them en masse once newer models began to win favor.
Feel free to share that esoteric tidbit at the next dinner party you attend.
My hotel, the Maison d’Hotes Jeloua, was unassuming from the street, but an oasis in the sheets. I took a quick shower, freshened up, and texted Asif, who agreed to pick me up at 2pm. I languished over a lunch of African chicken and rice, flavored with peanuts and anise, and attempted to listen in to the smartly dressed foreign investors and aid workers occupying the walled yard.
The Nouakchott Camel Market
Asif showed up right on time, and we were off to the Camel Market. David and I had passed on the camel market the year before in Eritrea, and I was excited to be amongst the quintessential desert livestock.
The Nouakchott camel market is located a fifteen-minute drive from the center of town, but judging on its surroundings (or lack thereof), it could have been hours away. A sea of camels and their tenders surrounded a single electrical tower. The weather was hazy, and there was little color differentiation between the sand and sky. An abattoir lay just far enough away to maintain cognitive dissonance about many of the camel’s final destination, and most of the creatures were largely still and focused on using as little physical energy as possible.
We hung around for a half hour or so before retreating to the car. The camel market is about as mainstream of tourist attraction as you can find in Nouakchott, and I can almost guarantee you’ll be the only tourist there if you visit. One pointer – don’t wear sandals, as the ground is littered with camel droppings of various vintages.
Through the Streets to Nouakchott’s Marche Capitale
From there we wound our way to Nouakchott’s Marche Capitale – or Central Market. As an avid collector of random crap from all over the world, I was salivating as we played dodge-human on the streets of the city. Driving in Nouakchott was a sublime and wholly unsafe experience. As we drove to the market, the heat of the day was just ending, and citizens were flooding the streets. Cars sped and whirled every which way in an organized chaos. I asked Asif if traffic fatalities were common in Mauritania, and he replied with a matter of fact, “Yes, very.”
Nouakchott felt unlike any place I’d ever been – a quality that makes for excellent adventuring.
The market was bustling with people dressed in brightly colored prints, and my senses were stunned by an overload of aural, olfactory, and visual stimulus. I followed Asif at a quick clip, not wanting to get lost in the labyrinthine bazaar. The shop owners were primarily Afro-Mauritanians – many migrant workers or refugees from other parts of West Africa, primarily Mali, Senegal, and Burkina Faso. Signs were vibrant and colorful, often with visual depictions of the shop’s wares to serve those who could not read Arabic, or any language at all.
I was most compelled by the tailors in the market, making clothes from colorful West African waxed cotton fabric imported from Ghana. Shops were reluctant to sell simple yards of fabric as the bulk of their sales came from the tailoring. Nestled into tiny stalls were countless sewing machines, manned by men and women both young and old. Still, the novelty of a foreigner in their presence allowed a bit of finagling, and I was able to walk away with a few fat quarters for my husband and mother, partners in quilting crime.
It was around 5pm when our driver deposited us at the base of the tallest building in the city, the Al Khaima Center. The building housed a hotel, and sat kitty corner from the city’s largest mosque, financed by the Saudis, and an open-air market primarily hawking used mobile phones. Asif and I made our way through a maze of non-functioning elevators until we found a single working lift in the back of the building. The view from the top, while not conventionally stunning, allowed me to view the true expanse of the city – mostly one and two story buildings of mud, wood, and corrugated metal, reaching to the horizon, shrouded in a pinkish desert haze.
Social Issues in Contemporary Mauritania
Asif and I talked extensively about Mauritanian culture and politics. Mauritania is extremely resource-rich. But, as is the case in many developing nations, it is only those in power or politically connected who reap the rewards of the land’s wealth. Mauritania is one of the poorest countries in Africa by GNP, a fact made clear by a walk through any part of Nouakchott.
There are also deeply-rooted cultural issues in Mauritania. The nation is most infamous as the last nation in the world to outlaw slavery, in 1981. Even so, the act of owning slaves was only made a punishable offense in 2007. Slavery in Mauritania is tied closely to Mauritania’s caste system, with “white” Moors, typically people of Arab and Amazigh descent, being legally superior to “black” Moors and Afro-Mauritanians. And despite legislation against slavery, it is still common in Mauritania, a fact that is vehemently denied by the government. It is still common for dissenters to be imprisoned indiscriminately – as happened in the recent case of Mohamed Mkhaïtir – who was sentenced to death (later commuted to a two year term) for apostasy and blasphemy after blogging about the caste system and slavery.
And there is, of course, Mauritania’s membership in the club of conservative Islamic states who claim to punish homosexuality with the death penalty. The last recorded execution in Mauritania was in 1987. Asif informed me that the bigger issue with homosexuality in Mauritania was not government persecution, but rather the societal rejection LGBTQ people would face if they were to live openly. Asif had not met a single Mauritanian person who was openly gay, but said opinions were changing among the younger generation, more resistant to Islamic fundamentalism.
I don’t believe in boycotting nations due to government policies because I find that human interactions in such places almost invariably contradict them. I certainly found this to be the case in Mauritania, but also acknowledge my privilege as both a white man and foreigner. I went to Mauritania to meet its people and learn about its culture – and felt it would have been irresponsible to shy away from the honest truth, both positive and negative.
Practical Information for Visiting Nouakchott
I was getting tired from the heat and emotional roller coaster from the night before and cut our tour short. There are a couple of places that I missed on the traditional Nouakchott tourist circuit. The Port de Peche, or fish market, is home to a nightly show of fish boats coming in with the day’s catch. Brightly colored boats crash into the beach, full of fish deemed not good enough for international export. There is also the National Museum of Mauritania, which I should have visited to bask in their A/C alone.
In Nouakchott I stayed at the lovely Maison d’Hotes Jeloua. My room was 1200 Mauritanian Ouguiya, or $30USD per night, and had A/C and shared facilities with hot running water (the bar was pretty low after the hotel scene in Eritrea). It was centrally located, and within walking distance to an ATM that accepted foreign cards – about one in three accepted my American debit card in Mauritania, a much higher success rate than in neighboring Algeria. Look for the Societe General banks; I had the most success with them. It is also possible to exchange currency on the black market in the Marche Capitale, but also unlike Algeria, the rates aren’t far better than you will get from the bank ATM.
The city itself is located about 30 minutes from the airport in light traffic, or an hour and a half if your car is busted. Plan for automotive Murphy’s Law in Mauritania and aim to arrive back to Nouakchott the day before you are scheduled to leave. We drove from Chinguetti to Nouakchott the day I departed and various issues on the road caused me to nearly miss my flight.
Nouakchott is well connected in North Africa, with direct flights from Tunis (on Tunis Air), Algiers (on Air Algerie), and Casablanca (on Royal Air Maroc). My flight from Algiers to Nouakchott via 24 hour layover in Casablanca was affordable, at just under $200 USD. Oumtounsy, Nouakchott’s new airport, also sees direct flights from Istanbul on Turkish Air, and Paris CDG on Air France. Mauritanian Airlines flies between Las Palmas, Canary Islands, and both Nouadhibou and Nouakchott, but have been known to cancel or delay flights without warning. The airline also serves Bamako, Mali, and Dakar, Senegal. My original plan included a one way flight on the airline from Nouadhibou to Nouakchott, and cost around $60USD. Reservations cannot be made online, and my contact in Mauritania booked the flight on my behalf.