Faissant de la Contrebande

Last weekend saw me off on a trip to the South. Mauritania is generally booze free except for a few restaurants and bars catering to expatriates. Since we are all pretty poor, we have to be a bit industrious to get our swerve on properly. This most frequently means picking up a bottle or two of cheap Senegalese booze when coming back from trips. It is not especially legal, but border searches are rare and it’s really the only option.

Sometimes though, when one wants to do a larger event, special steps are needed to provide a sufficient quantity. This was my mission for last weekend.

2005/06/13 Université de Nouakchott Garage Rosso 0:20 500um
Garage Rosso Rosso 3:00 2200um + 300um

I hung around on Saturday to watch Chemchoune and didn’t get out of town until late on Sunday night. I was worried that it would be hard to catch a taxi late in the day. This proved to be no problem at all and within ten minutes of arriving at the garage I was on my way to Rosso. We were not ten minutes into the drive when the guys sitting next to me started bickering.

Keep in mind that I am in a Mauritanian taxi brusse. This means there was two people in the front passenger seat and four in the back. Or there would normally have been four in the back. We picked up an eight year-old girl on the way out of town, so we were five in the back seat in total. These two fellows who are arguing are literally sitting on top of each other with their faces not five inches apart as their voices begin to rise. The fun began as the guy next to the window pulled out his pipe and began to light up.

“What are you doing? You can’t smoke in here; there’s not enough room.”

“Or course I can. I want to smoke. Where do you think you are? Europe? Are you a Frenchman?”

“You have to respect other people. You can’t smoke.”

“You’re a snob. If you want to be like that you should have rented a whole car for yourself like a big shot.”

“You should be respectful of others.”

[The conversation switches to Hassaniya: a language much better suited to bickering than French. After a bit, it drifts back…]

“You don’t know me. How can you tell me that I can’t smoke?”

“You don’t know me either, but we are going to be in this taxi for a long time. We will get to know each other.”

“I’m sure. We’ll talk for a bit, then you’ll tell me: ‘I’m a son of a donkey. I was born in a family of donkeys. I’m a donkey myself.'”

“That’s a pretty shitty thing to say.”

“Son of a donkey.”


There was a Wolof girl about my age sitting to my right. We were both cracking up during this whole exchange. I’m not really sure why they decided to conduct it in French, but I’m certainly glad that they did. About the time that I thought they were about ready to start slapping each other, we pulled to to a police checkpoint and they quieted down. After we pulled back out, the smoker solaced himself with muttering in Hassaniya to the driver. He never did light up.

The rest of the ride was significantly less entertaining. The driver tried to add to the thrill a bit by waiting till the moon rose before turning on his single dim headlight. He used the accepted practice of turning on his driver side blinker as we passed people so that they wouldn’t hit us. After a bit though, even the threat of impending collision wasn’t enough to keep us alert. The little girl passed out in my lap and the girl fell asleep on my shoulder. For having three people occupying a single seat, we managed to be surprisingly comfortable.

I got in to the Rosso house round about 23h, got suggestions on types of pants to wear from Ayrin and Theresa, and bright and early the next morning hit the border.

2005/06/14 Rosso, Mauritania Rosso, Senegal 1:00 100um

My crossing on the Mauritanian side was amazing. I walked through the gate, they stamped my passport and just as I walked down the the ferry, it pulled out. The trick is to get there right before 9:00. There aren’t many foreigners around to get their papers done and the ferry crosses for the first time right at 9 when the border opens.

My crossing in Senegal was also amazing. The police decided to wait until the entire boat was unloaded before any of them came up to the commissariat. This meant everyone had to stand at the window for 45 minutes. To make things more interesting, a semi backed up till there was about three feet of free space in front of the window. The rapidly rising sun made sure that I was well scented with the body odors of my many not terribly well washed companions. After a while I saw a guy who had been handling my passport wander out of the station, then out of the port. Slightly worried about my passport I followed him into a boutique where, when confronted, said, “Oh yeah, I’ve still got your passport in my pocket. Sorry about that. You can go on.”

2005/06/14 Rosso Richard Toll 0:30 300cfa

My hookup point was Richard Toll. The liquor store is just down from the garage. My goal for the trip was five liters each of rum, vodka and gin. Of these the store had copious quantities of gin and a single bottle of vodka. The woman working the store sent me off to another store near the municipal stadium in the off chance that their stock would differ. The stadium was about three kilometers away and the stock did not differ. The only difference was no vodka and a single bottle of rum which I bought before going back to the first place. In the end my purchase was:

whiskey 8 liters 2250cfa / liter 18000cfa
gin 8 liters 2250cfa / liter 18000cfa
rum 1 liter 4800cfa / liter 4800cfa
vodka 1 liter 5000cfa / liter 5000cfa
pastis 1 liter 2250cfa / liter 2250cfa
beer 2 800cfa / 440ml 1600cfa
wine 2 liters (rouge et rosé) 1400cfa / liter 2800cfa
22 liters 48250cfa

I bought a five liter bottle of water (800cfa), dumped the water out and filled it with gin. All the rest of it I was carrying in the bottles, and it was quite hefty. I’d guess somewhere around 30kg. I’d spent several hours wandering around town and so it was afternoon by the time I finally got off to my next stop.

2005/06/14 Richard Toll Dogana 0:30 350cfa + 150cfa

On my way to Dogana, I texted a volunteer I know who lives there. She happened to be in town and so we decided to catch up. A microfinance organization she works with was having an event that day. I showed up to a huge group people standing around and giving speeches and sometimes playing drums and dancing. It was really fascinating to watch and very heartening to see people so excited about their economic development.

I hung out for a bit and we traded stories while continually shooing kids away from my five liter bidon with explanations of, “that water is no good for you.” After about an hour we went back to her families house and she had goldfish and mac and cheese! It was all I remembered it as being. So good… We sat and chatted for a couple more hours. She professed complete lack of any appreciable skills, but her having run a marathon and understanding international economics proved her less than honest in her assessment.

We actually sat around talking until after the border had closed at 18h, but fortunately the fellow sitting on the river bank writing passport numbers in a stenographer’s pad was pretty relaxed.

2005/06/14 Dogana Jidrel Mohguen 0:15 150cfa

The trip back to Mauritania was quick and painless other than my fear that I’d tip the canoe with my 65 some odd pounds of booze. The gendarme on the other side was easy enough to deal with. After he’d written my name phonetically in Arabic in his little book, he sent me on my way. Unfortunately, the house I was headed to was a little bit of a hike from the border. Only a couple kilometers, but with my bag, it was a trek. I was about halfway there sitting on the side of the road when a French couple pulled up in a pickup and offered me a ride. Turns out that they work for Dole, and there is a banana plantation just outside of town. Who’d a thunk?

After wandering around for a bit, I finally find the volunteer I’m looking for, and she looks to be carrying snow suits. This is a bit odd since the ski season isn’t for another couple months. It turns out that she has been doing a bee keeping project, and she is carrying protective suits of her own design. I was suitably impressed and even more so when she tells me they are heading off to the hives to try to find the queen.

I am not really scared of many things. Small things that sting are pretty high up on the list. When Steph and I were dating, one of the few times I was ever really seriously pissed at her is when there was a wasp in the car and she wouldn’t stop and let me out. So, when, about twenty minutes later, there were several hundred pissed off African honey bees swarming my head, I was slightly disquieted.

What made it especially interesting was a comment mentioned in passing as we approached the hive: “Try not to let the netting touch your skin because they’ll sting you through the netting where it does.” If you’ve ever had so many bees crawling on your face that you can’t see through them, the possibility that you are less than completely safe is disconcerting. I did it though. I wasn’t terribly useful as most of my time was spent standing still working at not running screaming into the river, but I was there.

The volunteer I was with had a little hole in one of her sleeves. She got stung eight or nine times and was far calmer than I was. Of the Mauritanians with us, one chickened out entirely before we arrived and the other was about as useful as I was.

The bees stayed with us nearly all the way back to the village despite our continual brushing ourselves off. Apparently if you do this with American bees you don’t even need the suit for the first part of opening the hive. African bees are more aggressive though and these were apparently in a particularly bad mood.

We finally lost them all on the walk back. The evening then ended with some dinner, conversation and well needed sleep. The next morning I met a lot of the family that I missed the night before. We walked around and visited a bit, but by 9h I was in a van headed to Rosso.

2005/06/15 Jidrel Mohguen Rosso 1:15 500um

Along the river there are areas which have dirt instead of the sand and rock that cover most of this country. In between Jidrel Mohguen and Rosso is one of those areas. I emerged from the van, where I’d been riding on sacks of charcoal, a uniform light brown in color. Once I made it to the garage, people didn’t even want to ride next to me I was so dirty. I managed to get in a 4×4 though, and was on my way after repeated warnings of, “my souvenirs are in there; they’re fragile. Be careful,” to the fellow manhandling my bag into place.

2005/06/15 Rosso Nouakchott 3:00 1500um + 200um
Garage Rosso Chez Moi 0:20 500um

We were stopped quite a bit coming into town. It was mostly to harass the Senegalese people in the car though. The police always wanted to see my id, but they never gave me any problems. I got back to my house and was taking a shower by 13h. A fun little weekend adventure breaking international law; always entertaining. ☺

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