Chez Zaida is run, ofcourse, by Zaida. She’s a veritable powerhouse of a woman; black, fairly muscular, dressed somewhat in between Western and traditional styles, and giving her almost all-male staff orders in a calm but extremely authoritative way; there’s no doubting who’s boss here. Not that Mauritanian women are generally the stereotypical meek lambs; despite, or perhaps because of, the Arab culture and Islam placing much of the power with men, many women here have a whole lot of attitude. Something that might also be a factor is that in many Berber cultures of North Africa, of which there are still traces present in the Moorish culture, women have much more rights and power than in the Arab culture. Among the Tuareg people, for instance, it’s the women that own the property, not the men. Still, life is often not easy for women here, since whether the law (traditional or national) is upheld, and
Other guests at the Auberge are Mauritanians who work for the exploration mission that Total, the French oil company, is doing in El Djouff. Starting about 60 kilometers East of Ouadane and stretching all the way into Northern Mali, El Djouff is Mauritania’s “empty quarter”: a part of the Sahara, about the size of Germany, without any roads, tracks, oases, villages, or other permanent human activity. It consists of salt pans and dunes stretching up to a hundred kilometers in length, shaped by the constant North-Eastern wind. There’s no reason for people to be there, as there’s not enough vegetation or water for goats or even camels. The camel caravans that made towns such as Chinguetti and Ouadane famous avoided El Djouff, making a detour of hundreds of kilometers just to avoid this barren land. The only people occasionally passing through it are drugs smugglers with specially equipped 4×4’s and secret supply stashes hidden in the sand, for whom the absence of human activity means they can get a thousand kilometers closer to Europe with hardly any chance of running into law enforcement. The drugs are produced by cartels in South America, and then shipped to unstable West-African countries just across the Atlantic, such as Guinee-Bissau.
After relaxing a bit to recuperate from almost 5 days of walking in the desert, I explore Ouadane’s Ville Nouvelle. The village is perched on the flank of a sandstone mountain, overlooking the oasis. There’s little to see in the village; most houses are constructed of natural stone covered with mud, and there’s a mosque with somewhat creative architecture. It’s still incredibly hot outside though, and most people are taking a nap in the shadow of their houses; the streets are all but deserted. I pass by a traditional Mauritanian shop, where two teenagers are playing a Playstation 1 game; it’s the only sound disturbing the afternoon’s silence. Standing on the edge of the plateau, I can see the desert stretching away into the distance, towards El Djouff. Through Zaida, I arrange for a guide to take me to the Vieille Ville (Old Town) of Ouadane in the early evening. To reach the old town, I first pass through the oasis that’s Ouadane’s raison d’etre. It’s not as dense and full of green as the ones I encountered in Morocco; like the Tanouchert oasis I encountered during the camel trek, most of it is just sandy ground, with patches of trees
The old mosque is quite impressive; it has a large central square with arches to provide shade without interrupting any breeze; after the brutal heat of this afternoon, I can see why it’s a desirable feature. The guide speaks only French, but halfway through the tour, a teenage kid in a blue T-shirt starts following us around, not speaking at first. After making eye contact a couple of times, he starts to speak to me in English. Whenever the guide isn’t speaking to explain something, the kid and I talk about music (he likes rock and traditional
We pass by a house with traditional domed mud-roofs, which were constructed when the owner couldn’t afford the wood needed for a flat roof. On the side of the road leading down to the oasis, we see a group of men sitting in a circle. As we get closer, it turns out they’re playing
In the evening, I have dinner with Zaida. The food – some kind of ground meat with vegetables – tastes absolutely fantastic after 5 days of desert travelers’ food, although at first the meat is too raw, and Zaida lets the chef know in no uncertain terms that that’s
The bush taxi to Atar could arrive ‘from 5 in the morning, maybe later’; having become familiar with the pace of life in Mauritania, I get out of bed at 5:30, pack my stuff, and have breakfast. At 7:30 in the morning, the taxi rolls up to the gate of Chez Zaida; I had expected a Mercedes, but it turns out to be a taxi brousse (a Toyota Hilux, as usual). We pick up some more people in Ouadane, and then make a small detour to a minuscule village on the edge of the plateau to pick up an old wrinkly man, with whom I end up sharing my seat next to the driver. I’m amused by a thorny tree that has circle of branches reaching the ground, in a circle about 1 meter away from the trunk; with the addition of a little door, it forms the perfect natural goat shelter! With our last passenger on board, the pickup truck proceeds to drive almost straight up the wall of the plateau; it’s now obvious why the taxi can’t be one of the ubiquitous Mercedes sedans. The top of the plateau looks like a Martian landscape, with rocks ranging from rusty red to deep purple. Some patches of pale lime coloured grass and some thorny trees separate the purple rocks from the blue horizon; in the distance, we sometimes