Asking around to find the unmarked post office of Atar: 5 minutes. Knocking on the most obvious door, hearing no answer, walking all the way around the building without finding an open door, and asking a mailman where to enter the building: 3 minutes. Sticking finger in a hole in the tiny little door right next to the obvious one and pull hard, then making the lady sitting next to the door (who must’ve heard my knocking but didn’t respond) understand that I want to send a package: 3 minutes. Seeing package being passed around by the 5 people working here, while everyone tries to understand Pays-Bas (apparently they don’t know the French name of my country, and my S looks like a 5): 2 minutes. Waiting for the man who knows how to deal with this to arrive: 5 minutes. Waiting for the man who knows how to deal with this to start and then finish doing other stuff, while all the other employees watch him: 10 minutes. Getting a woman to help the man wrap the package in tape while they’re doing their best Laurel and Hardy
impersonation: 5 minutes. The man looking up how much it’ll cost: 5 minutes. Calculating that if the price is 2860 Ouguiya (the wonderfully named Mauritanian currency) and I give them 3000, I should get back 240 Ouguiya: 1 minute. Realising that it should actually be 140 Ouguiya: 1 minute. Tea break with a piece of bread (one of the ladies gives me tea and bread too; merci!): 5 minutes. Carefully tearing postage stamps from a piece of paper: 5 minutes. Writing down the address of the sender (yours truly) on a sticker and stick that to the rear of the package: 5 minutes. Writing down my address again, for the post office’s administration, and getting it all wrong: 10 minutes. Sticking the enormous number of oversized postage stamps on the package (half-overlapping because it wouldn’t fit otherwise): 5 minutes. Sending a package home from Atar, Mauritania, with help from all of the 6 post office employees: 1 hour and 10 minutes. Sending birthday presents to my sisters: priceless (and timeless)!
Apart from spending some quality time at the post office, I’m having two lazy days at Auberge Bab Sahara. The owners, Cora and Justus, are German and Dutch. They’ve been running this place since 1999, and it’s the go-to place for overlanders in this corner of the Sahara desert. The auberge has traditional stone huts, traditional nomad’s tents (I sleep in one of those), a salty but very nice shower, friendly local staff, good food, chickens and ducks running around, and a really cool collection of traditional wooden doors, bones of local animal species, archeological finds, and fossils (the latter two mostly from the time that the Sahara was still
wet and green). Cora and Justus also do a lot of good work in the community, promoting environmental awareness, sustainable farming, education, and dental care (which is sorely needed; the insane amounts of sugar that are just-about dissolved in each of the dozens of cups of tea per day mean that even thirty-year-olds often have some of the most horrible teeth known to mankind). The tourist season in Mauritania (to the extent that there is such a thing) runs until late February, and it’s mid March; this means the only other tourist is Anja, a female carpenter from Berlin who drives her old Mercedes van to West Africa each year to stay there for the winter.
It’s through the promotion of dental care that Cora and Justus know Tilo; she’s the local dentist’s assistant. She’ll be getting married next week, and Cora is helping to organize the whole thing. That’s why Tilo and her sister, Coumba, come by to discuss some things. I happen to sit next to Cora, and soon we get chatting about the state of affairs in Mauritania. Mauritanians are, I noticed, extremely friendly, but also very devoutly religious. Some weeks ago, a teenage boy claimed to have seen some men flush pages from a Quran down the toilet of a mosque. No evidence of this was ever uncovered, and the mosque’s imam and muezzin both said they knew nothing of it, but that didn’t stop scores of Mauritanians from demonstrating and rioting in streets throughout the country, ending up in one fatality and lots of burned shops and cars. Tilo and Coumba are Fula; a black tribe from the South, traditionally cow herders, although many have
come North to find jobs in recent decades. Their family is pretty enlightened by Mauritanian standards, and the protests worry them. Still, Cora reminds them, it’s better than it used to be; at least nowadays, there can be open discussion about the Quran (but of course no rejection of it), which would’ve been impossible ten years ago. Also, their generation is getting better education than before; Coumba is hoping to become a doctor, which would’ve been out of the question a generation ago. Still, it is striking how inward-looking Mauritania is. That doesn’t stop the people from being extremely friendly; after just ten or fifteen minutes of chatting, Coumba invites me to her sister’s wedding! I’d planned to spend about ten days deep in the desert after today, but the chance to attend a Mauritanian wedding is too good to pass up; I’ll have to shorten my desert time to a week. Now I have two things to look forward to!