“Salaam aleykum.” He paused. “Salaam aleykum.”
I awoke to a man standing over me, his silhouette distorted by his traditional Mauritanian bou-bou flapping in the wind. I rubbed my eyes and felt a thin coat of sand stuck to my sweaty face. To my right, a goat sneezed. The man pointed to our decrepit mode of transportation, our taxi brousse, and motioned that I follow him, temporarily blinding me as he walked away and revealed the rising sun. The acrid smell of burning garbage lingered as I grabbed my pack and followed.
Our taxi brousse, or “bush taxi,” fully embodied its name. A freshly painted Renault in another life, it had become a dilapidated, rusty skeleton after years of abuse in the Mauritanian desert. Neither of the back doors opened from the outside; to open them from the inside, a passenger had to pull down on two grimy pieces of string. To adjust the windows, passengers utilized a communal lever kept under the driver’s seat. And to start the ignition, the car had to be in reverse. Two passengers had to push the car backward to start the engine, at which point two preferably larger passengers pushed it forward while the driver changed gears. This process was repeated multiple times during our 600-kilometer trek from Kiffa, a regional town, to Nouakchott, the capital.
Ignoring my doubts, I strapped my pack next to a scraggly goat on the roof and climbed in. Seven passengers were wedged into a vehicle meant for four. Two grown men shared the front passenger seat, while I squeezed in behind the driver with a woman, a toddler in her lap, and two younger men to my right. The car’s width made it physically impossible for four adults to sit upright, so two of us rotated hunching over awkwardly throughout the 12-hour ride.
Once on the road, the situation worsened. Instead of a refreshing breeze casually drifting through our windows, I was blasted by the Mauritanian harmattan wind, an unforgiving and relentless gust that is as refreshing as a high-powered blow dryer clogged with dust and sand. Our driver didn’t help, either. He pounded on the dashboard to “fix” the floating speedometer, berated the inside front passenger when his knee blocked the stick, and made blind passes at will while dodging goats, camels, and cattle. Occasionally the parched heat whipping against my face was mixed with warm saliva – our driver made a point of spitting out the window every half hour. And after his occasional snacks, he cleaned his teeth with a frayed twig, adding chunks of soggy wood to my bihourly spattering.
We stopped near our halfway point in Aleg, a town known for its roadside concessions. Our grumpy driver, craving tea and grilled goat, led us to a khaima, a traditional Moorish nomadic tent, and began barking orders to a teenage server in Hassaniya, the guttural, almost barbaric Arabic dialect spoken in Mauritania. Slaughtered goat carcasses, reddish-purple from exposure to the sun and crawling with flies, surrounded the khaima on rusty metal racks, enticing our driver as though they were lobsters at the entrance to a fine restaurant. Despite the limited menu, we were soon lounging next to an empty communal plate, washing down the salty meat with sugary sips of mint tea.
We resumed the drive. The sun dipped below the dunes on the horizon as we neared the capital. I shouldered my way to an upright position in anticipation of the cooling temperatures and vibrant Sahelian twilight. Just as I began to doze off, I awoke to passengers shouting in three different languages, pleading for the driver to pull over. A balmy, dark substance was dribbling from the roof onto my shoulder, staining my linen shirt and beading on my sweaty forearm. The pungent smell gave it away. The goat, strapped to the roof for nearly 12 hours, had finally given in and relieved himself. Most of us managed to contain our nausea, but the dehydrated goat urine was the tipping point for the toddler to my right – his stomach sent an undigested mixture of oily rice and goat meat onto my exposed feet.
An hour later, I emerged from the car feeling victorious. Despite my sticky face, stained shirt, and gummy sandals, I had arrived in Nouakchott. I had endured a trip along La Route d’Espoir, the Road of Hope. I could at least hope that no trip would be worse.