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Thursday, 11 October 2007

To the Edge of Nowhere: Tichit, Mauritania - Page 4

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There is nothing better than disappearing to some insane, off the beaten path place that nobody in their right mind would go to, and Tichit delivered on all accounts.

Max Hunter, To the Edge of Nowhere, Tichit, Mauritania, Nouakchott, Auberge Sahara, travel sahara, Dakar Rally, Moors mauritania, travel MauritaniaIn Tichit we were directed to the military post, which happened to be next to our derelict auberge.  We checked in with the chief and inquired about recovery of the bike, but we were told that due to regulations they could not use their pickup trucks to help us.  This was coming from the least professional military I had ever seen: guys sitting around sipping tea and playing Petanque, while garbed out in a mix of robes, sandals, military dress, and t-shirts. A few nights later, after we’d not understood the orders barked to us through the darkness in French, we were informed by a soldier with an AK-47, who perched on the rooftop at night, not to leave our auberge past 11pm or risk being shot. Kind of a downer.

Max Hunter, To the Edge of Nowhere, Tichit, Mauritania, Nouakchott, Auberge Sahara, travel sahara, Dakar Rally, Moors mauritania, travel MauritaniaNot that there was much to do past dark in Tichit anyway.  Sure there was the usual hash and what little alcohol was left, but Tichit itself offered no pleasures except peaceful serenity, friendly people, an abundance of dates, and bessop, a drink made from hibiscus flowers. The last exciting thing to happen there, as far as I was concerned, was last year’s Dakar Rally; the most exciting thing to happen there as far as the locals were concerned was our arrival.  We were the first foreigners in a month.

For what it lacks in excitement, Tichit makes up for in surrealism. This manifests itself in many ways, starting with the landscape - surrounded by cliffs on one side, a dried lake on another, and massive white dunes on the western approach; it is like an island refuge in the middle of nowhere.Max Hunter, To the Edge of Nowhere, Tichit, Mauritania, Nouakchott, Auberge Sahara, travel sahara, Dakar Rally, Moors mauritania, travel Mauritania

An island refuge with slavery.  Among Tichit's dirty little secrets is that despite the abolition of slavery in Mauritania over twenty-five years ago, it still exists, even if only informally. Nobody dares to call it what it is, even if it is written all over their faces.  The Moors, the masters, walk headstrong with their chins up. The slaves are more sheepish, look down, stripped of their pride generation after generation; they are meek and quiet. If these subtle differences aren't noticeable, the fact that the blacks are still waiting on the Moors in many of their houses is quite clear.  Although this in itself might be difficult to perceive as the Moors in this part of Mauritania are usually dark skinned as well, and most people would not be able to distinguish the two based simply on color.

Forced labor, no.  They pay men and women in food or shelter instead of wages, or at the most, some paltry token sum, when it costs 15,000 ougiya (nearly 1/5 of the average free Mauritanian’s annual salary) for a seat on the truck to Tidjikja. This is a form of economic slavery that serves the status quo just fine, as far the masters of Tichit are concerned. Some of the blacks have been serving the same family for generations, and while this goes on throughout the country, it just seems more pronounced in Tichit where sometimes it is right in your face.

Despite this significant cultural faux pas, Tichit was, with the exception of one perpetually constipated shopkeeper and the ever-alert AK-47 fellow, an overwhelmingly friendly place. The soldiers especially, many of whom come from larger cities and curse their luck at being sent to such a remote outpost without a loose woman or nightclub within five hundred kilometers, were eager to talk to us.

In Mauritania, as in much of the Arab world, it is common for men to walk around holding hands.  This had come as quite a shock to me upon arriving in Morocco and marveling at how open the society was about homosexuality, until I started counting the couples I saw and realized that no way could an Islamic country be this gay.

The soldiers in Tichit were always eager to hold hands.  Not wanting to be rude I acquiesced on some occasions.  I would like to say that walking down the street holding hands with a man in uniform is among the strangest things I have done over here, but I would be lying. Nevertheless, it felt a little quirky. I pondered such an encounter one evening, as Masato gave a professional Thai massage to one of the Mossad Boys, and I began to wonder if maybe we had all been in the desert too long.

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