Iw Africa Part

68 February '11 CVCLE SOURCE


Article And Photos By: Tim "Buzzy" Bussey

CYCLE SOURCE February -11 69

Once we entered the market area, shopkeepers would greet us then try to lure us into their shops. In one shop the owner said his name was Picasso and claimed to be a local artist. Hanging on the walls were the wood masks, paintings and tapestries that are found all over this part of Africa. Looking around I asked how much a tapestry cost. Picasso replied, "600 Euros." Manuel and I looked at each other and began laughing; the thing was worth maybe 10 Euros at the most. Picasso was an optimistic salesman for sure. He kept up his sale's pitch even as we were backing out the door. He began to follow us again so we told him that we would be in town all week and that we would stop back at his shop before we left.

Walking through the streets of Atar I was reminded of an old movie title that seemed a fit description for the place: "The Land That Time Forgot." Had it not been for the old cars and cell phones, I could have easily been in the 13'" century.

Goats and donkey carts roamed down dirt streets. Women were draped from head to toe using their heads for shopping carts. Men in long robes with turbans covering their faces gave me a feeling that my Wide Glide had transported me back through the centuries to see what life was like in some long ago forgotten place in history.

Once back at the campground, we made arrangements with Jus to use one of his Jeeps and a driver to get to Chinguetti, which was about a two-hour drive from Atar down some very rough dirt roads.

The plan was for Manuel and I to catch a ride into the village, spend the day exploring the ancient Islamic libraries and then spend the night camping out on the sand dunes that are slowly engulfing this still inhabited historic site.

Leaving Atar, the driver took a number of back streets and cut through a field to get to the main road. He said that he was taking this route to avoid the police checkpoints. I had been warned not to travel past Atar when I arrived in town so I figured he knew what he was doing.

After dropping us off in Chinguetti, the driver told us he would come back at dark and take us out into the dunes; he lived in and astronomy.

Now, both man and nature endanger this world heritage site. The Sahara is rapidly burying the town with its ever-encroaching sands while "Islamic" terrorists destroy the tourist trade and run off the Peace Corps and others who were working to preserve the site.

The library that we visited had someone there to take us inside and show us the old books and other artifacts that were housed within its walls. The library was built under ground. We were told it was both for protection and to cool the structure from the blazing sun of the Sahara during the days.

Our guide gave us a history of the area and explained how all the materials to make the books had been imported from all over the ancient world. He recited a poem from one of the old books, speaking in French, and as he finished his poem he drew his hands in a sweeping motion away from his mouth and said in English, "SMILE... SMILE!" He thanked us for coming and then we exited the cool dark interior of the library into the heat of the Sahara.

It wasn't long before a couple of local women carrying baskets of jewelry and other trinkets approached us. After a brief conversation, they told us to follow them. They led us down an alley way and onto a deserted back street. They then sat down and laid out their collection of wares and began to entice us into buying something.

Manuel was having nothing to do with shopping as he was on a tight budget. I was enjoying the moment and would hold up something, look at it closely and ask how much. One of the girls would write a number in the sand and I would look shocked saying no, no, and write a number in the sand. Back and forth it would go as each item was looked at. After 20 minutes of this, one of the girls said something in English. I was surprised and said, "You speak English?" she smiled and said, "Sometimes." Finally, after much fun and hard bargaining, I bought a few things from each of them, said good-bye and continued our journey through the sand filled streets.

By the time we realized that we were lost in a maze of stonewalls and sand, it was the area and was going to spend the night at home before returning to Atar in the morning.

Chinguetti is said to be one of the best preserved cities of the ancient world of the Sahara. Once, all of Mauritania was known as the "Land of Chinguetti." In those days, caravans would gather in this desert oasis. It is said that 30,000 camels at a time would be readying for long journeys on the trade routes that crossed through Chinguetti. Caravans would transport wool, dates and barley south to be traded for gold, ivory and slaves before returning north. Now, only a few thousand inhabitants remain. Most rely on the tourist trade while others care for the libraries that house manuscripts centuries old. This was once a center of Islamic learning. The libraries house not only texts of the Koran but also books for schools of medicine, law, mathematics too late. We came to a dead-end and were quickly surrounded by a group of women with more baskets of trinkets who by now knew I had bought from the other girls. Once again I found myself saying, 'no, no,' and writing in the sand.

It was beginning to get dark when we finally ended the shopping and began to look for a way out of the old town. In the end, we had to circle the entire town before meeting up with our driver. We had something to eat and then headed out into the dunes for the night.

I awoke just before the sun began to rise above the sea of sand that seemed to go on forever. On the dune we were camped on, a woman appeared above us, bowed down towards the rising sun and began praying. Later we were told that the women of Chinguetti often come out to the dunes at daybreak and pray for their families.

Our driver showed up to take us back to the campground in Atar. He had his young son with him and said that we would stop at his home before heading back. His home was a few miles outside of town. Sitting alone in the empty desert, it consisted of a few separate rooms made of stone and block with a stonewall connecting each room forming a compound.

After slaughtering a goat outside the compound, he took us into one of the rooms and told us to wait. One of his wives came in and began making tea using a five-gallon metal can for a stove.

The interior walls were painted white and the floor was covered with a rug. There was no furniture, only a large stereo and a television Once again it was a strange mix of the past and present all melding together. The woman sat in front of us preparing tea, as has been the custom for thousands of years, while watching an Egyptian soap opera thanks to a satellite dish and a gas generator.

I couldn't help but to wonder what was going through her head. I imaged her thinking: "I wish he wouldn't bring his work home, not when I'm trying to watch my soap operas." Outside the room, another one of his wives was sweeping the ground with a bundle of straw while his son played in the courtyard.

After sharing tea with our host, it was time to go. We thanked his wife for the hospitality and began the long drive back to Atar. We drove for some time and then the driver began looking out the side mirror. Looking back I could see a trail of dust as another vehicle was rapidly overtaking us. Just as the vehicle began passing us, our driver sharply turned off the dirt road and began four-wheeling through the rocks and sand heading away from the road.

Neither Manuel nor I said anything but the silence spoke for itself.

Many things began going through my head. A thought like, 'Okay, is this it?' was first. Then each time the driver would look back in the mirror I would think of something else like, 'Maybe he owes someone money' or 'Well they always shoot the driver first, right?' Only problem with that one was I was sitting in the front seat.

The trail of dust on the road continued to parallel us as we bounced across the slate like rocks and dirt of the open desert.

The driver continued to look back and seemed a little nervous. Now he was just driving like crazy and getting further from the road. Then after reaching the top of a hill, we came to an abrupt stop on the edge of a cliff that was hundreds of feet to the bottom. The driver jumped out of the Jeep and climbed up on some rocks and began looking out over the cliff. Manuel and I quickly got out and still saying nothing, looked up at our driver standing on the rocks above us. The only thing going through my head now was, 'WTF?'



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