Editor’s note: This column is the first of a travelogue series outlining columnist Andrew Parrott’s circuitous road to residence in Fat City, and beyond.
Today is Sept. 24, 2006, and it is the first day of Ramadan. My back is glued to the torn upholstery of a Peugeot 305 as 35-degree-Celsius sun cooks our car as it rockets across the world’s largest hot desert (Antarctica holds the technical first-place distinction) like an egg skittering across a greased pan. I am chain-smoking Marlboros and listening to French rap, despite being a non-smoker and speaking only un peu français. For that matter, I am inadvertently observing Ramadan, have only a few euros to my name in a country that has no banking system or means for foreigners to access funds, and am traveling with two men whose language I do not speak and whom I met yesterday.
The cumulative effects of perspiration and G-force plaster my back to the seat as we hurtle across the sandblasted landscape of Mauritania. Hugo and Frederique, my French travel companions, have just suggested that we go swimming to counterbalance the ill effects of 110-degree heat in a country with few convenience stores — or establishments of any kind of that matter — over the next 1,000 kilometers we are crossing en route to the capital city of Nouakchott.
Part of the initial reason I “agreed” to this idea is the fact that despite a year of French at university and successful completion of an exam that labels me “proficient” (I loosely translated three pages of sociological studies on felines using a French-English dictionary and a working knowledge of cognates in a three-hour period), my command of the language is limited at best.
The French examination was meant to satisfy the language requirement for the graduate program I had been accepted into so that I could study developing nations and seek prestigious and gainful employment as a human intelligence collector (HUMINT) with the CIA or NSA. Any official-sounding and fear-inspiring acronym would have done, really. As it were, a chance bout of compulsive honesty on an application form and recent efforts to practice being a secret agent in pressure situations by constructing bongs out of soda cans evidently rendered me more qualified to live with the people in developing nations than to be part of the lucid, drug-free elite that oppresses and monitors them.
The point is that my defense for the following actions is ignorance. Hugo suddenly slammed on the brakes and swung the car off the road and sharply to the right, angled west towards the ocean. Frederique flailed his arms in a windmilling motion in a futile attempt at communication with me via charades, stripped to his underwear, and began gingerly stepping across a 100-meter patch of desert. There was absolutely nothing in sight except sand and sea — no clearly identifiable road, no houses, no huts, no shelters, no animals … nothing except for three Caucasian intruders on their own private beach under a scorching September sun on the first day of Ramadan 2006.
It has been my experience that anything wonderful and private comes at a steep cost of some sort, so I was rather surprised to find myself pleasantly alone. I kicked at seashells, trotted along the coastline and felt the waves crash and spray up my legs; I felt my toes sink into the squishy mud and occasionally cursed the jagged seashell my bare foot landed upon, only to be appreciative of the pain that had pinched me and brought me back to the present moment. To the here and now, where I was watching the ocean blend into the sky while the sun baked my body and all I owned in this life was a backpack and three pairs of clothes. And I felt simple and perfect. I felt as if I was entering this world at the dawn of time — all around me, everything was purely elemental. Sea. Sky. Sun. Blue sea. Blue sky. Brown sand. Hot sun. Me. There is no need for polysyllabic words or complex sentence structures to describe that moment: The hot sun in the blue sky baked the brown land that met the blue sea that met the sky that met the sun, and I was somewhere in the middle of all space.
In that moment, my world was infinite.
In the very next moment, my world was exactly the size of one footstep.
Frederique shouted in broken English, “Careful, bombs!” Super. While I was busy studying for my French proficiency exam, I must have overlooked the historical facts surrounding the countries to which I had traveled: Mauritania and Western Sahara have a rich and violent history of armed conflict and territorial disputes. Due to these conflicts, makeshift landmines have been planted all across the desert we are now crossing. A single “road” (the one we swerved off of for a fun day at the beach) is the only guaranteed route of safe passage. Occasionally, makeshift towers of rocks piled on top of each other designate a landmine. Occasionally, fools wandering across the desert lose limbs or their lives.
I graciously let Hugo and Frederique lead the way back to the car, following exactly in their footsteps. As Hugo puts the car in reverse and begins backing onto the road, Frederique turns around and animatedly yells “BOOM!” I begin to alternately cry and soil myself. For the next six hours, the heat beats down on us, the car rockets onward, and the three of us listen to French rap and chain smoke Marlboros with the occasionally conspiratorial giggles, nervous twitches, and “What the hell was I thinking?” moments of silent reflection shared by those who have just done something incredibly fun and incredibly stupid and suffered no ill effects. Seeing how it was Day One of Ramadan and my nation of origin approaches religion as a regional rather than universal phenomenon, I said a prayer of thanks to Allah, as I figured I was on his turf.
Why was I in Mauritania in the first place? The short answer is that I came to Mauritania to catch a train and ride atop piles of iron ore as they rumbled across the Sahara. Whenever I give the short answer, however, it just seems to raise more questions.
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