Dawn. Boxing Day. Nouadibou, Mauritania, after the worst Christmas Day on the Morocco Mauritania border. No family, no friends, no food, a little water, not a tinsel or coloured light to be seen, no telly, no games, no alcohol and not a wrapped present awaiting.
I spent the day explaining Betsy’s drastic situation to officials: why I had no engine, why Betsy had to be carried to the border on the back of another truck, why I was alone.
When I got to the Mauritanian customs I skipped losing my mechanic, losing my driver, the tons of metal I had left behind in Ceuta after 2 weeks of deliberation, the changing of Betsy’s “military aspect” into a hippy wagon, the cost of these trucks transport and the refugees project ahead. So I kept it to the past few days of this inadvertently epic journey.
I skipped also how en route to Marrakech Betsy began her farting again which I had a Marrakech professional look into and then en route to Agadir a piston blew on me near a lovely lake and how Mocktar my Moroccan guide and his cousin Abdullai came to the rescue and before I knew it I was sailing across the a Sahara on the back of a breakdown truck.
I jumped forwards to the present and how I had solutions to be towed to Bamako if only the custom’s chief would give me the normal tourist “laisser passer” which allows me to pass through the country rather than the normal lorry escort he was threatening to the Mali border. I even plunged into the whole refugee project ahead – something I have always kept quiet on official business as its amazing how much suspicion one arouses mentioning refugees – in an attempt to emotionally blackmail him.
Despite the custom’s chief’s kindly face all was to no avail. My only options were:
– put my truck onto another (towing not possible) and be escorted with all the freight lorries to the border, paying for the escort and of course my carriage. Arguing that Betsy is not exactly a lorry lorry, I have no merchandise, I am using her as a camping vehicle essentially, she is 57 years old….did not wash.
– leave her at the border get my parts and return to repair here and drive her through Mauritania.
In that barren, sandy wasteland, the light went out on my journey, and like that crunching metalic thud that shuddered my hopes when the piston blew near Agadir, or the moment George announced he couldn’t be a driver, or when I lost Joe the mechanic and when the Moroccan customs couldn’t see beyond Betsy’s “military aspect”, I knew I was fucked. But this time – perhaps out of exhaustion, perhaps because this journey has broken me financially, and certainly because I realised that even if I passed this hurdle, I no longer had the resources personally and financially to climb anymore mountains – I could spy no chink of light.
So I packed up my personal things with my friend and guide Cheick and left Betsy at the border to go into Nouadibou wash, eat, drink, sleep. Cheick took me back to his family home. They fed me and watered me like one would a camel after a long caravan.
I wasn’t able to stay at Cheick’s house. New security measures – all “tourists” (euphemism for white people) have to stay in hotels “for their security”. Don’t you love it! If I was looking for a tourist to kidnap, was I more likely to find my prey in a hotel or by searching all the houses of Nouadibou? But logic doesn’t work with security measures – the world over in my view, not just in Africa. It is just important to have rules, to have put in a measure, reacted. If someone tries to blow up a plane with a shoe bomb but they fail miserably, rather than laughing at their craziness we check everyone’s shoes when they get on a plane forever more. Thankfully the underpants bomber did not have the same effect – decorum bing more important than security I assume. But I’m drifting…!
So here I am, Christmas night, the only guest at Ali’s campement, everything seems to be over, the whole refugee return project hanging on a thread. As I lie down to sleep I have no new ideas other than turning up at the camps with a landcruiser and driving Radwan home and then relaying his family back to him and leaving it at that. I can still make a little effort, but its not going to be the caravan.
What a Christmas.
Dawn has come, the sun is out – at least its warm here! – and something is bubbling away inside my head.
If this journey has been trying to tell me something perhaps it is that these trucks are not my answer. They are a hinderance, a burden and I possibly should have been bold in Ceuta having lost Joe and done something that was fluttering in my head all the time: go it alone.
And if this campaign, 7 months in the making, has indicated one thing it is that I am best alone: whenever I have sought outside help I have been thwarted, cornered, delayed, frustrated and betrayed by others’ interests.
I have to work this out now from within the refugee community.
Perhaps now I need, perhaps, to start shouting loud. I’ve been too cautious. Now I must just be bold, say it as it is and use my trump card.
I can’t say too much about this for fear of scaring it off. It’s an ace card, someone who has it in their power to enable me to help the refugees. If I play it I have to be sure, I have to play it well.
Full speed to Bamako without the burden of vehicles, travelling as I like it: alone, on foot with my resources in my head and in my bag.
Boxing day I returned with Cheik to the border to decide what to do with Betsy. Either I give up now, and take her back across the Mauritanian border into “no man’s land”, a 5km chunk of mined desert between Morocco and Mauritania, a place littered with the carcasses of cars and trucks, where deals are done on vehicles between borders. There I’d park her up and Cheik would come each day, as he does anyway to help tourists through the borders and hope to find guiding business, and slowly he’d sell off Betsy’s parts or sell her whole.
Or I leave Betsy with customs at a charge while I go off and find her parts, do my business, come back and repair her. This would involve more spending on a truck that had lost its purpose. If I left her with the customs and didn’t return they’d sell her off themselves. I’d prefer Cheik to gain something. So caught between customs and no man’s land!
Cheick wanted me to make my decision but I felt I had to give the chief of customs one last go. Cheick said it would be impossible, no way would they give me a laisser passer because they knew I’d get Betsy towed. I was going to go for all or nothing. I wanted the laisser passer, because I knew I had the big man Oulibou waiting in Nouackchott and he owed me cash. He had already told me he had a truck that he was trying to sell and if he couldn’t he would take it to Bamako and could tow me.
So the only solutions that suited me were leaving the truck for the wolves in no man’s land and forgetting it, or towing it to Bamako with Oulibou. The latter demanded a laisser passer.
The chief has a kindly face and I felt there was sympathy yesterday. When I braved to tell him about the refugees his response was “you should help those in Mauritania too.” I jumped on that: “I am. Many of those in Burkina have relatives in the Mauritania camps”.
I explained to the chief that I’d tried to look for a breakdown truck to put Betsy on but not found anything (a wee lie, Cheick had told me they don’t have them in Nouadibou). I told him about my solution for towing all the way to the Mali border so if I could just get a laisser passer I could resolve my situation. If not, then I will have lost everything.
He interrupted: “I’ll come and see the vehicle”. My heart jumped, this was the opening I was looking for.
I waited and waited, hardly daring to hope. Eventually he came while I was scoffing a sandwich “No – continue eating” he said as I put my food aside “no, no not at all” I replied. He took a brief glance at the truck and turned back to his office.
About an hour or so later Cheick came back to me: “he’s giving you a laisser passer!”
Oh my God. Last night it was all over, I was resolved to going on alone by foot, and almost looking forward to it, but the loss of Betsy was hard to take. Suddenly its all back on. All I need to do is get her to Bamako. From there I have her forever. Now I just need to find a tow to Nouackchott!
Not sure I can cope with much more of this see-saw ride. What more is ahead?