A country twice the size of France with a population of just over three million, Mauritania is a nomad’s paradise. The open spaces, rolling dunes and starry nights can give even the most rooted of homebodies an itching to wander. Finding the means to wander in Mauritania, however, is no easy feat. With virtually no domestic air options, limited bus services, and fewer than three thousand kilometers of paved roads, everyone inevitably travels by taxi brousse, or “bush taxi”, to get around.
Although decrepit, uncomfortable and overcrowded, bush taxis can offer you a unique opportunity to mix with ordinary Mauritanians on the road. With the help of some basic guidelines, your dusty drive through the Sahel could be a bearable, even enjoyable experience.
Arrival and Negotiation
Major cities/towns in Mauritania will have designated “garages” from which bush taxis depart. No matter where you are traveling, it is essential that you inquire about your trip price prior to arriving at the garage – once you’re there, you’re unlikely to get an honest answer. Upon arrival, you will be swarmed by aggressive middle-men whose job is to escort you to the regional bush taxis they represent (even if the cars are less than ten meters away). Confidence is key here – act like you know what you’re doing and stick to the price you’ve been told prior to arriving. Above all, remain calm. They will likely grab your arms to lead you to various cars and attempt to overcharge you.
Finding a Seat
Once you and the middle-man agree on the price, you will need to negotiate your seat. This will likely be an informal arrangement between you, the middle-man, and the other passengers. If seats are still available and you can afford it, you have the option to buy multiple seats to increase your legroom and overall breathing space. Be warned though – the expiration date for this type of purchase can vary. Most drivers, though not all, will repeatedly attempt to fill your vacant space with additional passengers once you’ve crossed the halfway point to your destination. Depending on the loyalty you’ve earned from the other passengers up to that point, your success convincing the driver otherwise may be limited.
Should you be on a tight budget, not want to buy out other passengers, or simply prefer to pay the standard one-seat rate, you will need to consider several important factors before making a decision. First you need to decide the obvious: front or back seat. While most people naturally prefer the front, most people don’t realize that the front seat in Mauritania is actually two seats. Even Mauritanians admit that the worst spot in a taxi is the inside front seat. Why? Consider these factors: your seat cushion is half seatbelt buckle and half console, your head will rub on the roof as a result of your elevated position, you will be forced to dodge the stick-shift the entire trip, you will anger the driver when you don’t dodge the stick-shift, and you won’t have a seatbelt in a country where collisions with camels, goats, and other vehicles are common as a result of cracked windshields, missing mirrors, broken headlights, and sleepy drivers, not to mention poor road conditions and nonexistent traffic regulations. This is assuming there is even a seatbelt available in the first place, which is unlikely (but more likely in the front than the back).
If you are leaning toward a back seat, you will have an entirely different set of factors to consider. For example, what time of day will you be traveling and in which direction? This simple analysis will help determine if you should choose driver side or passenger side seating. With daily temperatures well over one hundred degrees Fahrenheit outside the vehicle, interior temperatures can quickly become unbearable, especially when there are four or more passengers wedged into three seats. Wise travelers will avoid sitting in the sun.
You should also consider the windows. While some bush taxis won’t have functional windows at all, those that do will likely have a communal window “handle” that can be passed between passengers to roll their respective windows up or down. When considering window use, ignore your common sense, as your common sense simply won’t take local factors into consideration. Mauritanian wind, for example, is not the refreshing breeze you may encounter in other parts of the world. Mauritanian wind is as refreshing as a high-powered blow dryer that is clogged with dust and sand. Prolonged exposure can result in dry, parched skin or flaky, chapped lips. Sit on the sunny side, and you can add sunburn to your list of bush taxi symptoms. Sit on the driver side, and you are likely to receive a light misting every half hour when the driver inevitably spits. (Be especially cautious on the driver side after meals and tea breaks – he will brush his teeth with a frayed twig and could pepper your face with discarded chunks.) Lastly, take note of your rooftop cargo. Goats, like humans, occasionally need to relieve themselves during long road trips. If goats are strapped to the roof, avoid the windows.
As soon as all seats have been sold (a process that can take hours), passengers will enter the vehicle and settle in for the trip. Pay careful attention to your initial seat position – this could be your static posture for over an hour. Although passengers in the back will often alternate between fore and aft shoulder positions to create more space, the timing of this informal rotation plan can vary. And if you are a male seated next to a Mauritanian female, prepare for an awkward ride. Contact between unrelated, unmarried Mauritanian males and females is forbidden enough as it is. Place a male foreigner or non-Muslim next to a Mauritanian female and the consequences could be as simple as repeatedly scooting over to as outrageous as having a giant sheet of paper placed between the two of you for the duration of the ride.
Fortunately, stops will be more frequent than you think. Prayer calls and checkpoints will merit a stop every few hours, while tea breaks will supplement your trip with fascinating displays of the driver’s ingenuity. Most drivers will have an all-inclusive tea set wedged in the trunk, gas tank and carrying case included, and will occasionally pull over and set up shop in some shady sand for all to enjoy. Others in a rush may brew and mix the tea on the go, a truly incredible feat given that this involves repeatedly pouring steaming hot liquid from one shot glass-sized cup to another. Taxi teamwork is quickly built in these situations as a result – whoever is sitting inside shotgun will have to hold the steering wheel steady.
Bush taxis in Mauritania are the epitome of paradox: belated yet reliable, monotonous yet unique, frustrating yet rewarding. It is certainly not a glamorous mode of travel – you may find yourself pushing the car after each stop while the driver starts the ignition, pulling on several pieces of grimy string to open the door, or sitting beneath a stack of goods and livestock that is taller than the vehicle itself while listening to distorted cassettes of Koranic verse for hours on end. However, the experience will introduce you to a perspective, people and culture that you would completely miss while zipping down the highway in an air-conditioned 4x4. Mauritania has a lot of things to offer, but luxury is not one of them. Aspiring nomads should take note.