“…he felt at home in Africa as food was scarce there too and everyone was also barefoot"
Nouakchott is the capital and largest city of the west African country of Mauritania. It lies on the border of the great Sahara desert. Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish writer and journalist is sitting on a stone at the edge of the Ouadane oasis, northeast of Nouakchott. He sees two glaring lights off in the distance. They appear to be moving around quite a bit. They draw closer.
I am learning about Mauritania. I am entranced by the names—Nouakchott, Ouadane, Ryszard Kapuscinski. Can you pronounced those words or know much about them? I am reading “The Truck: Hitchhiking Through Hell” Kapuscinski’s 1999 New Yorker “Letter from Mauritania.” He is describing a journey he took across the Sahara.
After a day of blistering hot heat, it suddenly becomes bitter cold. A few men sitting nearby wrap themselves in blankets. The lights draw closer. Eventually he sees that it is enormous French built truck--there are no roads; cars cannot manage the sandy, pitted, dunes of the Sahara. The driver motions Kapuscinski over, so he climbs high up into the cab.
They drive away, try to speak to one another, meanwhile Kapuscinski has no idea where they are going, although he hopes they are headed for Nouakchott. Have you ever wanted to trek across the Sahara? I doubt I could survive such an adventure. Instead, I will read Kapuscinski’s essay.
They drive on across the pitted, sandy dunes, trying desperately to avoid getting stuck. All Kapusciniski sees is the desert, dark stones scattered about. It must be like the moon. He falls into a deep sleep from which he is awakened by a sudden silence. The truck has stopped, the engine is dead, they are stuck.
He realizes he is thirsty, looks around the cab for some water, sees nothing. He begins to calculate. “Without water, you can survive in the desert for twenty-four hours; with great difficulty, for forty-eight or so. The math is simple. Under these conditions, you secrete in one day approximately ten litres of sweat, and to survive you must drink a similar amount of water.”
He gets out of the cab, looks around and sees underneath the truck bed four goatskins that are used to store water. He sighs with relief but only for a moment as he realizes they will empty quickly once the two of them begin drinking.
“The sun was climbing higher. The desert, that motionless, petrified ocean, absorbed its rays, grew hotter and began to burn. The Yoruba are said to believe that if a man’s shadow abandons him he will die.”
As the afternoon hours begin, the two of them spend the rest of the day lying underneath the truck. They drink from the second goatskin and quickly empty it. Two remain.
And once again he sees off in the distance two glaring lights that are far away but moving about wildly. The sound of a motor draws closer, he hears voices in a language he does not understand. Several dark faces, resembling the driver’s peer underneath the truck.
I read Kapuscinski’s essay in Great Adventures, a collection New Yorker travel journeys and short recollections drawn from its archives that is only available as an iPad app. They include pieces by H. L. Mencken (Spain), E. B White (Alaska), Susan Orlean (Bhutan), Peter Matthiessen (Peru), etc.
Evan Osnos’s account of a group of travelers from China taking a Grand Tour of Europe amused me the most. The tourists spend a great deal of time shopping and less touring. But in Florence the relationship is reversed. And when it came time to leave, Osnos describes a sentiment many departing travelers to this city have felt.
“The tour group enjoyed the city [Florence] so much there was a mini-mutiny when the bus prepared for departure.”