Monday, July 9, 2007

Last Train to Nowhere

Mauritania is renowned for its extreme heat, sprawling geography of sand, and utter desolation. The three qualities are at their most inescapable as you ride atop the iron ore train that rumbles from the depths of the country's interior to the coastal town of Nouadhibou.

The train is a modern-day version of a Saharan caravan; at each stop, its ore-filled cars are assaulted by travelers too poor to afford the cost of more sensible forms of transport. No one pays them any mind as they leap aboard, tucking themselves into corners of the cars with their baggage and livestock, braving hours beneath the sun and extreme desert temperatures in order to peddle their wears on the coast. The train is only another example of how a project ostensibly dedicated to the extraction of natural resources simultaneously sustains a small shadow economy of merchants and their families.

I'll never forget the night my friends and I spent on top of the train, riding it fourteen hours to the coast. Huddled beneath a UNHCR blanket, pressed tight to each other for warmth. I passed the hours tracking the constellations moving in a slow arc across the sky. The Saharan winds incessantly tousled the frayed edges of my turban, and I was forever readjusting it. The chunks of iron ore dug into my back while the train tossed and buckled under its heavy load; at any moment, it seemed, the cars would overturn, the train derail, and that would be the end of our Saharan adventure. Of course it didn't.

Why the sudden nostalgia more than a year later? Ton Oncle clued me in to a New York Times article about the iron ore train, its perilous voyage, and the unique assortment of characters that rely on this unlikely lifeline. The article is short, but certainly worth reading. Check it out here.

Watch the train passing in all its glory (it's purportedly the longest in the world):

1 comment:

Brian said...

Very unique country. One of the kids I coach in soccer, his sister just left for the PC there. Better her than me, I suppose.