“Not to be confused with Mauritius,” is the first line of the Wiki definition of Mauritania. Although both are former French colonies, you certainly would be in for something of a surprise if you’d intended to go on holiday to the island home of the Dodo bird, and ended up in this Islamic Republic on the Western coast of North Africa.
The Muezzin has woken me at 4am, an hour before I would usually rise. I stand at the window enjoying the cool desert breeze as the sun rises red across the low, flat roofed buildings, wondering how I can get some training in during the week that I’m in the capital, Nouakchott.
It won’t be easy. I can’t run for security reasons – the surrounding desert is closed off because of the recent violence in neighbouring Mali. Cycling would fall into the same category – if there were bicycles. After 24 hours I’ve seen only one heavy delivery trike that would challenge even my buddy Wayne’s impressive Argus-hardened quads. Water is piped from the Senegal River so pools are small luxuries preserved for the few wealthy – swimming lengths is not going to happen either.
Travelling to out of the way, sometimes awkward, places is one of the adventurous benefits of my work. As I go around, I try to explore new versions of exercise. There’s always a soccer game willing to include one clumsy cousin from down South, but there are also other, unusual, ways to train.
While I wonder what sweaty surprises, this new place might have in store, I shift some furniture to make space for my yoga routine. With the call to prayer singing over the squat buildings, and in the glow of the waking day, my sun salutation feels fitting. As my muscles stretch out, my skin sweats onto the expensive Italian tiles, and my spirit breathes.
This is a difficult place. It is poor enough for a church mouse to turn its nose up and move on. The heat can be cruel, and basic infrastructure is not conducive to development. Slavery was legally abolished in 1981, and it only became a crime to own slaves as recently as 2007. With the last coup d’état in 2008, the country has one of the lowest GDPs in Africa despite its wealth of natural resources.
So with all of these obstacles, how is it that these people who struggle to keep basic needs in check, and have few prospects, are friendly, warm and open – even to this stranger who is like a sore thumb, and speaks neither French nor Arabic? The answer is that they try.
And here I am in my air-conditioned apartment, sweating on imported flooring having my middle-class crisis of where to exercise. Shame on me: I’ve lost perspective. So much of my life, including multisport, is a blessing that I need to appreciate a whole lot more carefully.
That same evening, the team hosting me has arranged dinner on the beach. A tent has been set up next to the gentle ocean where the city ends and the desert begins. When the vehicles arrive to collect us, one of my local colleagues, Ahmedou, presents me with a grand boubou, the flowing wide-sleeved robes worn by men in much of West and parts of North Africa. Feeling like a kid who can’t tie his own shoes, I watch as he helps me into the pair of tie-up trousers, matching shirt and wide, open-stitched sleeveless gown worn over the top. When he’s finished, I’m colour co-ordinated in baby blue and shiny enough to make any cyclist proud.
That, Dear Reader, is how I discovered the multisport of Mauritania: keeping your boubou in order. If you think that cycling kit, spare tyres, water bottles, road running shoes, trail shoes, Vibram FiveFingers, swimming cap and goggles, towels and four gym bags were a challenge to organise, just you try a grand boubou.
The thing is massive and it folds multiple. Keeping its complexity in place takes every muscle I have and tendons I don’t. It can also be wrapped differently to protect you from the sun in the day, keep warm at night, attend a formal event and chill out on the carpet. Most important is to keep it controlled enough not to get blown away, while allowing for air circulation to keep you cool. For this a round stomach helps a lot, Abba explains. Mohammed adds that it can be used as bedding at night and I can well believe it. There’s easily enough fabric for an extra-length king size Sealy.
If the Jamaican bobsled team made their name at the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988, Sochi 2014 better watch out. Mark my words, pawn your gran and put your money on it – the Mauritanian boubou dressage team is going to make a BIG impression.
This article was originally published in the July/August 2013 issue.