My taxi grinds to a tired halt as we arrive at the Mauritanian Embassy. I roll down the passenger window, peer my head outside, and shout to the men sipping tea by the front door. “Apply for visas here?”
“Visas done for today,” they bark. “Come back tomorrow.”
Weird, I thought. It was only 8am.
The taxi takes me back to the heart of Rabat and drops me at a cyber café. Here, I’d print documents for my Guinean visa application and make copies of my passport. I walk inside, pay the attendant, and sit down at a dusty computer terminal. I spot two other travelers seated across the room, and overhear their conversation about getting a Mauritanian visa.
I quickly get back up and walk in their direction.
“Hey all. Applying for Mauritanian visas as well?”
“Hey, yes” they reply. “We went this morning. They only give out 100 per day, so you have to arrive early. We’ll be sleeping outside the embassy tonight to make sure we get one.”
The two travelers were Miyu, a young Japanese journalist who had traveled overland to Morocco via Asia, and Daniel, a mid-thirties German guy riding his motorcycle around the world. We exchanged pleasantries and began to plan for the night ahead; blankets, cookies, and panini sandwiches were of top priority.
That evening, I met Miyu at a McDonald’s in the heart of town. Daniel had since abandoned. We quickly hailed a taxi with supplies in hand and arrived at the embassy around 10:30pm. The building was made of shoddy cement splashed with black paint, and had just two rooms.
We set up our sleeping bags a few meters from the door. There were two young Moroccans adjacent, also camping out for visas, and a lone security guard wandering about, flashlight in hand. The night was gloomy yet peaceful. We dozed off to an early sleep.
At 3:30am, the guard shakes us awake. He extends a crumpled yellow paper and asks us to sign our names. He explains that this is “the list”, and visas will be doled in corresponding order. Miyu and I sign – numbers 3 and 4 – and go back to bed.
At 5:30am we are again woken. This time, the voices are unfamiliar. We flit open our eyes to see older travelers, presumably French, conversing in handshakes and apparent friendship. They’re here for visas as well.
Miyu and I debate moving closer to the door to assert ourselves in the line, but remember our names are firmly plastered on “the list”. We relax and lie back down.
By 6:00am, the mood has changed. The newcomers start rumbling about the order of visas, many claiming that they’d been parked outside the embassy since the previous morning. A large group of Senegalese men enter as well, equally eager for visas. The apparent friendship subsides, and people start to get shove-y. The rumor of the list begins to surface. Some rush to write their names, while others bellow that it’s meaningless. The vibe is no longer gloomy and peaceful: the sun is rising, and tempers are mounting.
At 6:30am, just 30 minutes before the doors are set to open, people are angry. “Il faut respecter la liste!” (You have to respect the list!) screams half the mob. “La liste n’importe pas du tout – nous étions ici depuis hier matin!” (The list doesn’t matter at all – we’ve been here since yesterday morning!) screams the other half. The Senegalese become increasingly physical. An Italian guy steps out of nowhere and tries to assert himself as the grand peacekeeper. A pulsating mob begins to form by the front door as tempers continue to grow.
Someone throws a punch. The mob erupts. The burly Senegalese men briefly challenge the Frenchmen. Minutes later, the police arrive and start expelling people from the street: no visa for you! It was an absolute circus.
At 7:00am, the front door creaks open, and an irritated Mauritanian man steps outside. Silence falls. Miyu and I were fully immersed in the mob and just a few feet from the door.
“La liste! Apportez-moi la liste!” (Bring me the list!).
Phew. Miyu and I push our way to the front as we shout our list numbers, amble into the musty office, fork over passports and money, and exit quickly. We hitch a ride back into town, take a nap at my host’s rustic upstairs flat, and return to the embassy around 3:00pm to collect our visas. We receive them without incident.
Sometimes, travel becomes serious business. I do hope the Frenchmen didn’t cross paths with the Senegalese in the deserts of Mauritania.