An important man - he was travelling in a camper van from Turin to Burkino Faso when I met him for the first time in the village of Chinguetti. He came into our campsite in the morning to fill his plastic containers with water and while he waited for the spray from the tap to come up to the mark, he peered in under our tent, nodded slowly and crouched down in the sand for a chat.
He wore cheap blue flip flops, a dirty white t-shirt and an oily pair of jeans. His body - brown and knotted like an oak tree - gave the impression of a worn life blessed with infinite good health. But it was the rings around his eyes that set him apart from everyone else. When he laughed they merged in shining orbits that circled around the quiet words of his Italian-French hybrid that was more Italian than French. His voice rose over the hiss of the water and from our view inside the tent he was framed by a blast of white sunlight.
Giovanni's presence in the morning came to be like the visit of a favourite uncle. You felt good when he was around. He always told good stories and Chinguetti was certainly the place for listening to stories. There was little else to do in the heat. The sun was tethered over the village like a withered old god that had been banished to the desert after committing some unspeakable heresy. It wandered back and forth, mumbling with rage, while the Muslim goats ambled through the bright alleys.
The old town had capsized under the approaching dunes some twenty years ago and now sand was beginning to spill over the walls of the new village. The lanes between the houses were soft underfoot and time was marked by a slow breeze or a crow eating rubbish in the skip beyond the last house.
Giovanni turned off the tap and came back to tell us more about his trip south. His thoughts turned like a mossy millwheel dripping with water and there was ample room between his words for the shade of every Italian sunset since the fall of Rome. He talked about border check points and the Touareg, about afternoons in the embassies and the rough track from Dahkla to Nouadhibou.
An outline of his life began to emerge from the glare of the desert. He was forty-seven years old, a trucker by profession but he spent about six months of every year travelling through the cheaper countries of the world. His wife travelled with him but she, as he said, had simple needs. He knew the countries of West Africa reasonably well, and more importantly for us, he knew the people better than anyone else.
"Mucho, mucho problemo," he said, talking about the Dahkla run. "Fortissimo avec dinario," he rolled his fingers over the imaginary money and the lines around his eyes sank into their owl wise orbits. "Comprendez, comprendez," he smiled.
We passed the days lying on mattresses under the patchwork quilt of the tent drinking mint tea and thinking about going for a walk. I had lost five hundred euro in the capital about a week before so I was doing as much as I could to avoid talking to anyone.
There were just two others staying at Camping Zarga at the time - a twenty-two year French boy who had driven his car from Lyons to Nouakchott where he sold it for the price of a plane ticket home, and a French-Canadian who had come from Timbukto.
Abdul was the owner of the place which was not so much a campsite as his house together with two communal tents, a dark and dripping outhouse with a hole into the desert sand, a rusting pipe for a shower and two small rooms with mud floors for the more luxury conscious tourist. It was a pretty place; a thorny shrub with blue flowers rose from the sand and the flaking door opened onto the desert. After breakfast we would climb onto the flat roof and squint out over the village that was already shimmering in the heat - the yellow houses floated on waves of sand, and the walls of the village were barely distinguishable from the surrounding desert. Back yards were filled with metal drums, stones, goats, scraps of wood and occasional stunted trees that gave precious shade to both people and animals. Donkeys hobbled slowly through the alleys and the mosque was the only building that rose above the flat roofs. Beyond the rubbish heap at the edge of the village an ocean of dunes rose and fell with the tide of the sun.
Abdul loved Chinguetti. He had grown up here and he had no intention of leaving. He passed his days lying in the shade, smoking rollies and sitting on the unfinished wall of the small extension he was building. Black men stripped to the waist pulled wheel barrows through the burning sand behind them.
He was a wise but honest business man. Young and capable, he made a good living from the passing tourists. He said that he went to the town of Atar once but the cars and the noise made him so nervous that he returned to Chinguetti as quickly as he could and vowed never to leave again unless he absolutely had to. Occasionally he would go on a week long camel trek to Ouadane but he would camp at the edge of town and wait there while the tourists did their sightseeing.
He was happy in his village and he looked it. One night he brought his new wife and his sister into our tent to eat with us. They giggled in the candle light and Abdul kept saying "jolie, oui, elle est très jolie." He informed us proudly that a honeymoon lasts two years in Mauritania. She was a pretty seventeen-year-old Touareg girl and she had moved into the village to live with Abdul after spending her entire life up to that point wandering the desert with her family.
It was into this village that Giovanni drove his trusty old camper van one morning. He found a shady spot by Abdulís wall and paid him in advance for a safe site and the use of his tap. Giovanni never travelled any further than one hundred miles a day so it had taken him a day and a half to get there from Atar. Any faster and his engine would break down.
Police and permits, embassies and bribes, currencies and exchange rates - these were the common conversations among the Europeans in Mauritania. We talked about these things instead of the weather, because the weather never changed. But price hovered over every conversation; the price of food and water, visas, four by fours, camels, and most importantly, bribes. "Tout est cher en Mauritania" was the common refrain. Seemingly it was the most expensive of the dirt-cheap African countries where a decent meal could set you back four euro. Everybody shook their head in despair at the thought of it. And once the prices were out of the way there was the usual run down on all the other countries - Mali, Senegal, Gambia, French Guinea, Guinea Bissau. What were once exotic names became familiar neighbours, just as watching the eight o'clock news in a kitchen in Nouadhibou with the news caster sitting in front of a tacky map of Africa detailing the latest border skirmishes was no longer a novelty but a way of life.
Giovanni slipped into the weave of Africa without anyone noticing. The rest of us were bad stitches that ruined the pattern but he was born with the dust of the continent in his veins. The locals could see it and they treated him appropriately. He knew how the place worked, he knew how the bastards at the border operated and it didn't bother him. If it was any other way, he seemed to say, I would not love it. The hard spiritualist of the trucking world, he hated any talk that was not oiled with the grit of everyday living. And although he spoke very little French only a blind man could not understand him. His body and his words were all the one meaning. Devoid of worry, his immediate concerns were water, pasta and fixing the engine. Europe was far away.
And I came to understand why everyone loved listening to him. It was because he spoke in time with his breath. Each sentence finished at the end of an exhalation and there was a pause for air before he started the next one. The rhythm was hypnotic and it worked well in the sun. We knew he was the only traveller in Mauritania.
A week later I met him in Atar, in the Bab Sahara campsite. He was plodding across the sand in his blue flip-flops when I called out to him. His old camper van was parked in the distance by the side of a hut.
I told him where the rest of the boys had gone and he nodded, giving his blessing to their journeys. Then there was a pause. I looked at him awkwardly thinking he wanted to get away but he spoke after a moment telling me about the return trip over the mountain pass and the check points along the way. There was another silence. It was then that I realised that he was not waiting to get away. He was just moving in his own time. I eased into the silence and we chatted for a half an hour. The words came slowly but they were what we wanted to say.
I was still burning after my set back in the capital so I seized the chance to get the opinion of an expert. He listened like a priest taking confession and when I was finished he began his benediction with a rambling description of Africa and his impressions after his first arrival. "When you get here first," he said, "you do nothing, you do nothing for two, three days. You watch them. You watch how they talk, how they shout, how they buy and sell. You do nothing but watch them. Buy only small things and maybe after two, three days you can start slowly. But they know if it is your first time. All they see on your forehead is banco." It was a relief to hear him talk, he said all the things that I had wanted to hear since I arrived. He explained the way it worked in Mauritania, the way the minds clicked over European faces, the way the price was calculated according to how new you were to the country. Every word was a relief and the loss began to seem insignificant. It didnít matter at all.
He had come across so many people in Africa that he knew what each one wanted and what price he had to pay for a quiet passage. He must have driven every road in Italy in his lifetime and in those endless hours a hard lonely wisdom had gotten into his soul where it mixed with the lead from the petrol stations and the garlic of the pasta sauce that he made every night. He hunched down on his feet as I had seen him do in Chinguetti and he worked out the details of the deal I had made in Nouadhibou. He wrote out the figures in the sand like a Greek philosopher, rubbing out some, adding others, subtracting and dividing, until he was satisfied that he knew the sums. He shook his head. They did not add up and he showed me the correct price. He knew the value of money in Africa - he always paid just a little over the local price which was a good deal better than what any of the rest of us ever got. And having said that, it was obvious that he was not miserly, it was just that he didn't have much money and he wanted to get as far as he could with what little he had. But it was not just his figures that made me forget everything; it was his ease with the day, with the people, with the sun. He went about everything so slowly and thoughtfully that it was impossible for him to be conned. "It always happens here, it is normal," he said, "donít worry about it, it happened to me the first time I was here. It is not Europe."
Money is scarce in West Africa and anyone who canít hold onto their purse doesn't deserve to have it. He accepted this without judgement and stood amongst the hustlers and the hawks as if he had been born there. He was always himself. He was never anything other than himself.
After we had finished writing in the sand we stood up and looked at each other as if to say, now we know the measure of each other. We said goodbye.
I went to lie down. It was getting dark now and the tent was cool and quiet. As my eyes were closing he poked his head in through the side and said grinning "mangez, mangez, ce soir, dans ma voiture" putting his hand to his mouth in a gesture of eating. I nodded. "Come to the van in about fifteen, ummm, twenty minutes," he said before disappearing. When I closed my eyes again I was finished with bad luck. I was happy that everything had happened the way it had. Somehow I felt that I was home after receiving this gift.
I went to his van in darkness and found him hunched over a tiny little table, a sharp knife in his big fat hands, cutting pieces of garlic into fine slivers with great skill. He looked like a giant ogre stuffed into a doll's kitchen. It was a comical sight. He said he never let his wife cook. She did the washing up and the cleaning. He did the cooking.
The sauce bubbled on the hob and when he thought it was ready he called to his wife who was putting up clothes on the line outside. She stepped into the van - a small neat bundle of a woman, she wore simple clothes and her eyes were much younger than her body. Neither of them seemed to be any age worth mentioning.
We had a fine meal of pasta and wine that night. They told me about their trips through Eastern Europe both before and after the fall of communism and he talked about the price of food. "I am Italian," he said, "I eat this pasta everyday, but people do not understand, it is not for the taste but for the..." he patted his proud belly. His wife was as lucid as glass and as simple as an eclipse. There was no other woman you could imagine him with. Together they ate well and travelled well. They had dissected every country in Eastern Europe and West Africa and had made many friends along the way. They mentioned a few, and they all seemed to be from small unknown towns that I had never heard of. It made sense. They lived beyond important people and important places and every supper they ate was a last supper. They passed quickly through cities.
With wine I asked him about Islam but now I saw that he did not agree with my talk. Too much abstraction, too much vagueness. People are meat and flesh and philosophies and theories are only for those who donít have to go to the market and haggle over the price of bread. He was right, it was not solid ground. Everything he said was hard fact mixed with the Italian mysticism of siesta and sleep.
I was sad to leave him that night. "Ahh, Irlandais," he said nodding when we first met. That was what started him off in Chinguetti and now I was asking him for his address in Italy. I wrote mine in a swaying hand, a little drunk, a little sad and a little delirious that it was all over. We said goodbye for the second time. He was leaving early the next morning.
Giovanni Ferri - an important man, that is all I can say - blessings.