As a kid, I used to read National Geographic magazines and dream of adventures like this.
I dreamed of seas of sand, the loud noise of the train, the cold, the wind, the scorching sun, the strange smell, the roar of the desert, all this caused discomfort. I couldn’t imagine anything more exciting than jumping on a train across the Sahara.
So when I was asked to photograph my most extreme travel experience, this is exactly what came to mind.
After weeks of planning, our trip began in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania. My brother and I then boarded the Mauritania Railway and headed north. Our perilous train journey started from the iron-mining town of Zuret in the Sahara and wound its way through the dry desert to the Atlantic port of Nouadhibou.
We were heading to the Atlantic coast of Africa in search of undiscovered surfing breaks, and caught an amazing train on the way. Minutes before boarding the midnight train, we had traveled 15 hours through the desert on a two-mile train carrying thousands of tons of iron across the country, looking for a coast; From the unknown.
From Nouakchott we head north on what can only be described as loose roads. Our curiosity leads us to some discoveries in the wilderness. First we saw the beauty of the earth. Curious wild camels on the endless sea of sand look at us treacherously. Maybe it’s just us.
The weather turns bad and snow showers start to appear in the distance. I stop to take some pictures and before we know it the wind picks up and it starts to rain. Within minutes, the wind picks up; The snow drifts and the wind is so strong that it feels like it’s going to rip my skin off.
We tied to the side of our truck and hid. When the wind dies down, we all examine the broken glass of the truck. Our back window is completely blown out and the inside is wet. Our guide, who was waiting for me in the back seat, had cuts all over his body. As the storm subsides, we begin heading north again. More caution than desert force.
We finally reached Choum, and the train would leave in the afternoon. As we sit on the dirt by the track and wait, a few families appear with their goats and baskets.
Children run around, parents cook dinner and tea over a small fire. As daylight fades and the sun dips below the horizon, we decide to try to sleep. When the train finally arrives – the screeching is heard long before it appears – it is six o’clock in the afternoon. It is past midnight.
We grip the gears and wait for the train to slow down, but it doesn’t. We raced alongside the vehicles, illuminating the ground with our headlights. We don’t know how much time we have, so we quickly pick our moment and climb up a ladder to the oar car, quickly throwing our tools and ourselves into it.
After a few minutes, the train speeds up again. We try to observe our surroundings, but instead of trying to sleep, we decide to lie down on piles of iron, clay and metal.
I wear all my clothes for the Cold War. The wind whips up mineral dust, and we wrap scarves around our heads to hold our breath. Sleep becomes difficult; Not only because of the train’s noise, but also because of its sheer scale, which often causes heavy traffic congestion or during slowdowns. He danced with filmmaker John Waters, hung with cremators in the Ganges, ate the heart of a still-beating snake in Vietnam, and veteran travel writer David Farley explained how each could have come from a fairy tale.
I once went hitchhiking with American director John Waters. As we pulled into the street from his Baltimore home, he turned to me from the front seat, smiled and nodded briskly: Oh, no interesting stuff? After all, perhaps to explain his love of boxing, he said, “I think it’s dangerous to stay home. Don’t you go out and see the world and meet new and interesting people? Now you take risks.”
I couldn’t agree more. I have done things that seem out of the ordinary like crazy. I walked to small European cities. I spent two weeks with the firefighters on the banks of the Ganges River in Varanasi, India, hoping to uncover some of the mysteries of life and death. I ate the heart of a snake that still beats in Vietnam. He went in search of various sacred objects in Italy and met some of the not-so-good Vatican officials.
I’ve submitted it under “Travel Writing,” but really, I only do it because it gets me out of the house, onto planes, and places I’ve never been. So every trip changes me. Photo: Nicola Bailey
I’m not saying anyone should jump on a plane and eat fresh snake hearts. But I encourage you to rethink your approach to travel, and perhaps step out of your comfort zone abroad – letting go of that fear of the unfamiliar and the unfamiliar can also lead to a trip that stretches across the globe.
When I teach travel writing—I taught writing at New York University for over a decade and now teach writing online—I’m not just talking about the written material. I teach my students to come back with a good story. As a travel writer, I teach them how to travel.
My lesson is this: do your homework
I usually read history books, academic books, guidebooks, travel stories before pursuing a career in travel writing. This gives you in-depth knowledge and a deep understanding of your destination before you step off the plane. Kindness is a virtue, but so is wisdom and discernment to have a solid foundation of knowledge before you set foot.
Before I went to the Vojvodina region in Serbia to hear the news, I watched a BBC documentary about the collapse of Yugoslavia for five hours to add to the history books I had read about the Balkans, and when I met people on this trip, it gave me away. They have the opportunity to ask for more information and research.