Ould Babah’s three tortoises never looked happy. Day after day we walked into the locust compound in Nouakchott, Mauritania, past the little grassy area in the centre whey they resided. Usually the male had his head stuck in his burrow at one end, the two females were motionless in any shade they could find. They would chew inefficiently at some thorny scrub, or gently waddle around in the sand. One day I found one of the females crunching on the remains of a plastic football. Not finding it edible she would spit it out in front of her, look around for a few seconds, and then, as if she had forgotten all she had just done, would rediscover it anew and give it another tasting.
During occasional breaks where I had to get my eyes away from my laptop, away from the air conditioned room in which we were teaching, I would step outside and sit on the low wall next to the tortoises’ pen. I would watch there antics for a while, then look up at the clear blue sky, listen to the buzz of the occasional insect, a slight breeze rustling the bougainvillea on the trellis across the way. Then I would make my way back in. During the day, we would see very few people, the heat was too much for any activity outside, but at certain times though, they would all come out, place down a small dusty prayer mat and face Mecca to pray.
When inside our little room with flowery curtains keeping out the intense light and the air conditioning keeping ourselves and the computer cool, we saw little of the day, and we spent most of our time there, Judith and I, for the whole two weeks we stayed in Mauritania. How many times have I told people when I returned from trips that all I see is a computer screen, fluorescent lights and the occasional person. I spent most of my time developing systems, setting up computers and training people in how to use them. I was ecstatic when a trip was to be mainly meetings because it meant at least I got to drive around town in the day time, but so often the routine was the same, get up, have breakfast, drive or walk to work, work, have lunch, work again, come back, have a shower, eat and either flop on the bed or prepare for the next day. Almost all these tales of fancy I have told in this book are brief interludes, the odd weekend, an evening out, in amongst a rather humdrum existence, albeit in far flung corner of the globe.