Nouakchott, Mauritania, October 22, 2007

Trip Start Sep 19, 2007
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Trip End Jan 05, 2008


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Where I stayed
Auberge Menata

Flag of Mauritania  ,
Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Nouakchott is the capital of Mauritania and not one of the world's more inspiring capitals, so I was pleased that we spent only a half day in the city on each of our two passes through the city.  Nouakchott has about a million people, roughly one third of Mauritania's sparse population and is said to be the largest city truly in the Sahara Desert.  It's a sprawling lowrise place with a few taller government ministries and hotels but little else to suggest it's a capital city.  It's laid out in a grid pattern with wide streets named after famous people (John F. Kennedy, Nelson Mandela, General DeGaulle), but with paved streets mostly covered in a thick layer of sand, the city and desert meld together rather well; although only a few miles from the Atlantic, Nouakchott is much more of a desert than a coastal city.  Perhaps it's just especially visible because of the lack of vegetation, but Nouakchott must also be the most rubbish-strewn place I've ever seen. 
The markets in Nouakchott are thoroughly African with women all lined up and sitting beside their bags  of identical produce and other wares, but there's actually rather little variety in Mauritania since almost all produce must be imported and is very expensive.  
We stayed both times at the Auberge Menata where room upgrades or setting our tents up on the roof were options, but we all chose to sleep on mattresses on the open under mosquito nets the staff set up for us.  The need for mosquito nets wasn't clear to me here since we weren't yet in an area where malaria was supposed to be present and there was no evidence of any insects other than a few sand flies.  It must have been a particularly enchanted spot, since both nights I had some of the most amazing Lariam dreams of my trip (detailed in my parallel "Lariam Dreams" blog). 
On our second pass through Nouakchott we had most of an afternoon to kill in town.  After I checked my e-mail at an Internet cafe, Ben and I decided to catch a taxi to the Port de Peche, Nouakchott's colorful, lively seaside fishing port and market and supposedly its most interesting spot.  The coast near Nouakchott seems devoid of natural harbors and the city itself is not oriented towards the sea its proximity to the Atlantic.  These combine to create a large village atmosphere at the fishing port and forces the fishermen to head right through the breakers to land on the sandy beach with their catches.  The lack of a sheltered harbor also means mooring their crafts on dry land on the beach and thus limits the size of their boats. 
Ben and I seemed to be the only tourists at the port and were generally ignored by the hard-working people, mostly Black Africans from the Wolof and  tribes in contrast to the lighter-skinned Maures who constitute most of Mauritania's population.  The difference in peoples' physical stature was at least as notable as that of their skin color, with the Black fishermen seeming much taller, broader, and more muscularly built than the peoples we had been among for the last several weeks through Morocco and Mauritania.  The fishermen were friendly and genuine, tolerant of photos and open to conversation, and not a single person asked us for a cadeau. 
The Port de Peche was one of those places with a "Real Africa" feel about it, a hive of activity with many hundreds of colorful small fishing boats grounded on the beach and dozens more in sight out to see in the coastal fog.  Every few minutes one would come in rapidly towards the beach with the men jumping out to push it on shore.  Soon a donkey pulled cart would rush out onto the beach with boxes of fish quickly unloaded onto the cart to be taken up the beach to the market.  The market had one of the most impressive and beautiful varieties of fish and seafood I've seen anywhere - Saint Pierre, John Dory, Sole, Mackerel, Snapper, and plenty of others I didn't recognize. 
While the fish catch in Nouakchott appeared impressive to my layman's eye, the reality is that West African fisheries are overexploited and far from healthy.  I have read numerous accounts in the news of West African fisheries being depleted by Asian and European fishing fleets raping the sea of all life.  Financially strapped governments in Senegal, Mauritania, and Guinea-Bissau have been selling fishing rights to the EU for its fishing fleet.  The payments for such fishing rights have come to make up a large part of those nations' central government budgets.  The downside to the nations' economies, though, is that fewer fish are available for locals to catch and poor fishermen using traditional methods can't compete with foreign trawlers to make a living.  Meanwhile, in this age of globalization many of the fish that are still caught by local fleets are now exported to European markets, contributing to higher seafood prices that have put fish, once the main source of protein along the coast, out of the financial reach of most Africans who live where they are caught. 
The small fishing boats we observed on the beach near Nouakchott are also of the type that many thousands of West Africans use each year to try to reach E.U. territory in the Canary Islands, large numbers of whom die in the journey. 
All the lovely fish I saw in the market almost made me wish I cooking camp dinner that night after all.  I had been scheduled to do so but managed to convince Dave to make it a free night for us to all go our own ways to eat in restaurants.  Ben and I had restaurants and dinner on our mind as we were leaving the Port de Peche when we saw an Asian family of five carrying plenty of fish and shrimp in plastic bags and boxes.  I said to Ben, "Hey, they must have a restaurant.  Let's see where it is, and maybe we can go there tonight.  I bet it'd be really good."  So we went over to the Asians to ask about their restaurant only to find they didn't have one.  Afterwards we got a good laugh out of the bad form of racial stereotyping of which we had been guilty. 
I ended up going for pizza with some of my fellow travelers at a takeout place a few blocks from our auberge.  We pulled a few chairs around a table and sat outside.  Despite the nice smells from the shop, Mauritanian pizza was rather appalling.  Candice went into a long monologue at the table about foods her family members like and dislike and the conflicts it creates, how she doesn't like potatoes but likes rice and pasta while her father is strictly a meat and potatoes man.
I couldn't resist the opportunity to take a swipe at the general quality of our camping meals on this trip.  "Candice, I don't understand what you mean.  Rice, pasta, and potatoes are ingredients not food.  They are things that can become food if combined properly with other flavorful ingredients, but by themselves they are only grains, fillers, tasteless starch calories.  For example, pasta is an ingredient but Fettuccine Alfredo is food; potatoes are an ingredient but potatoes au gratin is food; tomatoes and cucumbers are ingredients but Greek Salad is food; rice is an ingredient but Paella is food."
"What's paella?"
"You tell 'em, Warren!  Whip those cook groups into line," chimed in our fearless leader, Dave.
"I also want to say that too many ingredients mixed together randomly or inappropriately also do not constitute food; that's what's known as slop," I added.
My attempts at teaching Cooking 101 seemed to be lost on everyone else, though.  After some thought Ian noted, "No, I think rice is food.  I really like rice."  I felt resigned to many more camp meals of boiled noodles with canned red sauce and breakfasts of corn flakes with tepid milk.
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