Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Pssst. Pssst. This is Nouakchott

There is officially nothing to see in Nouakchott. It's over 500km from Nouadhibou and though this is flat treeless Sahara country, the drive is bewitchingly beautiful as the sun sets. There are approximately 15 checkpoints between the two cities and they're generally brief affairs, more of a nuisance than an inconvenience. Nouakchott though should really have a sign reading 'Thank you for spending some time resting here on your way to somewhere more interesting'. It's physically impossible - for me at least - to leave the auberge where I'm staying between midday and 4pm on the two days I spent there with the temperature hovering at 40 degrees or above. It is the most intense heat which makes you feel as if you've been out on the lash for a week. But, well, this is the Sahara eh? The streets of the city are filled with money changers who hiss at you to get your attention - 'Pssst, pssst' - and the roads are clogged with remarkable looking cars about 30 years past their best. When they inevitably break down, it isn't a mechanic they'll be calling but an archaeologist.
Nouakchott's biggest selling point - apart from the ease with which you can get a visa at the Malian embassy - is its fish market or Porte de Peche as the locals call it. It's a daily event and it's one of those wonderful places where you get to watch west Africa reveal itself. It's a fish market by the sea and at about 3pm each day the boats start to return with their catch and it's once they come onshore that the excitement begins. Each boat crashes ashore, held in place by a crew of helpers who unload the boat of its enormous catch as the boat is buffeted by crashing waves. Like little piranhas, there are scores of young kids with their own nets who feast on the many fish who spill from the boats. In fact it isn't just the children - by 6pm when I'm leaving there are adults hauling sacks filled with fish from the scene, a larceny no-one cares about - there's plenty to go around.
And so you have dozens of boats crashing ashore, excited children sprinting from boat to boat filling their nets to bursting point, men with waterproofs and plastic creels racing back and forth to put the fish in ice - quite how anyone keeps a trace of who's caught what is absolutely beyond me. It's bedlam, a technicolour snapshot of Mauritania far removed from its colourless sand drenched cities.

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