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Day 29: Nouakchott

Michael Palin - SaharaThe Atlantic shore, a mile or so from the centre of the city, offers the prospect of space and sea breezes, somewhere to cool off away from the clamour. I make for it at sunset, following the road across a desolate wasteland of broken shells and crusted sand dunes (the white blanket I'd seen from the air yesterday). The road does not, in fact, lead to a place of peace and quiet contemplation (they don't build roads in Africa for that sort of thing); it leads to a great heaving fish market, the Plage des Pêcheurs, Fishermen's Beach.

Dominated at one end by the curved concrete roof of the market building and at the other by the ghostly hulks of two wrecked freighters, this half-mile stretch of beach seethes with human activity. Donkeys pull carts through the sand, exhorted with sharp blows from their drivers. A man passes through the crowd with a plank on his head, carrying a dozen loaves of fresh-baked bread. Salesmen offer football shirts and trainers, combs, brushes, even a set of gleaming new spanners. Women in bold patterned veils or turbans gossip together, breaking off every now and then to call to their children. It's a family affair, part Billingsgate, part Blackpool, part B&Q. The majority of those here are black Africans. The Arabs, with their nomadic traditions, don't eat much fish, preferring the desert staples of camel, mutton or goat meat.

Long low boats with crescent-shaped hulls painted bright primary colours are everywhere, some drawn up on the beach, others out on the viscous Atlantic swell, bringing in their catch from the cool and fertile offshore currents. When full, the boats come to within a few yards of the shore and a score of porters plunge into the water. Mostly teenage boys, they compete with each other, racing with trays of swordfish, barracuda, sea bass and red mullet balanced on their heads, up through the crowds to the market. Their sense of urgency and the accompanying din of shouts, protests, yelps and laughter indicate the sense of elation that such an abundant food source can bring to a small country, but one of the market traders puts it in perspective. Many of the boats here, he says, are from neighbouring Senegal, and what does come in is only what has been rejected by the Japanese, Korean and Chinese factory ships lurking out beyond the horizon.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 29
  • Country/sea: Mauritania
  • Place: Nouakchott
  • Book page no: 99

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