Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Nouakchott has great baguettes

This past Saturday I arrived at Nouakchott Airport about midnight.  I had gotten up at 3 a.m. that morning in Dakar to catch a three-hour flight North to Casablanca.  After an 11-hour layover at Casablanca Airport, I flew back South 3 hours to Nouakchott.  Nouakchott is only about an hour away from Dakar but there are currently no dependable airlines flying between the two cities.

As I entered the arrivals terminal the chaos had started.  People were already trying to jump the long queues, with the men usually pushing their women up front.  In the very tradition-bound country, women get priority when the men want to give it to them, usually only when a man has something to gain.  The embassy expediter that was supposed to meet me to circumvent all this was nowhere in sight, so I was left to my own devices.  When a guy tried to crowd in from the side, I blocked him with my carry-on.  And as I got close to the immigration desk, I put my elbow on the ledge in front of him, preventing his last attempt to get ahead of me.  I was very proud of myself as he really seemed to think he could bluff an old American.  He moved over and went to try another line. 

Claiming my luggage was the next hurdle.  At least 50 porter wannabes were trying to catch my attention.  I got my own bag and headed for the entrance.  Now here is where I really needed the expediter because he was also supposed to drive me to my hotel.  What seemed like hundreds of people were yelling at me, asking if I needed a taxi.  The exchange office was closed so I had no local Ouguiya and nothing less than a $20 bill.  It is tough to negotiate a good price when one only has big bills.  At this point I had no choice but to decide on a taxi, but how?  I took a deep breath, walked into the crowd and pointed at the first respectable looking guy I saw.  He grabbed my roller board and told me to follow.  When I got to the curb I found that he was only an agent for a driver, probably older than myself, with a run down taxi, which was already pulling up to load my bags.   It was a 70s vintage Toyota with an engine that barely ran, no seat belts and an extremely dirty windshield. I hesitatingly got in, and after agreeing to an exorbitant fare of $20, just to get out of there, we were on our way.  I asked him if he could turn on his windshield washer, which he did.  However it smeared the dirt and made the visibility worse. We both bent down to peer through a small clear area just above the dashboard.  As we headed out of the airport, the traffic was coming from all sides. The rule of the road was whoever got their first had the right-of-way and the driver frequently slammed on squeaky brakes to avoid a collision. 

My principal contact in Nouakchott had informed me by email that I had a reservation at the Atlantic B&B.  The driver had never heard of it but said he thought he knew where it might be!  After the 15-minute ride of my life, he pulled up in front a darkened building and said he thought this was probably it.  I got out and stared up at the building to see if it had a name.  A guard woke up and came out to see what I wanted.  I asked him if this was the Atlantic B&B.  He nodded yes and as I got closer I could see that it was the Hotel Atlantico.  We knocked on the door and someone came from inside to unlock it and turn on a light.   When I asked the large African man if this was the Atlantic B&B, he smiled at me broadly and in very good English, said hello "Mr. Paul."  Very relieved I went into the hotel for a very warm welcome and was led to a clean and comfortable, if spartan room, with working  a/c, TV, Internet and shower as well as a vase of roses on the nightstand.  The bed was comfortable and I slept like a log.    

The following day was Sunday and I had expected to work at the embassy because this Muslim country follows a Friday/Saturday weekend.   When I called the embassy to inquire when a car could pick me up, the Marine on duty told me that the embassy was closed because they were celebrating President’s Day so that the employees could have a three-day weekend like Americans get in the U.S.

Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, is a stark, dusty desert outpost on the edge of the Sahara.  I'm told that sand dunes often shift into the city covering roads and streets which for the most part are unpaved. Driving is chaotic and crowded with handicapped beggars sitting in the middle of the streets reaching towards the car windows on both sides.  Camels and donkeys are also common along the roads.  The city is on the Atlantic and it's biggest tourist draw is probably the fish market. Expats and diplomats can also visit nice beaches on the weekends but there are few amenities so they usually have to take a lot with them. Most of the city's buildings are single story and with the dirt roads, appear much like early towns  of the American West.  The people are a mix of Sub-Saharan African and Tuareg tribes with small French, Arab and Lebanese communities controlling much of the country's commerce.

Map of Mauritania

Last year CNN ran a program which claimed that Mauritania is the world's last stronghold of slavery, with 10 to 20 percent of the population being held as slaves.  Here is a link with pictures:

Some social scientists have protested the program's use of the term slavery, indicating it is more a form of racism with one people considering itself superior to another and trying to enforce this superiority.  This seems to me like splitting hairs.

The baguettes in Nouakchott really are good – among the best I’ve had.  A remnant of French colonialism is that the Africans in these countries love fresh baguettes and whatever other French food they can get.   The Africans really should be eating something a little more nutritious but baguettes certainly do taste good, especially with lots of butter. The best restaurants in Nouakchott are also French but since last year, owners have had to absorb a major financial hit because the Mauritanian Government cracked down on the importation and use of alcohol.  According to rumor the decision was because a member of the ruling family was involved in a serious car accident while drunk.  Drinks are still allowed after sundown in two restaurants catering almost exclusively to French and European expats who expect to be able to drink wine with their dinner.

Here are a few more links on Mauritania:

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