There are many gueltas in the Sahara desert, and they’re often a lifesaver for nomadic herders. What makes this particular guelta special, though, is that it is one of the last places in the Sahara desert where the West African Crocodile still lives.
The sea is dotted with hundreds of pirogues, waiting to be brought ashore. The beach is littered with thousands of men, women and children, whose job is apparently to bring the fish from the boats to the traders. It’s a dramatic scene, and one that repeats itself every afternoon.
On the morning of my sisters’ birthday, I meet a couple from Bretagne, named Simon and Valerie. She works as an independent fashion designer, and he works on the local water quality authority. Their great passion, however, is west-African music. Their main reason for coming to this part of the world is to interview and record West-African artists and others in the music industry. They are looking for an American, who supposedly lives in Nouakchott and records local artists. It sounds interesting, but it ends up leading to by far the craziest day of my life…
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For the most part, this is a thoroughly uninspiring city; it was a fisherman’s village of only a few hundred people until the 1950’s, when Mauritania became independent. Since it had always tagged along as the most neglected colony within the colossal French West Africa, it had never needed a capital, or much of anything approaching a center of organisation. So when the country became independent, it needed a new capital, and fast. Someone, somewhere decided that the little fishing village of Nouakchott, or “windy place”, should become the capital.
What follows is a short description of the process involved with sending a package in Atar, Mauritania.
Asking around to find the unmarked post office of Atar: 5 minutes. Knocking on the most obvious door, hearing no answer, walking all the way around the building without finding an open door, and asking a mailman where to enter the building: 3 minutes. Sticking finger in a hole in the tiny little door right next to the obvious one and pull hard, then making the lady sitting next to the door (who must’ve heard my knocking but didn’t respond) understand that I want to send a package: 3 minutes. Seeing package being passed around by the 5 people working here, while everyone tries to understand Pays-Bas (apparently they don’t know the French name of my country, and my S looks like a 5): 2 minutes. Waiting for the man who knows how to deal with this to arrive: 5 minutes. Waiting for the man who knows how to deal with this to start and then finish doing other stuff, while all the other employees watch him: 10 minutes…
‘How long will you stay in Nouadhibou?’
‘I think just one night.’
‘Do you know where you’ll be staying?
‘Not yet, there’re a few options in the Lonely Planet that seem okay…’
‘You can sleep at my house if you want?’
He says it casually, as if it’s nothing special. Considering that I’ve known him for all of six hours, and we’ve spoken no more than fifteen minutes during that time, I find it incredibly generous. His name is something difficult that sounds like (but probably isn’t exactly) Boumalniène. He tells me to simply call him Boum, just like the Dutch engineers from Mammoet Salvage did when they were clearing shipwrecks from Nouadhibou’s harbor, and he was their local fixer. For now, my soon-to-be-host is still my taxi driver. He’s taking me, five other paying passengers, and as much cargo as will possibly fit his Hyundai van from Dakhla across the border to Nouadhibou, Mauritania’s second largest city.
Not another one! The ocean is as relentless as I am helpless. Wave after wave comes in, and I’m floating around, holding on to my surfboard like a shipwrecked sailor to a piece of wood. Just paddling into the surf has exhausted all my upper body strength. Now that I’m in the right place, I can no longer generate enough speed to properly ride the wave, let alone push myself up to stand on the board. The best I can do is sit up, enjoy a glorious second or so as I’m on top of the wave, feeling the energy pick me up and push me forward, and then try not to get completely sucked into the vortex when the inevitable happens and I capsize, again.