Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Day With the Pesh

The Bob Marley soundtrack kicked in early, and when it started its second repeat, I finally got out of bed, only to laze about my room a while longer. I heard the Swiss cyclist arguing with someone outside about...his bill, maybe? I opted to hide out a bit longer. People who have been alone for weeks can be tough to chat with.

So. What's a girl to do with a free day in Nouakchott, Mauritania?

I wasn't sure. Track down some food, maybe? I finally emerged from my room to have an auberge breakfast. My standards had slipped. I was delighted to see a greasy plain omelette and croissant in addition to the standard West African bread, jam, and Nescafe.

I headed out to a pizza place in late afternoon, when the lodge internet fizzled. I walked through the sandy streets—past young, hip men in jeans, who looked like young men in New York aside from their filthy hems and shoes—to the corner to flag down a taxi. 

But the first "taxi" took me aback. A well-dressed businessman in a suit pulling over in his nice new car to offer me a ride?

No. Too weird. Risky. I shook my head. He motioned to the passenger seat.  

I bolted into a shop, where a man wanted me to take tea with him and look at his wares. But...I just wanted to go for some pizza. 

The next taxi was the real thing, and he dropped me off on a block full of pizza places. The pizza was dreadful...I had something akin to cardboard and ketchup, served by a sweet Frenchman. I ate what I could stomach, and chased it with a Sprite. I find myself drinking sickeningly sweet soft drinks when I'm in ridiculously hot climates. I think the sugar helps. Maybe.

Now what? 

I fired up my Kindle and read through the tips about what to see in Nouakchott. Okay, so the place where the fishermen come in a don't-miss. Good. I didn't know there was a don't-miss in Nouakchott. 
I flagged down another cab. 

Place d'un pecheur? I thought I said it right. At least I'd looked up "Place of the fishermen" on Google Translate. But I think I said it more like this: 

Port de pesh?

No wonder the taxi driver looked at me with horror. 
"The fish," said the other passenger, a man from Texas. 

Ah, now the driver got it. He dropped off the first man, then left me at the fishermen's port. 

I walked out to the beach. Standard stuff so far, a pavilion with some people selling fish. 

Then I noticed all the boats coming in. Wow. Dozens of small boats full of fishermen, all wrestling the waves as they headed to the shore. When a boat got to shore, the fishermen would jump out and pull it in above the water. 

But what was up with the guys racing down to meet the boats? They were carrying plastic crates. I guess they were there to fetch the fish?

But then I saw something I've never seen before in my life. 

Young men raced to the boats, loaded up crates full of fish, put the crates on their heads, and ran to empty the crates of fish into cars or wheelbarrows or boxes up on the beach. 

Stunned, I stood and stared in amazement. I tried to get a closer look, but people would wag their fingers at me when they saw my camera. "No photo." 

But...but...this was one of the most amazing things I'd ever seen! 

The crates had holes cut in the middle, and the holes were covered with canvas. That's where the crates sat on the men's heads. The men wore raincoats. I guess I would too if I were about to be slathered with fish guts.

Back and forth, back and forth. There appeared to be many teams, each team affiliated with boats. Or maybe with several boats. There were still dozens out at sea, fighting the waves for their chance to come ashore. 

I shot photos until my battery gave out, then retreated to a shady spot near some kids playing fussball. They were in rubber boots, so they were there to work, but their boat was still out. 

I left the peshy-port to head back to town. I had one more stop to make.

The mobile phone market. 

I didn't want a mobile phone. I have my old iPhone with me and I have my older, shittier phone as well, for when something goes wrong with my first phone. My older Siemens is so old that Ugandans laughed at it in 2005. And in Kuwait and Egypt...people kept asking why I was using that crappy old phone. But if I lose my iPhone, I'll be happy to have it. I don't really use my phone except to text Roberta when something ridiculous happens, or to update Twitter, but in theory, I have a phone. Which is comforting. 

Anyway, I may not need a phone, but I'm fascinated by the impact of mobile communications on the world in general, and particularly on unindustrialized economies. Phones can be used as currency, not just for communications. You can pay in minutes. Mobile phones are power. I don't even need to support this point anymore—just look at Egypt. 

I guess not many tourists go to the mobile phone market, because I was surrounded when I approached. People just wanted to chat. A few men tried relentlessly to sell me things—it's a market, after all—so I showed that I had a phone already. Not one to give up, he then tried to sell me a case. Another man showed me a much newer, better iPhone, and laughed at bit at my first-generation one. 

"That is old. This one is much nicer. Better camera." 

I nodded my agreement. I knew that. And mine being old and crappy is exactly why I'd brought it along. Though I was learning rapidly that the camera on a phone is much more subtle than pointing a real camera at someone. I wished I had a better camera-phone. 

But I wasn't buying a new iPhone here. The man with the iPhones used his calculator to do some quick math. 

"The new iPhone is...$700." 

I am happy with my $150 model for now. 

I had to extract myself rather suddenly from the mobile phone market. The masses were clamoring for attention, and I had tired of being a superstar. I bolted quickly and didn't look back until I was in the middle of town, in a nightmare of a traffic jam. There must be rules about traffic in West Africa, but no one seemed to obey them in Mauritania. What a mess! I walked through the chaos to the local market, where people tried to sell me shoes and handbags. I bought a banana and retired to the auberge. Tomorrow would be another long travel day. I wanted to get some sleep.

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