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Previously in Atlantic Abroad

  • Tricks of the Trade (Jeffrey Tayler, Romania, April 15, 1998).

  • A Day at the Moscow Beach (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, April 1, 1998).

  • On the Ground in Patagonia (William Langewiesche, Chile, March 18, 1998).

  • Dog Days in Paris (Katherine Guckenberger, France, March 4, 1998).

  • The View from Awolowo Street (Jeffrey Tayler, Nigeria, February 19, 1998).

  • The Courts of Pondicherry (Akash Kapur, India, February 4, 1998).

  • A Convent with a View (Katherine Guckenberger, France, January 22, 1998).

  • The Moscow Rave (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, December 24, 1997).

  • Waste Not, Want Not (Ryan Nally, Poland, December 10, 1997).

  • Sikkim and Ye Shall Find (Akash Kapur, India, November 26, 1997).

  • The Magistrates of Creektown (Jeffrey Tayler, Nigeria, November 5, 1997).

  • Brando's Birds (Marshall Jon Fisher, France, October 22, 1997).

  • Dinner at the Gostilna Novljan (Chris Berdik, Slovenia, October 8, 1997).

  • The Dacha Regime (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, September 25, 1997).

    For more, see the complete Atlantic Abroad Index.

    Share your tales of life abroad in the Global Views forum of Post & Riposte.

  • Greetings from the Banc d'Arguin
    May 6, 1998

    You could hear their legs clacking as they scampered along the shoreline. Fiddler crabs by the hundreds, moving sideways across the sand and holding up those big claws like outfielders going for the catch. A kind of shark I didn't recognize -- spotted and perhaps a yard long -- skulked in the shallows a few feet behind them, its dorsal and tail fins just cutting the surface. On a whim I chased a dozen or so crabs to the waterline. At the brink, they reared up to the point of toppling over, and the shark -- a sort of bloated dogfish -- turned and torpedoed ashore, seizing a crab in its beak-like jaws before violently thrashing free of the beach.

    "Whoa!" I exclaimed, turning to Jim. "Did you see that?" It was clear by the look on his face that he had.

    We were in the Banc d'Arguin, Mauritania's only national park, a three-million-acre reserve that attracts millions of wading shorebirds each year to nest and layover on their annual migrations. Except for its mangroves the region is pure desert, only sparsely inhabited by a small, non-nomadic tribe known as the Imrogen, or Amriq -- a race of fishermen renowned for enlisting the aid of dolphins to corral mullet into their nets. It was our hope in coming here that we might witness that spectacle, then hitch a sailboat ride south to the main Imrogen settlement at Cap Timiris.

    We might as well have hoped for snow and a little après-ski cocoa. The mullet, we soon learned, weren't running, and as for sailing down the coast, no one was interested in providing a taxi service. Everybody was too busy harvesting shark fins for Asian soups.

    We had arrived at the Banc from Nouadhibou, Mauritania's seaport to the north. En route the temperature had soared to 120 degrees and the wind had felt like it was coming out of a furnace. As we sat there, crammed into the bed of a Hi-Lux pickup with twenty or so Malians and Moors, the Atlantic periodically came into view across the desert -- a blue apparition behind a pallid curtain of blown sand. Seeing it, I was suddenly cognizant of geography and could imagine our position on the map, the whole Sahara stretching out behind us: one big, wide beach from here to the Red Sea.

    By the time we disembarked the wind had died down and the sky had turned orange from all the dust in the air. The driver pointed to a distant tower. West across a couple miles of desolate sand lay the village of Iwik, he assured us, and the park station. So we shouldered our packs, grabbed our jerricans, and started off. Reaching the water for the first time we could see what appeared to be mackerel leaping neck and neck across the tide flats, and flamingoes walking stiff-legged up the beach. Outside the modest park buildings a whale skeleton lay, bleached, in the sand.

    Iwik is a collection of small huts, most made from flattened oil drums that rust quickly in the salt air. Men worked mending nets or sawing planks to build boats. Where the wood came from was anyone's guess. All around lay the exotic and assorted dreck of the fishing community: desiccated whale ribs and giant turtle shells, tangled lines and contorted fish carcasses. And then there were the shark fins -- thousands of triangular appendages spread out to dry in the sand or stacked like cordwood.

    Only one man, tall and rather elegant in his soft blue caftan, would even consider our objective of sailing south. A trip in this wind could take several days, he said, pointing to a few lateen-rigged boats that swung to and fro on their moorings. Figuring as many as four days for the trip, he reasoned he'd need the equivalent of three hundred dollars to compensate for lost time. We considered the sum while the windmill at the park headquarters beat the air in rhythmic whooshes. Suddenly it sped up, turned hard on its bearings, and we could no longer hear it. Grudgingly, we faced facts: the price was too high, our time too tight, and the wind, clearly, too variable. We'd have to find another way down the coast.

    Back at the park headquarters one of the rangers, a large, aloof Moor, acknowledged us briefly before retreating into one of the buildings. Another storm was blowing in hot across the sands and we quickly made camp on a concrete porch behind a low parapet that shielded us, if only a little, from the wind. There was nothing to do but wrap our faces in howlis, the gauzy turbans worn by the Moors, and huddle against the wall until it was over.

    When the wind subsided the ranger invited us to have dinner with him and his two associates. Inside their quarters -- a simple arrangement made oddly lavish by a big-screen television -- the men ate amply: prodigious amounts of couscous, bread, and goat, all of which they shared freely with us. At the end of the meal we asked about their lives there, how many tourists they received, how they passed the time. The big Moor told us that their job was to help scientists who came to study the birds and the marine life in the reserve. "The tourists," he said. "We just chase away."

    "You chase them away?" Jim repeated, surprised.

    "Mmm," the Moor replied, nodding a little as he picked his teeth.

    "You didn't chase us away," Jim reminded him.

    "No," he allowed, "but we still could."

    We considered that remark the following day as we fished the broad green flats of the bay, wading chest-deep to cast baited hand-lines. The waters off the Banc are some of the richest in the world, purportedly filled with sea trout, bass, and bream. But all we seemed to get, Jim and I, were small dogfish -- one after another, thrashing and tugging on the end of our lines like some ancient horror. We'd curse our luck each time we got one, grimacing as we struggled to remove the hook.

    At some point I turned and looked in to shore. The big Moor stood on the desolate beach waving us in, a Hi-Lux parked on the sand behind him. He had arranged a ride to take us away.

    Patrick Joseph is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.

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