Tuesday, March 30, 2010
(By the way, one thing Mauritanians do not do with camels is smoke them--Marlboro is definitely the brand of choice. And smoking is incredibly popular there. Our iron-ore-train-friend Nema said that a lot of kids start at 8 or 10 years of age. The amount of smoke in the train car attested to this...so even if you don't smoke, you do smoke, by second-hand default in Mauritania.)
On to the pictures!
At the supermarket in Nouadhibou (we were surprised, but there were a couple) we thought the most fascinating thing was this pile of chickens loose in the freezer case.
Of course, this put Andy in the mood for a chicken dinner. Our first meal in Mauritania--chicken and chips. I think we've had this at some point in every country we've visited so far...
We also found a pastry shop in Nouadhibou where Andy got this pink, cream-filled thing. It was pretty fancy and tasty for a pastry shop at the edge of the desert.
Before boarding the train in Nouadhibou the next day, Andy had the foresight to suggest that we have a real lunch out in a restaurant. We found a restaurant that turned out to be Gambian, so our server spoke English and served us our first plates of mafe (rice with a peanut sauce and meat) and drinks of bissap, or hibiscus flower juice. Both of these are very common and popular in Senegal and The Gambia and we've had them a lot since. The camera ran out of batteries before we could photograph the mafe, but here's the bottle of bissap we got for about 30 cents. Cold and sweet and tasty!
But the true beverage of Mauritania is Mauritanian tea. It's made of very strong loose Chinese green tea, mint, and a lot of sugar. This may sound like Moroccan tea, but it's a whole different animal--much stronger, and served in tiny glasses in three rounds. But most importantly, the person making the tea must pour it back and forth between the glasses about 100 times until it has developed a foamy head to rival the one you'd find on top of a Guinness.
The whole ritual--brewing a small pot, pouring and pouring, drinking, washing the glasses, and starting over two more times, takes the better part of an hour. Everyone in Mauritania has these portable propane tanks to heat the teapot on so that you can take the tank into any room and enjoy your tea there. The most impressive, and banged-up tank we saw was on board the iron-ore train, where an old man makes tea for everyone for a small fee. Given how often the train jolts, knocking people out of their seats, the fact that he is able to do this without scalding himself or ever spilling any tea is nothing short of miraculous.
The last thing I'll say about tea is that Andy and I never paid for it once. Our new friend treated us on the train, and after that we had a round in the home of just about everyone we met on the trip. On our desert trip, our guide built a fire with sticks and made us tea four times a day. Tea is serious in Mauritania.
One random place we had tea was at our taxi-driver's house in Atar, while waiting to leave for Chinguetti. While there, we were also offered a bowl of zrig, which our guidebook describes as "unpasteurized, fermented camel milk." Yum! When I had first read Andy this description, he swore he would never taste it, but I am proud to report that hospitality got the better of him and he did try it. I have no photographic evidence of this, unfortunately, but here I am sipping some zrig. It wasn't that bad--surprisingly, I thought it tasted more like coconut milk than any animal milk I've ever had. Maybe because of the fat content?
Out in the Sahara, our intrepid guide not only made tea on the fire, but cooked us whole meals. His most impressive feat was baking this bread/pancake thing in an "oven" made out of hot sand and coals. Here he is laying it in the oven, which he will then cover over with the coals you see beside the bread.
The bread was dense and a little sweet. Usually we had it for breakfast with a runny fruit jam, but one night Dumu incorporated into a tasty vegetable stew, our favorite meal in the desert. His materials for three days in the desert were beets, carrots, onions, potatoes, and a few tomatoes (apparently there was no meat in the market the day before we left--fine by us though apparently a meal without meat in Mauritania is considered a poor meal), and considering this, Dumu did a great job of making up a lot of different dishes with pasta, rice, or bread mixed in.
In the capital city of Nouakchott, we didn't find much street food, except for some ladies selling two types of fried things which seemed popular for a late afternoon snack. The round ones were beignets, or little sweet donuts. Very good. The bigger ones turned out to have fish inside. Why these are sold together we do not know, but the common theme seems to be "fried" rather than sweet or savory...
I mentioned in the other Mauritania post that we ended up staying with a family in Nouakchott. They insisted on making dinner for us, and on our first night served up this beautiful feast with chicken, fries, and salad. Best of all, we had to eat it with our hands, using pieces of baguette to scoop up the food.
Unfortunately, I don't have pictures of our second night's meal with the family, which was a cous cous dish. To eat this one with your hand, you are supposed to roll some cous cous into a ball, grab a bit of sauce, and pop it into your mouth. The family members made this look SO easy, but when Andy and I tried to do it, we failed spectacularly. Everyone was laughing so hard at us--especially at Andy, who then refused the spoon they brought him and kept trying to learn how to make the ball, and ended up with more cous cous on his face than the toddlers had. At least if we weren't allowed to pay for our food, we felt that we paid the family back a tiny bit in entertainment value!
I also wish I had a picture because the meat in that dish was...camel! I only had one bite and found it kind of chewy, but Andy liked his a lot. He said it was pretty mild, kind of like beef. The bit that ended up in his mouth and not on his face, that is.
Here are a few not-strictly-food pictures from Nouakchott, since I have nowhere else to put them.
Here is the big mosque that the Saudis built for the Mauritanians. Its two skinny minarets are pretty. We were not allowed inside.
Nouakchott's most famous "sight" is apparently its fish market on the ocean. We visited and there sure were a lot of painted fishing boats on the beach.
And a lot of fish. I didn't even know people fished for rays. Andy says they can be used as bait.
Fish! At the fish market!
Our taxi back to town from the fish market had this Obama doodad hanging from the rearview mirror. As you may have guessed, Obama is insanely popular in Africa. In subsequent countries, we have seem people wearing Obama pins, Obama shirts, and we even saw some Obama-brand mattresses (?) for sale in Dakar...
On our last morning in Nouakchott, our host family let us take a picture together. With some of them, at least--there were so many, and some were off at work or school. But here we are with a few of our hosts, and a couple of their kids. Moulaye, our English-speaking friend from the bus who brought us home to his cousins, is the one in the baseball cap holding the kids.
That's it for Mauritania. The food probably wasn't the most memorable national cuisine we've ever had, but it wasn't bad and people made sure we never went hungry (or thirsty, or uncaffeinated). We take fond memories of the hospitality of Mauritania with us as we move deeper into Africa.
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Meanwhile, keep on commenting on our older posts. =)
Tara and Andy
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
We are in Nouakchott, Mauritania, a big sandbox of a city on the Atlantic coast of the Sahara Desert. Now, for a little background...
The Islamic Republic of Mauritania has had three coups in the last decade and a few kidnappings of Europeans in the last year. Slavery was legal until 1980 (!!) and there are still estimated to be about 100,000 people enslaved here. But if you want to get from North Africa to West Africa, it's still the safest overland route through the Sahara desert. Still, I think you'll understand if maybe we weren't the most excited ever about coming here.
But I'll say it now--Mauritania kicks ass. Our week here has been way better than we ever expected possible. The people here have been nicer to us than the citizens of any other country we've been to. They are constantly inviting us into their homes to have tea, to eat dinner, to sleep for free. Plus, there are camels to be ridden in that little place called the Sahara Desert...
We entered the country from Morocco/Western Sahara in a taxi and rode down to Nouadhibou, the "big port city" of 80,000 people in the north of the country. We drove in on a side road around twilight, and the place looked rather dusty and abandoned. Hard to say whether there were more people or goats in the street.
Later, when we got to the main street, things perked up some with some open shops and restaurants, but Nouadhibou is still the kind of place where you stumble across half a goat skull in the middle of the main roundabout and don't think much of it.
But we found an unexpected ATM (yay!) and had a good dinner (chicken and fries and bread and even some salad) at a little restaurant with a pretty big TV (playing soccer on every channel, of course). Our auberge room had its own bathroom with a Western-style toilet and a hot shower (the last of both of those that we've seen). And then the next day, we were off on our first epic adventure--the iron-ore train into the desert.
Did you know that the longest train in the world is in Mauritania? It transports iron ore from the interior to the coast for shipping and has about 2km of cars. It also has one passenger car, built in 1953, and for $4 you can ride 12 hours in it to the middle of the Sahara. Which is exactly what we did.
Here's the inside of the car. We were lucky and got spots on one of the benches along the wall, though it's a toss-up whether that's actually comfier than lying on the floor. Smart people bring their own carpets to lie on.
So, my camel was branded with the initials "M.I." so we called him Mission Impossible. Andy's roared a lot, so we called him Roary. Here's Roary:
-A camel, by comparison, costs around 300,000 ouguiya ($1,200).
Wildlife of the Sahara: We found this guy on Andy's mattress right before he lay down to go to sleep. He was enormous, like the size of my fist. I barely suppressed a scream. Andy killed him after taking this picture because he thought he looked dangerous. We showed the picture to our guide the next morning, who said the spider was very dangerous! (And here I thought our biggest threat would be possibly getting kidnapped...)
OK, climbed is an exaggeration for one of us. I crawled. It was steep!
Here is a shot of both of us on our camels. My camel and I always went first, because we are leaders.
Addendum: Andy and I realized that there were a few important things I forgot to mention in this post. For starters, the title refers to an erg, which is a massive sand dune. We traversed one near Chinguetti. The major takeaway I have about ergs is that they are not so easy for camels to climb, so you have to walk over them beside your camel rather than ride.
Also forgotten...on the iron ore train, there are two other options for travel. You can ride for free in an empty ore container (reportedly a rather dusty experience) or you can pay $12 US for a berth, or bed platform, the height of luxury on this train. Well, on our train there was an old lady who had apparently paid for a berth but didnt get one on the train...and she yelled for literally the first four hours of the trip nonstop to anyone who would listen. She was yelling when our Islam conversion session started and still going when we had finished. Considering that the $12 may have been her life savings, we felt fairly sympathetic towards her, though her stamina was frightening.
OK, more updates from Senegal if we can ever find a decently speedy connection and English keyboard again!
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
This is the last food picture we have from Marrakech. It looks similar to another picture in the last post because I like vendors by night. This one is of a sweets vendor, though. I asked him if we could arrange a challenge where if I ate everything in this picture in an hour that it would be free, but he was clearly scared of me and declined.
After Marrakech, we went to Essaouira, which you will note has all the vowels. If you are nerdy like me, you might know other words with all the vowels, like sequoia or facetiously (my favorite since it has all the vowels and y in order). Essaouira is a beach town, but it was cold and rainy for most of our stay, so we didn't go to the beach. We did, however, have some really good food when I made us go to the cheapest restaurant I could find that had exactly one other couple dining there. This was my chicken cous cous. And on that note, we had a question about what exactly cous cous are. Cous cous is a pasta, just very small. You can then put whatever you like on it. So, if you took a hammer and crushed spaghetti until it was tiny, it would basically be cous cous. Mine is topped with chicken and vegetables here.
Tara took this picture mostly to note my extraordinarily long facial hair. And that the dessert we were eating was very vaguely yogurty. Since I hate yogurt, she was very happy to get me taking a bite on film. Like an earlier comment I made about chocolate, I guess that if you have very weak yogurt and add enough sugar and flavoring, I can bring myself to eat a few bites.
Essaouira has lots of spice sellers, all of whom like making giant pyramids out of the spices. And they all really want to sell us these spices. This might make sense if we were headed home, but we aren't. Also, it seems a sure-fire way to get searched by drug enforcement. It's spices, really!
We found a donut man who made these tasty donuts in Essaouira. The first day they were 25 cents each. The second, he tried to raise the price to a dollar. Morocco is like that and we experienced it many times. We then had to have a ten minute argument with him before finally paying 35 cents on the second trip.
Essaouira was a French fortress town on the water. The cannons have really nice views of the ocean. I took this during a couple hours of sunny weather that we had one day.
Now it is a fishing town. Here are the hundreds of fishing boats after they had returned for the day. Most of them sell their fish right there at the pier to local restaurants and buyers. At many restaurants, you walk up and pick your fish from the day's catch and they fry it for you. The many fish also make this part of town a favorite for the sea gulls.
We stayed an extra day in Essaouira because we had a nice hotel and because Tara has been trying to work on her writing. She did a good job and spent the better part of a couple of days in this area, which she dubbed her writing nook. Soon she will hopefully have a book to sell so that we don't have to find jobs when we go home next year.
Then we started our trip south towards Mauritania. We spent 24 hours on a bus (well, two buses) to get to Dakhla, Morocco, which is the southernmost major city. It was much more modern than we expected and is beautifully set on the ocean. It is in the Western Sahara, which is a disputed area that Morocco claims, but whose rule no one completely accepts. Having said that, they clearly oversee it at present.
Here is a nice sunset in Essaouira. Pictures were out of order, but I don't have enough time to fix them. It had been a bit rainy, but cleared up for sunset. These are from the roof of the hotel where we were staying.
People in southern Morocco start to dress more like what you expect in the desert. The bigger guy on the right turned out to be Omar, our taxi driver the next day for the 10 hour trip to Mauritania.
This is actually our second camel sighting, but the first that we got pictures of. Hooray for camels! Everyone thinks we are really funny that we get excited about them. Several people have been surprised to learn that we don't have camels wondering around America. Most camels here are owned by someone, but they let them wonder around the desert looking for grass to eat.
That does it for Morocco. We really like much of Morocco. We sometimes felt like the people were trying to hustle us, but the markets were amazing and the food was good. On to Mauritania!
Sunday, March 7, 2010
For Andy...well, first you have to have lived with him for a few years and heard him say about a zillion times that he'd like a "glass of tea" when he actually means that he wants a cup of tea. Second, you have to have seen him empty three packets of Splenda (that's the equivalent of six teaspoons of sugar) into every cup of tea he drinks. Once you've done that, you may appreciate how we are finally in a country where the tea is not only actually served in glasses, but is also presweetened to a point that even Andy doesn't feel the need to add more sugar. Perfection! But we also like the foods of Morocco for the regular old reasons that we tend to love food when we travel--it's inexpensive, it's tasty, and there's a lot of it to be found right out on the streets. Without further ado, here's some of what we've been putting down our gullets in Morocco!
Every dinner in Morocco includes some bread. It is round like a pita, but thicker and crustier outside, fluffier inside.
Our first dinner in Morocco, at a restaurant in Tetouan! Andy got chicken with fries (boring!) and I got a meat and vegetable cous cous. We soon learned that meat in Morocco always means lamb--fine by me, not so fine by Andy. My dish also featured chickpeas and huge fat raisins, and the cous cous itself was yellow and spiced and really delicious--the best we've had on the trip, Andy and I agree.
Honey-soaked, phyllo-dough pastries like these are a staple of our diet in Morocco. Sometimes they are filled with ground nuts, sometimes with figs, sometimes with cous cous-y stuff...you never know what you're gonna get.
Here is some "Moroccan whiskey"--aka mint tea. Made of green tea, fresh mint, and a lot of sugar, it is the national obsession...and ours. There are salons de the (teahouses) everywhere and we've been to several, but the best we've had so far was the tea that came with our free breakfasts at Hotel Bab Boujloud in Fes, below.
In Fes, soup is very popular. This soup had various legumes, a few noodles, and a couple of bits of ground lamb in it and cost less about 35 cents a bowl, with bread.
This little bowl of chickpea soup was only 1 dirham, or about 12 cents, out on the big square in Fes at dusk.
The market in Fes is overflowing with dates of many prices. Who knew there were so many grades of dates?