Nouakchott is situated on the Atlantic edge of the Sahara Desert. That means, depending on the wind, we can smell fresh ocean breezes or deal with hot sand that has crossed a baking continent. Guess which we prefer!

There’s not a lot to do round here as far as recreational options go. But every Saturday afternoon, a group of ex-pats (expatriates), all English speaking although from a variety of home countries, gather at the beach. Our family is the most faithful, most committed, so we provide the tent. We’re so committed probably because Donn grew up in California and Hawaii, so views the beach as simply part of life.

It’s a fun time. Sometimes there are as many as 50 people there if you count everyone’s kids. Usually there’s about 20 or so. Donn attempts to surf—I say attempts not because of his ability but because decent waves are very rare here. Still, he gets some great exercise. The rest of us swim or boogie-board, go for walks, chat under the tent. The kids swim, play soccer, build sandcastles, play “forts” in the dunes, descend ravenously upon the tent in search of snacks—in other words, typical kid beach stuff.

The beach here is very different from the Oregon coast, and at first I used to find it oppressive and even depressing. I was used to rocks, cliffs, trees, a coastline with coves and caves and jutting-out bits with forest behind, to wind-carved cypresses and driftwood and tide pools. The beach here is beautiful white sand and you can drive from Morocco to Senegal along it—when the tide’s out. There are no cliffs, no trees—just a few scrubby little bushes on the tiny dunes. There is so much sky, and that sky is filled with so much sun, that it took some getting used to!

But the beach here has its own charm. For one, the shells are incredible! There are always millions of those tiny little clams, which when empty form in their two halves a beautiful butterfly shape. These are often striped in purple and yellow, or plaid in a sort of Madras print. There are chevron-shapes in brilliant sunset colours—oranges and pinks—and tiny delicate cornets, and mussels shells that look almost like a hideous fake fingernail from a cheap manicure. There are even occasionally miniature sand dollars, and once in a rare while, a starfish or two. There are the thick ridged pure white shells (I reveal my ignorance; I wish I could describe these better) and sometimes the broken-off ends of cornets which form a perfect rose shape. Ilsa collects them every week, and we bring them home then don’t know what to do with them all, so our house has all sorts of odd corners filled with bits of shell—they decorate bathrooms, and shelves, and multiply in my shopping basket.

There are all sorts of things in the water, too. Soon it will be jellyfish season—usually in June, when the water gets so hot that it’s not really that refreshing to go in. We get the beautiful Portuguese man-of-wars, transparent with a ridge of deep pink shading into purple and long royal blue tendrils. The little boys pick them up on the ends of sticks to scare the girls, and we have to take a bottle of vinegar in the beach bag every week for stings. Nobody likes jellyfish season.

There are sting-rays, and Donn stepped on one once and couldn’t walk without pain for weeks. Once we saw a squid washed up, and we sometimes see dolphins flipping their tails in the sunset. We see pelicans and geese and herons flying north for the summer.

The current is sometimes dangerously strong, and we keep a close eye on the kids. They all learned to swim here, and as a result, I think they are all strong swimmers. Usually the current pulls south; you go in by the tent and come out 100 yards down the beach! In the meantime, lots of adults hang out in the shade provided by the tent. People pass around whatever snacks they’ve brought—maybe a watermelon from Senegal, or home-made banana bread. In the winter we bring coffee and chipped mugs, and remember who will bring milk and sugar for those who like it that way. We share the popcorn.

And now it’s another Saturday afternoon so we’re off. I need to get the sunscreen on some small bodies.