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It’s been hot this week, the heat and light crashing down on you like heavy golden bars whenever you step outside, the nights cooler but not enough.

Wednesday evening, I got home late and we decided to go out to eat. We went to our old stand-by, the Prince restaurant. Located on a dusty intersection in the heart of downtown Nouakchott, the Prince is known for cheap food and large portions.

Here, going out for fast food involves going to the restaurant, ordering your food, and waiting for them to cook it. Then you take it home and eat it, or sit at a little table outside in the dusty space next to the road. Fast food means sandwiches or hamburgers—in other words not a proper meal. It is rarely what we would call fast, unless you are comparing it to a 2-hour 3-course dinner. The most popular sandwich (pronounce it with a French accent—sandwheej) is a schwarma, which is made of meat shaved off a huge spit of seasoned lamb, succulent and aromatic. The young man behind the counter takes a round of pain Arabe (Arabic or pita bread) in his hand. He piles it high with shaved meat, then adds french fries and tomatoes and a squirt of mayonnaise, wraps it up burrito-style in the bread and then in paper, and hands it to you. It is a huge, two-handed sandwich (in other words, you need to use both hands to eat it), and it costs 500UM—about $2. I can’t even finish a whole one.

Since I’m not a huge carnivore (unlike my husband and my daughter), I often opt for a hamburger. Hamburgers are a small circle of meat, spiced with cinnamon and cumin, an egg, ketchup and fries—all piled into a huge bun. Yes they put the fries INSIDE the hamburger. Yes I think that’s weird, and I always take mine out. The only place in town that doesn’t put their fries inside their hamburgers coincidentally has an owner who used to live about 6 blocks from where we used to live in Portland. We’ll take the it’s-a-small-world bromide as read. Of course, his place charges extra for fries, since they don’t come as part of the hamburger. He also puts cheese and pickles on his burgers.

On Wednesday night while I was sitting in the car waiting for Donn to collect our hamburgers and schwarmas, I went window-shopping—in other words, goods for sale were paraded in front of my window. Any street in town is full of people trying to get you to give them something. Sometimes you get something in return (a pair of boys’ shorts with a zipper that turns out to be broken, for example), and sometimes you are supposed to just be rewarded in paradise, such as when the Talibe boys with their red cans and huge puppy-dog brown eyes beg you for money for the mosque.

The variety of goods for sale is staggering. Just in that short time, I turned down opportunities to purchase genuine French perfume (it says right on the box “Made in French.” How could I resist?), an electric iron, a set of knives, a new muluffa, music cassettes or CDs, a newspaper, and a phone card giving me credit on my cell phone. This is typical. I’ve been offered hat-racks, mug racks, live monkeys and turtles, hideously-coloured children’s clothes made in China and decorated in pink and yellow ducks (for an 8 year-old boy), dolls, necklaces and much more. These very very persistent young men are everywhere in West Africa. Once we were camping in the middle of the desert, and three young Senegalese carrying cases of jewelry walked through our camp, tried to get us to buy something, then went on to the next village.

Should some of these young men pass by you, DO NOT EVEN LOOK at what they are carrying, except for the most cursory of glances, or you will never get rid of them. They give a new deep meaning to the word persistent. They remind me of Sam-I-am from Green Eggs & Ham. They don’t give up!

I resisted everything, however, and soon we are headed home with our food. It only took about 25 minutes. Fast food indeed.

November 2006

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