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Sahara

Day 22: Zouérat

Zouérat, Mauritania 
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Worker at the iron ore mines, wrapped up against the howling wind. The world's longest train is loading in the background.
Michael Palin - SaharaOne significant change since we crossed the border is the appearance of baguettes and croissants at the breakfast table. For the first sixty years of the twentieth century, first as a protectorate and later as a colony, Mauritania, land of the Moors, was a neglected part of the French empire in Africa. La Mauritanie, as big as France and Spain put together, with a population barely that of Paris, became a place of exile, a dustbin for troublemakers, sidelined from the real French interests in Senegal and Morocco. But the French brought their boulangeries and the Mauritanians kept them when they became an independent Islamic republic in 1960.

It's interesting to see what survives of the colonial presence in these countries. In Western Sahara the Spanish legacy lives on in the Polisario, in their education and their political allegiances, and yes, I did have some chorizo with my camel one evening, but that's about it. Here in Zouérat, the French influence seems
superficially stronger, extending beyond baguettes to lycées and gendarmeries, pastis in the bar and French news on the television.

After breakfast I walk outside to take a look at the town. Seeing me coming, a gauntlet of salesmen rise effortlessly from their haunches to enjoin me to buy this or that ornament, scarf, ring, necklace, leather pouch. I smile widely and appreciatively and do not stop. When I reach the gate, I pause for a split second, which is long enough for a young man to enquire solicitously about my health before showing me some postcards. I make for the street. Before I can reach it two young boys leap off a donkey cart stacked with charcoal and race towards me, all big smiles and outstretched hands.

'Donnez-moi un cadeau. Donnez-moi un Bic!'
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 22
  • Country/sea: Mauritania
  • Place: Zouérat
  • Book page no: 77

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