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Field Notes
Randy Olson
Photograph by Nicole Cheng
Randy Olson
Interview by Cassandra Franklin-Barbajosa

What was your best experience during this assignment?

Being invited to stay with a family on the coast of Senegal was the highlight of this assignment for two reasons: First, I was invited with warmth and hospitality into their very private community. Second, being there gave me the opportunity to observe firsthand an African phenomenon of great importance to this story. As Africans keep stripping their land for firewood, the Sahel as well as countries to the south, such as Senegal, are running out of habitat for game and cattle. Consequently, people are being forced to move to the coast, where they can catch fish. Around the world, a billion people now rely on fish for their protein. Here on the coast of Senegal I was able to witness some of the newest converts to a fish diet. But Africa's coasts and fisheries can accommodate only so many. So the folks in these new coastal villages are actually among the lucky ones. I was privileged to be their guest.

What was your worst experience during this assignment?

At one point, I was forced to make a transfer from one fishing trawler to another, miles out at sea off the coast of West Africa. The water was rough, and having to get all of my equipment loaded into a Zodiac and then lugged up into the second boat was quite an ordeal.

Almost as bad was roughing it for a couple days on the second trawler, which was flying the Senegal flag. The bathroom was right under the boiler room, and it felt like it was 140°F (60°C). The captain gave me his bunk, which was the best on the boat, but there was stuff leaking through the ceiling above as I slept. The good news was that I was able to witness the conditions under which African trawler crews have to live and work to supply the fish markets of Paris and elsewhere.

What was the oddest experience you encountered during this assignment?

I was in a restaurant in Pontevedra, on the northwest coast of Spain. The only thing the proprietress, a woman named Olga, liked more than throwing lobsters in a pot was singing fascist songs from the Franco era. Many of the patrons were old-timers who apparently shared her conservative politics. She was going from table to table, putting lobster bibs on a group of customers and leading them in these old songs. Since it is now more than half a century since the Spanish Civil War, I felt like I'd entered some sort of time warp.