A visit from Trader Jigs


          Last week I mentioned parenthetically, "Jigar came with a suitcase full of food, much of it from Trader Joe." One of my website readers wrote that I had to be exaggerating about the amount of food Jigs brought with him.

          With Annika and Jigs' kind permission, I took an inventory of the comestibles that he brought with him. This is what is left of the Trader Jigs stash: instant miso soup, spicy onion cashews, dried Portobello mushrooms, macaroni and cheese, 17-bean mix, black lentils, lightly salted pistachios, black peppercorn cashews, sun-dried pesto, salsa mix, dried peaches, dried raspberries, raisins, dry toasted pine nuts, almonds, dried mango slices, dried cranberries, dried cherries, organic wild rice, dried sun-dried tomatoes, dried ravioli, dried tortellini, fruit jellies, chocolate caramels, and dulce de leche candies. Of the non-Trader Joe items, there are: Daily Green Tea and Darjeeling Nouveau 2000 from The Republic of Tea, Earl Grey tea from Peet's, several boxes of Jell-O gelatin and pudding mixes, packages of sauces (sun-dried tomato pesto, spaghetti with mushroom, parma rosa creamy tomato, pesto), spice packets, Kool-Aid packets, three bottles of hot sauce (Tabasco, Tabasco Chipotlé, and Tapatío), powdered hot mustard, and powdered wasabi.

          Ah, yes, Trader Joe: ultimate purveyor of the non-essential. My TJ shopping cart was usually filled with tofu, produce, sparkling water, and entrees for school lunches. It's not that I don't eat any of the other items that he stocks on his copious shelves - it's mostly because I don't trust my willpower when I know that the Trader's tantalizing treats are tempting me. As soon as the bag of nuts, dried fruit, or other heavy-carb snack is opened, the contents manage to find their way into my mouth! My approach is to avoid having it in the house in the first place. All the same, Jigar's purchases are a welcome diversion as he, Annika, and I are having a good time enjoying it.

          Jigs arrived immediately after I received a package of food that my friend Barb from Palo Alto sent; she mailed it in March and it arrived in July. I can only imagine the faces on the postal employees when they opened Barb's box for inspection to see if there was anything worth taking - only to find bowls of Annie Chun's miso and udon soups and Tasty Bite meals of Punjab eggplant, Madras lentils, Malabar mixed vegetables, Kashmir spinach, and Bengal lentils. These are not items that appeal to the Mauritanian palate. The typical diet of the local population depends on both the region and ethnic group. In any event, seeking variety is not a hallmark with regard to food.

          Mauritanians are most comfortable with items that are readily and consistently available. People's attention with regard to food is focused on items that are necessary, utilitarian, economical, repetitive, and simple. The population is descended from generations of people who led a nomadic existence, moving frequently and covering long expanses of land in pursuit of water and grazing lands. Practicality, rather than variety, governs their purchase of food and other consumer goods. Staples include bread, couscous, rice, tea, macaroni, fish in some areas, camel, goat, and sheep, all of which defines the diet for the overwhelming majority of the population.

          This gives me pause to consider the abundance and variety of food and other consumer goods that we have in the USA - something that many of us take for granted. In stark contrast to the long list of consumables that made their way here with Jigs, there are parts of Mauritania where vegetables and fruit are simply unavailable. In a few regions, people may have carrots and tomatoes for a few months, then mangoes for a scant two-week period. In Nouakchott, even without this TJ shipment, there is a much larger selection of fruit, vegetables, and other products - delivered here mostly from Europe and Lebanon, consumed predominantly by workers employed here by embassies and aid organizations.

           On Tuesday, my counterpart D called to ask me to come to his office to go over some changes in our textbook. He wanted to show me what needed to be done, and then send me off to the Peace Corps to do the work on the computer. I told him that it made more sense for him to come to the Peace Corps so we could work on it together. He agreed. It was about 9:30 at the time he called, and he said he would get to me by 10:30.

           At 10:50, when D had not yet shown, I called to see what was keeping him. There was a crowd in the PCV computer room, so I was going to need to give up my computer for a while, to let others use it. He said he was a little delayed, and would be there by noon.

           Shortly after noon, some of the Volunteers were going out to lunch and asked me if I wanted them to bring something back for me, since I was stuck in the office waiting for D. They were going to Snak Irak, where my favorite meal is the falafel plate, so I asked them to bring back one of those for me.

           I waited until 1:10 to call D to see what was holding him up. He told me that he would definitely be there by 3:00. By that point, I was not only waiting for D to work, but for lunch as well. Melanie and Jeff came back with lunch around 2:30. When it got to be 3:00 and there was still no D, I decided that I had to hit the road and do some errands before teaching my 5:00 class.

           At 3:15, when I was already out in the street, D called. He wanted to know when we could meet on Wednesday. I suggested 9:00 at the PC bureau. A few minutes after that, I got a call from S, one of the other people on the team writing the textbook. S said that 9:00 wasn't very good for him, but that 8:45 would be much better. Would that be all right?

          Sure, that would be all right! But what were the odds that it would happen? Keep reading.

           Annika and Jessica, two PCVs who taught English in small towns during our first year, went to my English Conversation Club with me on Tuesday evening. They particularly enjoyed conversing with people who can speak English at the intermediate and advanced levels.

          Our story for the week was about a man who every year wrote a list about what he wanted to accomplish in his life, and then shared it with his grandmother at Thanksgiving. Some of his goals were easier for Mauritanians to understand than others, and we talked about the simple pleasures of walking on a beach under a full moon at midnight or seeing the sunrise on a tropical island. Other items on the list elicited lengthier discussion, though, like wanting to earn the respect of intelligent people, the unconditional love of children, or doing something that would have a positive impact on the world.

           On Wednesday morning I was tending to a new houseguest, PCV Jeff from Senegal, and was running a few minutes late getting to the bureau for the meeting at 8:45 with S. At 8:44, when I was no more than two minutes away from the building, S called me to say, "I am at the Peace Corps. Where are you?"

          S and I went upstairs to work on the computers. It was only then that something dawned on me: if I made any changes to the book on the copy that is stored in the bureau computer, we would then have the logistical problem of getting the new version of the book to M, the typist, working at the IPN building. It doesn't make sense to have two different versions of the book - one at the PC bureau and one at IPN. (I wrote about M in the post of 1/26/2004; he was the one concerned that my having started typing this work onto the computer would mean that I was putting him out of a job.)

          The meeting with S lasted only fifteen minutes, as I realized that all of the changes that needed to be made were well within the workload of M, back at his computer in his office.

          Everyone was still a little confused about why Kristen and I had not yet finished the teachers' manual for the book. We have tried on several occasions to explain that since the teachers' manual is essentially the students' book, but with a lot of extra directions added for the benefit of the teachers, any changes made to the student book would the have to be made again on the teachers' edition. For efficiency, Kristen and I wanted to make the changes only once. Our idea was to wait until the student book was completed and approved. Then, all we would need to do was add the necessary directions to one copy of it, thereby creating the teachers' manual.

          This rationale still eludes our counterparts. I did get a call on Thursday evening, though, from D, to tell me that their work was finished on the students' edition. We arranged for me to go to IPN at 9:00 on Sunday morning, transfer the now-finished student book to the flash disk, and then Kristen and I will be able to turn it into the teachers' manual.

          We made the transfer all right, and D told me that our supervisor would like to have the work completed as soon as possible. I went to the PC bureau to find that the electricity had been off for most of the day, so I was unable to get access to the computers there.

           That call from D came while I had a record-breaking houseful of people for soup, bread, and fruit salad. Fifteen people showed up, and it was the first time that we ran out of soup. Some of the people were there for the first time, spending a night in Nouakchott before they went on vacation to Morocco. One of the people there was Janine, whose mother regularly reads my website and has asked Janine if she had ever come to my house for dinner. Yes, Donna, Janine finally made it!

           On Friday I paid a visit to Babah's family's house in the outskirts of Nouakchott. They have wanted me to come back ever since I went there the last time, and I have been resisting, mostly because of how uncomfortable it is. They are nice people and are very kind to me. I have been in many Mauritanian homes, and do not need to have a luxurious setting in order to visit people. In this house, though, the matalas where we sit are the same ones that the kids sleep on, and they have been permeated with the children's urine, which has an overpowering stench. Maybe the people in the house don't notice it anymore.

           I could also see, by the filthy condition of the toilets, why Babah likes to take a shower at my house when he comes by for breakfast.

           When the communal lunch platter came, nobody washed hands before digging right into the rice and fish. Babah's sister had prepared a delicious meatless soup for me and Babah; when we were finished, one of the older sisters picked up one of the spoons we had used so that she could polish off the last drops of soup.

           The flies were persistent, landing all over me, the matala around me, and the food.

           At all the other homes I have visited, there has been a wide range of amenities, but the families generally pay scrupulous attention to cleanliness.

           Mamouni successfully led Jessica and Scott to signing their apartment lease. He was there when they handed over a deposit of three months rent to the owner. He immediately received his commission for the deal: a cool 50,000 ouguiya. He liked getting that quick money from this business transaction, and has begun to ask around for other people who need to find housing. Looks like Mamouni has a new second career going for him!

           Babah has negotiated some work reduction at Gallerie Tata. The owner of the store likes him and has raised his salary to 30,000 ouguiya, which is comparable to what many teachers earn. He is thrilled to be procuringing so much. (It amounts to about $100 a month.)

           On Friday night, some of the employees of the American embassy invited everyone to a party at their house, only about two blocks away from mine. Before we went, Annika, Jigar and I pondered if there would be any food we would want to eat. We decided that the best approach was to make our own meat-free dinner at the house and then go to the party.

           Sure enough, upon our arrival, the first thing we saw were the skewers of meat on the grill. There were a few other items that we could eat, but it was just as well that we had already taken care of that. They were serving something that we didn't have at the house, though: wine and beer, which are always vegetarian and always welcome.

           The Israeli embassy has a two-person staff here: the ambassador and the second secretary. When the former ambassador left last fall, there was no permanent replacement for him. Now, the second secretary is leaving with his wife and newborn son. I ran into them the other evening and he happily told me where their new post is going to be: San Francisco!

          I told Shai, "That's where I live." He said, "I know. That's why I told you." They will be there for two years, so they will be starting their second year by the time I get home