A week in Chinguetti


Chinguetti, Chinguetty, Chingitty, Chingitti, Chingetti, Chingetty. There is not unanimous agreement on how to spell the name of this city. That is understandable, as the name is written in Arabic letters, and people do the best they can with the sounds when they transliterate it to Roman letters.

In any event, I was with thirteen other PCVs in Chinguetti for one week, while the rest of Mauritania was dealing with the presidential election on the 7th of November. Our Peace Corps administration decided that, in light of the coup attempt that took place in June, it would be prudent to get all Volunteers out of the larger cities and put us in smaller towns located in remote parts of the country.

The plan worked well. All groups had opportunities to get to know each other better, and we got to see parts of Mauritania that we otherwise may not have seen. Once again, we got to see some of the logistics that it takes to pull of a maneuver like this: three Volunteers flew in from the northern reaches of Nouadhibou to drive with five Nouakchott Volunteers to Chinguetti, located in the region called the Adrar. On the way, we picked up three in Atar. We joined two who live in Chinguetti; then our driver went to Ouadane to get our fourteenth.

Several people from the United States have e-mailed me to say that they heard news about the elections on the radio, television, or in newspapers. The sitting president was re-elected and there were no disturbances, so we can all get back to our lives as normal.

Most of Mauritania is desert, and I was surprised to see that it is not all the same. There are several different types of landscape: rolling hills of sand with very little greenery; flat rocky areas with short scruffy shrubs; sandy areas with patches of grass; fields with trees; and dramatic mountains.

Some of the driving that we did was on a paved road, some was on a hard dirt road, and the most difficult was on no road at all, but directly on the desert sand, which meant that there was lots of bumpy riding. Most of the days we traveled, we did not see any other cars on the road.

The Peace Corps car we were in is nicknamed the "Vomit Comet," and for good reason. Fortunately, though, only one person in our group threw up, and he managed to do it right after we stopped for a rest, with his head out the window.

According to the guide at one of the ancient libraries there, Chinguetti was founded in the year 777. It is considered to be the seventh holiest city of Islam. In its heyday, it was a bustling crossroads for camel caravans traversing the desert. There used to be as many as 32,000 camels going through there every day!

One of the highlights of the trip was an opportunity to ride on camels. There are many tourists who come here - mostly from France - and pay a lot of money to do this! But since some of the Volunteers have been living in the area, and they have local connections, they were able to arrange for us to do it for much less. Also, the tourists usually take long trips across the desert, walking with and/or riding the camels for three days. I was very happy NOT to be with them for that long!

I should also explain that even though people use the word "camel," these are technically not camels, but dromedaries. If you feel like being adventurous and checking out the difference between a camel and a dromedary, let me know what it is!

Twenty minutes in the saddle were enough for me! There are no stirrups for the rider's feet, and the camel doesn't like to have feet on his neck, so sitting up there, the rider has to use his own leg muscles to hold his feet behind him, which gets to be tiring after a while.

Our gathering place for camel riding was the oasis of Tendewaly, about an hour's walk from Chinguetti. There were eleven of us who wanted to ride, and only three camels for us to share. When we were not taking our turns on the camels, we were lounging under a tent-like structure called a haima. It has a fabric top that is propped up by poles, and the sides are sometimes open and sometimes walled with an assortment of branches.

This area of the country is predominantly Hassaniya-speaking. The word toubab for foreigners is more common among black Africans, both here in Nouakchott and in the south of the country. Up in the Adrar, though, we got used to being called a new word - nasrani - which derives from the word Nazarene and the assumption that we Caucasian foreigners are Christian.

Our last night of the week we spent at the Terjit oasis, south of Atar. It is beautifully placed in a narrow passage between two mountains. What a magical setting: tall palm trees filling the space between two cliffs, a crystal clear stream flowing at the base of the palms, water cascading down the side of the mountains, a natural pool for swimming, and open-air haimas for lounging and sleeping. It was enjoyable to hike above the trees to the top of the cliffs, and stand above the palm trees, seeing the mass of green palm fronds below.

Our group had one haima, there were a few French tour groups in others, a French family in one, and two Dutch guys in their own. The place looked like it had been created as a set for "Fantasy Island," and we were thrilled to be there for our last night together before the five-hour trip back to Nouakchott.

The day after we got back, I received wonderful news: my second package of books finally arrived! I had sent two boxes to myself from the same post office on the nineteenth of June, the week before I left San Francisco. The first one got here on the 18th of September, and I have absolutely no idea why the second one took almost two additional months, but I am pleased that it is here.

For the entire time between the end of school on the 6th of June and my departure for staging in Philadelphia on the 23rd , I worked all day every day those sixteen days to prepare for my stay here. Being as busy as I was, I did not take the time to write packing slips. I did know, though, in general terms, what I had.

The bulk of the weight of these boxes was books, but I did use leftover space to squeeze in a few other essentials. I had heard that the quality of bed linens here was very low, so I decided to use a set of sheets and pillow cases as stuffing. When the first box arrived, the pillow cases were in there. Odd, I thought, that I would not put the sheets in the same box, but I remember how crazed I was during those days. All right. I would wait for the second box, and then I would have my sheets.

I had already read every book that was in the first box, so I had high anticipation for more reading material, as well as the sheets. When I opened the box, however, I could see that the sheets were not there! The only other thing I can think of offhand that is missing are my little notepads (I jokingly call them "Palm Pilots"); I had purchased at least half a dozen of them at one of the office supply stores, but there were only three of them in the box.

This was the second time in two weeks that something was missing from a package sent from the United States. Just the week before, my friend Marian had sent me some dish towels, a can opener, and a thumb drive for use in a computer. The thumb drive, by far the most valuable item in the bubblepack envelope, was in there, as were the dish towels. But the can opener was not there!

I continue to be impressed by the trusting nature of people in business here. Two events that happened on the same day:

I bought two rolls at a bakery/restaurant. They amounted to 60 ouguiya, and when I handed over my bill 100-ouguiya bill, the worker told me that he had no coins to make change. I motioned to give back the bread, but he told me to keep the rolls - just come in some other time with the money. (I was in the neighborhood that evening and paid then.)

When I picked up pictures from two rolls of film that I had developed, I immediately ordered some reprints, as I couldn't resist the idea of making multiple copies of pictures of me atop a camel. I realized I didn't have enough money with me to pay for the photos, and I told the man behind the counter that I would just leave everything there, and pay for the pictures when I picked up the reprints. He insisted that I take the photos with me, and told me that I could pay for it all later.

This trusting attitude is endemic. Perhaps it is partly fed by the scarcity of coins and small bills. There is not a boutique in my neighborhood where I have not owed or been owed up to 100 ouguiya at one time or another. I live close to one of the largest "super marchés" in town. They seem to have a policy of not dealing with coins. If my total bill is 1420 ouguiya and I hand over 1500, I always get 100 back - not 80.

Not all business flows so smoothly or predictably. I wrote a few weeks ago about the first ATM to open here, and how I got a card so that I could use it. I went to the bank at 7:30 last Thursday evening, and found that the door leading to the two ATMs was locked! File this under "UNCLEAR ON THE CONCEPT" of what an ATM is for.

I am working on getting used to the way people socialize here. Everyone says it is African, not just Mauritanian. I am loathe to paint an entire continent with one brush - considering the huge diversity of cultures and societies - but people seem to say that there are some social norms that predominate everywhere and can be considered to be pan-African.

One observation that I have made that is in stark contrast to American and European society is the way that people drop in on each other, no matter the time of day or night. I have a limited number of people in the US to whom I might do that, and who would do that to me. But here, it is a socially accepted norm.

I am trying to get with the flow here, in more ways than one. I enjoy my PCV colleagues and have met some French people, too. At the same time, I need to be able to socialize with the Africans who live here, and do it on their terms, too.

Saturday morning, I could feel a wonderful breeze coming through my windows. Ahhhh - fresh air, not too hot, so it would be a good day to get out and take a long walk. I headed for the homes of some people who live here on the other side of town.

First was Salif, the brother-in-law of Ibrahima and Julie in San Francisco. When I got about a kilometer from his house, I thought better of just dropping in, even though I knew it would be all right. Also, I didn't want to go all that way and have him or the family not be there. So I got "American" on him and called. He was home, and it was all right for me to come by.

All I had to do was find the house! I had been there before, but only in the dark. Luckily, my sense of direction and visual memory are still working well enough. I had remembered that the number of the house had three of the digits from 1947, the year I was born, and that they were in the correct order. I thought I was looking for 947, but when I got to the house they turned out to be 147. That's fine - there is no discernible order to house numbering here anyway.

Salif and I talked about the presidential election for a while. The family offered me something to drink, but I refused because it is still Ramadan. I am not fasting for Ramadan, but I will not eat or drink in front of people who are.(When I was in Morocco and buying food in the markets during Ramadan, the vendors always offered me samples. When I refused, they were especially appreciative. I decided to continue the same practice here.)

Then I headed off to the home of the family who hosted me for two weeks in August. That scene was less straightforward and a little puzzling. They didn't know I was coming, of course, but were very happy to see me. I was ushered into the room where the television was playing, and I joined four people who were watching it.

Over the next forty-five minutes, the other people left the room one by one, until I was the only one left. I am not fond of television, so there was no incentive for me to stay there by myself. I decided that I would just leave. As I did, Fatou, the mother of the family, saw me from her room, where she was laying down, and came out to express her disappointment that I was going.

It didn't make sense to me to explain that I was leaving because there was nobody there to socialize with, so I just said I had to go and that I would come back another time. In the meanwhile, I will speak to some people here at the Peace Corps to see if I can get an interpretation about what happened and how to proceed for future interactions.

In a previous posting, I reviewed the books I had read so far. I will continue to do this, not only for those of you who are reading this, but as a means of maintaining a chronicle for myself. With most of these books, I have been passing them along to others as I finish them. That way, there will not be two boxes of books to send home to myself at the close of service!

Younger Than That Now: A Peace Corps Volunteer Remembers Morocco by Michael Moran
This has been my least favorite book so far. The author was a teacher in a small town in Morocco. He takes us through his relationships, but the one that predominates is with a Scottish woman he meets on vacation after his first year. It's a good example of the book that I don't want to write!

The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz
If each of us were to incorporate these four simple agreements into our relationships, we would be happier and the world would be a better place. It is an easy book to read and understand. The information is probably not new to anyone who reads the book, but it serves as an excellent confirmation of what we already knew concerning how to treat each other and ourselves with the love and respect we deserve.

The Village of Waiting by George Packer
The author was in the PC in Togo in the Eighties. This is the best book I have read so far that was written by a PCV author. His observations are keen, descriptions are vivid, and he conveys his caring for the villagers with whom he lived and worked. He builds wonderful relationships and he also manages to give information about the political situations through which they are living.

Africa Solo: A Journey Across the Sahara, Sahel, and Congo by Kevin Kertscher
In the Seventies, I took my own hitchhiking trip. But that was across and around North America - not nearly as exciting as Africa in the Nineties. It's the kind of trip I may once have taken, but am no longer interested in. I enjoyed his adventures. He writes well and paints wonderful images with words. Along his route, he meets a significant number of PCVs, which leads to a thank you in the acknowledgments.

At Wit's End by Erma Bombeck
With all my other books finished, I visited the Nouakchott English Center and found very few titles of interest, except for this throwback to the Sixties! Erma was a funny gal.

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Islam by Yahiya Emerick
This is not one that I am reading straight through, but more as a reference book to understanding the dominant religion in my new environment. Before I came here, I thought it would be a good idea to have some of this knowledge with me. It is well-written and providing me with information I can use.