Big changes in three weeks


            When I left my apartment on Monday morning, the first daylight I was seeing since returning from vacation, I noticed that the bougainvillea around my house was blooming once again. Only three weeks earlier, the bougainvillea all over Nouakchott were wearing only their green leaves; the colorful blossoms – the yellows, oranges, magentas, reds, and pinks – had still not grown back after being ravaged by the locusts. They are now in full bloom all over town, giving the splashes of color that this desolate city needs so desperately. In addition, the leaves on the big tree in front of my house, which had just started to sprout during the last month, were much more full, and well on their way to being back to their pre-locust state.


            In mid-November, when I was getting my hair cut, I took a quick look at the television screen in the barbershop. It was tuned to the only Mauritanian station in the country, which was showing a public service announcement demonstrating the appearance of new ouguiya bank notes, complete with information about the innovations in anti-counterfeiting features. Senegalese television is prevalent here, and I had seen similar announcements explaining the new FCFA bills that are in circulation there, so I was familiar with the format of these announcements.

            Wow! New ouguiya? When?, I asked the barber. Soon. That was as specific as he could get.

            Of course, I was hopeful that if the government, in addition to going to the trouble of printing newly-designed notes, would add a new one in a higher denomination; the current values of the bills (and their equivalencies in American dollars) are 100 ($.33), 200 ($.66), 500 ($1.66) and 1,000 ($3.33) ouguiya. A new bill of 5,000 ($16) or 10,000 ($33) ouguiya would be very handy for large purchases or payments.

            The day after I left for Mali, the 28th of November, is Mauritanian Independence Day, and that is the date of the launching of the new bills. The entire line of notes has been redesigned.

            I enjoyed my walk to the bank that Monday morning, gazing at all the new leaves and blossoms. I was on my way to withdraw my weekly maximum from the ATM. As it spit out the bills, I got to see the new notes for the first time – a combination of 1,000- and 2,000-ouguiya bills. Yes, the new bill, now the highest one in circulation, is 2,000 ouguiya, worth a little more than $6.50. I guess we have to accept this small improvement just as it is!

            All of the new bills are smaller than the old ones, and they now more closely approach the familiar size of American banknotes. Each of them has been artistically and colorfully designed. The 100 ouguiya note retains its purple-and-magenta color scheme; the 200 is copper-colored; the 500 is Kelly green. Where as the old 1,000 was sky blue in color, the new one is predominantly blue-green, leaning toward the blue. The new 2,000 note has a green color that is somewhat reminiscent of that used in American money. The colors of the 1,000 and 2,000 are very close to each other, though.

            I have heard stories concerning motivation for changing the design of the currency. Legends abound of many wealthy families with entire rooms filled with money in their homes. They have chosen not to put their money in the country’s banks, where the government would like it to be. By issuing new notes, the government has now decreed a three-month period during which all the old bills in circulation must be exchanged for new ones, after which they will lose their value.

            My knowledge of economics is shaky, so I am not exactly clear on the economic effect of hoarding money in a house rather than in a bank. In any event, in addition to the convenience of a higher-value bank note, we will also benefit, by the end of February, by having no bills in circulation older than three months. If you could see some of the filthy, tattered, taped-and-stapled bills circulating here, you wouldn’t believe it. Some of them have been pieced together using copious amounts of adhesive products.. I am certain that if the cellophane could be extracted from the paper, we would find that the paper money itself weighs less than the tape being used to hold it together.


            Lots of our first-year PCVs are in Nouakchott now. They have successfully spent their first three months at their sites, which is a requirement of all Volunteers upon being sworn in. It is amusing to observe that they have the same reaction to Nouakchott that we had when we arrived: at first blush, all of us thought that it was desolate, dirty, depressing, a dump, with nothing redeeming about it. After more than five months divided between Kaédi and their new villages and towns – even more bleak than Nouakchott, if you can believe that – the capital is looking quite appealing to everyone after all, and they cannot believe that they once thought it was unattractive!

            Adriana, one of our first-years, has been reading my online journal and told me that she wanted to come and help me “make a big old vat of soup,” as she has read about online. We enjoyed working together in my kitchen, and the soup that we made was from a mix that was sent to me by Janine’s mom, who also reads my posts. Part of the dinner crowd included Erin P., who is not only part of my training group, but we recently found out that her mother, an RPCV who served in Malaysia, is the friend of a friend of mine.

            I am grateful that the Internet has made the world a little smaller for me and has facilitated in the circulation of much of this information.


            The weather has cooled down significantly. The evenings have been delightful for sleeping; last night I even used a blanket. For two days now I have worn a long-sleeved fleece jacket during the daytime for the first time since my arrival here (I had previously worn it outdoors only once, during an evening).


            One sure thing about life is that we continue to be faced with lessons we need to learn. According to some people who have given this a lot of consideration, we are presented with continuous opportunities to learn lessons from our lives, and that these situations come at us until we learn what we are supposed to learn from them. For whatever reason, I choose to believe this; it’s just something that makes sense to me – a way to make progress in our lives. Right now, I am working on figuring out what my telephone saga is supposed to teach me.

            I wrote in a previous posting that my cellular phone was stolen in Mali, not just on Peace Corps property, but in the guard station where it was supposed to have been secured. One thing that I had done – “just in case” – was that before I left Nouakchott, I removed the SIM card from the phone. This is the little chip that has the phone number imbedded in it. PCV Jessica also helped me by transferring my address book from the phone itself onto the SIM card. Just before I left on vacation, I took advantage of a Ramadan special sale that the Mauritel, one of the phone companies, was having, in which they offered 15,000 ouguiya in credit for the price of 10,000 – an offer I didn’t want to pass up. By the time I left on vacation, there was still t least 14,000 ouguiya of value on my account.

            By leaving the SIM card in Nouakchott, I would still have the phone number, the stored information such as my address book, and the credit that I had purchased, in the event that the phone itself were lost, damaged, or stolen. I have to admit to being just a little too pleased with myself about taking this extra precaution.

            Buying a SIM card is a Big Deal in this country. When a foreigner buys one, he has to produce a passport. His name, passport number, and the phone number are linked. He gets a receipt for the SIM card, which he must keep in a safe place. In the event of stolen phones, a new SIM card can be purchased and then programmed to have the same phone number as the previous one, but the owner is supposed to show the original receipt and the information is supposed to match what was provided at the time of purchase.

            I bought my phone from a friend who was leaving Mauritania. He left just after I swore in as a Volunteer, and I was unaware at the time of the importance of getting original documentation for the SIM card purchase. In any event, since it was he who had purchased the card, it was his name that Mauritel was going to be looking for. This was a process I was looking forward to avoiding, hence the motivating reason for leaving the SIM card in Nouakchott in the first place.

            Toward the end of my vacation, while I was in Burkina Faso, a realization hit me: each Mauritanian region in which there are Volunteers has what is referred to as a “regional phone,”  the property of the Peace Corps. For the purpose of keeping communication open between Volunteers and the bureau, especially in the case of emergencies, each region has a Regional Coordinator (PCVRC). I am the PCVRC for Nouakchott, which means that I should be able to have use of the regional phone; it’s just something I had never asked for, since I had my own.

            I contacted our Country Director to explain my telephone situation to him, and I asked him if I could use the Nouakchott regional phone; he agreed. It meant that all I would need to do, then, was put my existing SIM card into the new phone, and I would be back in business. At the moment, though, there was no regional phone on hand for Nouakchott; it was an item that needed to be purchased, and our Country Director was willing to authorize that expense.

            I learned on Tuesday that the new phone would be at the bureau by Wednesday afternoon, and that I could pick it up before 4:30. In anticipation of being “connected” that afternoon, I put my SIM card in a plastic baggie and then put that baggie in the bag that I carried around for the day.

            When I got the phone itself, I could see that I was in for a bit of trouble, as the instruction manual for the new phone was in Arabic. I tend not to be very intuitive when it comes to the operation of new electronic gadgets, and I do not take to them easily, so I would  be very needy of any help I could get with the operation of the new gadget. The employee who had purchased the phone said that he would see about getting a new guide in English or French, which would be very helpful to me.

            I reached into my bag to take out the SIM card, only to find that it wasn’t there. Oh, well, I must have left it on the dining room table, I thought. I got home, only to find that it was nowhere in the entire apartment. It must have come out of my bag at some point during the day, but how? I had spent much of the afternoon showing a first-year Volunteer around Nouakchott for her first visit here. We made several stops, including a fabric shop at Marché Capitale. The SIM card, in its little baggie, could be anywhere in Nouakchott!

            I woke up on Thursday morning with the thought that it must have come out with the folder that I removed from my bag in the fabric shop. I have made my own map of Marché Capitale, and I offered her a copy of it, so that she could find her way back to some of the merchants I have indicated on there as being particularly friendly or giving a Peace Corps discount.

            With that being the most likely place where I could have lost the card, I went directly to the market and asked the proprietor if he or anyone else there had picked up the bag with the SIM card in it. Nobody had. Meanwhile, of course, I had been running into people who have been telling me that they have tried to call me and that my phone was not working.

            Now that I had a missing SIM card, there was only one thing to do: head over to Mauritel to get a new one. My friend Mamouni graciously agreed to do the driving, and we were in a race against time since it was Thursday afternoon and offices were going to close a little early just before the weekend.

            The first thing I needed to do at the Mauritel office was to show my passport, which I did not have with me because I had already turned it in to the Peace Corps after my vacation; the Peace Corps bureau closed at noon on this particular Thursday, so I couldn’t get into the safe for the passport. I remembered that I always travel with a photocopy of the passport identification page, and asked the Mauritel employee if it would be acceptable to furnish a photocopy, rather than the passport itself; he said yes. Mamouni drove me home to get it, and then back to Mauritel.

            Between the helpful Mauritel employee and the cashier who was a friend of Mamouni’s, they seemed to be able to fast-track getting my phone number back into operation. They told me that it would be working by 4:00 that afternoon. Four o’clock came and went, however, and I had no phone service. That continued the following day, too. At one point, Mamouni called my number to see if it was working. He told me that somebody answered, but did not speak to him, so he could not tell what language the person spoke. That gave us the information that the SIM card had been found and was currently in use by somebody, my credit being reduced with every phone call that the person was making.

            All day Friday, the phone displayed the message that it had a SIM card that had not been properly registered. Then, when I turned the phone on on Saturday morning, it showed that it was operational!

            So, what am I supposed to learn from all this? I have a few thoughts on the matter. One of my strongest sensations is that I was just a little too attached to my desire to be The Volunteer Whose Phone Never Got Lost or Stolen. I don’t have a survey on the situation, but it seems to me that at least half of the PCVs here have had this happen to them, in one form or another. Others see me – and I see myself – as being mature and organized... The Responsible One. But stupid things like this happen to responsible people, too, and it’s not always possible to be prepared for any eventuality. That is part of the lesson I have learned.

            Throughout the ordeal, I consistently reminded myself that I had no broken bones and no spilled blood – something to be grateful for, even though there was a lot of hassle involved in the process. It’s not always easy to be thankful for what didn’t happen in the midst of what did. Therein lies another lesson for me.


            I finished the first of these books before I left on vacation. Carl had the second one with him. Thanks to the voluminous PCV libraries in Mali and Burkina Faso, I was able to pick up all the other books while traveling. And thanks to long bus rides and some quiet evenings in hotel rooms, I was able to get a lot of reading done during the last month.

            The inaugural edition of The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2002 joined the Best American series, edited and with an introduction by Dave Eggers. I didn’t realize until I had it in my hand that the writing was targeted to the age group of fifteen to twenty-five. Once I found out about that, I was expecting lots of rants against parents and other authority figures. There were a few selections that were heavy on the drugs and drinking, but I was pleased to find many thoughtful pieces in the book. Overall, I enjoyed it.

            In The Cruelest Journey: Six Hundred Miles to Timbuktu, Kira Salak takes a solo kayak trip on the Niger River, completing the journey in Timbuktu. I haven’t usually made it a point to read books about places where I was going, either before I went or while I was there, but Carl brought the book with him on the trip and finished it while we were together, with enough time for me to read it and then give it back to him. Salak’s journey was colored by the fact that she was doing this as a lone Caucasian woman, which had a range of responses on the part of the people she met along the river, from hospitality to hostility.

            The author provided me with a comment I enjoyed adding to my book of quotations: “If a journey doesn’t have something to teach you about yourself, then what kind of journey is it? There is one thing I’m already certain of: Though we may think we choose our journeys they choose us.”

            Paul Monette won the National Book Award for fiction in 1992 with his autobiographical Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story. The book goes back to his elementary school days and deals with the struggles that he had emerging from both his family’s poverty and his own sexuality as a gay man. He wrote with humor, compassion, insight, and clarity, chronicling his days in prep school, Yale, and beyond.

            I had a good time with Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Author Anne Lamott has a wicked sense of humor and I got a huge kick out of her similes, metaphors, and other out-in-left-field references. A good sense of humor is always a fine way to get a message across to me. Most delightful of all, I have recently come to learn that she is the friend of a dear friend of mine, so I may even have an opportunity to meet her once I get home, which I would welcome.

            It’s been more than thirty-five years since I have read J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Recently I thought I would read it again, if only I could find a copy. Then, when I saw it on the shelf of a Peace Corps library in Mali, I grabbed it. The book brought back wonderful memories for me, and it doesn’t take much for me to begin talking like Holden Caulfield, if you know what I mean.

            Most people are aware that Paul Newman has an extensive line of food products on sale in markets all over the world, and that his company donates all profits to charity. Shameless Exploitation in Pursuit of the Common Good: The Madcap Business Adventure by the Truly Oddest Couple, is the behind-the-scenes story of Newman and A. E. Hotchner, who have been the inspiration of the products since their development. It’s always uplifting to read about people who are using their lives, talents, and wealth to foment goodness in the world.

            Fishing in the Sky: The Education of Namory Keita is a Peace Corps story by Donald Lawder who began serving in Mali shortly after he turned sixty-six. I was happy to read about the experiences of an older PCV, and I started reading the book in Mali, though I had recently left Bamako, where he taught. In his case, he had the interesting twist of not being pleased with readjustment to life upon his return to the USA when his service was over, so he decided to live in Mali with his adopted family there.

            The Power of Travel: A Passport to Adventure, Discovery, and Growth is a collection of thoughts about the various components of travel. Steve Zikman has written intelligently about following the impulses leading up to a journey, the journey itself, and the freedom, discovery, encounters, joy, challenges, insights, and growth that travelers experience.

            When I first heard about Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players, by Stefan Fatsis, I cut out an article about it and gave it to my friend Patti, a word freak and avid Scrabble player herself. I had no idea what went on in this world: the memorizing of huge word lists, the strategies of playing letter tiles, and the personalities involved among the players. An enjoyable component to the book was that after he had committed to write it, the author became a Scrabble player and competitor himself. The reader could follow his being pulled into the arena of competition, which gave added color to the writing.

            Susan Orlean’s special talent is her ability to describe ordinary people in everyday situations in such a way that she makes them sound fascinating and unique. The premise of Saturday Night is to explore a variety of different venues and activities in which people spend their Saturday nights. She traveled around the United States and wrote about people who were car cruising in Indiana, polka dancing in Maryland, working in the nation’s busiest restaurant in Massachusetts, and babysitting in New York, among other activities and locales, for a total of fifteen different scenarios. As a testament to the high quality of her writing, there was not anything that she wrote about that I would have been highly interested in doing, yet she made it all sound enjoyable.