Carl, Thanksgiving, and Bamako

 

           My friend Carl is visiting from San Francisco. He arrived on Wednesday after a few days earlier in Dakar. Before he arrived, I prepared a lentil stew, and for his first dinner in Nouakchott, I served it over rice. But before we ate, I told him, We have lentil stew, but it could be curry lentil stew if you want to get the curry out of that backpack. He had brought me curry and a few other spices from the wonderful Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco, as well as some sugar-free hot chocolate mix, books, a new watch, and other provisions that I asked for. In keeping with the season, I was thankful!

           I am the third PCV friend whom Carl has visited at his site. The other two were in the Dominican Republic and Thailand.

*****

           Thanksgiving started a four-day weekend for Peace Corps and US embassy employees; it ended with the celebration of Mauritanian Independence Day on Sunday.

           Since Thanksgiving is not a Mauritanian holiday, it was business as usual for those of us working with Mauritanians. Carl accompanied me to my American Civilization class, which once again showed an increased attendance – 31 this week. We had a fairly lively discussion. After last week’s topic, comparing the advantages and disadvantages of “Western Civilization,” I asked the students to come up with a list of the same for their own society.

           As students were discussing this among themselves, Carl made his way around the classroom to take pictures of students. Many of the students asked if they could have their picture taken with me; Carl took them and said he would make prints and send them to us after he gets home.

*****

           From class, I had wanted to go directly to our Country Director’s house, where the Thanksgiving meal was being prepared. Carl suggested that we go to the Air Mauritanie office to confirm the tickets that we had for our trip to Mali on Saturday. I honestly thought that he was being a worry-wart and that this would be an unnecessary formality, a waste of time. Reluctantly, I agreed to go there. After all, we were dealing with Air Mauritanie. What could possibly go wrong?

           When we got to the office, the employee at the computer screen informed me that there was a problem. After about half an hour of sly “I told you so” smiles from Carl, the manager of the agency came out and introduced himself to us, explaining that there was a problem and that we would all have to go together in his car to the Air France office in another part of town.

           What eventually happened was this: the flight from Nouakchott to Bamako was rescheduled with a new flight number. Instead of leaving at 7:00 on Saturday morning, it was now to leave at 2:30 in the afternoon. This was not a huge problem. One may think that people with tickets on one flight might be automatically moved to the rescheduled flight – but there is not much “automatic” going on here!

           The rest of my itinerary was a problem of greater proportions, however: in addition to going to Mali for two weeks, I was also holding tickets for flights from Bamako, Mali to Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso and then onward from Ouagadougou back to Nouakchott, all issued on Air Mauritanie, which has canceled those flights.

           I found out later in the day, after telling my Country Director at Thanksgiving what had happened: the Mauritanian government suspects that there are people in Burkina Faso who were complicit in coup attempts in Nouakchott. For that reason, they have canceled all flights going to Ouagadougou (note: pronounced WAH-gah-doo-goo, and usually referred to by just the first two syllables).

           At this point, then, I knew that I would be able to get out of Mauritania, but not how I would get back.

*****

           Thanksgiving was wonderful. There must have been more than thirty people, all in good spirits, all happy to be together, and a most amazing bounty of delicious food. Several of the PCVs had been cooking in the Country Director’s kitchen for days!

           With all those people in the house, you would think that there would have been plenty of time to talk to them, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. In one room a large group spent most of the day watching television (movies or videos; I don’t know) and in another, many were playing a board game. Neither activity is very conducive to having meaningful discussion, so I was only able to catch up with those who were socializing

*****

           The day after Thanksgiving, I had arranged with my friend Mamouni to drive Carl and me to visit the homes of some friends – all Mauritanians. We visited four households in something of a whirlwind tour, and I believe that Carl had a good time meeting people in their homes, as well as the traditional lunch that we ate.

*****

           On Saturday, it was off to Bamako, and I was grateful that the departure of the flight had been pushed back a few hours, because it gave me a better chance to get ready. The flight was delayed, of course, but leaving an hour late counts for “on time” with Air Mauritanie.

           With our stop to discharge and pick up passengers in Dakar, we arrived after dark in Bamako, which is something I like to avoid when visiting new places, but can’t always be helped. We went directly to the Peace Corps residence called the “stage house,” where we found Volunteers ready to be helpful and give us some friendly advice. We could have stayed there in the dorm-like rooms, but decided to go to a nearby hotel instead.

           The next day, a funny thing happened: after being scrupulously careful with all the food and water that I had been providing for Carl, so that he would not get sick, it was I who woke up with diarrhea, lightheadedness, and an overall feeling of malaise.

           Not only is Carl a physician assistant – he’s my physician assistant, as he works at the office of my doctor in San Francisco, my primary care provider. He carried with him not only his own portable pharmacy, but his excellent knowledge of what I needed to do in order to feel better.

           I didn’t want my feeling sick to get me down, so we plodded on with our itinerary, which included only one stop that we wanted to make: the Musée National du Mali. One of the Volunteers told us that the museum had recently been renovated. We found the building and display of art to be delightful.

           There were three exhibitions: the fabric of Mali, artifacts unearthed during archaeological digs during the fifties, and objects used in religious (other than Muslim) celebrations.

           By the time we were finished with the museum, though, I had about had it. Feverish, I was happy to get back to the hotel. I did have an appetite, though, which I took to be a good sign. After dinner, all I could do was read for a little while and then crash. I told Carl, This is going to be over tomorrow! I am going to feel better!

           And that is exactly what happened: I woke up on Monday feeling 100% better, so it must have been some sort of twenty-four hour bug.

           *****

            People who have been reading my posts have had ample opportunity to get my perspective about life in Mauritania. I thought that it may be refreshing to have a few words from Carl. His impressions about Mauritania follow:

           This is probably the only e-mail I'll ever send you from Nouakchott because I'm leaving this afternoon and I don't expect that I'll ever come back here.

           In the last few days, as I've looked around Nouakchott, Mauritania – that world-renowned capital or desert outpost or hell hole, take your pick – I saw nothing decorative or colorful or attractive. The adjectives that I most commonly use here are bleak and desolate. The city does nothing to encourage a return
visit.

           However, here I have had the biggest surprise of my trip so far. Less than an hour after I arrived in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, I was talking with a man who wore the long, loose-fitting clothing that I associate typically with conservative, religious Muslims. He asked me about my work, and I replied. He continued to ask more and more questions until we were talking about prostate health and ejaculations. When he departed, I was in a state of disbelief. Two days later he was asking me about HIV risk and transmission, and we were discussing different sexual activities. I came to understand that I was the first person he felt comfortable to ask those questions and discuss those topics, and he forced me to look beyond my perception of the traditional outlook that his
clothing suggested to me.

           We spoke comfortably in English and Spanish, as he teaches both, and he also fluently speaks French and Hassaniya (the Mauritanian dialect of Arabic). No doubt that he's unusual among Mauritanians or people anywhere, but this educated, inquisitive, friendly Moor (Arab) left me with a shattered stereotype. That is among the best rewards of international travel.

Part of Carl’s journal entry from Thursday:

           I sat in on Jay's American Culture class this morning and enjoyed watching him teach the university students. The students were discussing with Jay a reading assignment from the book Gods, Guns, and Steel about the basis for different rates of development among peoples of different religious, cultural, and geographical backgrounds. The discussion was lively and fascinating as the students talked about advantages and disadvantages between Western and African cultures/societies. Technology and democracy were clear advantages for the West; spiritual values and respect for women were advantages for Africa. I was surprised when one Moor student said that Mauritania is a rich country. One student lived in the States and in Spain and spoke English and Spanish well. The Moor students largely sat separately from the black students. The Moor men wore loose white or blue boubous (long shawls), and the women covered their heads and some covered part of their faces. The black men mostly wore western clothes, and the women wore colorful pagnes. I brought surplus drug-company pens to give away, which the students were grateful for. Most were smiling and friendly as I photographed them, some requesting I take specific photos.

            As we rode around the city today, Jay pointed out the only area looking like a park, and it looked bleak, as does much of the city. If not bleak, perhaps desolate is a good adjective for this desert city. I think I saw only 2 buildings more than 3 floors high. Most women wore full head-to-toe coverings. Most men wore Islamic boubous. I saw nothing decorative or colorful in Nouakchott. I saw few trees. Mauritania needed a capital once it gained independence from France and separated from Senegal in 1960, and the people created Nouakchott quickly with no planning. It shows. Designed for 200,000 people, Nouakchott now has more than 1 million. There's nothing attractive or interesting here, sadly. I saw no reason I'd ever want to be in Nouakchott.

           It's the first time I've celebrated Thanksgiving dinner outside the States, which fulfilled my years-long, previously unknown dream of Thanksgiving in Nouakchott, Mauritania. Isn't that everyone's dream? Dinner with the PCVs and other guests was a lot of fun. We gathered at the unexpectedly (for me) large, modern, air-conditioned, wonderful home the PC director for Mauritania. Dinner included turkey, 4 stuffings, curried apple and butternut squash soup, mashed potatoes and gravy, spinach, sweet potato with applies casserole, a walnut-feta spread, and pumpkin pie, courtesy of the 2 cans of pumpkin-pie filling I carried thousands of miles. Five turkeys had been ordered from Senegal. We drank sangria made with bissap, a drink from a local leaf, instead of wine from grapes. I met good people and learned from volunteers about their work and social and political conditions in Mauritania.

           I've seen some local men on the streets here with a very pronounced, thin, gaunt facial appearance with sunken cheeks and also thin arms. Back home in SF, if I saw men in the Castro with that appearance, it would suggest AIDS-related wasting and/or lipoatrophy. Here I wondered about malnutrition or genetics, in addition to the possibility of disease, including AIDS. A PCV and Mamouni both told me that it's a culturally desirable appearance due to the Moors' nomadic heritage and their religious devotion.

Part of Carl’s journal entry from Friday


           The hospitality I received today was incredible and impeccable. Although Nouakchott is bleak and desolate, its best-kept secret is the warm and welcoming friendliness of its people.

           With Mamouni as driver, we 3 went on tour to visit some of Jay's Mauritanian friends. Our first stop was at the home of Salif. I previously met his brother-in-law and sister-in-law (a former PCV) at one of Jay's farewell lunches in June 2003 because they live in SF. Today I met 2 of Salif's younger children. His English was worse than my French, so we needed translation help. He was warm and friendly and offered us juice and cookies. I showed him picture postcards of SF and gave him one.

           The next stop was to visit Ali, Jay's French teacher and friend, who speaks English well. He also was friendly and offered a milk and yogurt drink. As at Salif's home, we sat on matelas, cushions on the floor. A man was sleeping on one matela in the room when we arrived; Jay later told me that it's common for visitors to fall asleep and remain undisturbed before they wake. Jay also said that, unlike our prearranged visit, Ali probably did not know before their arrival that today he would see the sleeper and another man who came while we were there; that's typical of Mauritania.

           Our third visit was to Mamadou (the tailor) and his extended family of sisters, brothers, mom, nieces and nephews, gorgeous friend, and kid goat who entered the room where we visited. One sister and his mom spoke Spanish. Mamadou's family gave us lunch, which began with a kettle of water for hand washing as we would eat with our hands off communal plates. The first course we ate by breaking off bits of baguette to use to scoop up chicken, onions, tomatoes, and peas. (It reminded me of eating with injera at an Ethiopian restaurant at home.) The second course was a rice plate with fish, sauce, and spices, which we ate by balling up the rice in our right hands and which reminded me of eating rice plates with my hand at the home of the Annamalai family in 1991 in Butterworth, Malaysia. Bananas, apples, and oranges were the dessert, and the tea--poured from glass to glass several times to cool it, as in Malaysia--was strong. This was the only home we visited where we sat on raised sofas.

           All the homes had open courtyards in front of the spacious rooms to receive us, were on dirt roads, had outdoor pit toilets, were near mosques, had nice fabrics (if worn) on the cushions (matelas) or sofas, and were in neighborhoods with homes with dish antennas.  

         When PCV Carl from SF came by tonight, I for some reason recalled dinner at Baobab, a Senegalese restaurant on Mission Street, in September with Brent. I asked a Mauritanian waiter there what I should see and do when I come to his country. He hesitated for a few seconds before he replied that he's sure my friend in NKC will show me what to see and do, which implied to me that he had nothing to recommend. Well, thanks to Jay, his students, his PC colleagues, Mamouni, and the other Mauritanians I've met, these last 2 days have been nearly as good as any 2 travel days I've experienced anywhere, even though I'm in the most hellish and uninviting desert outpost I've ever known. (OK, Las Vegas and Phoenix also are hellish and uninviting in a different way.) I would never recommend that anyone visit NKC unless he or she has a host who could introduce him to the local population. I always will recommend that someone visit a friend who is a PCV. And if I see that Mauritanian waiter again, I will suggest that he recommend the beach, where I was most happy with the chance to swim on the eastern shore of the Atlantic Ocean and the west coast of Africa.

           If you ever have the opportunity to visit a friend who is working in the Peace Corps, go for it. You will meet incredible unexpected people in places that you never knew existed.