Chez Lisa


           I have seen several references to Nouadhibou as "the financial capital of Mauritania." I have never been to one of the countries that makes a distinction between its administrative and financial capitals, but the term calls to mind gleaming skyscrapers, impressive bank buildings, and fat cats rolling around town in expensive cars. None of these is the case for Nouadhibou.

         The city is situated on the northernmost coast of the country, at the top of a peninsula with the Atlantic Ocean to the west and a bay to the east. Technically, the portion of land that touches the Atlantic is not even Mauritania. If you look on a map, you will see it referred to (depending on how old your map is) as Spanish Sahara (for the oldest maps), Western Sahara, or Morocco (for the newest maps).

         Despite the paucity of gleaming architecture and flaunting of obvious wealth, Nouadhibou takes its "financial capital" distinction by being the point where the country's two large money-makers converge: fishing and iron ore. Because the city is situated on the coast, the fishing resource is an obvious one. There are boats and crews from all over the world that pay for permission to fish along the coastline, as well as many smaller operators of local crafts.

           The iron ore is brought in on what has been described as "the longest train in the world," bringing the natural resource on its twelve-hour voyage so that it can be refined at a factory on the coast. Some of the train is composed of passenger cars, but most of it is large bins of the raw black stuff dug from the earth. Several PCVs have made the trip sitting or lying atop the cars, arriving in Nouadhibou black as the ore itself. It's an overnight trip, uncomfortably sitting on the hard ore, bitter cold at night, and dirty - not my idea of a good time!

           I wouldn't use the word "cosmopolitan" to describe the population of Nouadhibou, but there are people from many different countries, thanks mostly to the fishing industry there. The advantage in that for a foreigner like me means that it was possible to walk around without all the residents being bug-eyed upon seeing such a strange-looking fellow.

         My friend and hostess Lisa is an outstanding cook. During my stay with her, she made a Thai vegetable dish, an Indian lentil curry, brownies, bread, and cranberry muffins. The gal takes her cooking and baking seriously. She is one of the few PCVs who has an oven, and she makes excellent use of it.

           Having just returned from Las Palmas, the Canary Islands, she had just done some food shopping at the supermarcado of El Corte Ingles, a wonderful Spanish department store that has a supermarket on the premises in most of its buildings. She also brought me some soy milk, a welcome treat to have on hand.

           My main mission in Nouadhibou was to work with Julie and the other five English teachers at her school to give them a briefing about the new text that I helped to write last year.

         I began by observing Julie in two classes - students in their fourth and fifth years of English. The fifth-year class has been through school in the bilingual (French and Arabic) track, and they have made excellent progress so far. There were about twenty-five of them who were continually engaged in what Julie was teaching, and she kept the class going at a lively pace.

         The fourth-years have had all their instruction in Arabic, hence the reference to this group as arabisant. There are several challenges in arabisant classes, mostly stemming from the fact that English is their first experience with the Roman alphabet, as well as reading and writing from left to right, instead of the other way around. There are also very few cognates between English and Arabic. On the other hand, English and French share many root words, so students who know French have a good head start with English.

         At the beginning of the fourth-year class, Julie asked me to introduce myself. I stood in the front of the room and told the class I would tell them about myself when it was quiet. It never was. I just sat down and Julie went on teaching the more than fifty students, usually having to speak over their constant chatter. I told her when the class was over that if I were the one teaching the class I would have to end it with two extra-strength Excedrin and a nap. She, on the other hand, took it in stride and was obviously in her element, which is always a joy to observe.

         After the second class, I met with the English teachers, going over the main components of the textbook and giving them one of the draft copies for their use. They wanted to know when they would have the finished product in their hands. Unfortunately, I don't have the answer to that question.

          Monday evening I was invited to Ahmedou's house to meet his family and break the fast with them. He is living with extended family, as his parents are currently in Nouakchott. The family is what we refer to here as white Moor, the Arab-Berber descendents.

         Everyone was very welcoming to me. When Ahmedou originally invited me to the dinner, a few days prior, I told him that I could go, but I would also wait to see if my vegetarian diet would pose any sort of inconvenience for his aunt, who would be preparing the meal.

         As is typical, the first thing eaten when fast is broken is dates; there is usually some cream for dipping the dates. Then there was a milk-based drink called zrig. Sometimes everyone drinks the zrig from a communal bowl that is passed around; that is the most common method I have observed. This time, the zrig stayed in the big bowl and people passed around a cup that was dipped into the mixture and then passed around. There were also the ever-present Mauritanian tea and a bowl of soup cereal made of an unrecognizable grey grain.

         For the main course, they served Ahmedou and me separately in a second salon - the room that had the television. The salad of lettuce, tomatoes, beets, beans, hard-boiled eggs was delicious.

         Both rooms were carpeted with rugs that had obviously not been cleaned or swept in quite some time. Paying no attention to what we might consider to be ordinary regard for common sanitary practice, the loaves of bread were placed directly on the filthy and hair-laden carpeting.

         Serving as a stark contrast was a late-model large-screen television that was attached to a satellite dish bringing in 179 channels to this house with peeling paint, dirty carpeting, and shabby upholstery.

           On Tuesday afternoon Lisa and I got picked up by Javier, who works at the Spanish consulate in Nouadhibou. Javier has one of those drive-over-anything vehicles, and it was a good thing because there were lots of dunes, rocks, and hills on our way down to the southern end of the peninsula. The terrain and coastline were rugged. Technically we were in Western Sahara most of the time. There is no border crossing, though.

           There are three PCVs in Noudhibou. We gave Lisa the night off from cooking duties and I went to dinner with them at a Chinese restaurant on Tuesday night. Following that, we returned to Lisa's place where I went to sleep, leaving the others to following election coverage on the radio - which they did all night.

         When I woke up, Lisa was asleep so I had to wait awhile to hear the discouraging news that 59 million of my fellow Americans had been duped into believing that we in the United States, and the world in general, would be better off with the same idiot and his conniving cronies continuing to hold forth in Washington for four more years. I was so looking forward to seeing the removal of his smirking goony face from the Peace Corps bureau before I left here.

         My friend Carl forwarded a well-written column by Michael Ventura of the Austin Chronicle. I hope you appreciate it as much as I did.