Chilling in Nouadhibou


           When Kristen came back from her home leave, she brought me a Kerry for President button. The last time I wore a presidential campaign button was 1960, when I was a teenager volunteering for JFK. Nor have I ever divulged the name of the candidate for whom I would vote or have voted. To date, I have never affiliated with a political party. I agree with the person who said of the Democrats and Republicans, "There's not a nickel's worth of difference between them." My usual strategy is to choose the person whom I think would do the better job, regardless of party affiliation, and to keep my thoughts to myself.

         I have been wearing my Kerry button wherever I go. In Nouakchott, it gets smiles everywhere, and much sympathy from the typical Mauritanian. For me, it's a way to tell people that I, as an American, am not my government, and I like to be able to separate myself visibly from the current warmongering administration.

         Mauritanians join me in hoping that there will be a new family residing in the White House come January, 2005. In Hassaniya, the local Arabic dialect, the word for "bottle" sounds like "boosh," which is the way that Mauritanians say "Bush." The Mauritanians laugh when I hold up a bottle and tell them, This boosh is more intelligent than the Boosh in the White House.

           The only negative reaction has been at the Peace Corps bureau. When our Country Director saw the button he admonished me, "You may not wear that in a government building. This is a government building." He cited the Hatch Act, which made this a law. I imagine he would have said that even if he did support Kerry, which he does not. All right, then. So I don't wear it at the bureau, but I do wear it everywhere else I go.

         Last week, I got a call from ENS, the teacher-training college, to see if I was still willing to teach American Civilization there for the current school year. I had told them at the end of the last year that I would volunteer to repeat the class, and that I didn't have a preference for day of the week, but didn't want to teach it at 8:00 in the morning as I had last time. Toumbo, my contact at both ENS and the Nouakchott English Center, asked me if I could teach the class twice a week, as there were now two groups of teacher trainees. I asked him how many students were in each group and he told me that there were fewer than fifteen in each. I suggested the possibility of combining both groups so that I could teach them together during the same weekly session. Even though it would mean lecturing to and carrying on conversations with a larger mass of students, I thought it would be a much more efficient use of my time to do it that way, especially since this is considered to be a "secondary project." I need to be available as much as possible for my main job, whenever that starts up again. I asked him when classes would be starting. In typical Mauritanian fashion, he knew that it would be soon, but could not pinpoint a date for me.

           On Tuesday morning, I got a call from the directeur des études of ENS, telling me that classes were starting again that very week, and asking if I could begin teaching my class on Thursday morning. I told him that I was planning to go to Nouadhibou that morning, but that I would be back by the following week and could begin on Thursday the fourth. Besides, I needed some time to pull my material together. At my request, they had scheduled both groups of students to meet together during this one weekly session.

           Last year, I didn't start teaching the class until December, so this time around I will have several more sessions to plan. One of the aspects of teaching that I have always enjoyed was the flexability to re-design class content in order to improve my instruction and the students' learning. As I review what I did last year, I see that there was a deficiency in the class content - besides the obvious fact that there were no materials: I was unprepared to deal with the phenomenon of why, in the opinion of some of the students, "globalization" was synonymous with cultural imperialism on the part of the United States.

           The interrelationships among countries and societies in the world as they exist today is not a situation that has manifest in just one generation or other short span of time. Rather, it has its roots going back many centuries. Fortunately, I recently began reading an elucidating book that sheds a lot of light on this and many other topics. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies is an amazing work in which its author, Jared Diamond, a professor of physiology at the UCLA School of Medicine, "attempts to provide a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years." (These are the author's words from the preface to the paperback edition.) I'm obviously not the only one thinks he has done a commendable job explaining this content, as the book won a Pulitzer Prize and has sold more than a million copies. My ENS students and I will begin this year in good company!

         Babah showed up at my door on Wednesday evening. I hadn't seen him since before I went to Tunisia. When I got back from that trip, I went to the store where he was working and looked for him. They told me that he didn't work there any longer. When I asked him why not, he said that he was still working there but was taking off during Ramadan. I asked if that was because fasting made him too weak to work. He said no, that that wasn't it. He explained that he does not fast during Ramadan, and it would be impolite for him to eat in front of his co-workers, so he just stays at home. Besides, he had not had a day off in months, so he was taking the time now.

           Mamouni has another approach to fasting. Instead of waking up before dawn to eat and then going back to sleep, as is the usual custom, he likes to sleep as late as he can and then wait to break his fast with the one evening meal. He also stays up late, so that he can sleep as much as possible during the day, to avoid the hunger.

           On Thursday evening, the night before I came to Nouadhibou, I was sitting in my salon at about 9:30 with the lights off, and burning only one candle. I was enjoying the solitude before getting ready to go to sleep, when I heard Mamouni's distinctive knock at the door. He came in and explained that he had locked himself out of his room at home, and needed a place to sleep. He asked if he could sleep in one of my spare rooms. He wasn't ready to go to go to bed yet, so he took a key, went out for the evening, and returned while I was sleeping.

           I don't know when he came in, but I know that by 1:00 the next afternoon, when I left the house to go to the bureau, he was still asleep! He called me when he woke up: 3:45 PM! That's one way to deal with fasting!

         I am writing now from Nouadhibou (NWAH-dee-boo), usually abbreviated NDB, on the far north coast of Mauritania, just below the border of Western Sahara. I am here on official business, with the purpose of observing English teachers, including a new PCV, and giving them copies of the first draft of the text I helped to write. I will also hold an in-service training with the teachers, explaining how we intend the material to be used. The only native English speakers teaching in Mauritania are PCVs. All others are Mauritanians who have studied English and speak it to varying degrees of proficiency.

         The heat in Nouakchott (NKC) has been coming and going. There were a few nights last week when I didn't have to use a fan. Then, after enjoying that, there were nights when I needed to have two of them running simultaneously. But Nouadhibou is a different story altogether, since it is known for being pleasantly cool all year round. So far, temperatures inside Lisa's apartment have been holding steady at about 76 degrees F day and night, which has been heavenly.

         The trials and tribulations of travel in this country came to the fore in both the preparation and execution of this trip. There are two airlines that fly between NKC and NDB. They are CMTA and Air Mauritanie. I ruled out CMTA as a possibility for travel because their airline and their airplane are synonymous. I have observed our NDB volunteers stuck in NKC for days on end because the plane is being repaired.

           Air Mauritanie, on the other hand, has a bigger network of planes and routes - but not by much! Unfortunately, that doesn't come with any guarantees for service or dependability. I was supposed to come on the 10:00 AM flight on Thursday, the only NKC-NDB flight for that day. Since I am on official Peace Corps business, and the PC is paying for this, they had to make the travel arrangements. When I went to our reception desk to pick up my ticket, I saw that the departure day and time had been changed to Friday at 9:20 PM. Why? Because the Thursday flight had been cancelled. I had wanted the daytime flight to avoid the late arrival, but that was not to be.

           One of our married couples was in NKC last week so that one of them could take the GRE, which is administered at US embassies for citizens living overseas. After an exhausting 27-hour trip from Aioun by car, they decided to splurge for their return and opt for the half-hour plane ride instead. They were in NKC, purchased their tickets, and then, the day before the flight, went to the airline office to reconfirm. In so doing, they found out that their flight had been cancelled. The Air Mauritanie chief mechanic is an American whom many of us have met. He told them why their flight had been cancelled: the day before, one of the maintenance men at the airport got on one of the baggage-handling carts to take a joyride around the tarmac; he was unauthorized to do this. During his spin, he lost control of the cart and went crashing into an airplane that was sitting on a runway. That was the airplane that was going to Aioun the following day.

           My guess is that it was also the one that would have taken me to NDB on Thursday.

           In any event, the couple had to get back to their site, so they opted for the laborious car trip. This meant having to get a refund on their plane tickets. When they filled out the necessary paperwork and got their money back from Air Mauritanie, they noticed that there was 1,200 ouguiya missing from their total. Why? Because they had returned their tickets! They tried to explain that the only reason that they had redeemed their tickets was because their flight was cancelled, but Air Mauritanie would hear nothing of their complaint and give them no satisfaction of getting back the missing 1,200 ouguiya.

           For my return trip to NKC from NDB, I had a choice of two flights on Wednesday: 6:10 PM and 6:30 PM. Can you imagine the person calling to ask for a flight on a Wednesday?

          "Hello. When is the first flight to Nouakchott from Nouadhibou on Wednesday?"

          "That's 18:10, sir."

          "Hmmmm. That's a little too early for me. Do you have anything a little later in the day?"

          "Why, yes, sir. We have another flight at 18:30."

          "Oh, that's perfect! Book me on the second flight."

           I am sure that scheduling the only two flights of the day twenty minutes apart makes sense to somebody, but I can assure you that I am not that person. When the person at the travel agency showed me his computer screen display with the flight times and I remarked that the only two flights were twenty minutes apart, he shrugged his shoulders as if to ask, "What's so odd about that?"

         My flight was supposed to leave NKC at 9:30 PM and arrive in NKC at 10:10. At this time of the evening, the airport has people waiting for two flights: the Air Mauritanie flight to NDB and one of the thrice-weekly Air France flights to Paris. Mamouni dropped me off at the airport at about 8:45. Shortly after he left, I learned that my flight was going to be delayed, but nobody knew for how long. The Air France flight, which was supposed to be leaving at 11:00 PM, was already delayed. At the NKC airport, there are no computer screens to show arrivals and departures. There are usually just one or two flights coming or going during any given day, so there is no need for any high technology. Air France flights are displayed on plastic signs. As for Air Mauritanie, announcements are never made or displayed: they like to keep you guessing.

           Air France makes no pretension about their flight delays. Their sign, "AF 765 RETARDE," is permanent, since it is late ("retarde") almost all the time. And that was the sign that was on display.

           At about 10:30, with neither plane in sight, I looked up from my reading to see people milling about the departure lounge carrying soft drink containers. When I spotted the source - somebody handing out the cans with no monetary transaction - I walked over to see what was available. Before I could even ask for anything, the employee at the box of drinks asked to see my boarding pass. When I showed it to him he told me, "No. Only for Air France."

           As it turned out, that's the only comfort the Air France customers were going to get that evening, as right around midnight, somebody came into the room to announce that their flight had been cancelled. By this point, the souvenir shop, duty free store, and snack bar, such as they are, all miniscule compared to their counterparts at other international airports, were being shut down.

           That left us, the NDB-bound passengers, waiting for a plane that was still not in sight. All evening long, I had been in phone contact (via text messages) with Lisa in NDB, who was going to meet me at the airport. Poor Lisa, having to wait up that late, especially since she had had her own late arrival that very morning (more of that later)! Lisa sent me a text message to ask if I was going to wait for the plane or go home.

         True, one of my alternatives was to call Mamouni and ask him to return to the airport to pick me up and take me home. I decided against that option, though, because it was a professional rather than a personal mission. I had a suitcase that was loaded not only with teaching materials for Julie, but with personal items for both her and Lisa, as well as a small package I was delivering for our PC Volunteer Support Officer. I sent a text message to Lisa: If I go home now, I am not coming back to the airport anytime soon. It's now or never.

           So there I was, sitting and humming "It's Now or Never," one of the few Elvis Presley songs that doesn't make my flesh crawl, and deciding that I might embark on a new adventure: troll the terminal for somebody who had specific information on the whereabouts of the airplane! I knew that it was a mission that could fail, but I was ready for the challenge.

           The first thing I had to do was to pass through the security checkpoint that we passengers cleared on their way to the departure lounge. At most American airports these days, such a barrier is the demarcation of the point of no return. This being Mauritania, though, it was a different story: the post was abandoned. Anyone could have walked through in either direction and be unchecked! There were some police in a little office next to the metal detector; they just waved me through. I asked where I could find information about the flight. The check-in counter was devoid of personnel. They pointed to a hallway.

         I walked down the hallway and found a man sitting by himself in a room. I asked him if he knew anything about the flight delay. He shrugged his shoulders. He said he didn't think that the flight had left Dakar left. I asked him about the provenance of the flight. He told me that the plane was flying that day from Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) to Abidjan (Ivory Coast) to Dakar (Senegal), and then to NKC to NDB. The first leg of the flight was supposed to have left at 7:00 AM, but it had been five hours late taking off, so it continued being that late all day long.

         At about 1:30 AM, people in the lounge started to come to life. Our plane was coming in for a landing! Quickly, most people grabbed their luggage and rushed the single door through which everyone would soon have to pass in order to get onto the tarmac. They stood there in a crowded bunch until the door opened, and then shoved each other like six-year-olds jockeying for a drink of water at a schoolyard fountain at the end of recess.

         With every seat taken, the plane took to the air shortly after 2:30 and arrived in NDB at 3:10. Lisa was waiting for me. The arrival process was very slow, though, because the procedure is that each deplaning passenger has to have his/her identification individually checked, with passport or green card numbers having to be written on a manifest that is turned in to the police.

         Once we got outside the terminal, it was after 3:30. Our new challenge was getting into town, since all the taxi drivers usually stationed at the airport had evidently given up on this flight and gone home. We stood by the side of the road to wait for a kindly driver to pick us up. That eventually happened, and we made it through the refreshing light drizzle to Lisa's house. I was in bed by 3:50.

         One of the reasons I don't usually stay up late is because I am up early, no matter when I go to sleep. I was awake by a little after 7:00 AM, and when I tried to go back to sleep it lasted for less than an hour. So I had a day of walking around in a fog, as if jet-lagged.

         Lisa wasn't faring too well herself, as she had her own thrilling experiences with Air Mauritanie earlier that day. She was supposed to have returned the day before from Las Palmas (Canary Islands). But when she went to the Air Mauritanie office in Las Palmas to confirm her 2:00 PM departure, they told her that the flight had been postponed until 5:00 AM the next morning and that she should be at the airport at 3:00 AM to check in. The flight didn't actually leave until 8:00 and she got home to NDB at 11:00 AM. On the way to Las Palmas, her 11:00 AM flight had been originally postponed to midnight, and then finally left NDB at 2:00 AM. The night that she lost on the way to Las Palmas she made up at the end of the trip.

         It makes me wonder why this airline even bothers publishing a schedule in the first place. It might be better to run their planes on the same principles as the taxis: just keep them parked on the runway and depart from the airport when there are 50% more passengers than seats available for them.

         I have heard people say that Africa teaches you patience. Of course, I recognize this as something that I need to learn. After a night with that five-hour delay, I would say that rather than teaching me patience, it is beating it into me!

         I met Ahmedou last summer in Nouakchott, when my small group of trainees was there as part of our two-week stay. He was the friend of a PCV teacher in NDB. At that time, after her first year of teaching, the PCV had decided to terminate her PC service and go back to the United States. Ahmedou and I have stayed in touch, though only sporadically. He tends to be flaky - saying he will call or come by and then not following up. He doesn't have a phone and I don't know where he lives. We have each other's e-mail addresses, and he occasionally writes, but that also turns into a frustrating experience because when I reply to his e-mail, it bounces back to me with a message, "Recipient's mailbox is full."

           Last week, out of the blue, I tried to e-mail him to see if maybe he had cleaned up his mailbox. In his previous e-mail, Ahmedou had written that he had lost my phone number, so I sent it to him in this most recent communication. The e-mail didn't bounce back this time.

           On Friday night at 11:00, while I was sitting at the airport waiting for the plane to go to NDB, Ahmedou called me. I asked him where he was; he said he was in NDB. Imagine his surprise to find out that I was at the airport, waiting for a flight to go to NDB!