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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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?
When is the first flight to Nouakchott from Nouadhibou on Wednesday?"
That's a little too early for me. Do you have anything a little later in
yes, sir. We have another flight at 18:30."
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!