Heat and dust


          The Lesson Plans that Work book is largely completed. Kristen took a good look at it and found lots of little errors – extra spaces, formatting glitches, and missing words – that needed to be corrected.

          My APCD went through it and made some suggestions for aspects that would be more culturally appropriate. For example, in a lesson about prepositions, the accompanying illustrations depict a heart as being next to, on top of, and in front of a square. He suggested that the heart shape used in this way could cause giggles and misbehavior in a classroom because of its association with romantic notions.

          In the lesson about expressing quantity of countable and non-countable nouns, there was a sentence, “The teacher has _____ hair.” The students were to fill in the blank with an expression of quantity, such as “a little,” “a lot,” “much,” or something along those lines. My APCD suggested changing “teacher” to “old man,” saying that a sentence like this about a teacher could lead to disruptive behavior. I guess he would know.


          On Friday evening, Mamouni called to tell me that he had lent his brother his car and that the keys to his room were on the same ring with the car keys. Since his brother had driven out of town, Mamouni had no way to get into his own room, so he asked if he could stay at my place. (It is very common practice here for individual rooms in homes to have lockable doors.)

          We woke up Saturday morning to the sounds of grinding and scraping down below. I didn't pay much attention to it at first. It’s not so unusual that there would be somebody making a repair in the apartment below mine. At least that’s what I thought was going on. But after a while, my curiosity got the better of me and I looked out the window to see what was going on.

          Much to my horror and chagrin, there were two men hacking apart the large tree that stood at the entry to the apartment building! The tree had a large “Y”-shaped fork about five feet off the ground, from which the branches ascended, to a height much taller than the building itself. The canopy, high and spreading across half the front of the edifice, was visible more than a block away, and was easy to point it out to a taxi man as his destination for dropping me off.

          I called to Mamouni to show him what was going on. He suggested that I call Abdullahi, the day guardian, to tell him. But this would have to be going on with Abdullahi’s knowledge and permission, so I was hesitant to do that. Mamouni was so insistent that I eventually did call.

          Mamouni wasted no time in taking the phone from me. He let Abdullahi have it in a high-pitched Hassaniya, telling him off for having the tree cut down. At one point, Mamouni was so disgusted with Abdullahi that he hung up on him. Abdullahi called right back.

          I had thought it would be better for Mamouni to speak to him because they could discuss the situation in Hassaniya and then I would get the translation. What Mamouni told me was that yes, Abdullahi was carrying out the wishes of the building owner, and having the tree cut down for several reasons.

          The first reason was that they were afraid the tree would fall onto the building. This was ridiculous, as it leaned prominently away from the building. If it were to topple, the building would not be touched. Even I, with my “D” in college physics, could figure that one out.

          The remaining reasons were also suspect and, as far as I was concerned, not valid. "It's only dirt," said Abdullahi, “and that dirt gets on the cars when they are parked beneath it.” There are other places to park, but I always thought that everyone intentionally parked under the tree in order to keep their cars from getting too hot during the day.

          Finally, Abdullahi said that the tree was “blocking air” and bringing too many mosquitoes to the area of the house.

          Once the tree was down, it was an all-day job chopping up the branches, loading them onto a truck, and hauling away the smaller branches that still had green leaves on them. Sadly, the tree is gone now, leaving behind nothing but a gnawed stump at the level of the sand. Gone with it are the shade and my privacy. The tree’s branches spread across the area of all five windows I have facing the front of the building. Now when I am home at night with the lights on anyone can see inside. With less than two months to go, there is no sense now for me to go out to have curtains made for those windows.

          Saturday was a hot day. I don’t envy those workers having to get their work done in that heat. Karl, who visited me at home to see the printout of the lesson plans book, expressed the same suspicion that Mamouni had with regard to the tree being chopped down: they sold it. The wood could be sold for making charcoal. It’s sad that in a poor country such as this, the long-term benefit of the environment is compromised for such short-term needs such as a few ouguiya that the tree would fetch.

          Sunday morning when I saw Abdullahi, he asked me if I didn’t feel much cooler in the house the night before, since the air was now much more freely circulating. One of the problems with my apartment is that the windows, though placed on three sides to provide cross-ventilation, are too small to do a decent job of that. Furthermore, the insulation is poor, which means that once the outside air cools off, it’s still hot inside.

          I told him no, that it was not cooler the night before. He could see that I was upset to see the tree gone. He told me that in a few weeks they will be planting a new one to replace it.

          Saturday and Sunday were very hot and windy here, and this was a wind that stirred up lots of dust. I did a little work at the bureau on Sunday afternoon, checking e-mail and going over changes on the book with Karl. When I got back to the apartment at 5:00 PM it was cooling off nicely outside, with a pleasant breeze, but the temperature inside was 97.7 degrees: too hot to stick around the house! I had to get out of there.

          I went for a long walk and tried to figure out my options for the evening, so that I could avoid suffocating or roasting. I contacted Jessica and Scott to ask if I could stay at their place; on nights when I have had to sleep with two fans going, they have told me that they needed to use blankets! But as soon as I got off the phone with them, I realized that I had a good solution right there in my own backyard: I could set up my tent.

          When I got back from my walk, the inside temperature had “cooled down” to 91. That is still too hot for my liking. In my experience here, anything over 86 means that I am being basted in my own sweat, which is uncomfortable. Since it felt pleasant outdoors, with a nice breeze going, I decided to go with the tent option. At least that way I would be close to home.

          I set up the tent in my salon, then transported it, with its pliable poles, to the yard. It was quite a sight, getting everything outside. Mohamedou, the night guardian, had seven of his boubou-clad friends out there, which meant that every trip I took to the back of the house, I walked by under their scrutiny. I was not being modest with my attire, either, brazenly walking around in running shorts and a T-shirt.

          The boubou boys were either praying or doing their ablutions in preparation for prayer, so I tiptoed by them, politely ignoring them but also fearing that I was being rude by not greeting the ones not so occupied – damned whatever course of action I took.

          By the time I made my second trip down, with the matala to sleep on inside the tent, they were all just sitting there talking. Mohamedou doesn’t speak French, so we have our communication issues, but I was hoping that among his friends gathered there, somebody would understand when I greeted them and apologized for not having done so earlier because they were getting ready to pray.

          In the third and final trip, I brought down a pillow, flashlight, book, reading glasses, some water, portable Sound Soother, and miscellaneous items wrapped up in a sheet, intending to settle in to read for a while before sleeping. It’s the Sharper Image portable Sound Soother from which I get my temperature readings. Within a few minutes of getting myself situated, I could see that the outside temperature was 85 – not exactly cool, but an improvement over the way it was inside.

          The inside of my apartment was covered in a fine layer of terra cotta- colored dust, the result of the hot wind that had been blowing since Saturday, when all the floors had been totally swept and mopped. Now, it had to be done again.

          I lay there in the mosquito net tent, wondering how well the fine mesh would filter out all the dust that was being blown around. And yet, hot and tired as I was, I could only think about how grateful I was. After all, there are many millions (if not billions) of people who were, right at that moment, enduring heat, dirt, and other discomforts significantly greater than I had – people with no electricity, no running water, no San Francisco to go back to in a few months, no other options in their otherwise bleak lives.

          I also had a heightened appreciation for batteries! There are three in the portable Sound Soother and one in the flashlight. Both of these items helped make the time in the tent more pleasant. They are both gifts from loved ones: the Sound Soother from my school faculty and the flashlight from cousins Jill and Harvey.

          Fortunately, Mohamedou and the boubou brigade was reasonably quiet. They can be quite noisy out there, and they frequently talk loudly through the night, often as late as 3:00 in the morning. As usual, they were listening to Moorish music, which is not anywhere close to being what I would call melodic. Never mind the instrumentation, which sounds like an electric guitar tuning up. It’s the strident skreetchiness of the Moors that grates, sounding for all the world like a cat whose tail is stuck under the back-and-forth motion of a rocking chair. The cat can’t get away from the rockers, just like I can’t get away from the music.

          Still, there was something to be grateful for, as I turned the volume of the Sound Soother up to 12 (out of a possible 15), which afforded enough white noise to mask the music and lull me to sleep.

          The temperature all night never got below 84. When I awoke at 6:15 this morning, it was at 85.2 in the tent. Inside the house, it was already 89.7. Off I went to the Peace Corps bureau to work for most of the day in air-conditioned comfort. In fact, the temperature today, even now in the heat of the afternoon, is already less hot than it was yesterday, so it looks like I will be able to sleep inside tonight. But the tent is still put together and in one of the spare rooms, just in case I need it anytime soon.

          I stayed at the bureau until about 1:30, at which point the embassy had requested that I attend a meeting at ISERI. They had wanted me to meet Mike, a visiting expert in the teaching of English. The people at the embassy were unaware that Mike and I had already met. He is the father of Andrew, one of the first-year PCVs. Andrew had phoned me last week to let me know that his father was in town on a State Department grant, assessing English programs at the University and some other places in town. “And,” Andrew had said, “We love vegetarian cooking. Hint, hint.” So they came to the Château for dinner on Friday night.

          The director of ISERI was enthusiastic in his praise for the English program there, as well as for my work with it – not that I have really done anything. One thing he did say, though, as he spoke Arabic and had it interpreted first into French and then into English, was that the students at ISERI have totally changed their image of what Americans are like. Now that they have met me, they have a different and much improved idea about Americans.

          That is a rather daunting responsibility on my shoulders! It also goes to show the high value of such programs as the Peace Corps, in that once people from any country are able to make personal contact with citizens of other countries, their preconceived ideas fall by the wayside.

          All I can say is that comments such as this show me that we need more of this type of diplomacy, not less.