Mission possible


            On Tuesday morning I was at Kiffa’s Aioun garage by about 8:30 and found a car that left shortly after 9:00. The trip of 220 kilometers was blessedly uneventful and took just a little more than three hours. There is a stretch of road, maybe a quarter of the entire distance that is rutted with ditches and uneven surfaces, necessitating drivers to go off-road and onto the adjacent sand alongside. Evidently, the authority that is supposed to be maintaining this particular part of the highway has not been doing its job. It is puzzling, though, that so much of the road would be in excellent condition and then there would be this rough patch, all in one stretch.

            In Aioun, I was planning to stay with one of our married couples, Hector and Genevieve, sometimes collectively referred to as Hectorvieve. I knew where I was supposed to wait after I called to tell them I had arrived, but when I got there, I found that the telephones were not working, as had been the case all morning.

            What was I to do? Not knowing how long it would be before the phones were back in service, I had to play Find the Nasrani and started asking around to see if anyone knew where the Americans lived. It wasn’t as easy as it had been in Kiffa and Kankossa, but I eventually found a man who was willing to walk me to their home. (As Mamouni taught me, "A person with a tongue will not get lost.")

            Hectorvieve’s home has legendary status among those who have visited them. One of the descriptions I have heard is that it looks like a Crate & Barrel catalogue. True enough, it is obvious that they have put a lot of thought and intention into making their home comfortable. They have achieved a space that is exceptionally welcoming, charming, elegant, and well put together… simplicity itself. This is a result of both their common vision since the time they first saw the house and, more importantly, a landlady who has given them fairly free reign to make improvements that have rendered it more habitable.

            In fact, they told me that all the rent they paid during the first eighteen months in the house has gone into permanent improvements: painting, electrical work, an enclosed bathroom with flushable floor toilet and overhead shower, installation of a kitchen sink, and a renovated hangar (covered outside living space).

            When my friend Greta visited me in December of 2003, she also met Hector and Genny who were in Nouakchott at the time. They invited her to visit them if she traveled through Aioun, which she did. During her visit to their house, Greta, who is an architect and has almost single-handedly renovated the apartment building where she lives in Ghent, pointed out a good place where a kitchen sink would be able to fit. Following her advice, Hector and Genny decided to go for the sink rather than wash dishes and prepare meals at a spigot in the yard. We took a picture of the three of us next to the sink, to send to Greta.

            It is particularly significant that the landlady recognized the value of the work that Hector and Genny proposed. I have heard many stories about building owners who raise rents to more than double what the previous tenants had paid and, as a result, price themselves out of the housing market, which means that they are obliged to maintain empty houses for sustained periods – all for the possibility that they can get a quick infusion of money via increased rent that never gets paid. Thinking about the future is not a typical Mauritanian trait.

            Hector and Genny have managed to transform the property for the equivalent of $900! I wish it were that simple and inexpensive in the USA!

            In the afternoon, I accompanied Genny to school, where I observed two of her classes and met the administration, to whom I explained that I was bringing some teaching materials for Genny to share with the English teachers. It was a pleasure to see Genny in action in the classroom. She has all the poise and wherewithal of an experienced teacher.

            For dinner, Genny made a tasty vegetarian chili, and there was enough left over to enjoy for lunch the next day.

            The next morning, I got to use a public Internet café to check my e-mail for the first time in a week. Then, in the afternoon, I went on a hike with Genny, Hector, and Maddie, a first-year PCV who lives in Aioun. There are some rock formations in the Aioun area, and we went to a few that they have visited before.

            With all the rock in the region, there is an abundance of stone houses, which creates a slightly different look to the architecture in Hodh El Gharbi, the name of the region in which Aioun is located. Some people have used stone of two different hues to build their homes, creating pleasing geometric effects as the colors play against each other.

            In the evenings it got quite chilly, and I was happy that I had my fleece jacket with me. This region gets very hot in the summer, so this was an especially good time to be there.

            On Thursday, the morning that I left, Genny went to school, only to come back when she found out that it was a holiday (the first day of the Muslim new year) – something that had not been announced to the Mauritanian public until the night before. As is typical here, holidays are determined by the phases of the moon, and people do not know that it will be a holiday until the government announces it within the day of its happening. Oddly enough, the 2005 calendar that I had sent to me from home – which must have been printed sometime in 2004 – listed the holiday ("First of Muharram"). It seems to me that if the folks at Mead/Westvaco in Sydney, New York knew as long ago as last year that this was going to be a Muslim holiday, then the Mauritanians themselves would have known, too.

            When I got to the garage in Aioun so that I could make my return trip to Kiffa, the only available vehicles were beat-up Peugeot station wagons. Each seat cost 1,700 ouguiya, so I would be paying 3,400 for my two. Whether you want to call it intuition, fear, or just dread of discomfort, something told me not to make the trip in one of those cars. I decided to try my hand at hitchhiking. Fortunately, I was in the perfect place to do so, as the garage was at the very end of town, just before the highway takes off toward Kiffa. Many of the drivers heading west were likely to be going to Kiffa. So I told the samsar at the garage that I was not going to buy my tickets yet, knowing that if I did, I would be stuck with having paid, and never get my money back if I were successful hitching.

            Before too long, I caught the eye of a westbound driver. I made the hand gesture that I wanted a ride and he stopped. It was obvious that this was not a taxi – it was a private car, a Mercedes you might imagine when you hear the word "Mercedes": new, clean, and with a dashboard on which everything was in working order! There was one passenger next to the driver and one in the back seat behind him.

            I had no sooner closed the door than the driver told me it would cost me 3,000. I was fine with that, as it was less than I would have paid for either the Peugeot or a beat-up Mercedes taxi.

            Occasionally, the driver stopped when other roadside folks flagged him down. At one point, he exchanged a few words with a shaybahni (Hassaniya for "old man") and the shaybahni got in. Rather than scoot over to the middle of the back seat myself, I let him get in there, so I would be able to have a seat next to the window.

            It was a fairly quiet ride, with very little discussion. At one point, however, the shaybahni created quite a stir. Mauritania is a country of spitters – they spit all day and everywhere. I imagine it is a result of their terrible diet and high tobacco consumption, but these guys always have a mouthful of saliva that they need to get rid of. They are never discreet about spitting. A walk down the street means hearing one gut-wrenching throat-clearing after the next. I can’t imagine getting used to hearing this sound, as it still makes me shiver in disgust.

            Mr. Shaybahni reached all the way down into his bowels and brought up a huge mouthful of something that he had to get rid of. When they heard the sound coming from the back seat, even the guys up in front looked back to see what was going on. Is somebody dying back there? The look of terror on the driver’s face was obvious, as if he were going to ask, "You’re not going to spit that out in here, are you?"

            The shaybahni pulled a maneuver that I had not only ever seen before, but could never have imagined. Rather than indicate to me or the other backseat passenger that he had to spit something out the window – which would have been difficult since he was in the middle – he removed the rubber flip-flop from his left foot, turned it so that the sole was facing up, and spit his huge glob of phlegm onto it. This he followed with removing his right flip-flop, which he placed sole-to-sole against the left one, creating a phlegm-and-flip-flop sandwich. He sat with the toes of the flip-flops facing forward, holding the two pieces together, one hand on each side.

            I was revolted, but oddly riveted at the same time. What is he going to do next? I had to know, as I sat there trying to figure out what would follow. After about five minutes, he peeled the top flip-flop off the bottom one, creating a stringy mass like mozzarella cheese being pulled away with a slice of pizza. And how did he complete the transaction? By returning both of the flip-flops back to his feet, with the driver not even noticing what he was doing.

            The shaybahni got out of the car shortly thereafter, and we made the trip to Kiffa in three hours. I got to Luke’s house to find Caleb, Jared, and Jarad, all first-years, visiting him along with Annika who made the tedious trip from Kankossa so that she could go to the bank, only to find that it was closed for the holiday.

            I was able to reply to e-mails at the Internet café and then contacted Bilel, a student from last year’s American Civilization class at ENS. She is spending her first year of teaching English and French in Kiffa.

            That evening, Caleb masterminded the cooking of a huge quantity of delicious vegetable soup, followed by making a cake. Luke’s Senegalese neighbor Leopold had never made a cake before, so he came by to give a hand and witness the process. Everyone was pleased with the results, which were remarkable, considering that nobody had had a recipe and everyone was guessing about the amounts of all the ingredients that were included. Luke had recently returned to Kiffa from his vacation in Paris, bringing a toaster-oven with him, so that got a good workout.

            The evening weather took a noticeable turn toward warmth, as it was possible for the first time in a week to be outside at night without having to bundle up. The next morning, while Annika was out for a run, it rained – something that is very strange for this time of year.

            On Friday morning I was off to my last stop of this mission: the village of Maghtaa Lahjar, where I would visit Jordy, a first-year Volunteer. At a few minutes to 9:00, I arrived at the Nouakchott garage, where the only vehicle that I found making the trip was an old SUV type. When I purchased the ticket the samsar told me, "We leave at 10:00." He said that the car would leave at 10:00 even if there were only two passengers. This I gotta see!

            As it turned out, we left at 10:15 but, true to his word, we did depart even though the car was not full, which meant that the driver was constantly trolling the road for people who needed rides. On several occasions, he and a potential rider negotiated briefly but then he drove off, seemingly preferring to get no fare than to have one that didn’t pay what he wanted for the ride.

            The trip to Maghtaa Lahjar (are you loving these names as much as I am?) took five hours. When I arrived at 3:10 and called Jordy, she was visiting a friend for lunch and invited me to join them.

            The afternoon was sunny and quite warm. When it didn’t seem to cool down much in the evening, I was concerned that perhaps the heat had returned for good.

            In the morning, Jordy and I went to the garage to find our ride to Nouakchott, a distance of about 365 kilometers. We were the first people to indicate the interest in going via Mercedes, so it looked like we were in for a long wait. We decided to put down our bags and try our hand at flagging down a passing motorist, when all of a sudden a Toyota drove up, discharged several passengers, and the samsar announced that there was room in this vehicle that was going right to Nouakchott tout de suite. Jordy and I had already decided that we would buy three places for the two of us, giving us a little extra wiggle room, so we paid for the seats, got in, and were on the road tout de suite.

            We immediately realized that we had made a mistake in buying three seats. With the two of us and that one other passenger already in the back seat, the three of us took up the entire back seat! We sat shoulder-to-shoulder, arm-to-arm, thigh-to-thigh, and knee-to-knee the entire trip. The worst part about it was that I was in the middle by necessity, because it would have been culturally inappropriate for the male passenger to sit adjacent to Jordy, a woman he did not know.

            Just before we got to Aleg, we saw a car that had run off the road only minutes before we had gotten there. We were witness to blankets being placed over lifeless bodies, as three people had been killed by the accident.

            When we were about eighty kilometers from Nouakchott, we stopped to repair a flat tire, and it was a relief to get out of the car and stretch a little bit.

            It was nice to get back "home," and I was happy to have a nice warm shower and put on clean (and different!) clothes. Even though the windows had been closed in my absence, plenty of dust and sand had gotten in, and the floor was crunchy.

            Cleaned up and presentable, I went to use the Internet. It was nice to be back in the cool air of Nouakchott; the weather was not as warm as it had been in the Brakna region the day before. On my way home, I bought groceries so that I could put some dinner together. On my way home, when I was a block from my house, I ran into Lisa from Nouadhibou and a bunch of first-years. This weekend marks the Early Term Reconnect (ETR) for first-years. In addition, all the regional coordinators are in town so that we can have a VAC meeting.

            I had thought that I would be spending time at home by myself, as this was the last time I could work on that Volunteer Handbook Quiz that the training staff had asked me to put together. But Lisa came over and was soon followed by Kristen, Molly, and Andrew, so the evening was transformed into a gathering.


            Random comments after the trip:

            I have experienced more flat tires in my time in Mauritania than in all my previous 56 years before I got here. In fact, I may have accomplished this on this trip alone!

            There is little variation from one town to another. The drab and unremarkable architecture is omnipresent, the streets are strewn with litter, and every community has many houses that are falling down or abandoned, as well as vacant lots that collect garbage. There are very few geographic features that distinguish one community from another – such as the lake in Kankossa, the stone buildings in such towns as Aioun and Chinguetti, the east-west flowing Senegal River that marks the country’s southern border, and the sand dunes and scruffy growth that are everywhere . There is not much emphasis placed on visual stimulation with architecture and no attention paid to creating convivial public spaces.

            The first-year PCVs were warm and welcoming. It is a fine group that we have here. I am just getting to know many of them. In contrast, I have known people in my own training class for a year longer, and a lot deeper than the first-years. It’s remarkable how friendships with second-year Volunteers have moved on to a greater comfort level. It’s easy to see that several of these people are ones who will continue to be in my life once we get back to the USA.

            I returned to Nouakchott and my apartment with a renewed gratitude for my living conditions and level of comfort that I have been able to achieve in this country. Having electricity, a kitchen, finished floors (as opposed to bare concrete or dirt that many people have), and access to a wide range of food products and sources (especially fruit and vegetables) has been more significant than I would have otherwise realized. E-mail is my lifeline and I am grateful to be in such a remote place with as much immediate access as I have to people at home.

            It’s easier for me to be a host than a visitor. This is not really news to me, as I have experienced this even before I came here, but this trip reinforced this feeling for me. I recognize the need to be able to accept hospitality from others; by staying with people on this mission, I was able to work on that.