Second week in Nouakchott


Our second week here has meant a lot more personal freedom for me, especially with regard to walking around by myself and getting to know the city. The other four guys in our group have been busy preparing their own presentations and meeting with their technology counterparts. My appointments have continued, and I have also had some firsthand experience with the (lack of) sense of time.

Since several of my appointments from last week were no-shows, I went to Bagga, the Assistant PC Director (APCD) for Education, and he contacted people directly to make new appointments for me. We were hoping that people would show up the second time around.

One of the things that Bagga found out was that some of the appointments had never been made for me in the first place! Bahanna, who is an assistant working in the Education sector, told me to be at certain places and certain times, based on the premise that he would actually reach those people by phone to set up the appointments. In fact, he didn't reach two of them --- and then, having not reached them, he never got word to me that he didn't reach them!

This leads me to wonder how to say "wild goose chase" in either Hassaniya or French.

Bagga re-scheduled those appointments for me. Two of the three came to pass; the third one was with the chairman of the English Department at Nouakchott University. My work there, if it happens, is not part of my job description, but it could be an enjoyable secondary project. The PC expects that we use our time to the maximum advantage of our host countries, so they want us to have secondary (and, I imagine, tertiary) projects. We are left to our own devices with regard to setting these up. All I have to do, when I have an idea, is clear it with Bagga.

I also had an appointment that was set up by Kristen, who is completing her first year here as an Education Volunteer. Kristen's job title is the same as mine: Curriculum Development Specialist, so she is working with agencies of the Ministry of Education, too.

Kristen first met and then introduced me to Ahmeda, a fascinating man who has a Ph. D. in agriculture, and who has worked for many years in the United States; his English is superb. He talked about some of the problems in the educational system here, as well as his high hopes in doing some work to help motivate some of the brightest students, who are being underserved and, as a result, not challenged to do their best work.

As soon as I get a better handle on the education system here, I will write about it. I imagine that many of my teacher friends will be interested in reading about that.

Some people have e-mailed to ask about the prices of things here, and the exchange rate. When we first got here, we received 285 ougiya (abbreviated UM) to the dollar; the most recent rate is 300. Keeping that in mind, if you want to get out your calculator, or just do some mental math, here are some prices:

Having laundry done (last batch was 1 pair of pants, 2 shirts, 1 pair of socks, 2 underwear, 5 handkerchiefs) was 300 UM; having a tailor shorten a pair of pants and fix a hole in a pocket was 100; putting a hem on a new pair of pants I brought with me cost 50; an entrée plus rice at the Chinese restaurant closest to the PC bureau (ordered from the special PC menu) is 500; beer at the same Chinese restaurant is 800 and it was 1,000 at a Moroccan restaurant; developing and printing a roll of 24 photos was 1,980; lunch at the PC bureau cost 250; a taxi ride anywhere in town is 200, but the drivers try to charge us 300 since we are foreigners.

Many of the prices are not fixed, and we are supposed to negotiate with the independent sellers. If the prices were high, I would be more motivated to bargain in earnest. But so many prices are reasonable enough that it does not seem right to be a fierce negotiator.

For example, I went to the market yesterday to find some fabric for a kaftan. While I did not find a print that I liked for that purpose, I did find a two-yard remnant that could be made into a shirt. The seller wanted 1,500 UM for it, which, at $5, was reasonable enough. But I thought I would try the bargaining approach since this was such a small piece that he would not otherwise be able to sell. I countered his price with 800, thinking that if we were to settle on 1,000, I would buy it. He said 1,200. I said 1,000 and he refused, so I prepared to leave. While I was walking away, he called me back to say yes, he would sell it for 1,000.

Another example has to do with taxi drivers. In-city rides are supposed to cost no more than 200 UM, we have been advised. Our group of five guys can barely squeeze into a cab, but we manage to get where we need to go for 200. This is not without some consternation, however, as many drivers quote us a price of 300 and then will drive away when we counter with 200. One guy in our group has been particularly insistent that we should not, on principle, pay the 300 because then that will make things more difficult for all foreigners, as the drivers will just expect to be able to "cheat" the other foreigners (white people, referred to here as "toubabs").

In a way, he has a point. At the same time, at the current exchange rate, we are talking about a taxi ride that would cost $1. instead of 67 cents. So this guy is not only getting all worked up over 33 cents, but this is 33 cents that we are dividing FIVE ways! Do the math. As far as I am concerned, these Mauritanian taxi drivers need the money more than I do, and I don't mind their having it.

As long as I am talking about taxi drivers and the bargaining process, I can tell you about a situation that happened to me just the other night. One of the Volunteers who was just nearing the completion of her first year decided to ET. (She was the 28th person in her group of 46 to do so.) So several of us went out to dinner with her to say good-bye. It was a Thursday night, the beginning of the weekend, so some of the Trainees and Volunteers wanted to go out dancing after dinner.

Not being a night person, and not being interested in the night club scene that everyone else wanted to explore, I decided to take a cab home. It was almost 10:30 PM, which is already LATE for me! As I waited to hail a cab, I could see that there were not any empty ones on the street. I thought, All right, if I get one, I sure can't be fussy about the 200 UM price. Finally, an empty cab stopped for me. I told him where I needed to go and he quoted a price of 400 UM. I countered with 300 and he said all right. (Supposedly, the price goes up to 300 after midnight.)

The coins are 5, 10, and 20 UM; the bills are 100, 200, 500, and 1,000 UM. There is a shortage of coins and lower-denomination bills, though. When the PC gives us our "walkaround money" and when we change money, we get 1,000 UM notes, which causes considerable consternation for many purchases. The merchants don't have change, which means that we don't have change. When a group goes to eat at a restaurant, we each owe something like 500 UM, 700 UM, or maybe 1,200 UM, but most of us have predominantly 1,000 UM notes. The little places in our neighborhoods, like corner stores which everyone calls "boutiques" have a hard time making change for us, as do the taxi drivers. So I try to make some purchases in the larger stores with more foot traffic, which gives me some smaller notes to use when I need them. And then we have all the borrowing of small amounts of money, like Bob owing Will 200, Matt owing Carl 150, and me owing one of them 100.

I have been stopping at one of the nicer small hotels for morning coffee on occasion; it costs 600 UM. Sometimes when I pay with my 1,000 UM note, I get change in 200 and 100 UM notes, but sometimes, if they don't have exact change, they give me a 500 UM note, and I tell them I will give them 100 UM the next time.

We had our first round of apartment- and house-hunting this week. Next week (starting the 8th of August) we will be back in Nouakchott for a week. At that time the entire training class will be at their proposed permanent sites, hence the name "Site Visit" for that phase of PST. That is the time we will be giving much more serious consideration finding places in which to live. But we thought we would pay some attention to it now, especially since somebody in Will's host family offered to show us around. So far, we have seen one house, which is too big for one person, where the rent was 40,000 UM per month. (Note that Volunteers who live in Nouakchott and Nouadibou will receive 81,000 UM per month to cover our expenses. Volunteers in other areas receive lower amounts to reflect the lower cost of living at their sites.)

As for my mention of that specific house being too big for one person, I should explain that we are prohibited from living with other Volunteers. We may live with host families and we may have Mauritanian roommates, but not PC roommates. The reasoning behind this makes sense: if we insulate ourselves by living with other Americans, it will impede our penetration into host country society.

Stay tuned for more on this topic during site visit.

The PC has included in our welcome packet a rudimentary map of Nouakchott. It looks like a copy of a copy of an old map. In wanting to do a better job finding my way around town, I have set out to get a better map of the city. This has turned out to be no easy task, as most people tell me that they do not have a map of Nouakchott, nor have they ever seen one. And just in case you think I am some sort of complete dunce, YES, I have thought of asking at hotels, car rental companies, gas stations, and travel agencies. I get the bemused response one may expect if you were to approach a guard at Buckingham Palace and asked if you could go inside to borrow a cup of sugar.

We are leaving Nouakchott today, returning to the center at Kaédi for four days. These are called Center Days, and all Trainees will be at the center for them. After those four days, everyone has site visits. There will be a total of seven of us in Nouakchott - the five of us who have been here the last two weeks, and two others who stayed in Kaédi during the last two weeks.