We left Kaédi on Sunday
morning, 9/14. This time, I was in a PC car, which afforded
us air conditioning and comfortable seats, but did not guarantee
speed or efficiency. During the trip, we had two flat tires.
When we had the first one, we broke down near a family that
lived in a tent a few meters off the side of the road. They
beckoned us to sit with them, sheltered from the sun, and drink
tea while the driver took care of changing the tire.
We were welcomed as if we were
old friends whom they were expecting. It was so casual, friendly,
and matter-of-fact. I enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere, the smiles,
the acceptance that came even though some of us were not able
to converse. (They were a Hassaniya-speaking family; those of
us in our group who have been studying Hassaniya were able to
make small talk. The PC nurse and a secretary were able to converse.
All I was able to do was enunciate the greetings, say that the
tea was good, thank them, and say good-bye.)
I couldn't help but feel that there
was a lesson for me in this encounter, having to do with accepting
spontaneity and living in the moment. I will try to remember
this as I continue my service here.
Before the flat tire, we had already
stopped once, outside of Boghé (BOH-gay) to pick up some
refreshments. While there, I stubbed my left little toe on something
protruding from the ground. With all the junk on the streets,
this is easy to do! There was a little blood, which I rinsed
off with water, and didn't pay much attention to it after that.
After the first flat tire, we
stopped in Boutilimit (BOO-tee-limit), the only town of any
size, to get it fixed. Then, about 100 kilometers from Nouakchott,
we got the second flat. Making these stops meant that our travel
time was just under seven hours, and it further meant that I
would not be able to achieve my primary task when I arrived
in Nouakchott: getting the electricity and water turned on in
my apartment. That process turned into a several-day odyssey!
First thing Monday morning, I
woke up with my little toe throbbing, swollen, and bright red.
Off I went to the PC bureau to have somebody on the medical
staff look at it. It was infected but the nurse was able to
treat it topically.
Then, as long as I was at the bureau,
I asked one of the secretaries to call SOMELEC (SOcieté
Mauritanienne d'ELECtricité) to find out what I needed
to do to get the process rolling on hooking up electricity and
water. When she got off the line, she told me that they told
her that all I needed to do was to bring a piece of paper called
the quitus, which attests to the fact that the account had no
payments due in arrears.
I went to the guardien of my building,
who gave me the quitus, and so armed, I limped over to the SOMELEC
office, conveniently located just a few blocks away. It turns
out that each region of the city has its own office for SOMELEC,
and this is something that has to be done at the neighborhood
It was at times like this, walking
around with that injured toe, that I realized how important
and useful that little piggy is! Just try to walk around without
putting any pressure on it!
In any event, I was ready to open
the account, but the functionary I was dealing with had some
new requirements for me: two copies of my passport and two copies
of the rental contract. This created a problem for me, since
we keep our passports locked up at the PC bureau, which is a
safety precaution so that all passports are together in the
event that we have to be evacuated from the country.
Fortunately, my PC identity card,
which I do have with me at all times, has my passport number
and photo on it. Happily, that was acceptable to Mr. SOMELEC,
so all I needed to do was go back to the apartment, find Abdelahi,
the guardien, get the rental contract, and make two copies.
There was a little store en route that makes photocopies.
When I returned and was filling
out the paperwork, there was one more question I needed to answer:
how much amperage did I want? My choices were for 10, 15, 20,
30, 40, or 50 amps. How am I supposed to know the answer to
that? The amperage will depend on how many appliances I will
be using. I was able to explain that I will get a small refrigerator
and an air conditioner that I will use during the hot months,
but no television or other big items. Mr. SOMELEC suggested
that I get 20 amps. (Payment increases depending on amperage.)
All the paperwork was done, which
meant that I had to pay my deposit to the cashier. Oh, gee.
It was 3:00 and the office was still open, but how about that:
the cashier closes at 1:00! I would have to come back the next
On Tuesday, I showed up shortly
after 8:00 AM. Having consulted a few people on Monday evening,
I told Mr. SOMELEC that I decided to change my amperage request
from 20 to 10. This, of course, meant that many of the figures
on my paperwork, including the amounts that I would be paying
for deposits, would have to be changed. You will be happy to
know that Mauritania has entered the Correction Fluid Age. That
accomplished, I said, Okay, I'll go over to the cashier. But,
no, there was an intermediate step. Mr. SOMELEC told me I had
to go "upstairs."
Upstairs? Okay, Mr. SOMELEC. Just
tell me what room number or what it says on the door. So he
gave me a look that said, "You are too stupid to be trusted
with this urgent mission," and he summoned a colleague
to go upstairs for me with the paperwork.
Now I had lost control of the
papers, so I thought the best thing to do was wait patiently.
Patience. Remember patience? My patience is getting a good workout
here. All the patience that I didn't get from being a teacher
is being developed here.
Yes, I can try to be patient.
The reality, though, is that the man with my paperwork may:
(A) run into somebody he hasn't yet seen this morning, necessitating
the customary engagement in the lengthy exchange of greetings,
(B) run into several people he has to greet, (C) be offered
tea, which would be impolite to refuse, (D) which would include
both A and C above, or (E) which would include both B and C
After half an hour of being patient,
I decided to brave the wilds of "upstairs" and see
what it was all about, my only problem being that I may not
recognize the guy who had my paperwork. I wasn't counting on
the fact that it wasn't really necessary for me to recognize
anybody up there because it was I who was imminently recognizable.
When a SOMELEC office worker has a pile of papers with names
like Abdelami ould Mohamed or Sidi ould Habib, there's something
about "Jay Davidson" that screams "He's not from
around here" and sticks out.
So I was fairly soon ushered into
an office and told that the person who had to sign off on the
opening of my electricity account had already done so, but that
they couldn't seem to find the guy who had to sign for the water
account. It wasn't even 9:00 AM and he was already missing in
action! And, as it turned out, the building was not that big
after all, "upstairs" comprising of only four rooms
that emanate from a central hallway where the anti-tobacco lobby
has not yet made any impact.
Finally, around 9:10, the deed
was done, and I got to take the paperwork - one set for electricity
and one for water - downstairs to get the final signature that
would allow me to go to the cashier. I got those from the original
Mr. SOMELEC, and then went to the cashier, where the sign indicated
that (I will translate for you) "The cashier is here from
8:00 AM to 1:00 PM, Sunday through Thursday." Despite the
fact that it was now 9:15 AM on a Tuesday, the cashier's window
(yes, there is only one) was unmistakably closed and there is
nobody back there.
For the moment, I was the only
one at the window. But the crowd started to build and people
become vocal about the absence of a person whom, the sign says,
is supposed to be there. Finally, a few minutes later, he showed
up, and was all too happy to take my money. The other two people
"in line," if there were such thing as a line, sidled
up to either side of me, having determined that watching a toubab
open up his SOMELEC accounts is going to be the best entertainment
they can hope for this morning. Good thing I didn't have my
heart set on privacy for this transaction, inasmuch as there
is not a sign to the effect of "Please wait behind the
white line until the clerk calls you to the window."
Okay. I could now leave SOMELEC.
I asked when I would have my electricity and water. I was not
only told that it will happen today, but am also reminded of
the omnipresent "Inshallah," which literally translates
to "if it is Allah's will," but is the built-in excuse
meaning, in this case, "We very much want you to have electricity
and water, but it really does depend on how Allah feels about
I gave it about a 50/50 chance
that the electricity and water would be functional by the end
of the work day on Tuesday. I lost; there was nothing.
Meanwhile, I was sharing a hotel
room with Bob Salita. It's a new place just around the corner
from my apartment. We had an interest in getting the water and
electricity turned on because we were paying for the hotel ourselves.
We could have stayed for free (at PC expense) in a filthy inconveniently-located
apartment that has electricity and two toilets that won't flush,
but, silly us, we decided to share the 8,000 ougiya cost (current
exchange rate is 290 to the dollar, making our portions $13.79
each per night) for a much better location, not to mention air
The hotel in which we were staying
does not have a publicized name yet, nor is it finished. Several
of the apartments are completed, though, and we were in one
of them. We had a comfortable one-bedroom apartment. Bob slept
in the living room and I slept in the bedroom - but I was not
sleeping on the bed.
I can say in absolute terms that
this was, without a doubt, the most uncomfortable bed in which
I have ever slept. I don't know who gets the design credit for
it, but the mattress has, just under the surface of the ticking,
horizontal springs each of which is about two inches in length,
and there are enough of them so that it is impossible to lay
down without touching a goodly number of them on whatever part
of my body touches the mattress, which is to say my whole body.
The first night was the worst, trying to negotiate all the springs
in finding a comfortable position, all the while having to be
careful of how to position the foot with the toe that was (unknown
to me at that time) infected.
The apartment has a kitchen with
two cups and saucers, two glasses, a tray, a pot for boiling
water, an ashtray, and two eating utensils: one salad fork and
one dinner fork. Hard as I tried to figure out the randomness
of the cutlery supply, I could not determine what it was that
led somebody to make this choice. Then I realized that this
is a country where people eat with their hands, for goodness'
sake, so how could I possibly expect anyone to make a more informed
decision about tableware?
In any event, Wednesday arrived
with a ray of sunshine by the name of Watson. He's from Ghana
and has been working for the Korean fisherman who lives in the
apartment below mine. Turns out the fisherman is out of town
- fishing, no less - and Watson has been looking for work, so
he would like to help me out, and get paid for it. I had already
talked with some people about the cost of labor here, so I could
see that it was in my budget and would really help me to get
done all the things I needed to do in setting up my apartment:
getting the cookware, matalas (bed mats), you-name-it - and
limping around in the heat to get that done.
But first I had to head back to
SOMELEC to see what was going on, because there was no electricity
or water. In short order, I was able to find out that my electricity
would be able to be turned on that afternoon, as there was an
employee who was going to my building around 3:00 PM, Inshallah,
and if he got all the access that he needed, it would be turned
The water, however, was another
story, as there was "un problème" that I have
to be patient about. Fortunately, I am getting new opportunities
every day to be patient, so by now I should be very good at
it. Should be! I asked, just for the sake of curiosity, how
long, exactly, was it that I had to be patient? Were we talking
in terms of days, weeks, or months?
And it was then that I found out
it was not easy to tell how long I had to be patient because
the problem was that every water account needs a meter, and
you will never guess what, but there at SOMELEC they were just
fresh out of water meters. So what I had to be patient for depended
on when somebody moved out of Nouakchott, closed his water account,
and then SOMELEC could get over to his old water meter, disconnect
it, and then give it to me. And they really had no way of knowing
when that would be.
Meanwhile, Watson and I headed
out to the market to start the shopping process, where I got
dishes, cutlery, glasses, cups, bowls, a pail, a two-burner
stovetop with gas canister, and other essentials. At a hardware
store, I got screen mesh to cover window openings, glue to put
it up with, and some paint remover. (The apartment was painted
before I moved in, but cleaning up the paint drippings is, evidently,
not part of what painters or landlords do here.)
I should also explain that, in
anticipation of our getting everything we need for setting up
house, the PC gives us what they call a "settling in allowance,"
amounting to 81,000 UM. Whereas the monthly living allowance
is three-tiered, depending on where Volunteers live, the settling
in allowance is not, so everyone gets the same figure. I will
be spending much more than my PC allowance, since I will also
be purchasing a refrigerator, air conditioner, and enough matalas
so that four people at a time can visit me.
The SOMELEC Saga continues. When
I got back to the apartment around 4:00, I found that nobody
had yet shown up from SOMELEC. While I was talking to Abdelahi
about that, in front of the house, the truck showed up. Two
SOMELEC guys were at my service, and Abdelahi led them to the
A few minutes later, we could see
that a sandstorm was heading our way. Watson and I went inside
and closed the windows to keep out as much sand and dust as
possible. After 4:30, with the wind died down, I went downstairs
and found Abdelahi there, but no SOMELEC men. They had gone,
as there was nothing they could do because there were no fuses
in the electrical meters, and there needed to be three of them.
They said that if Abdelahi or I could get the fuses, I would
have electricity by 5:00. We headed to a nearby hardware store,
I bought the fuses (total, 900 UM, just a little over $3 for
all three of them), Abdelahi put them in, and: Voila! Let there
Then I told Abdelahi about the
water meter problem. He told me that I needed to go down to
SOMELEC on Thursday to take care of it. Me go down there? Obviously
that wasn't going to work! How about if he went down there?
"Okay," he said, "I will accompany you."
Until that day, Bob and I had been
going over to the apartment from the hotel only during the daytime
to get changes of clothing and other things we needed. But now,
with electricity, we didn't have that kind of restriction. We
went there on Wednesday night and found that there is a design
flaw in the electrical set-up: there is no on/off switch at
the bottom of the stairs where the door of the apartment is!
Imagine that! This means having to go up the stairs and into
the hallway to turn on the nearest light.
Thursday began with yet another
visit to SOMELEC, this time with Abdelahi, who could make explanations
necessary in either Hassaniya or French, as the situation warranted
- and he did use both languages! The urgency in getting this
taken care of on Thursday was that the weekend is Friday and
Saturday, and there would certainly be no progress during either
of these days.
Abdelahi and I walked around from
one office to another, with no results, until he led me to the
room where workers were standing around, drinking tea. Out came
the tea man, whom Abdelahi told me had the solution to my problem.
Really? Not from a worker in an office, but from the tea man?
Yes, said Mr. Tea, he could see
what he could do about The Case of the Missing Meter. What he
could do was go to one of the other satellite SOMELEC offices
in a different part of town. It was possible that they would
have a meter there. And if they did, it would cost me only 7,000
UM. How was that?
Up until this point, Abdelahi was
advocating for me in the offices of the officials, saying things
like, "He has an account. He paid his deposit. He should
have water." Now, he was still being helpful, but it took
on a different tone. I had heard talk about this type of activity,
but wasn't sure if this was what I had heard about. I would
have to pay attention to what happened next.
I asked for clarification. Why
would I have to pay for a meter from another office, but not
one from this office? Because it is from another office. If
I waited until there was a meter, would I have to pay for it?
No. Only if I want it today. And was the total cost 7,000 UM?
Well, that was the cost of the meter. Then there was the cost
of the labor. And how much was that? That was 5,000. And when
could this be done? Probably by noon, if the other office had
I decided to agree to this new
arrangement, and we sent Mr. Tea off to look for the meter.
On the way back to the apartment, I asked Abdelahi, Is this
And he said yes, it was.
Now you get to know about chub-chub:
a concept as old as work itself, that goes by different names
in various countries all over the world. It's the way that otherwise
"impossible" things magically find ways to get done.
As I thought about it later in
the day, part of my being able to function here will include
recognizing and dealing with exactly that: the way things get
done, especially when they are not in my control. As for the
finances of it, the 12,000 ougiya, compared to the cost of a
hotel room after Bob leaves, will be less than two nights' stay.
And it gets me to the final goal of being in the same place
with all the things I brought with me, which will help me to
be less disorganized.
I spent the better part of Thursday
afternoon getting caught up with e-mails and writing this story.
Then, at 6:00, it was time to go home, turn on the water faucet,
and see if anything would come out. I was prepared to see water
flowing, but also ready for the disappointment that it would
What do you think happened? Scroll
down to find out.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, there
was water! It just goes to show you that money talks all over
It has been a good week for meeting people. Those of us from
outside of Mauritania have, on the whole, different food tastes
than the locals. That being the case, we tend to frequent the
same dozen or so restaurants that serve the international fare
we enjoy eating.
It was in one of these restaurants,
La Palmeraie, that our group ran into a man named Shai, the
second-in-command at the Israeli embassy, whom two of us had
already met. His wife and another man were with him. We all
made our introductions in English, very informally, using first
names only. I thought that possible the older man who introduced
himself as Ariel was Shai's father or, perhaps, his wife's.
Then, in the middle of the meal, based on the conversation,
it occurred to me: Ariel is the ambassador himself.
There are just the two of them
- Shai and Ariel - working at the embassy. This year for Rosh
Hashanah and Yom Kippur he is going to London to be with his
family, so there will not be anything in the way of services.
On another day, I was in a little
café having morning coffee, when I heard a large group
of five women and one man nearby speaking English. It is an
extremely uncommon sight. At first I took them to be a tour
group of five women with their local guide. I said hello and
they invited me to join them. They are staff of the American
School here: the director and five teachers.
As of this writing I have made many of the major purchases I
need to make to set up my apartment: the matalas and sheets,
some rugs, most (but not all) of the kitchen things I need,
including a cook-top and gas canister (no, the kitchen is not
even equipped with a stove).
Shopping is a fatiguing process,
mostly because prices are not fixed, so it is hard to know if
I am being charged reasonable prices or the toubab rate. Somebody
who has been here for quite some time has filled me in on the
cost of labor. He said that many people earn 500 ougiya a day.
A skilled laborer such as a carpenter could earn 1,000.
Just this little bit of information
was very useful when I went to have fitted sheets made for my
matalas. I could have gone to a tailor I know who would not
rip me off, but I was too lazy to make the trip because he was
in a different part of town. So I approached somebody new, right
near the place that was cutting up my rugs.
I wanted to have elastic sewn
into the edge of the fabric I had purchased, thereby making
what would become both fitted sheets and slipcovers for the
matalas. The tailor quoted me a price of 5,000 ougiya, to which
he attributed 1,500 for the elastic and 3,500 for the labor.
I had absolutely no idea how much
the elastic really cost, so I decided that, in my ignorance,
I would allow the 1,500 (but I doubt it). It was the 3,500 for
labor that I told him I would not pay. He asked me how much
I thought I should pay. I returned with another question: how
long would it take him to put the elastic around the edge of
each piece? He said it would probably be an hour for each one.
I said fine. That's four hours
of work, half a day as I see it, and I would pay him 500 for
that. Our negotiation was drawing a crowd by this point, and
he had two friends lobbying for him, asking me if I didn't pay
3,500, how about 2,500?
Confident that I had reliable
information about the cost of labor, I decided that I would
stick to my guns and not even budge from the figure of 500.
The other part of the equation is that if I offered a price
that was too low, all he would have to do is decline to work
I decided to fold up the fabric and walk to Ibrahima, my tailor
friend, after all, where he would probably do the job for less
than 500! So I just calmly said no, folded up what I had taken
out of the bag to demonstrate the work, and proceeded down the
street after saying a polite bonne journee (Have a nice day!).
I wasn't five meters away before
they called me back and motioned to me to give the tailor the
fabric, as he would do the job for 500 after all. There were
no hard feelings, as he smiled, we shook hands, and I went on
my way to the air conditioned comfort of the PCV lounge (computer
room) of the bureau, having spent not only my money, but most
of my energy on the morning's proceedings of rug and sheet negotiations.
As I post this to you, the latest news on Dan and Bob, the Trainees
who did not swear in with us, is this: Dan passed his Pulaar
test, so he will swear in this morning. Kateri, our Country
Director, is doing her best to find Bob an opening in another
upcoming training class, probably in Africa, where he will be
able to use his technical knowledge to better advantage.
It's a sad day for me, seeing
Bob go, as he is not only the person in the group who is closest
to my age, but the one with whom I was able to forge the closest