Settling in



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 office.

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 day.

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 above.

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 it."

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 conditioning.

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 on.

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 meters.

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 be light!

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 a meter.

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 chub-chub?
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 not.

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 the world!

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 for that.

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 friendship.