This week (actually eight days) is called "Site Visit," which means that everyone in our training class is visiting the communities (called "sites") where they will eventually be living during their service. One of our tasks in getting to know our way around is to look for homes in which to live when our training is over.
Four of us spent the week in the two-bedroom two-bath apartment left behind by Rhonda, who COS'ed last month. (COS is PC talk for "Close of Service," and it can also be turned into a verb. Isn't it nice to read about somebody who completes her service rather than ET's?)
We got some big news last Monday: monthly living allowances will be increased, as of September. This means that instead of getting 81,000 ouguiya (UM) per month (worth about $270), we will get the new rate of 107,000 UM ($356). That $86 difference is significant! (The current exchange rate on the black market is 300 UM to the dollar; the official exchange rate is around 268.)
I should also explain that there is a three-tiered living allowance, depending on where Volunteers live. The amount I mentioned above is for Volunteers in Nouakchott and Nouadhibou, the largest cities, where the cost of living is higher; there are lower living allowances in the semi-rural and rural parts of the country.
The good news of increased living allowances was timed especially well, as it means that we now have a better idea of how much we will be able to afford when we find housing; if we want to, we will be able to spend more money on accommodations.
As we conducted our search, we found that everyone seems to qualify as an expert in finding places in which to live. You can stop almost anyone on any street - we have done it! - and ask if he knows of a vacant house or apartment. Much of the time (to our surprise), he not only knows of one, but can take you right to it. On a few of these occasions, people have had the keys in their possession when we asked!
Finding a vacant place, however, is very different from finding a decent place! The concept of staging a home to attract a renter is not one that has caught on yet in Mauritania. The places have been uniformly dirty, needing much repair, and, since the electricity and water have been turned off, we are not able to test these to verify that everything works well. This is especially important because some parts of town are reputed to have poor water pressure; this is something we definitely need to test for, since we don't want to find out after renting a place that when we turn on the faucet, only a trickle comes out.
You may not believe this - but you have to, since I am here and you are not - it is extremely rare to see a closet here! The kitchens have no cabinets. For the most part, we have been seeing places with familiar western toilets. Some places have bathtubs; those without tubs have shower stalls that are delineated only by a basin sunk into the floor a little bit, not enclosed, so that anyone taking a shower gets water all over the bathroom.
Last Monday, our third day here, I found an apartment! It is definitely larger and probably more expensive than I need, but I can tell you this: in my search, I had seen smaller and dirtier places with yucky furniture that cost even more money than this one does, so at least now I will have lots of space if friends come to visit or when Volunteers who live in small towns come to see the "big city." (I understand that this happens a lot.)
My place has three bedrooms and two baths! My bedroom has its own bath, and it also has a space for an air conditioner, so at least I will be able to sleep in comfort. True to form, there are no closets, but there is a little room like a pantry off the kitchen and there is another little enclosed area off one of the bedrooms, so either of those will do nicely for being able to store things.
The neighborhood is safe, among the cleaner and quieter ones. There are two guardians on the premises - one during the day and one at night. (It is very common for buildings here to have guardians; also, any proposed Volunteer housing has to be approved by the PC chief of security, who makes a visit to see that it is up to standard. Having a guardian helps to qualify a place.)
The apartment will be painted before I move in, so it will be nice and fresh. Painted, yes, but cleaned, no. Delivering a clean apartment to a new tenant is, evidently, not part of the bargain. I asked the guardian, though, and he told me that he would be able to arrange to get somebody to do that for me. (I will pay for it. I guess that this means I don't have to worry about cleaning up after myself when I move out!)
The cost is fairly high at 50,000 UM a month, which is almost half of my living allowance, but I am willing to pay that because it is in good condition, in a decent location, and I am in the fortunate position of having retirement income, which means I am not dependent on the PC as my sole source of finances.
Not only that, but I am pleased that it is not furnished. The furniture I saw in the furnished places had a very high cootie factor - items I wouldn't want to live with. This way I will be able to get what I want, and I don't mind paying for it. I can either find things or have furniture made, which seems to be a popular option around here.
There are plenty of amenities in the neighborhood, such as a large (though not very inviting) super market (euphemistically referred to here as "Wal-Mart"), smaller "boutiques" (like corner stores), a main thoroughfare (Avenue Charles De Gaulle) with taxis only about a block away, restaurants nearby (pizza, Moroccan, Cameroonian, Chinese), and I will be able to walk to work in about thirty minutes, which is a reasonable commute.
It's a building with four apartments: two upstairs and two down. Mine is upstairs, where the light is good. There is a wall around the building; inside the wall there are some plants on the grounds so it has a bit of a garden atmosphere, highlighted by a nice bougainvillea, which spills over the wall and onto the street.
The rental contract caused a bit of concern at first. I asked the guardian to whom I would pay the rent and who would sign the contract. He said it would be he. This raised some concern for me, which was reflected in PC staff when I told them. So it meant a second trip the next day, with chief of security and a secretary. They spoke to him in Hassaniya and were appeased that all is on the up-and-up.
I can't say enough about the entire PC staff, not only during this process, but in general. What a friendly, cooperative, and pleasant group of people they are! They have helped to check out my apartment's security, driven me there twice, gone over the contract, made sure that all the necessary minor repairs got included in the contract, witnessed the signing, and even advanced me some money from my first quarter living allowance so that I could pay the required rent for September through November.
On Saturday, our site visit over, it was time to head back to Kaédi to complete our training. We are not looking forward to the heat there! It should be a long stretch to swearing-in on the twelfth of September.
We have had an enjoyable and productive site visit. Only three of us have found places in which to live, however. It looks like I may begin living here by having some houseguests: some of my fellow Volunteers who need places to live until they find their own.