The NQ/NC Tour

 

            Before I launch into the events of the most recent week, I have a few follow-up comments about last week’s post.

            First of all, I have had the opportunity to think about relationships and friendships in general. By and large, I recognize my pattern here in Mauritania is reflective of the one at home: I don’t have an abundance of deep friendships; rather I am selective about the few people whom I “let in.” I have lots of acquaintances and I tend to be cautious about using the word “friend,” as it has a great deal of significance for me, so I don’t use it casually.

            As for being placed in a city, where life tends to be more anonymous than in villages, I have fully realized that the Peace Corps gave me exactly what I asked for! I didn’t want village life in Mauritania and was never attracted to small town living in the USA. My relationships here reflect the setting where I have chosen to live.

            I appreciate that several friends and family members read the post from last week and wrote to inquire how I was doing now. Thanks to my brother Bob, cousin Rick, and friends Bob, Carl, Dotty, Jill, Marian, and Patti. Rick had a particularly short-and-sweet analysis of the situation, telling me, “You appear to be a well oiled cog in a broken wheel.”

            It’s wonderful to have such understanding and support from my “home team.” My stay here is significantly enhanced by having that!

*****

            On Monday, Daouda, our Peace Corps language coordinator asked me to take an active part in PST 2005 for the incoming group of trainees this summer. I never got to find out exactly what he had in mind because I told him that I will be leaving early in the summer, so I would not be on hand to participate in the training. He said he didn’t realize that my service would be over so soon. (That’s okay. I did!)

            Later in the day, I spoke to my APCD to solidify the possible mission I could take as early as this week, visiting some areas where I had never been before, to present explanations about the new textbook that Kristen and I wrote and also about Lesson Plans that Work, a manual created by four PCVs who taught here from 2002-2004. It looks like the trip is on!

*****

            Monday night Babah came to visit unannounced at 9:30 PM. I could see fairly early in the visit that he was agitated about something, and that he needed to talk. He began to explain that he was having trouble with the owners of the store where he works. He is scheduled for a shift that begins at 9:00 in the morning and goes until 9:00 in the evening. In addition to those twelve hours, they usually ask him to stay until as late as 11:00 at night or even until 1:00 in the morning. During January, he worked this punishing schedule with one day off during the entire month.

            There is no such thing as overtime. For his long hours he is earning what is considered to be good wages in Mauritania, in that he is earning 50,000 to 60,000 ouguiya a month. While this is equivalent in American money to only about $200, it is about twice what the average teacher earns.

            He had told his employer that he wants to continue working at the store, but that he cannot continue working such long hours. They told him that they need him those hours, and they will not diminish them. He told them that he would have to quit, which he had just done.

            He sat there in tears, explaining the situation to me. His income is significant for the siblings with whom he lives. In the hodgepodge of both full and half-siblings that makes up his life, he is with the ones closer to his age from the marriage of their father to his mother, as well as a few from the marriage that preceded the one with his mother. All siblings – more than a dozen of them in all – have laid claim to their share of the house where this group is living, even the ones who live in other parts of the country. The Nouakchott group is frantically trying to raise the money necessary so that they can buy out the others. Considering the circumstances, Babah’s income represents a major contribution to the finances.

            Babah was confident that the boss would come around to his way of thinking, since he was such a good worker, and that the boss would be calling him within a few days, asking him to come back to work on his (Babah’s) terms. He said that there are several employees who are not related to the owners, and all of them are working long hours, whereas the family members get shorter hours, coming and going more or less as they please.

            During the next few days, though, no call came from the employer. The only satisfaction that Babah seemed to get from the situation was that a few of his friends at the store (not relatives of the boss) quit in sympathy with him.

*****

            On Tuesday, I tried to make myself as useful as possible to Mohamed and Ahmed, the students who got the Fulbright scholarships to study in the USA. Mohamed expressed concern that he is unfamiliar with computers, and I tried to impress upon him the need to improve his computer skills because it will most assuredly be an integral part of university life. I offered to take them to the government sponsored Internet center and purchased memberships for them.

            Ahmed is more technically advanced than Mohamed, so they were able to work together for a while. That evening, when I was talking about their situation with Jessica, she told me about a computer class that was going to be taught at a private school where she takes Arabic lessons. She spoke with somebody at the school and then called me with some terrific news: a Mauritanian woman who speaks English and teaches computers at the school is volunteering to teach Mohamed and Ahmed two hours a day, five days a week for an entire month of classes. The only cost will be 2,000 ouguiya ($6) for the textbook!

            When I contacted Mohamed and Ahmed, they were overjoyed and jumped at the chance to take the class, which began yesterday.

*****

            I spent some time scrambling to get a substitute for the classes I would miss while I am away this week. Jessica gladly agreed to teach the English Conversation Club. At ISERI, it won’t be necessary to have a substitute, since Bedine will be in the computer lab. Since the ENS students are student teaching, I won’t miss anything there.

            My only other concern was that I was expecting a visit from an American member of the Hospitality Club. Jake was coming overland from Morocco, so it was difficult to tell exactly when he would be arriving in Nouakchott. Jessica and her husband Scott agreed to host him if he arrived while I was out of town.

            Fortunately, he called from Nouadhibou on Tuesday evening, so he was on schedule to arrive on Wednesday. I invited Jess and Scott to dinner so that they could meet him. We all had an enjoyable dinner together, and Jake stayed at my place that night. The next morning, Scott came by to get him, and they left for Jess and Scott’s place as I was leaving to get a taxi to the Aleg garage.

*****

            On Thursday morning, I began my ten-day/nine-night mission into the southeastern portion of the country. There are several ways to travel in this country: Peace Corps vehicle, airplane, private cars, and taxi brousse (bush taxi). I had considered flying to or from the furthest point on this trip, but all flights to and from Aioun have been cancelled. I am doing this entire trip via taxi brousse, the first such solo journey that I am taking in this manner.

            The timing of the mission is good, in that it coincides with cooler weather in what is usually a very hot part of the country, and I am finally getting to see some places where I have not yet traveled – something that I may not otherwise do in my remaining five months.

            I took a Nouakchott taxi to the garage from which cars leave to go to Aleg. In Nouakchott, there are garages all over town, depending not only on your destination, but the type of vehicle that you are taking to get there. If you are going to Kiffa in a Mercedes, for example, you go to a different garage in a different part of town than if you are going in a pickup truck or in a Peugeot.

            This is a good time to point out that even though the Mercedes is considered to be a luxury automobile by most people likely to be reading this, it is not necessarily the case in Mauritania and in other developing countries. Here, it is very possibly a vehicle that had been stolen in Europe, shipped here, and then made to ply the roads as a shadow of its former luxurious self.

            Before I got to the Mercedes garage for Aleg-bound cars, I made several decisions that would have an impact on my attitude during this trip. First of all, after I ask the driver how much the trip costs, I was determined to ask no further questions. Not, When are we leaving? Not, How long will it take? Not, Why are we stopping? Not, What’s wrong now? Not, Is it possible that you are so stupid because somebody dropped you on your head when you were a baby? No…as tempted as I might be to ask any of these questions, I would simply take events as they came.

            Secondly, I vowed not to complain about anything that happens, either on the road or in the homes of the PCVs who will host me each night. Everything would be fine as I encountered it – no problems, no complaints. The food? It’s fine. The matela for sleeping on? It’s great! The weather? It’s terrific! The car? Very comfortable! Nothing to gripe about, no matter what the toilets, bathing conditions, or any other variables might come my way.

            As a result of making these two decisions, I have come to think of this as the “No Questions/No Complaints” Tour (NQ/NC Tour for short).

            But that is not all. In order to improve my level of comfort on the road, my goal was to purchase two seats in each vehicle in which I travel, as a means of compensating for the way that vehicles are usually over-crowded. That means if I sit in the front, next to the driver, there will be only me (in a seat constructed for one person, but the common practice here is to put two people in that space. My college physics teacher, Professor Bryant, would be happy to know that I still remember something he taught us: that two objects cannot take up a space at the same time. Professor Bryant had not been to Mauritania when he taught me that in 1968. If all of physics had been that easy and logical, I probably would have done better than that “D” he gave me.) If I purchase two places in the back seat, there will be “only” three of us instead of the four who are usually crammed in there.

            Finally, I decided to break up the trip into as many smaller stages as possible. My furthest destination is Aioun. There have been PCVs traveling between Nouakchott and Aioun in taxi brousse journeys that have taken more than twenty-four hours. I’m not a masochist; I am not going to travel that way!

            I could see as we were leaving Nouakchott that I had appeared to luck out with regard to the car: a quick look at the dashboard showed that the clock worked! The speedometer worked! All the doors could be opened from both the inside and the outside! All windows rolled down and up! All rearview mirrors were in place! My seatbelt, when placed into its receptacle, stayed there! Nobody smoked in the car, and the driver never turned on the radio or tape player. All right – the odometer didn’t work and there were some cracks on the windshield, but they were only on the passenger side, and you can’t have everything in life, can you?

            We had been on the road for about fifteen minutes, on the outskirts of town, when the driver pulled into a gas station. After a few minutes, it became apparent that he had not stopped to fill ‘er up. Everyone got out of the car and when I gazed at what they were looking at, I could see that the right rear tire was flat.

            Coincidentally, the station was about two blocks away from Babah’s house. Newly freed from the rigors of work, he was probably home, so I called to tell him where I was and he came over to spend a few minutes. The driver and somebody else removed all the luggage from the trunk, got to the spare that had been underneath it all, changed the tire, purchased a new spare, and then we were off once again. We hadn’t gone more than the equivalent of one block, still within spitting distance of the previous stop, when we stopped again. After a few minutes, everyone was out of the car once again. Now, the newly replaced right rear tire was flat.

            Once again, the trunk was emptied and the process was repeated. Finally, we were off. Everything was going smoothly for about two hours, and we were probably a hundred kilometers from Aleg when the driver pulled off the road. There was another flat tire; for the sake of variety, it was the right front.

            We were not near a service station this time, however. Once again, all luggage was removed from the trunk and the driver changed the tire. There was a covered area across the highway, where I went to sit for a while. It was not hot, so I was fairly comfortable. It was very windy, though, and visibility was extremely low – maybe the equivalent of two blocks because of all the sand that was being blown around. The trip of 265 kilometers, which should take about three hours, took five and a half.

            I arrived in Aleg at 5:45 and called PCV Julian, who came to meet me on the highway. Julian and Nina are in the group that came after mine, the first two PCVs to live in Aleg since 2002; he is a teacher and she is a small-business development Volunteer. He lives independently and she lives with a family in another part of town.

            When Julian and I got back to his place, Nina was there cooking. We enjoyed a delicious lentil stew over rice for dinner. Julian does not have electricity, so we talked for a while in the candlelight, and then walked Nina home.

            On Friday morning, Julian and I ambled around town a bit before I left. There are two noteworthy buildings that he pointed out. One was the new taxi garage – spacious, with a building to house the necessary restaurants, and, probably most importantly, nicely set back from the road, which allows for loading and discharging passengers with a minimum of disruption to passing traffic, as is now the case. There is only one small problem: the drivers refuse to use it, so it sits vacant.

            Near the ghost-town taxi garage is a large residence, a mini-palace, being built so that the president of Mauritania can have someplace to stay when he is in town – something that happens about once a year, according to Julian. But now, he will be able to visit and stay more often.

            Back at the garage, I bought my tickets for a car going to Kiffa. There was a bit of a commotion going on around the vehicle. The driver’s keys were in his door, but he was not able to open the door. What eventually happened was that he called over somebody who had to break the door lock, and then replace it. (He should have been able to use whatever tool was used by the thief who stole the car in the first place.) Once that was taken care of, we were on our way.

            The distance from Aleg to Kiffa is about 335 kilometers. The driver was doing at least 100 kilometers an hour. Here’s a math problem that any fourth-grader should be able to work out: “If a car is traveling at 100 kilometers an hour, how long will it take to go 335 kilometers?” The student will do the math and tell you that it would take about three hours and twenty-one minutes. While the child would be mathematically correct, she would have given the wrong answer. The kid gets an “A” in math and an “F” in social studies. The correct answer, in the case of this journey, is seven (not three) and a half hours. I am certain you want to know the details, and you shall have them.

            We stopped in the town of Maghtaa Lahjar to let off a passenger, who was no sooner out of the vehicle than he was back in, the driver headed to a “spare parts” garage (repair shop). Obviously, there was nothing mechanically wrong with the car, as it continued to make its way from one repair shop to another. I reminded myself that I was not asking any questions. Maybe I cheated, though, because I looked at a passenger in the back seat and scrunched up my face to indicate that I was puzzled. He must have understood the international sign language in that because he told me that the trunk lock could not be opened, which had to happen so that the departing passenger could get his luggage. At the fourth repair shop, the driver finally found somebody who could do the deed. This left only one passenger in the back seat, and he wasn’t taking any chances: before we left town, he took his bag out of the trunk and put it in the back seat with him.

            After another hour or so, we were in the town of Sangrafa, where the man in the back seat got out. At that point – and I say this at the risk of sounding either like a non-native speaker of English or a schizophrenic – I was the only passengers left. The driver stopped and explained that we would wait at a restaurant to see if he could pick up any other passengers.

            I reminded myself that I had no complaints – and, in fact, I didn’t. I had plenty of room for stretching out, we were in the shade, there was a nice breeze, and it wasn’t very hot anyway. I had a book and was able to keep myself busy until such time as we would get some other passengers in order to continue the journey.

            After about an hour or so, two cars stopped so that the passengers and drivers could eat. A passenger from one of the cars, a young woman carrying an infant, came right over to sit next to me. It was Saoudatou, a student who was in my American Civilization class last year at ENS. Her son Salman was born in October. She was on her way to Kiffa to begin her teaching career, after having just been on maternity leave. (She explained to me that there had been no substitute standing in for her in her classes since the beginning of the school year.)

            After about another hour, the driver of my car told me that I would be continuing the trip to Kiffa in the same car as Saoudatou. He had sold me to her driver like a bank sells off a second mortgage to another lender. In any event, we were off, with about 200 kilometers to go.

            I arrived in Kiffa at 5:45, none the worse for the wear. Kiffa is the second largest city in Mauritania and appears to be nothing more than a typical small town. There is nothing that distinguishes it from any of the other small towns I have seen – not a large city center with office buildings, not a market, or other landmark.

            PCV Luke had told me that in order to find his house I had to ask for the World Vision building, and then to ask “any random stranger” in the neighborhood where he lived. That seemed to work, as the first person I asked knew exactly who I was looking for and directed me to the house.

            Adriana was visiting Luke when I arrived, and she was in the midst of preparing a delicious lentil stew, with a different mix of vegetables and spices than Nina’s from the night before.

            On Saturday, I observed Adriana teaching a class that she had to make up because she had missed it during her vacation. She was teaching a lesson about when to use “in,” “at,” and “on” when talking about location. Since one of the examples of location that she gave was “continents,” it reminded me of “The Continents,” a song that I used to teach to my first-graders.

            I passed Adriana a note, asking her if she wanted me to teach the song. Toward the end of the class session, there was some time, and I did teach the song, which was fun for all of us.

            Later that afternoon, it was off to Kankossa for me. This was the part of the trip that I was looking forward to with mixed emotions. On the positive side, I have two dear PCV friends living there, and it is always a pleasure to see both of them. The journey, however, is known for its bumpy unpaved road. Though only 85 kilometers from Kiffa (53 miles, roughly the distance between San Francisco and San Jose, a trip that usually takes only about an hour if there is not heavy traffic), this is a trip that always takes more than three bumpy hours. No, Dorothy, you are not in California any more!

            Furthermore, cars leave Kiffa for Kankossa (and vice versa) only late in the day, guaranteeing a night arrival. Why? Why ask why? Our guess is that it is better to travel later in the day to avoid the heat. Even though this is not the hot season, the hours are not adjusted.

            When I bought my ticket(s) at the garage that morning, the samsar (ticket-seller) told me to be back by 3:30. Luke, who accompanied me, laughed. Right! Be here at 3:30 so that we can leave promptly at 5:00!?!? We got there at 3:35, at which point we were told – surprise! – that we would be leaving at 4:30. At 4:35, the driver said we would be leaving at 5:00. We finally pulled away from the garage at 5:15.

            Fortunately, the trip was uneventful. The mode of transport was a pickup truck that had two people in the front next to the driver, a seat behind the driver, where I sat with two other people, and an open bed with anywhere from three to six people, since the driver stopped periodically to take on and discharge passengers. Because I had purchased two seats, I brought my baggage into the cab with me and placed it on the seat next to me, which turned out to be a good strategy. That provided me with an armrest, as well as access to the airspace above the bag, and some extra room for my feet. Had there been another person there instead, I would have been confined to a much narrower area.

            The trip took three hours and fifteen minutes. In all, it was not as uncomfortable as I had thought it would be, but I was happy that it was over.

            Annika and Molly, my friends in Kankossa, did not know that I was coming. It’s not that I had not tried to tell them, however. Kankossa has only recently been blessed with telephone service. The fixed line phones are served by Mauritel, the same company with which I have my cellular service, but neither of them has a phone at home. Rather, they have cellular service provided by Mattel. Calling from one company to another does not work very well most of the time. I had been trying to reach them regularly for most of the previous week, and was never able to get through.

            Kankossa is a small enough town so that many people know both Molly and Annika. Molly works at the clinic and Annika teaches at the lycée, so there are plenty of people who know both of them. I thought that I would just keep asking around and then go to whichever house a local person knew about.

            I didn’t have a clue about Molly’s whereabouts, but I knew that Annika lived across the street from her school, which turned out to be the key information needed to find her. A student brought me to the house, which was dark. I knew, though, that Annika often ate with the family next door. I called out for her, and that is exactly where she was! She was certainly surprised to see me.

            Kankossa has no electricity, so we talked for a while by candlelight, and then went to sleep. That night it was cold enough that I had to wear my fleece jacket. After the heat of last year, I have never enjoyed being cold as much as I have been recently!

            After I washed up with my morning bucket bath, Molly stopped by to visit Annika on her way to work. She, too, was surprised to see me. They had heard that I would be visiting Kiffa, but didn’t know I would make it all the way to Kankossa.

            That morning, Annika and I accompanied Molly to the health center where she works. It’s amazing to me how unhealthy the health centers are in this country – dirty environments with broken-down equipment where people come to be treated. A person could get sick while trying to get well!

            Later in the day, I paid a visit to Annika’s school, where I observed her teaching a lesson. Toward sunset we took a walk to the nearby lake, one of the scenic areas in town. Walking in Kankossa presents a bit of a challenge, as the sand is filled with little pea-sized sticker balls. I didn’t have shoes with me – only sandals and some socks. The socks did provide some protection, but when I walked around without socks, it was very uncomfortable.

            That evening, Molly came by for a dinner of pasta with pesto sauce and… a sleepover. We enjoyed each other’s company, and I was happy to spend time with them on their turf, after their many visits to me in Nouakchott.

            The next morning, while Annika taught and Molly went to work, I took another walk to the lake. Around noontime, Molly came by to get me and take me to her host family’s house for lunch. I had previously met the father of the family, Yahya Traoré, in Nouakchott. He has hosted PCVs for many years, and has a collection of photos of all of them, as well as postcards and greeting cards that many of them have sent to him over the years.

            Molly’s house is something of a Peace Corps relic, a place where many Volunteers have lived during the last ten years or so. Each person has added something artistic to the walls inside. It is filled with drawings, illustrations, and paintings. A quotation by Paul Bowles was one that caught my eye, as it well describes travel in Africa: “What can go wrong is always more interesting than what goes right.”

            Molly was going to Kiffa that evening, so we made the trip together, sitting in the back seat of a vehicle that had two passengers in the front, three of us with my bag in our seat, and about six others in a small enclosed area behind us.

            After more than two hours on the road, when it was fully dark outside, the vehicle had a flat tire. I had seen two spare tires on top of the roof, underneath all the luggage that had been piled up there. Waiting for the tire to get changed was delightful: the air was pleasantly cool, the stars shone brilliantly through clear skies, and it was nice to get out and stretch a little. While we were gazing, Molly and I saw a shooting star.

            Soon after the tire was changed, Molly pointed out a red light in the distance. It is on top of a telephone tower in Kiffa. She introduced me to a tradition among the Assaba PCVs (Assaba being the name of the region where Kiffa and Kankossa are located). When they get to the part of the trip where they can see this red light, they each sing a song that has the word “light” in it. Molly’s song is “There’s a Light Over at the Frankenstein Place,” from the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I had heard of but never seen that movie, so was unfamiliar with the song. She asked me to pick a song with the word “light” in it. The first one I could think of was, “This Little Light of Mine.”

            “That’s the finale,” she told me. “Pick another one.” I asked her what other songs had already been taken. Annika’s song is “I Can Almost See the Light of the City,” a church song; Adriana’s is “Roxanne,” sung by a group called The Police; Luke isn’t totally sure of the title of his song, but thinks it may be “Last Time,” by Eric Clapton. I finally came up with “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” which has been sung by Ella Fitzgerald, as well as many others.

            For those of you who don’t know the words of this song, composed in the 1940’s by Harry James, Duke Ellington, Johnny Hodges, and Don George, I will provide you with the first stanza:

            I never cared much for moonlit skies,

            I never wink back at fireflies,

            But now that the stars are in your eyes

            I’m beginning to see the light.