The weather has been reasonably cool and comfortable since my return from
Kaédi. It's a good thing, too, because one of my tent poles snapped a few
weeks ago, which makes it impossible to use the tent. Nights inside the
apartment have been comfortable enough with a fan, and I have even had
several occasions to turn it off in the middle of the night.
The tent was not the only thing that broke recently. Just last night, my
travel corkscrew broke apart as I was attempting to remove the cork from a
bottle of wine. I had already used a super strength glue to put it back
together about a year ago, but this time one of the handles broke off, with
the screw part in the cork.
Lisa was visiting at the time the corkscrew broke, and we managed to work
ourselves into a sweat and hysterics, with her on the floor holding down
the bottle wrapped in a towel and me standing, a potholder enveloping the
remaining bit of corkscrew, trying to pull out the cork. How many Peace
Corps Volunteers does it take to open a bottle of wine? Answer: two.
A few weeks ago, I went to the office of a Mauritanian friend, Mohamed, and
transferred the Cross-Culture Manual document to his computer
so that he could read it and give me some advice. He surprised and
flattered me when he called me last week and asked, “Are you an
anthropologist?” We made an appointment for me to
go to his office so that we could talk about the contents of the book. I am
most eager to get as much response as possible from people, so that the
book will be accurate. Mohamed told me that he thought the book was
"accurate, realistic, and fair."
It is now at the printer, so it will be ready when our trainees arrive on
I hope we don't have the same problem that has cropped up with Lesson
Plans that Work. In that book, we have started to have books sent
back to us with sections of ten or more pages that were inserted
upside-down. When I found that out, I went to my APCD's
office and flipped through all the remaining copies we had on hand, to see
if I could find any more books with the same problem. To my surprise, there
were at least fifteen more copies! Our total now of problem books is in the
We contacted the printer to tell him about this, and he came to see the
problem. He said he would fix it. We thought that "fixing it"
would involve printing new copies of the book, but that was not the case.
His approach to "fixing" the book was to remove the staples, turn
the pages around to the proper direction, and then re-staple the book on
the left side, as it originally was. As for the staple holes that now
appeared in the right-hand margin, he just trimmed off that part of the
page, which meant that he eliminated most of the outside margin.
Once he took the book apart, though, he didn't remember to address the
original problem that exists in all the copies, in which page two of the
table of contents appears before page one.
His solution was an ecologically friendly way to handle the situation, but
it does not give us a product that we would be proud to hand out as a piece
of work from the Peace Corps.
I had a funny conversation with a taxi man the other day. Shortly after I
got into his car, he surprised me by asking, right off the bat, if I were
an American. I told him that I am. (Most people begin by assuming I am
"From Texas?" he wanted to know.
I told him I am from California.
"That is a nice city. Bill Clinton's brother is there."
I informed him that I was not very well informed about the whereabouts of
Bill Clinton's family, but I guess it is possible that he is in California.
"Yes, he is in California. He is the chief of California."
Hmmmmmmm. I'm going to have to figure this one
out, I thought. I told him, first of all, that California is not a
city, but a state, and I used the term wilaya,
the word that designates the twelve regions of Mauritania. I told him that
the head of a state is similar to what they call a wali here. The wali
of California is Arnold Schwarzenegger.
His reply to this was, "Oh, you speak Hassaniya!"
Never mind that I was speaking to him in French and had been able to insert
only these two words of local classification into the sentence. This does
not mean that I can speak Hassaniya. Then he responded,
"Yes, Schwarzenegger is Bill Clinton's brother."
I told him that I didn't keep too well-informed on politics, but I am reasonably
sure that they are not related.
Once I left the taxi and gave some consideration to what he had said, I
thought that perhaps the driver was getting California confused with
Florida and Clinton mixed up with Bush: just two sunny places he's heard of
but never been to and two old white guys.
Ismail has been enjoying his newfound freedom as his own employer as a taxi
man. I call him occasionally if I need a taxi. Last week when I had a
German visitor through Hospitality Club, Ismail gave us a ride to the
Marché de Cinquième, which is fairly far from my
house. It was Ismail's day off, so he refused to take money for the trip.
He also insisted on waiting for me while I made my purchase, and then drove
me to the bank where I had to withdraw my remaining money and then close
Part of the COS process involves proving to the Peace Corps that our bank
accounts are closed. We also have to return any excess of funds to the
Peace Corps cashier. This last step is necessary because the Peace Corps
gives us our entire living allowance for the pay period that involves our
Close of Service, which means that we have to return the overpayment for
days within the pay period after our COS date.
Our Volunteer Support Officer, Cheikh, says that
he is well aware of my housing situation, so I will not have to get a
signature on the form to which the owner or manager attests that I have
taken care of all problems and paid all my bills.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the issue that I thought was closed is now
open again. Just yesterday, a week after having told me that the owner of
the building is going to let all the repair expenses drop, and I would not
be responsible for paying them, Abdellahi came to
me and asked for a "petit somme" (small
sum) of 15,000 ouguiya to pay for tile repair and repainting. Maybe
he's just going for the wear-them-down strategy that works so well for the
When I went to the Nouakchott English Center to teach my class last
Wednesday, Sagna, the director, asked me if I
could "meet with the teachers" at some time by the end of the
week. Using the word "meet," it sounded like, well, a meeting.
We set up a time on Friday afternoon. (Many people here use
"meet" instead of "see" when they speak English. When
they say good-bye, even after they have known you for a long time, they
say, "It was nice to meet you.")
It wasn't until I got to NEC that I found out it was a small going-away
party for me. The director and the teachers had come to thank me for teaching
there during the last two years.
Sagna jokingly referred to the
"gift-wrapped" box he had for me. The "wrapping paper"
was white photocopy paper, several sheets of it taped up to cover the box.
I haven't seen much fancy wrapping paper here; it does not seem to be part
of the custom for giving gifts.
I took a picture of the group, and then they took one of me, holding the
metal teapot and keychain that they gave me. There was also a tobacco pouch
From NEC I went to the French Cultural Center to see a concert that
included a group to which I had been introduced a few weeks ago. Djibril, leader of the group, met me in the courtyard
beforehand and gave me yet another going-away gift: a pair of slippers and
one of the outfits that looks like pajamas.
When the concert began, I looked for a place to sit so I could enjoy the
music. As with many other outdoor events such as this, the management of
the center didn't see fit to provide any chairs. When I saw the manager and
asked him about it, he said, "You can stand for three hours." I
told him that I would be much more comfortable sitting.
Part of the rationale is to provide space for people to move around in if
they want to dance to the music, which is fine. But what about those of us
who would rather sit and watch? Not an option, I am afraid. So I just
shrugged my shoulders and left, with my lovely parting gifts in hand.
I am grateful that people have thought enough of me to want to give me
something as a token of friendship. It's also a good thing that the
Mauritanian perspective about gift-giving is significantly different from
ours. In the United States, most gift-givers expect that the recipient will
keep whatever is given. Here, that is not the case. While it is true that a
person may well keep and use what she receives, there is another
perspective that people share: receiving a gift is especially enjoyable
because it enables the recipient to turn around and become a gift-giver
himself by passing it along to somebody else.
I haven't found recipients for my newly-acquired items yet, but I will be
passing them along during the coming week. In addition to that, I have
started getting rid of all the other items that I won't be taking with me.
Yesterday, Demba came to visit me for the last
time, and I gave him all my T-shirts, polo shirts, and a cap that looks
something like a ski hat.
Many of us have items that we would like to send back to the USA after our
service. I have now been working for two months to find out how to
accomplish what should be a simple task, but is not. The most commonly used
option until recently was to send packages by Air France Cargo, which can
make a delivery to any airport serviced by Air France or one of its
partners, such as Delta.
For reasons unknown and undisclosed to the general public Air France now
has an embargo on all packages leaving Mauritania. The companies such as
DHL and UPS, which operate here, handle mostly items that need to be sent
in a hurry, and one pays a hefty price for using these services.
When I heard that Royal Air Maroc has a cargo
service, I went to their ticket office in downtown Nouakchott to get the
details about it. Thus began a long chain of referrals.
They told me that a company called SO GE CO handles their freight, so I
went to the SO GE CO office. They gave me a price list, on which there were
two destinations listed in North America: Montreal and New York.
When my package arrives in New York, where will it be? I wanted to
know. Nobody could tell me. I tried to explain the inefficiency of walking
around the streets of New York City, asking people, Do you have my
The SO GE CO personnel agreed that that would not be the desirable way to
go. So how, then, do I find out where my package is?
"You will have to go to Haimouda, at the
airport," they told me.
I spoke to Cheikh, our VSO, about this, and he
told me that he would set up a meeting with Haimouda.
Week after week, when I checked with Cheikh, I
found out that one or the other one of them had either cancelled their
meeting or just didn't show up. Finally, Cheikh
told me that Haimouda was coming to the PC bureau
last Monday, the 20th, at 11:00 AM. I asked if I could meet him and get
some information myself.
At the meeting, Haimouda saw the price sheet that
I had received from SO GE CO and he told me that the prices were all wrong.
I asked if there was a new list. He said, "Not yet."
I referred to the listing of New York on the sheet and asked if it would be
possible to send a package to San Francisco, since the map at Royal Air Maroc shows that San Francisco is one of its
destinations. He said yes, it would be possible. I asked how much it would
cost to send a trunk weighing fifty kilos to San Francisco. He said that he
did not know, but that he would find out by Wednesday.
When I called on Wednesday, he did not have an answer for me. I then called
on Thursday, Friday, and once again this morning. He still has no answer.
This is one of the frustrating aspects of dealing with people here. If Haimouda had told me, "This is a difficult
situation. Let me investigate it and then get back to you in a month,"
I would understand. But he promised a deadline, I took him at his word, and
he is not coming through with the information.
It happens like this all the time, and I wish
there were a way to find out the root of the problem. Is the fax machine
broken? Do they just not know and don't want to tell me? Is the secretary
out of the office? What's going on here??????
This is certainly not a way to run a business, is it? As of right now, it
appears that my best option will be to schlep everything with me to
Barcelona and mail it from there - not something I am looking forward to,
considering that it means tugging it along with me from Nouakchott to Dakar
and then via Lisbon to Barcelona.
One of the PCVs who is going to COS during the
coming week tells me that he has read more than three hundred books. The
following brings my total to 116:
I was never a huge fan of Joan Baez, though I always knew who she is and,
as it turned out, supported the same causes as she - primarily her position
about the importance of world peace. As a result, I didn't have any
particular emotional attachment as I read her memoir And a Voice to
Sing With. It included the expected progression through the stages
of her life: child, student, aspiring singer, well-known performer, mother.
To Timbuktu: A Journey Down the Niger is the story of Mark
Jenkins and three friends who began their voyage by looking for the source
of the Niger River in Guinea, and then heading on the river itself in the
direction of Timbuktu. During the course of the story, the team of four
broke into two separate pairs; then Mark split with his travel partner in
Bamako, finishing the trip solo and overland to Timbuktu. He is a gifted
writer with a keen eye and humanitarian sensibility.
The Kirkus Reviews says that Calvin Trillin "has perfected the nonfiction short
story." His twelve American Stories, all originally
published in The New Yorker, are masterfully crafted. Each tale is
put together with the precision of a mason building a sturdy wall, one
brick at a time, until the entire structure is fully formed. Most of the subjects
are everyday people, though he did write a fascinating portrait of Penn and
Time Flies is Bill Cosby's take on getting older, and it is
as enjoyable as Cosby himself usually is, with his view on universal
situations, problems, and relationships as we age. The only negative aspect
of the book was the tedious introduction, offered by a doctor. Maybe Cosby
thought that it would give an air of respectability to the book, but I
didn't see a need for it.
The Four Agreements Companion Book, don Miguel Ruiz with
Janet Mills is an excellent accompaniment to The Four Agreements,
which I have read twice. I find this to be sage advice for building honest
relationships with my fellow Earthlings.