Things fall apart


          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 Saturday.

          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 low twenties.

          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 French.)

          "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 the account.

          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 Senegalese merchants.


          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 and pipe.

          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 package?

          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 Teller.

          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.