people have written to ask me how many vacation days we get
while serving in the Peace Corps, how we can use them, and where
we can go.
two days of vacation for every month of our service after we
swear in as Volunteers, which means that PST does not count.
For accounting purposes, they assume that we are going to complete
our two years of service, giving us an allotment of 48 days
to use as we wish. In most cases, these days refer to travel
that is outside of the country. If people stay in the country
and visit other sites with the approval of their APCD, those
days do not count toward vacation.
restrictions concerning where we can go are related to off-limits
destinations as designated by the State Department. As for timing
of vacation days, the only sector that has proscribed dates
are the people in Agro-Forestry, who must stay at their sites
during the seasons when most of their work has to be completed.
the first three months and last three months of service, we
are supposed to stay at our sites. That gives us an eighteen-month
period during which we can use our 48 days.
Volunteers who go to the US for holidays, weddings, and other
events. Some meet family in Europe - the most popular place
being Paris, since there are daily nonstop flights that connect
Paris to Nouakchott. Everyone has his own approach to vacation
days. My goal is to stay in Africa; we shall see how that works
For those of you who have been following the progress of Babah's
search for employment: the day before I left on vacation, he
started a new job. He is learning a trade that, as far as I
can tell, has to do with installing, decorating, and painting
ceilings in homes. The pay is half again as much as he was earning
at the supermarché, they give him lunch, and the
hours are shorter. Overall it looks like a good deal. I had
the sense that he was not a slacker, and that he was serious
about working, but it's not always easy to understand people
so early in friendships.
I had heard that there are usually taxis at the Novotel, the
big hotel across the street from my house, early in the morning.
The day before I left for vacation, I thought I'd better go
over there and find out if there would be a taxi there at 6:00
AM. I found out that they are not always there, but a front
desk worker called a taximan to arrange for a pickup at 6:00.
at 6:01, which is not only considered to be on time in Mauritania,
but early! When I waited a few minutes and didn't see
the white car that was supposed to be there, I went into the
hotel to ask if they could call the driver. That's when I found
out that he had already been there and left! The clerk volunteered
to call the driver, and when he did, we heard a ringing phone
on the counter: the driver had not only left, but left his phone
behind at the hotel.
As I went
outside to size up the situation and see if I could find a taxi
on the street, a car from the US embassy was depositing George,
one of the guards who has worked at the PC bureau and embassy,
at the hotel. I could see that there was virtually no traffic
on the road, so I was without a way to get to the airport. George
came to my rescue by calling a taximan he knows; I had a ride
within five minutes! I got to the airport with time to spare,
since I was taking only carry-on luggage.
a bit of a blunder at the airport. As I entered the check-in
line, a guy asked me to give him my ticket and passport. Thinking
he was an airline employee, I handed it over. All he did was
pass it along to the airline employee behind the desk. As I
made my way to the luggage x-ray machine, this guy was expecting
me to pay him. For what, though? "For helping you check
in," which was something that I had never seen or heard
of before. I had to refuse him, since I had left all my spare
ouguiya at home.
As we left
the terminal and approached the plane on the tarmac, the passengers
separated themselves into two lines. I didn't take stock in
the situation to realize the way they were segregated, so I
just joined the line on the left, which was shorter. That's
when somebody pointed out to me that I was standing in the women's
line. It reminded me of the old days in elementary school, when
there was a boys' line and a girls' line in the schoolyard.
jokingly refer to Air Mauritanie as "Air Inshallah."
("Inshallah" = "Allah willing.") I found
the aircraft to be up-to-date, though. We left a little late,
but made good time. It takes only about 50 minutes to get to
Dakar from Nouakchott.
order of business in Dakar was to let the PC bureau know that
I was there. That was a good move anyway, since it allowed me
to leave my bag there so I wouldn't have to schlep it around
with me while looking for a hotel and taking care of other chores.
Here I was, on foot, in a new city, with a basic guidebook map
and lots of things to do.
of familiar feelings rushed over me: the excitement of being
in a new place, the challenge of figuring out the orientation
of the map, and the myriad tasks to accomplish: getting local
currency, finding a hotel, fending off the advances of the overly
friendly people who want to "help" their "friend."
the image I had seen in many cartoons when I was growing up:
the appearance of a vulnerable character who transforms, in
the eyes of his prey, into a huge lollipop with a wrapper that
says "SUCKER." Of course, there is no way that I can
possibly walk around anywhere in Africa without people taking
a look and thinking something on the order of, "He's not
from around here." I need to make peace with being seen
as an oddity. It's fine, just as long as people are not deciding,
"He's not from around here. Let's jump him."
at the office for Cabo Verde Airlines to book my itinerary to
go there. I had wanted to stay in Dakar for only a few days,
but found that the next flight with a seat available wouldn't
be until Saturday, which meant I would have to be in Dakar for
was off to the Cape Verde embassy to apply for my visa. The
embassy is on the 13th floor of a 15-story building. I haven't
seen a building that tall since I left the USA.
task was finding a hotel. I find the guidebooks particularly
valuable for this, in that their recommendations include such
factors as price, cleanliness, and atmosphere. One hotel I tried
had a fairly good write-up, but when I entered, I could see
that the bevy of beauties in the lobby was just a little too
eager to see me. On the wall next to the front desk was a sign
that informed the esteemed clientele that the clerk would be
happy to arrange a massage for you in the privacy of your room.
That is NOT the kind of hotel I was looking for.
back to the PC bureau to take care of some e-mailing. Colin,
one of the Senegal PCVs, invited me to join him for lunch. In
the process, he told me about one of the nicer hotels that gives
a PC discount, which brought its price into the more reasonable
range. That is where I stayed for my five nights.
Colin and I went to eat at a place that has Middle Eastern food.
I told him, as I wrapped my pita around the hummos and tabouleh,
that this would be my last pita or any other bread for the next
week. When I told him why - Passover - he told me that the Country
Director of PC Senegal is Jewish and was going to have a seder
at his house on the second night; for the first night, he was
going to the seder at the home of the Israeli ambassador. As
it turned out, the seder given by the Israeli ambassador is
one that is usually open to PCVs and any other wandering Jews.
This year, though, the ambassador's wife is ill (though not
gravely) and is in Israel, so that is the reason why it is a
much smaller affair.
home of the Country Director, there was his family, a few PCVs,
some college students who are studying in Senegal for the year,
and a member of the Jewish Volunteer Corps. It was wonderful
to be welcomed into a home of strangers and share an experience
that was so familiar to all of us. This is part of the connection
that I feel to the Jewish people, and it is a link that transcends
both time and distance.
was complete with matzos, which were delivered via a
process called the Diplomatic Pouch, a benefit of being either
an embassy employee or one of the higher-ups in the Peace Corps
administration. This service employs a full-time staff of elves,
gnomes, and (in the case of the embassy in Dublin) leprechauns
to work at an address in Dulles, Virginia. When those authorized
to use the Pouch want to order something by mail - whether it
is books, groceries, or anything that can be ordered on the
Internet - the shipment is delivered to Virginia, and then the
government transports it for them to the embassy of their choice.
Not bad, eh? So you see, we're all really VIPs; it's just that
the initials "VIP" stand for different things. In
the case of the ambassador and the Peace Corps brass, you are
already familiar with its meaning as Very Important Person.
For us Peace Corps Volunteers, you can be sure that it means
Virtually Insignificant Peasant.)
say at the end of the seder, "Next year in Jerusalem,"
and one of the interpretations that I take from that statement
is that we will be free enough so that being in Jerusalem at
this time next year will be a choice we can make if we would
like to make it. I hope that all the people of Jerusalem - Moslem,
Christian, and Jewish - can worship freely and grant each other
the religious freedom that they so earnestly want for themselves.
One of the sights to see in Dakar is Gorée Island, a
place from which slaves were shipped, on their one-way trip
away from Africa. There is a question as to how many slaves
were actually sent from this particular point. The Lonely Planet
guidebook explains, "Gorée itself was never a major
shipment point for slaves." In talking about such a hateful
act against humanity, it doesn't matter how many of the 20,000,000
African slaves taken from Africa left from Gorée.
from slavery as a Passover theme, I was particularly moved to
be in this place at this time. It was an experience that I will
I had heard
before I got to Gorée that there is a Peace Corps Volunteer
who lives and works on the island. It's not too surprising,
then, that I got to meet her. She arrived in Senegal in December
of 2000, which means that she is now in her fourth year
as a PCV! Makes me feel like a slacker!
first at the PC bureau in Dakar, and then I ran into her on
the island itself. She invited me into her home and offered
me tea; she told me a lot about her life, her family, and her
time in Senegal. She is a great-grandmother. I didn't ask her
age but I am guessing that she is older than I am.
Dakar is very different from anything I have seen in Mauritania.
The streets are paved and named, with building addresses and
sidewalks. There are many modern buildings, and there is lots
of traffic. The population is predominantly Black, so there
is no Moor/Arab influence. The population is more than 90% Muslim,
but the country is not an Islamic Republic, so there is not
the sense that the religion dominates the society in the same
way that it does in Mauritania. In Senegal, there are churches
and parochial schools in plain view, whereas there is only one
church in all of Mauritania (in Nouakchott) and it is an unmarked
building. Furthermore, Mauritanians are not allowed to enter
are sidewalks in Dakar, but they are not easy for pedestrians
to use, as they are venues where shop merchandise is displayed
and delivered, as well as taken up by parked and waiting cars.
Traffic is dense and slow in the "downtown" area.
Louis Stevenson observed, "Everyone lives by selling something,"
I wonder if he had been to Senegal. Pedestrians share the sidewalks
and street corners with people selling a myriad of things. Many
of the vendors are sedentary, but some are ambulatory. Since
the auto traffic is as slow as it is, it is safe enough, in
the busy "downtown" section for vendors to weave in
and out amongst the cars or along the sides of traffic as they
implore pedestrians and drivers alike to buy their hangers (plastic,
wooden), jeans ("Levis," "Wranglers," unknown
brands), rolls of fabric (batik, tie-dye, wax print, plain colors),
cans of fruit and vegetables (pineapple, tomatoes, fruit cocktail),
bags of popcorn, key chains (fuzzy animals, carved wood, leather
lariats), mirrors (from small personal size to wall sizes),
framed photos (singers, actors, athletes), rugs (prayer size,
throw, scatter), socks (all colors, nylon), men's underwear
(boxers, briefs, bikini briefs), women's underwear (brassieres,
panties), personal care products (Q-tips, toothpaste, toothbrushes,
perfume), tape (Scotch, masking, duct), fruit (oranges, bananas,
apples, pineapple, mangoes, papayas), clothespins (plastic,
wooden), clocks, tissues, bathroom scales, shoe laces, calculators,
cell phones and phone chargers, extension cords, matches, peanuts
(in shells, shelled, with reddish skins, without reddish skins,
sugar coated), watches ("Rolex," "Timex,"
unknown brands), glasses (sun, reading, drinking), jewelry (earrings,
necklaces, rings, bracelets), cigarettes (individually, packaged),
carved wooden figures (animals, people, large, small), animal
horns (real, plastic, carved, plain), music (cassettes, CDs),
radios ( small transistor to large boom boxes), and musical
instruments (drums of various sizes, wooden xylophones, wooden
sticks and balls to clap together, thumb harps)
is just a partial list!
know who has it worse: the vendors who stay in one place, squatting
all day, or the ones who are continually on their feet and lugging
around their merchandise wherever they go. I am more partial
to the ones who set up shop on the sidewalk because they can't
come after me to persuade me to buy. The ones who follow are
insistent and persistent. They have a variety of standard lines
that they use to engage prospective customers: "Don't you
remember me?" "We met yesterday/last week/last month."
"What country are you from?" "How is your wife?"
In the morning I hear, "You'll be my first customer; you'll
bring me luck."
do not take "Non, merci" for an answer. There
is not anything I can say that does not bring on a counter argument.
The first line of defense for their product is that it is not
expensive, which is often expanded to explain that it is less
expensive than "the Lebanese," meaning the owners
of many of the shops against whom they are competing for business.
progress to wanting to take me to the boutique or showroom,
"just to look." If I explain that I am traveling and
don't want to carry anything with me, they argue that it is
not heavy. If I say I don't need it, they suggest I buy it as
a gift for my wife/child/niece/nephew. At least nobody has suggested
that I buy anything for my grandchild!
"Non, merci" the end of the conversation? For
most people, it's just the beginning! In France, Belgium, Luxembourg,
Tahiti, St. Pierre et Miquelon, Martinique, and the French-speaking
parts of Switzerland and Canada, "Non, merci"
means "No, thank you." In Francophone West Africa,
it seems to have a variety of meanings, non of which is "no,
thank you." Some of the vendors interpret it to mean: (1)
"Yes, please;" (2) "Does it come in blue?;"
(3) "Is there a place where you could take me so that I
could see your entire array of merchandise - perhaps in an environment
without so much carbon monoxide?;" and probably the most
frequent interpretation of all, (4) "I'm not really interested,
but if you follow me around wherever I go and harangue me for
the next hour, you'll probably find that I'm likely to change
I find that
my response to these salesmen varies with my mood. If I speak
English or French to them, it only encourages them to keep the
conversation going. Sometimes it works for me to say something
incomprehensible, so I throw together Japanese or Tagalog, or
make up a few nonsense words that sound like, "Zenzen waka
mo uri." Whatever they say, my only response is, "Zenzen
waka mo uri," or something equally short and meaningless.
Then I smile and shrug my shoulders, and they are gone.
days I am in a better humor to talk, so I say, "That's
very nice of you. You are very kind. Thank you. I really don't
need that," and I repeat it maybe five or six times, just
like I used to have to say to my students, "Yes, you really
do have to finish your math before you can go to recess."
it works, when somebody asks me what I am looking for, to say,
"I am looking for your smile," which I then get, we
shake hands, and it is all over.
is for sure: it is easier to philosophize about the situation
than it is to deal with it face-to-face on a daily basis. At
the PC bureau in Dakar, I found a book that I read in my hotel
room over a few evenings. It is The Prize Winner of Defiance,
Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less,
by Terry Ryan. It is the true story of the author's mother and
family, which took place during the same years as my own childhood.
Evelyn, the author's mother, had a knack for writing poems and
completing the contest entries that were so frequently part
of American consumer life at that time.
of the family was an alcoholic who drank away large portions
of his income, putting the family in jeopardy on several occasions.
But the mother's contest skills were able to win the family
one prize that was enough money for a down-payment on a house
and then, many years later, another grand prize that saved the
house from being foreclosed when the father took out a second
mortgage that was in danger of not being repaid in time.
after I finished the book, the thought occurred to me that Evelyn
Ryan and the Dakar street vendors, at a very basic level, were
driven by the same goal: to do what they could, to do what it
took, in order to keep their families together. People are moved
to action in the same way all over the world.
It may seem, from reading the above, that Dakar doesn't have
or need stores. It does, which is an improvement over the situation
in Nouakchott, where most establishments are small and many
consist of a counter that serves as a barrier between the customer
and the merchandise, which requires asking for any item s/he
wants to see.
a wonderful store there called SCORE, which is about the size
of a large Safeway and just as bountiful. Its treasures include
several items that are not for sale in Nouakchott, such as cotton
bath towels, cotton dishtowels, cotton sheets, and washcloths.
I had only recently thought that it would be handy to keep a
wet washcloth in a Zip-Loc plastic bag with me when I travel.
I was going to ask somebody to send me an old washcloth for
this purpose. But lo and behold: there, at SCORE, was not only
the washcloth, but one that had been sewn on three sides, so
that I could put my hand inside it. If I ever need to entertain
myself, I'll have a wash cloth hand puppet!
has lots of food items, but since I recently discovered the
Mother Lode of tofu in Nouakchott, I am not wanting for anything
in the culinary department.
me with several first-in-a-long-time experiences, such as sleeping
in a bed with legs on it, showering standing up because there
is a shower head mounted to the wall, using an ATM that has
access to my home bank account, and using my VISA card.
I had two visa problems - actually one VISA and one visa problem.
When I went to use my VISA card to pay for the plane tickets
to Cape Verde, the employee told me that the charge was refused.
I had no idea why that would be. The only thing that I could
think of was that it hadn't been swiped through a machine since
I left the USA. There are some phone numbers on the back of
the card, including one to call collect from overseas. But that
meant finding a place where I could make a collect call, or
finding such a thing as an AT&T access number. I tried the
card's website, but they didn't answer for two days.
finally got through to AT&T and made the collect call, the
VISA people told me that they had neither received nor denied
a request for payment of a charge from Dakar, and that the problem
had to be on this end. So I went back to the airline office,
and this time the charge was approved.
the visa problem. I was leaving Dakar on Saturday morning, so
I waited until Friday morning to go to the Cape Verde embassy
to pick up my passport with the visa stamp in it. I went to
the office building and told the guards at the entrance where
I was going. Their response was, "Tuesday," meaning
that the next time the office would be opened would be next
But my flight is tomorrow, and my passport is up there!!!
me to go on up and see if anyone was there. Sure enough, the
gate was closed and padlocked. I knocked on a door and, fortunately,
a guard inside responded. He called out to ask what I wanted.
I answered through the closed door. Pause. He called to ask
my name. I told him. Pause. He called to ask my nationality.
I told him. Pause. I fully expected him to tell me that the
person with the key to the drawer with the passports was in
Cape Verde and would be back on Tuesday. But in a few minutes,
he opened the door, had my passport in his hand, took my receipt
- good thing I had it with me! - and then he handed me the passport.
just too close!
And so it was off to yet another country: Cape Verde (French
name) or Cabo Verde (Portuguese name). I will tell you all about
it in next week's post, as I have already gone on long enough