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I am rereading Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi. I enjoy this book, which is an odd mixture of memoir and literary criticism, among other reasons because it reminds me a little of my own life. Don’t get me wrong. Life in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania is very different to life in the Islamic Republic of Iran. We enjoy much more freedom here; for example, it is not the law for women to veil, although all Mauritanians do because it is their culture. Mauritanian women don’t fit many Western stereotypes of Muslim women—they drive cars, own businesses, work in the government. But I see many similarities in our students.
Unlike Nafisi, I don’t teach literature. I taught Writing to the 4th-year English students at the University of Nouakchott for 3 years, but this year I’m only supervising 15 thesis students. To better understand the quality of Mauritania’s only university, instead of “thesis” you should think of it as a 40-pg research paper that has to be defended orally. And even though I don’t teach literature (it’s not that they haven’t asked me), because of my background in lit most of my students are doing literary topics.
Papers are due April 30, which is soon. (In fact, I’m not really blogging right now—I’m correcting papers) In the time-honored tradition of students around the world, the procrastinators are only now getting serious. One of my students chose Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet; perhaps the most famous love story in English history. About a week ago, he flung the beginning to his introduction on my desk one evening, and left. Reading his work later, I was startled to read that the fault of the whole tragedy lies in the person of Juliet, instead of in circumstance, chance, and the pointless feud between the families Montague and Capulet. No, according to my student, Juliet was a corrupt woman who had no business marrying someone of whom her family didn’t approve. She should have recognized that, as a member of the weaker sex, she couldn’t possibly go against her father and expect to succeed. As a result, she basically killed Romeo.
Now before you spew your coffee all over your keyboard (ick!), let me explain a little about marriage in this country. First of all, Juliet’s age (14) wouldn’t be a problem. That’s a good age for a woman’s first marriage. This is changing, of course, but in the villages and certain areas of the city, it’s still the norm. Her husband, however, would typically be about 35—it takes a lot of money to get married. Secondly, although women are given the right to refuse a marriage to a specific person, they can’t just go out and marry anyone they choose. Marriages take place within families, extended families, tribes—but not usually beyond that. Muslim men can marry Western women, but Muslim women can’t marry Western men. Their families simply would not allow that.
But, I argued with my student, if you are going to say this about Juliet, wasn’t it equally Romeo’s fault? No, he said. Juliet was a corrupt woman. Romeo was good, he killed Juliet’s cousin in the feud, he was swayed by this evil woman. He was innocent.
I explained that from Shakespeare’s point of view, the family feud wasn’t a good thing that must be upheld. Instead, love, forgiveness, unity, peace were ideals. The tragedy lies in the fact that through their marriage and happiness, the feud could have been ended, once and for all, and this pointless killing stopped. Oh! he said. This was obviously a new idea. In the second (typed!) version of his paper, he has changed to my point of view. I don’t know if he’s convinced, or just wanting to make me happy.
When you plan to move overseas you take courses and seminars on learning to deal with another culture, and they talk to you about “worldview.” This has to do with the unspoken assumptions that we all make, based on our culture and family background and beliefs, when we view the world—the grid that we filter our experiences through. So that one could read a great love story and blame the woman, or read The Scarlet Letter and miss Hawthorne’s scathing indictment of the townspeople’s self-righteousness and hypocrisy, and see only a woman’s adultery. And yet, what does literature do if not provide us with a mirror to see our world, to see ourselves? The challenge is to help them see it, instead of leaving unchanged, their lives unexamined, looking only at fictional characters and not at themselves.
The reason I said typed! was because first versions are usually written by hand on unlined paper, which tells you something else about resources available to most students.
I spent a good part of my weekend feeling frustration at the local phone company; justifiably yes, but life overseas is easier and calmer if you can somehow make yourself not notice or care about things like people turning left in front of you from the right hand lane, without even glancing back, or people not wanting to wait at a red light so driving up into oncoming traffic, thereby creating an absolutely pointless traffic jam.
Ok, I’m not going to vent; it was just a difficult day on the streets of Nouakchott. And I care. I don’t want my kids’ childhood memories to consist of me yelling at other drivers all the time, every day. On the other hand, some part of me thinks that maybe if the other drivers get yelled at, they will somehow get a clue, and maybe next time will reach down deep inside themselves and find a place that will help them wait for a red light, or not park sideways across 3 spaces, or not drive on the sidewalk. On the other hand, maybe not.
But back to the phone company, which is the actual topic of this post (no really; go check out the header). We recently, after a year and a half of requesting and 3 months of being told “next week,” got internet at the house. YAAY! It was a joyous day. Our first phone bill afterwards was double what it should have been—the phone company had charged us twice for our new internet. The total mistake was approx. $100.
Donn went to the phone company to fix it. “Just pay the extra,” he was told, “And you’ll be reimbursed in Sept or Oct.” When he refused, they sent him round various offices in various parts of town. In each, he was told that he needed to go to the office he’d just been in. Finally he found a woman who fixed the problem temporarily, but told him he would need to come back every month and remind them that it was their mistake.
Now realize that this company is computerized. All that’s needed is for someone to click a few buttons. But does anyone care enough to do that?
Apparently not. Today (Mon) is the 6th day since our phone was cut off again, this month, after we paid what we actually owed. Donn has made myriad trips, again to offices all over town, in search of someone who cares enough to do their job. At first we had no phone but we did have internet, but now that has gone too, after some woman, fully aware that we don’t actually owe them any money, realized we still had internet so cut that too.
I was sharing my frustrations with some students today who were wondering why I hadn’t called them to tell them their thesis papers were ready. I told them that nothing will change until they, personally, and everyone else, personally, decides that they will treat all people the same (instead of assuming that rich Americans can and should pay more than everybody else), that they will do their jobs without requiring bribes, that they will be honest, that they will be competent, that they will not hire people because of their tribe or family but because of their training and competency. It has to come from the grass roots; it won’t matter if government changes unless it changes at the level of everyday life. They agreed with me today. I hope they will remember.
…Hey I can update this before I even post it! Such is the magic of Mauritel (name of phone company) Today (Tues) my poor husband spent 4 hours at the phone company, in various offices, without accomplishing ANYTHING! Yep. He’ll be going back tomorrow—they told him to come at 8 a.m. but no one is ever there before 8:45. Maybe something will happen; maybe not. If you’re reading this, you’ll know it happened eventually…which it did after 5 more visits on Wednesday.
This is also from our first few months…
One of our first Mauritanian friends was a man named Mahmouni. We pronounce that first syllable somewhere between –mah and –my. One day, we went to visit him. Ilsa, then 4, popped up from the back seat. “Where are we going?”
I said, “We’re going to Mymouni’s.”
“He’s not just your moonie—he’s our moonie, too!” she said.
Today, April 19th, is the 5th anniversary of our first arrival in Nouakchott. We haven’t been here non-stop for 5 years, but I will never forgot the contradictory emotions that assailed me as I first stepped off that plane into the heat of a Saharan April. And although this blog is named Planet Nomad in honor of the fact that we live in a country where the culture is still nomadic and nomads are celebrated, by moving overseas we have joined the crowd of expatriates who are always, well, moving.
In honor of that, my post today is something I wrote in the first few months here. It describes an interaction I had when I was still learning about shopping on my own.
July 2001…I venture downtown alone, via taxi, to buy things for Elliot’s birthday celebration. The day is hot, the streets dusty and choked with trash. I buy some items at a French boucherie and emerge into the glare, blinking and looking around for another taxi.
A man approaches me, smiling hugely. I tense. I know what is coming, I think, another request for money. I have already guiltily avoided the large brown puppy-dog eyes of several beggar boys, who have perfected the art of looking pitiful. This man, however, is more creative.
“You are American?” he begins in English.
I nod guardedly.
“Welcome!” He makes a sweeping gesture. “Welcome to Africa!”
“Thanks,” I mutter, taken by surprise.
“We love to have Americans come to Africa,” he continues. “Because Americans love black people.”
I feel a little proud of such a heritage and a little skeptical of it, too. But I nod. What else can I do?
He continues to speak, in heavily-accented English. Americans are not like other Westerners because they love the black people and are always willing to help them. Hmm, I think. This is a slightly new twist on the role of America in international politics. He must have known some awfully nice Americans, I think in my innocence.
Have I come to stay or am I just passing through? he inquires anxiously. When reassured of my continued presence, he beams, if possible even more broadly. I have arrived at an auspicious time. His wife has just had a son, and tomorrow is the naming ceremony, held on the 8th day after birth. It is a time of great joy for him, and he would like to present me with a gift.
I shift a bit in the glaring sun and dust, and watch in some bemusement as he produces the most hideous fake-gold costume-jewelry bracelet I have ever seen. It is truly ugly as few things are. He firmly puts in on my wrist, explaining that I must keep it because it will bring good luck to his son, now that he has given a gift to an American women, who loves the black people…
My mind drifts back to a few weeks ago. We had only been here a few days, and Donn took Elliot to the market. He had brought me a similar hideous bracelet and a similar tale, of a man who had spoken English, welcomed him to Africa, and invited him to the naming ceremony of his son, to be held the next day. Donn was invited to participate in the joy of purchasing a sheep to be eaten at the celebration.
We were touched at the graciousness of a people who would invite complete strangers to a family celebration. “I think you should go,” I tell Donn. He nods in agreement.
“Do you think I could come, too?” I ask, eager to experience my new adopted culture in all its variations. “Maybe,” says Donn. “I don’t know where he lives or anything, but I’ll ask.”
And the next day, he had driven around the downtown area looking for the guy. When he did find him, he asked about it. At first the man looked a little confused, but then his face cleared and he told Donn that Donn had misunderstood; the naming ceremony was the next day. It was not too late for Donn to help purchase the sheep…
So I determinedly and not too regretfully give the bracelet back. No, no, I tell him. I can’t keep the bracelet. He insists. It is bad luck for his son if I don’t. But it is a gift. I am not to give him any money for it. (No fear of that, I think!) That would also be bad for the child.
I doubt the existence of the child altogether, but I don’t say so. I am polite. I am still new in Africa, you see. By now he is beginning to tell me about the sheep that will need to be bought. It is so expensive, you see. It may be as much as 20,000; of course he wouldn’t want that much but if I wanted to chip in a little towards that, say about 5000…
“I thought you didn’t want any money,” I say.
He is shocked. Of course he doesn’t want money! The last thing on his mind would be for me to pay him for the bracelet, which is a gift, to welcome me to Africa and to bring luck to his son. However, if as a reciprocal gesture I wanted to contribute a little something to the purchase of the sheep…
I nod. Finally we are to the point. “I won’t give you money,” I tell him. “For one, I only have enough money on me to purchase the things I need myself today.”
He nods, but obviously doesn’t believe me. In my experience, people I meet on the street believe I wear a layer of 1000 ouguiya bills next to the skin, drawn fresh each morning from my magical never-ending supply.
We go back and forth, under the hot sun, me holding my groceries in one hand and beginning to sweat, while traffic whizzes by and taxis enticingly come and go, always spotted just too late to flag them down. Can I never escape this man? I experience a feeling of desperation.
I give him the bracelet back again for about the tenth time. “I wish your son all the best,” I say, trying to keep my teeth unclenched.
He gives the bracelet back to me. “It is a gift for you,” he states. “It is bad luck for my son if you don’t take it.”
“I don’t want the bracelet,” I tell him. “I wish your son blessings and prosperity.”
He tries again to give me the bracelet. If it wasn’t so hideous I would probably just keep it and walk away, but I don’t want to ever have to see it again. Maybe I could give it to one of the beggar boys, popping it sweetly into their red cans in lieu of the coins they really want. Or I could just drop it in the dust of the street and the wheels of my taxi could run it over. But I don’t want to have to deal with it, and I doubt he would let me walk away. I give it back.
“I think you met my husband,” I say, hoping that this will trigger some guilt that I’m on to this very creative story for getting money from Americans. He just nods. He has no idea.
He is now suggesting that maybe I would like to give just 1000 or 2000 towards the sheep. In desperation, I rummage in my purse. He perks up. “Or 4000 or 5000,” he continues. “Sheep are very expensive; maybe as much as 20,000.”
“I told you already I won’t give you any money,” I tell him. I am looking for some small plastic toy that I can give to the non-existent child, just to get rid of the man. After all, he can’t deny the child at this point; he will have to take it.
My fingers close on a roll of lifesavers. I pull it out and remove a bit of fuzz. It is unopened.
“Look,” I tell him. “I’m not going to give you any money. But I wish your son all the best. Here is some American candy for him.”
He takes it suspiciously. “This is really from America?” he says.
”Yes, look. There is only English writing on it.” I turn the roll over, squinting at the tiny writing, looking for the magic words “Made in U.S.A.”
He is happy. Something from America is probably more than he thought he’d get. Maybe he thinks he can resell it; maybe it will give him prestige. Whatever. Finally, I am able to walk away without an ugly bracelet or having committed myself to owing this man something in return.
I tell Donn about it and we laugh. We continue to see the man often in the downtown area, and Donn has even asked about his son a few times. The answers are always a little ambiguous. But now, the man feels, we are fast friends. Surely we would like to buy this little souvenir he has, from Mali, over 200 years old, for only 20,000 ouguiya…
The weather on Planet Nomad has been a little bit whacky all week. During the day, il fait tres chaud—it’s sooo hot. The sky is filled with sand, the sun dim but heavy. Then, suddenly, in the late afternoon there comes a breath of coolness. By nightfall the wind has picked up and I shiver, standing outside in the garden where I came to cool off. We race round the house opening windows. In the morning, we close everything up, and the house stays relatively cool all day—a breath of relief when you come in from outside. On Wednesday, it was 104 degrees at 2:00, and 74 degrees by 8:00. Doesn’t this seem a little extreme?
I was aware of the heat Wednesday afternoon because we went to an ism, or naming ceremony. The ism takes place on the 8th day of a newborn’s life. I’ve heard that an imam, or Muslim preacher, comes to the house in the morning, spits in the child’s ear, and gives it its name—which the parents/extended family have chosen for it. I’ve never seen this part. I think it is at this point that the child is often given amulets to wear, which the parents believe protect it from evil or harm. In a nation where infant mortality is still high, you can understand why parents grasp at anything they think might help.
Other superstitions show up at this time, too. I remember going to an ism for a baby girl. She was wearing thick black eyeliner! This, I was told, is a way to help ensure that she’ll be a beautiful adult.
Wednesday afternoon, the kids don’t have school. A friend of ours called to invite us all to the ism. The kids groaned—they are all going through stages when they don’t really like tradtional aspects of their host culture. And eating goat with their hands while sitting on the floor has come to personify all that they don’t like. But for an ism, a goat—or two, depending on how wealthy the family is—must be killed and cooked.
This family is Pulaar—part of a sub-Saharan African tribe that lives in the south of Mauritania. The women wear brightly coloured robes that are as wide as their arms, but which are folded up onto their shoulders. I’ve tried boubous on before, and they make me look absolutely square (since I’m short and, well, not thin), but Pulaar women look nice in them; dignified, gracious.
When we arrive at the house, we are ushered into the back room to see the mother and baby, then we are separated; D and I are shuffled off to a salon filled with women, while Donn and the other men go to another salon where the men are hanging out. The boys decide to wrestle in the hall, getting dirty footmarks on the freshly-painted walls (sigh…), while Ilsa goes off with Habsa, the baby’s older sister, to play. There are LOTS of people there. For an ism, you pretty much invite every single person you know, have ever met, or are related to, which in Africa, means that your house has wall-to-wall people, inside and out.
It’s hot. The open windows bring breezes which apparently are wafting from an oven. We sit there, D and I, and watch the babies play. The other women speak to us occasionally in French, but mostly chatter away in Pulaar. Sometimes we speak to each other in English, mostly comments about how the babies are without exception dressed for a Minnesota winter, not a Mauritanian spring. They wear layers and layers of clothing, and are often wrapped in winter-thick blankets. All this in a place where, when it’s 65, we think it’s cold!
Soon it’s time to eat. First, someone comes round with a bucket and a plastic teapot sort of thing. She pours the water over your hands into the bucket. Then, another woman comes in with little plastic tablecloths, which she spreads on the floor. A man brings a large bowl full of rice, veggies and meat. We gather round. I make the boys eat with me, so that I can bully them into looking appreciative, but Ilsa has disappeared; later I will be haunted by her assurance that she “really really wasn’t hungry” and so really really didn’t eat.
We dig our hands into the rice, and remove them, gasping in pain. “OUCH!” Elliot announces loudly, as everyone turns to look. The food is sooo hot! There’s lots of oil in it, though, so it’s easy to form the rice into little balls, which can then be transferred to the mouth with minimal mess. It’s tasty. I keep scolding the kids, in English, to keep eating! They really aren’t that hungry, but I don’t care; I just want them to eat an acceptable amount so that our hosts aren’t offended. “Five more bites!” I hiss at Elliot, who at 10 ½ should be eating more than he is. Probably it would be less noticeable if I just kept quiet instead of muttering away in English, but I never could just leave things alone. Abel does great though, digging down into his section until he reaches the bottom of the bowl.
Afterwards, the bucket comes round again to wash our hands. We dig into the dirty water to find a sliver of soap, lather up, and rinse off. Then comes The Dread Zrig. Zrig is a national drink here; its basically just water, milk and sugar. What’s not to like? The kids like milk, they love sugar, but…they HATE zrig. The Mauritanians don’t understand this, as all Mauritanians, no matter their age, just love it. “Smile and take big sips,” I mutter threateningly at Ilsa. She gives a huge grin, patently fake, and takes the merest sip. “Bigger!” I mutter casually through clenched teeth. D and I drink our glasses, and the kids share one. Elliot takes one sip and makes a terrible face before putting on the fake grin.
It’s painful. Perhaps I should let them stick to water. This is a specific parenting choice you make when you live overseas; how much do you do dictate how your child responds to your host culture? Do you make them choke down the dates, which they hate? (And WHY would they hate dates, which are straight sugar, when they love sugar so, if not to simply frustrate their parents?) Donn and I feel that the point of good manners is to set others at ease, which fits in with our efforts to minimize selfishness in ourselves and our children, so we make them eat a little bit of everything, and be at least outwardly happy about it. Are we fueling hypocrisy? No I don’t think so. After all, being honest with yourselves and others isn’t supposed to mean setting your own personal comfort above that of anyone else.
After the zrig, we drink a round or two of sweet mint tea, but have to leave early to get Donn to work on time. We head back through the afternoon heat to our side of town, which is nearest the ocean, and thankfully, again that evening comes the cool breeze.
Donn’s been having a lot of lung problems lately—mostly difficulty breathing and a really irritating cough (irritating for him of course! I would never be so insensitive as to complain about something like that; no really!) So our dr. friend sent him to a local clinic for an x-ray.
I felt like I was going for an illegal abortion! First I had to go up a dark, dusty staircase to a dim office, where I paid. Then a man led me across a roof, down another staircase, along a narrow alleyway filled with cement blocks, and finally to a small room. “Are x-rays legal in this country?” I asked.
But, no, this was just an affordable-to-many option—it cost a grand total of $18, approximately. (PN disclaimer: I don’t do math. I round numbers with abandon! All numbers given are approximate) Thankfully, his lungs are clear so it’s not TB. So now what? Maybe athsma. He’s trying an inhaler. Or perhaps he has developed an allergy to dust, which would be unfortunate for someone living in the Dust Capital of the world.
Here on Planet Nomad, it’s been very windy lately. That’s what Nouakchott actually means; Place of Winds. I swear it “wuthers” round the house; I keep expecting to hear Heathcliff yelling “CATHY!” outside my window! Houses in Mauritania aren’t known for their stellar construction, and the doors rattle madly. Outside the donkeys howl and the dogs whine. The mosque goes off in my ear at 5 a.m. or so. But these are normal night noises. The wind has been cool, so I’m sleeping well these nights, while beneath the open window the sand softly forms a tiny dune.
This blog will be random thoughts on living and raising a family overseas. We live on the Atlantic edge of the Sahara Desert, amongst a people whose culture has changed more in the last 20 years than in the previous 1000. A lot of times, it’s like being on another planet. We deal with the same issues as any family anywhere; just sometimes they look a bit different. We teach English and photograph, and spend a lot of time standing in line to pay bills. Our kids go to French school and are ashamed of our thick American accents when we speak to their teachers.
In order to give you a better picture, my first post will be a (far-too-long) description of a recent trip we took to the interior…
Our trip to (fa-la-la!) Boumdaid…and beyond!
The kids are all in French school, which means they get a week off at the end of February for the excitingly-named Vacation of February. (vacances de fevrier…doesn’t that sound better?) We decided to take a trip into the interior with our friends T and D and their son E.
We left Nouakchott at 2 p.m. on Feb 28, a mere 5 hours off schedule. I won’t go into all the boring reasons why; the only one you care about is that a power outage the night before had made packing, filling up huge containers with filtered water, etc. difficult. We drove about an hour out of town and stopped for lunch off to the side of a big dune, where there was an overgrown thorn bush/tree for shade. 3 hours after that, the sun was sinking to the horizon, and it was already time to stop for the night. The nice thing about Mauritania is that this just means turning off the road at a likely-looking spot, driving until you feel you have some privacy, and stopping. We set up our tent, and the kids scattered to look for firewood. We were in an area with bushes and trees and dust, which meant that our stay would be enlivened by herds of goats, camels and cows, wandering through to strip the grey-green leaves off the thorn bushes. Also, that meant we needed to keep an eye out for their herders, who have a disconcerting way of appearing just as you’re sure you’ve gone behind a big-enough bush for privacy!
That night we had a big bonfire under the stars. I slept at the very edge of the tent so I could stare up at the night sky. It was a clear night, and the stars hung close enough to touch. We could pick out different constellations even though we are Astonomically Ignorant like most other Americans. For the first time, I could see enough stars to make out shapes. Maybe those ancient Greeks weren’t on mind-enhancing drugs after all! I could see the Scorpion’s tail, and Orion’s bow, and the wavy Hydra.
Next morning, we were eating our cereal and long-life milk when a camel-herder appeared. First he asked if we needed anything. He and his family and herds were camped not far off. We said no thanks, so he asked if we had anything we didn’t need!
All that day we drove through the glare and dust along Mauritania’s East-West Highway. It’s called the Road of Hope, and was built during the terrible droughts of the 70s and 80s. For many nomads, their only hope was to follow this road to reach the coastal capital city of Nouakchott. We stopped occasionally for cold drinks in the small towns which have sprung up along the road, in the manner of small towns and highways anywhere in the world. We would instantly be swarmed by the local children. They are somewhat accustomed to seeing Westerners drive through in their big 4WDs, so they’d approach to demand a gift or a pen or whatever they could see through my window, but would stop, entranced by the vision of blond children in the back seat. “Tfayla! Tfayla!” (Little girl! Little girl!) they’d yell to their friends, who would scamper up. The twins quickly got tired of kids reaching through to touch their hair, or of requests for their toys, or just of being stared at. Sometimes I got tired of feeling like an animal in a zoo and demanded, “Have you never seen people before?” but I tried to just ignore them.
We reached Kiffa about 5 p.m. Kiffa is a regional capital; a small city with electricity, pharmacies, an airport, and other amenities. We stopped for cold drinks and a visit with a mechanic, who checked a leak we’ve had “fixed” at least 10 times over the past year. Then we began our Quest for the Road to Boumdaid! Since there are no road signs, you follow the time-honored way of the desert and ask passers-by. The problem was that everyone had a different opinion. We drove up and down the same stretch of road, being told that we’d just passed it, or that it was just up there round that corner. Finally we were off, on a road surprisingly graded and smooth (but not paved), through a strange sort of countryside. It was almost a savannah. The ground was covered with a pale green sort of straw, and dotted here and there were spindly trees that would afford absolutely no privacy to anyone more than 4 inches wide! I wondered about camping, but near sunset we came to some dunes. We bumped up to a wide flat spot and stopped for the night. In the near distance, a purple-black plateau rose into the sky. We climbed the nearest dune to watch the mango sun set in shades of red and the sliver of new moon sinking towards the west. The kids played on the dunes, running and jumping, in the process filling pockets, hair, and ears with reddish-gold silt. Again that night, the stars were like an added presence, their distant fire instilling a solemn sense of joy.
We were only 50 kilometres from Boumdaid, the town we’d planned to reach on Tuesday night. We didn’t hurry in the morning, sure we’d be there in an hour. Wrong! This was four-wheeling, bumping over dunes, sahel grassland, more dunes, through strange trees, round the sides of rock plateaus. It took hours. We came to a tiny village built on the side of a massive dune. As we approached the village, hoards of children ran towards us. The first reached us. “Go back!” he shouted, sweeping us away with his arms. “This is not the right road! Turn around!”
Amused, we stared at him. “This is the way to Boumdaid?” I said.
“Yes, but Kiffa is that way!” He pointed back the way we’d come. “You want to go to Kiffa.”
Most villages in interior Mauritania don’t have electricity, but many have one or two little shops with ancient fridges powered by butune gas bottles. Our AC doesn’t work, so we drive through the sand with our windows down, and by this point, our tongues were practically hanging out with thirst. We had plenty of warm water, but were fantasizing about cold drinks. T asked a boy of about 11 or 12, “Is there a fridge in this village?” “What’s a fridge?” was the respose. Guess not! We drove on.
Boumdaid was a tidy town with a yellow school, shiny new solar panels and several anti-desertification measures in place. No cold drinks though. We determined our road and left.
It was nearly 3 before we finally reached the village of Lig Dame, 15 km beyond Boumdaid. On the way, we’d met some of the inhabitants, who offered to show us the way to their village. They were excited to meet Americans. “Did you hear about Lig Dame in Nouakchott or in America?” they asked, and were disappointed when we said Nouakchott.
From Lig Dame to the Canyon was only about a kilometer. An elderly man named Mohammed clambered into our car to show us the way. We drove through the afternoon heat and light to a place on the edge of a wide, dry riverbed, full of scattered milkweed plants. The milkweed plant is the main plant of the desert, and they can get really tall and produce a purple flower. Mohamed has staked off a section of this flat sandy area, where he has a well and has planted date palms.
He volunteered to guide us into the Canyon of the Barking Baboons (note: its real name in Hassiniya means Green Water. BORING! We’ve renamed it, in the time-honored tradition of travelers and explorers through the centuries.). We set off, straight up the side of a dune, in the full strength of an oppressive afternoon sun. Mohamed set a terrific pace, climbing easily and without apparent effort. We strung out behind him. Several kilometers higher, we gasped in relief to enter the shade. Mohamed couldn’t find the “path” so we clamoured over enormous boulders.
Soon the canyon’s inhabitants came to see what was going on. Their furry little faces peered over the edges of the rocks, looking down at us. Apparently, an argument broke out between them, and they began fighting and barking ferociously. The sound bounced and echoed and magnified in the rocks, making the children a little nervous. The babboons surrounded us in a loose circle, and followed us as we continued our rock-climbing. We finally came to some still green water. The big question in these deep desert oases is—are there crocodiles? Mohamed said no. We’d hoped to get a swim in, but the sun was already sinking behind the canyon walls, it was a long way back out and we had no light with us. The baboons were getting braver and angrier too, scampering all over the rocks with ease while scolding us and each other furiously.
On the way back, Mohamed found the actual path, which made our going much easier and quicker. He took us down a little gully and showed us rock paintings—drawings of men on horseback hunting what were obviously giraffes. They were incredible. We tried to figure out how old they might be—minimum 1000 years, most likely several thousand. Perhaps only 10 other Americans have ever seen them. Doesn’t this make you want to come visit us?
It was dusk but we could still make out the path as we emerged gratefully from the canyon. Mohamed offered to take us into another canyon, where, he promised, there weren’t monkeys but there were crocodiles! That night we didn’t even bother with the tent, but slept under the stars. The villagers generously offered us a large hunk of raw meat, and you could see their puzzlement at our contentment with tinned ravioli, with its minimal prep time.
In the morning, Mohamed came to say goodbye as we prepared for our 2-day trip back to the city. He milked one of his camels for us, thereby showing us the true hospitality of the desert by giving us one of their greatest delicacies. Camel’s milk is thinner and saltier than cow’s milk. You can buy it in little cartons in the city, but the real way to drink it is still warm, from a big wooden bowl, with little hairs still floating in it. Even urban Mauritanians dream of this.
They tell you in writing class to have an audience in mind when you write. But how? This feels so different. I have no idea who if anyone will read this. I don't know how to make my blog look like I want it to. I just know I want a blog, so here we go…