We made it. In spite of dire predictions, all our transitions were smooth—so smooth, in fact, as to be boring.

It was exhausting however. At 6:30 a.m., after being up all night, we were ushered into a transit lounge in the Casablanca airport, where we sat on uncomfortable yellow plastic chairs for the next 5 hours. There was just nothing to do. Then, on the plane from Casa to NY, there were no movies or kid fun packs. We were ok—we slept, we ate, we dozed, we read. We’d heard horror stories about JFK—how we needed at least 4 hours for transit, how we’d get hassled, etc. None of it was true. JFK was easy. Everyone was nice, friendly, welcoming…so much so that we had another 2 hours just sitting at our gate.

This is America, however, so no problem—there were bookstores with new books and magazines to drool over, and a Starbucks to smell. The kids enjoyed riding an “escalvator” and had a lot of fun with an automatic revolving door.

The inlaws picked us up. At that point, we’d been up for 2 nights, so we were a little out of it. Elliot begged for a Jack in the Box taco—he loves them, in lieu of real food. He calls them “squished meat tacos”—that’s appealing when you’re 10 apparently. We all had tacos, and I ordered a small coke. Welcome to America—it was HUGE!

A Tale of Two American Experiences…

Monday we went to Wal-Mart. (Hey, the inlaws live in a small town in the California desert, and there aren’t a lot of options.) It was all I expected it to be. The vast interior stretched into the distance, the fluorescent lights hummed softly, the music playing took me right back to junior high school. I wandered the floor in a daze. Everything was so bright, everything was so cheap, everything was so jumbled, everything was so overwhelming. You could buy anything! We passed cheap DVDs, we saw cheap shoes, we studied cheap computer games, the kids chose cheap sweet cereal. Did you know you can buy pizza crusts, ready-made? Did you know that cereal boxes are enormous? Did you know that a 10 pack of Capri-Suns are less than $2? How is this possible, you ask. “Capri-Sonnes” are the latest addition to the trendy set of import stores in Mauritania—they are $1 apiece.

I dodged people riding little carts down the wide aisles and ignored the screaming colours of the brightly-packaged junk food. I needed lotion. You wouldn’t believe how many different kinds of lotion there are. In Nouakchott, you can buy Nivea or, well, Nivea. There’s the kind for babies, and the kind for adults. There is the kind for normal skin or the kind with almond oil for dry skin.

It’s not like that at Wal-Mart. There were dozens of varieties. I ignored the Jergans and the Suave and the Wal-mart brand and the Aveeno and the Healing Aromotherapy Garden Whatever. I just wanted Vaseline Intensive Care and it took me ½ an hour just to choose—there was the kind for aging skin, the kind for dry skin, the kind for day use, the kind for night use, the kind with cucumber and aloe, the kind for hands, the kind for feet, the kind for normal skin, the kind for oily skin. I’m sure there were even more I’ve forgotten. I had my own, quiet reverse culture shock right there.T

hen the whole family decided to go out for lunch for a belated Father’s Day. Another Reverse Culture Shock item for the unwary returning traveler is the fact that everything is a chain. Have we no original stores in this vast country? Not around here, apparently.

We decided to go to Chilis. The hostess greeted us, found us a table, gave us several different kinds of menus (kids, adults, drinks, dessert, etc) The kids coloured happily; the adults discussed why a Kraft macaroni and cheese dinner with a side item and drink would cost $4.

About 10 minutes later, the waitress bounced up. “Have you guys been sitting here long?” she asksd us, wide-eyed. “Cuz I saw you here but I didn’t realize you were my table! They switched everything around on me! Gosh, I’m so sorry! Have you been here long?” We mutely shook our heads no. We’d been talking. But she felt so badly that we’d been there so long (so long?) without anyone to look after us that she gave us free chips and salsa. Her service was extremely fast, although she made a few mistakes. We didn’t quibble over them; after all, the portions were huge and if we sent something back, it would just be thrown out. That bothers me too much; and even with minor mistakes, everything tastes terrific.

Nowhere else in the world do you get this kind of service. “Everything ok folks?” “You’ve been waiting 10 minutes so let me give you something free.” “That iced tea has free refills.” “Can I get you anything else?” Nowhere else do kids’ menus exist—kids just eat what the adults eat, period—much less kids’ menus with games and free crayons, free cute little cups, all the soda pop they can drink, at least until Mom steps in and limits it. It’s not that restaurants abroad don’t give free things—just a few months ago, at the opening of a new restaurant in Nouakchott, the waiter gave us a free plate of Tunisian pastries (YUM!) and a free cup of coffee to celebrate. But it’s different, and not just because he was an hour late with our meal.

At lunch, the food portions are enormous and everything tastes wonderful. We go home, sated, to nap under an AC while the kids splash in the pool. (Jet lag lingers). Welcome home—it’s got things you like and things you hate, but at least you’re here.

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