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On that fateful trip to Oulata where I was served goat turd along with goat intestine (both the inner and outer parts, as it were), we also saw wind-carved rock formations in fantastic shapes, an ancient city where finger-painted fertility symbols covered the walls of the houses, and a live crocodile sleeping just a few feet away from Elliot, who was excitedly calling and pointing at it. Fortunately it either didn’t wake up, or it was just as scared of us, etc.

It’s that time of year again—the desert is calling. After a week of unseasonably high temps (in the low 100s), we are (thankfully) back again to cold nights and hot afternoons. It’s the excitingly-named “Vacation of February.” So, in a literal cloud of dust but without a hearty heigh-ho Silver, we are loading up the tents and sleeping bags and mosquito repellent, packing an extra packet of coffee just in case, buying long-life cheese, baking cookies, and heading inland. We are planning to spend 2 nights near the crocodile pits and 2 in a dry riverbed near a city situated along an ancient caravan route.

The crocodiles are interesting indications that this vast desert is indeed man-made. Left behind in tiny pools when the grasslands receded, they have continued to survive over the centuries while surrounded by sands for hundreds of miles. I hope we see them but that they don’t come too near. I’m really not very brave; I have a morbid, over-active imagination.

Always, before a trip, something happens to keep you from forgetting that this world isn’t perfect. Usually, something happens with your plumbing or electricity. Last year, the electricity went out the night before, so we couldn’t pack and got a late start. One year, the water was out, so I had to leave for a week unshowered and with dirty dishes in the sink. (Do you have a pathological fear of boredom? This might be the place for you!) This year, it’s the plumbing. The whole city is having water problems—we haven’t had a full reservoir for over 2 weeks now, which means I’m behind on laundry and the garden’s going a bit brown. Tonight, a kid accidentally bumped an outdoor pipe which burst and starting spewing our last bit of water over the shells (not even the green part!). Donn’s spent all evening trying to fix it. Darn; can’t do dishes.

I’ll tell you all about it when we get back. In the meantime, you can read my first long post, detailing last year’s camping trip to Boumdaid and the Valley of the Barking Baboons, should you feel so inclined (i.e. bored).

I’ve never been to this part of Mauritania before, but Donn has twice gone on trips there while I stayed home to keep the kids in school. Here’s a picture he took of a man making tea in the dry river-bed near Rasheed, where we’ll camp after leaving the crocodiles.riverbed-tea.jpg

 

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In Part 1, I discussed eating animal parts that, while technically edible, are difficult for modern Westerners. Yet, when you put it in context, it is much more normal to eat goat head or camel hump than it is to eat, oh, processed cheese spread, for example. Looking at the big picture of human history, taking into account poverty and richness, it makes a lot more sense to use all of an animal for food, and keep the skin to store water or make tents out of, than it does to waste most of it. I’m not preaching—I much prefer boneless/skinless myself and I’ve already confessed to the world that I can’t eat organs without gagging. Like Michelle commented last time, I’m also very brave when it comes to vegetables.

 

In Part 1, I mentioned my mother was a good cook. But she also made many dishes I hated! I was unlucky enough to be the only person in my family who hated liver—even my brothers liked it. You wouldn’t believe how happy I was the day they announced it was high in cholesterol, and she stopped eating it. (I still remember this day; like people who remember what they were doing when Kennedy was shot, or the space shuttle blew up. Only mine is happy) My mother loves steak and kidney pie; even as a child I hated it. But go back a generation or two, and everybody ate everything. It is only in very recent times that we’ve had the luxury of being picky—because it is a luxury, make no mistake.

 

Today’s post is about being served non-edible parts of the animal. You should probably not be eating while you read this unless you have an unusually strong stomach.

 

It was late February, 2003. The kids always get a week off school at this time, and it is the perfect time to go camping in the interior—not too hot yet. We decided to visit the ancient city of Oulatta, 1200 km away on the Malian border. We went with our friends Tim and Debbie, and also with two women named Jamie and Carrie, who were at that time working with street children here. A Mauritanian friend of Tim’s asked if we would drop him off at his village; only an hour or so off the main road. We agreed.

 

When Americans travel the desert, they tend to bring picnic supplies along—long-life cheese (see above; it’s processed to within an inch of its life!) and bread, cookies, apples, cold Cokes in a cooler filled with ice. Mauritanians, on the other hand, if they are going to eat, tend to stop at the little “restaurants” along the main highway. I put it in quotes because the word “restaurant” will conjure up the wrong image in your mind. These are permanent tents, with thin, hard matlas round the edges and mats laid on the sand, open to the winds. You lie down, choose a bit of meat, and off they go to cook it for you. It usually takes a couple of hours, and your meat will be gritty and grisly. I personally hate these restaurants but Donn rather likes them; he enjoys leaning back in the shade while the hot wind blows on his face, sipping a glass of strong mint tea. He’d happily go live in the desert in a tent for a year if he could talk me into it.

 

Traveling with a Mauritanian meant we stopped for tea, and for lunch, and all in all, it was dark by the time we got to Kiffa, where we needed to turn north off the paved road to find his village. “It’s a very poor village and they’ll want to feed us,” warned Tim. “We need to bring something.” I was all up for a bag of rice, but instead we bought a goat.

 

We tied the poor thing to the top of the car and set off in the dark along an unmarked path. The man knew the way, and guided Tim expertly, while we bumped along in his wake. We arrived in the village under dim starlight, stumbled out of our cars, presented the goat. The animal was immediately slaughtered, right next to our car which was a bit disconcerting.

 

The villagers spread some mats out under the stars and some prickly thorn trees, and we sat down to wait for our meal to cook. This was a village poor even by Mauritanian standards; just some permanent grass-and-mud huts under the thorn trees, the goat droppings in the sand echoing the stars above in number and pattern. They didn’t even have their own well; each day the women had to walk 2 km with plastic bidons atop their heads.

 

We waited and waited. Jamie and Carrie, who spoke a little Pulaar, went off to practice their language on the women; the rest of us, limited to Hassiniya, French or English, hung out on the mats. The kids went to sleep. I dozed off as well, only to be woken by a flashlight in my eyes at 1 a.m. Supper was ready.

 

There was a platter for the men and a platter for the women. Debbie, Carrie, Jamie and I gathered round. We took turns holding a flashlight between neck and shoulder, so we could see what we were eating. We tore bits of sandy bread off and sopped up meat and onion sauce. When I was holding the flashlight, I kept noticing a little dark round ball in my section. “Must be a blood clot,” I kept thinking to myself desperately.

 

Finally I faced facts. I shone the light more closely. I pointed it out to the others. “I don’t think that’s supposed to be in with the food,” said Carrie. She was right. It was a goat turd.

 

Nobody ate much after that. We discussed it, in English. It couldn’t have been cooked, right?, because it would have turned to mush. It must have just been on the platter. But how?

 

We soon sat back, and our platter was passed on to the waiting, hungry, village children, who had it wiped clean within seconds. Soon we were settled for the night on low wooden platforms, raised about 6 inches off the ground to protect from scorpions and snakes. The two families slept here; the single women were swept off to the privacy of the huts. In the morning we gathered round for breakfast. The village women had already been to the well and had water for us; for drinking, making tea, etc. I could see the inside of the Jerri can and bits of whatever coating it originally had were flaking off into that water. Between that and the previous night’s experience, I was sure this trip was going to be one long misery—we were certain to all get sick.

 

But we didn’t. We survived and thrived, and enjoyed seeing interesting rock formations, an ancient city, and a live crocodile about 4 feet away from my son. Whereas I have stayed in much more sanitary places and gotten some really nasty parasites. (My fail proof Lose-Weight-Quick plan)

 

I would like to clarify that I have stayed in several different villages, and they were all much cleaner than this one. I would also point out the difficulties of keeping clean when you have to walk 2 km for water, and carry it back.

 

But when we went back to our car, there stuck in the cleft of a nearby thorn tree was the goat’s head from the night before, its tongue hanging out.

 

We happily left them to it, and went on our way to Oulatta. (pronounce to rhyme with alotta. Walotta.)

I get so many of these and it seems only fair to share them with you. Some of them make me wonder about the crazy people out there who nonetheless know how to type, and some of them make me wonder about the wisdom of google, because these topics have nothing to do with me and life here on Planet Nomad. An example of both might be the poor lost soul searching for “an event that happened uneventfully.” Get that person a Thesaurus! Besides, here on “red sandstorm planet” (another search, and not only a great description of Mauritania, but a great name for this blog) ALL events happen eventfully!

Where are camptown ladies?” At the camel races, of course.

windows were made by soaking cloth in this oil in the colonial days.” Apparently the web thinks Mauritania is still stuck in the 1700s. Hey the web said it, not me!

idiom of knots in stomach” Um, isn’t this already an idiom?

explain the idioms said by scout to kill” Ok, I know google considers me the leading expert on idioms. But killing idioms? Isn’t that like a cutting wit—in itself an idiom? Oh my head hurts.

reasons for reading romeo and juliet.” Oh they are many. But if you have to ask the web, well, perhaps classic literature is not for you.

antique nomad surfboard” Worked great on sand dunes, presumably.

browning nomad arm” What I do a little of every day.

jellyfish sting tan tights” Ok, I get the first 2 words. And the last 2 work together as well. But all 4? Nope. I get nothing.

obsessed with Mona” As are we all, to some degree or another. I mean, I guess.

Why do we have to drink camel milk?” This one struck a deep chord with me. I’ve asked myself that same question a few times, although I’ve never asked the web.

smoked salmon parasites facial rash” Have I ever mentioned any of these things? No. This sounds like a problem for my husband, who recently started his own NGO—Doctors Without Formal Education. That is, assuming the irascible Dr. House is too busy to deign to pay attention to this cry for help.

where can you buy dolphins milk?” I have no idea. Sounds like traditional medicine here, which states that drinking lion’s urine can cure diabetes. But, how do you know it’s really from a lion, not a donkey? I’d be skeptical of any so-called dolphin’s milk.

debbie, wife of tabby from neighbours” Sometimes it’s best not to know.

popular nomad desert tribe.” Maybe we could have a contest to choose. I’m voting for Aicha’s tribe.

And, last but not least: “mauritania everyone birthday december 31” I know about this. Until recently, people didn’t know when their actual birthday was. When they put in place a system of national identity cards, they just automatically put everyone’s birthday on either Dec. 31 or Jan. 1. So it would seem that everyone over about 30 was born on one of those days. If this is confusing to you, ask the web!

The “quick-thinking pilot” in this news story is Aicha’s brother-in-law.

I love food.

I grew up in what would have to be described as a little island of Britishness lost in the vastness of the North American continent. My mother was a good cook, so I’ve never understood those who decry British cooking as tasteless. Her roast beef and yorkshire pudding and gravy was wonderful, her apple-blackberry pie exquisite. Her vegetables were not overdone and her scones were light and her homemade spiced peach jam was like a touch of sunlight on toast, only stickier and more flavorful.

In spite of having lived all over the world, my family weren’t adventurous eaters. My mother abhors Mexican food, and only likes Asian if she can order the innocuous broccoli beef. So when Donn and I were first dating and he ordered the extra-spicy Kung Pao Chicken for us to share (we were poor students and this place was cheap and had generous portions) and I accidentally ate one of those whole, hot peppers, I wondered if the tears in my eyes were signifying the end of what had seemed to be a promising relationship.

Fast forward several years. I had ended up an adventurous eater. Donn and I, after dating for a long time and being married for even longer, were looking at moving overseas. Friends told us that we were perfect candidates to be global nomads—we love Indian, Thai, Korean, all kinds of ethnic food, the spicier the better. I like foods of all kinds—spicy, vegetarian, whatever. I would try just about anything.

Which is why I was unprepared for our first visit to a Mauritanian home.

We were invited for dinner with the family of a man that Donn met once, at the port. He works for a shipping company; we shipped something. In America, the two men would shake hands and that would be it. In Africa, you get invited to the man’s house for dinner, and it’s a big deal. You are an honored guest. Donn and Daay made this arrangement about 2 weeks beforehand, and he called 3 times to confirm, arrange, make doubly sure that we would grace them with our presence. Of course one of those times was because, although he told us Sunday night, what he meant was Saturday—people here still sometimes follow the Muslim practice of starting the day at sundown instead of midnight. But that’s another subject.

We arrived, met his wife. She was generously-built, a traditional Mauritanian woman in a sunset-coloured muluffa, who tucked my hand under her arm and led me off to their simple, one-room house. The evening started off nicely enough with fresh fruit, a variety of drinks (Coke, Fanta orange, melon milk, strawberry milk in little cans, mango juice, etc) on a tray. There were also dates, and crème fraiche to dip them in—my first time having this treat. After this was cleared away, we had the first cup of tea and lounged around on the matlas. Daay and Selma live in a part of town without electricity, but they had rigged up a fluorescent bulb to an old car battery, so the room was lit.

 

About an hour later, in came a large platter full of goat meat in onion sauce, with some fries floating in it and bread to eat it with. We gathered round. Selma sat next to me. In Mauritanian culture, you eat on the floor, with your right hand, from an enormous common plate. You mentally divide the plate into portions as if you were cutting a pizza, and you only eat from the “slice” in front of you. It’s rude to eat off other people’s “slices,” as you can imagine. However, the host and hostess will honour you as their guest by dropping the nicest bits from their sections into your section.

 

And therein lies the rub. Because what they consider the nicest bits are unfortunately the bits I am most anxious to avoid—the heart, the liver, the kidneys, the grey twisty rubbery intestines. When these are dropped in front of you, you have several options. You can swallow your heaving stomach along with the goat stomach (which has such a weird texture, in my opinion). You can try to push things along into someone else’s section, which is borderline behaviour but you are a foreigner, you’re allowed to be a little rude and uninformed. Or, you can tuck your special morsels away underneath the rim of the platter, to be embarrassingly revealed at the end of the meal when the plate is cleared away.

 

Selma, however, was a Hostess Extraordinaire. She took things a step further. She squashed up next to me, and made little balls and tucked them into my hand, watching me fondly. If I’d let her, she would have tucked them into my mouth as if I was a two-year-old! It felt very strange.

 

I bravely swallowed a mouthful of liver and nearly lost it, my stomach cramping horribly. It was awful—one of the more awkward moments of my life. After that, I didn’t dare. Selma gave me all the best parts, and I smiled my thanks and took them, only to drop them into Donn’s section as unobtrusively as possible or tuck them under the rim of the platter. I focused on mopping up onion sauce and fries with my bread.

 

Finally, we had eaten enough. I sat back with a sigh of relief and waited for my host to bring me the muksel, a sort of pot set in a bucket, over which you wash your hands while your host pours water from the pot. When there is no plumbing, they bring the plumbing to you.

 

We settled back against the matlas again. They played music and danced; women with women only. Lots of neighbours dropped in to see us, shake our hands. Time passed. We went for a walk to visit a nearby wedding (with no bride or groom in sight), me stumbling in the dark, Selma reaching to help, us ending up holding hands like teenagers.

 

Mauritanian tea is served in 3 rounds, and it’s rude to leave before that 3rd glass. But by 11 p.m. the kids had fallen asleep, mouths open, hair askew. We began to say our goodbyes. “No, no,” they protested. “You can’t leave—we haven’t had dinner.” Then…what was that meal we just ate? we asked. “That was a snack,” they explained. The muksel made the rounds again, and then, triumphantly, they brought in a platter of Mauritanian couscous with, the piece de resistance, a goat’s head in the middle, tongue artfully arranged to drape just so over the jaw.

 

Mauritanian couscous is made by hand and is coarser and darker than the more familiar Moroccan version. It is boiled in goat broth without salt or spices, and served with a rancid butter that adds a certain pungency. I’m fine with the butter, but was mentally unprepared for the goat’s head, yellow eye glaring balefully at me.

 

Selma again squashed in next to me and commenced feeding me once more. She was unimpressed with my ability to form a ball of couscous with my right hand, so she formed balls for me. They were huge; again I gagged, embarrassingly, from the sheer amount of food she had just popped in my mouth. After that she left me alone.

 

I was bad, I admit it. Every bit of goat cheek, goat tongue, goat anything that landed in my section made its way quickly to Donn’s. He commented later on how much meat he’d been given. I didn’t care. That eye continued to mesmerize me until finally, someone ate it. We thankfully washed hands again and drank the last round of sweet mint tea, woke up the kids, went home.

 

My friend Debbie was impressed. “You got goat head your first month here? Wow, what an honour,” she commented. And we were really honoured. (I was planning to honour them back by inviting them for an American meal and making them eat with forks! But the relationship never really developed and I lost touch with them.)

 

But we were here years before we were served boiled camel’s hump (it’s just exactly like what you would expect—pure lard), or luxoor, the specialty food of the north, which is when they make crepes, thin and crisp, pile them in a bowl, and pour camel gravy over them. You eat with your hand, digging down through the mushy layers, squishing them together to form a ball. Tasty but weird.

 

I still love food. But that doesn’t mean I love everything that is technically edible. I’ve discovered that my favorite ethnic foods tend to be those Westernized, cleaned-up versions. Who’s up for a nice curry made with boneless, skinless chicken breast?

Spring: when young men’s fancy turns to love, and the French go on strike. Yes it’s the season for the greve again. The children are excited, hoping that their teachers belong to the unions with the most demands.

Elliot stayed home from school on Thursday because his teacher was on strike, but the twins (in different classes) had school. This is how it goes. There are many teachers’ unions, and individuals join them rather than schools as a whole. You never know when your child will bring home a note announcing a day off. But since the teachers strike individually, usually only one or two out of three kids will have a striking teacher. Usually, each year one child will have a teacher who strikes noticeably more often than the others. The other children envy this child.

Spring is the season though—beginning now through about May, in France, airlines and trains and busses, teachers and nurses, will go on strike. Effects will trickle down here to this former French colony, where travelers will get stuck in Paris en route to Nouakchott, or the school’s nurse won’t be there the day your kid throws up in the corner of the sandy courtyard during recess. I don’t know why the longer days and burgeoning bulbs bring out these tendencies. The only thing I can come up with is that it’s an excuse to get a day off work to enjoy the season.

We lived in the French Alps for a year—an incredibly lovely year. We didn’t have a car so we walked about 6 miles a day, enjoying the changing seasons and the light on the mountains that surrounded our town. Walking so much freed us to enjoy all that France has to offer in the way of good food and drink without gaining too much weight. We found the French welcoming and generous, patient with our accents and limited vocabulary.

Elliot was 8 that year and the twins were 6, learning how to read and acquiring beautiful French accents, the better to mock our sorry attempts at the French ‘r’. For 2 weeks each that winter, their classes had swimming lessons during morning school. Elliot’s class had them first, in early December. We packed his swim trunks and a bonnet (warm cap) for afterwards, when he walked out into freezing air with wet hair. This was following school instructions: the French don’t trust you to come up with this on your own.

He looked forward to swim class for weeks and went off that morning in great excitement, but there was a huge difference in his comportment when we picked him up at noon for lunch. You could see the rain cloud, a la Eeyore, literally hanging over his head. He was depressed and, unusual for him, quiet about it over lunch.

We kept questioning him—“How was it? Did you have fun? What did you do?” He kept not answering, and this from a kid who usually won’t stop talking.

He was so depressed that we, loving and concerned parents, began to get really worried. Finally, in desperation, we asked that question that every parent dreads having to ask—did anyone touch you? Still, he shook his head.

Eventually we got it out of him. Oh the shame, the horror. In France, it transpired, it is the law that males wear Speedo-style swimwear in public schools. As West-Coast Americans, the males in our family all owned baggy swim trunks, or even in the case of the surfing father, board shorts. It had never in our wildest dreams occurred to us that any “free” country would pass an actual law about this—especially a country so relaxed in general on the concept of swimwear or not.

So they did make you wear your underwear? we asked Elliot. “No, they had an extra swimsuit for me,” he muttered, head still down. Did the other kids make fun of you? “No, they were all wearing the same kind of swimsuits.” All this drama for…what exactly? It took us hours to get our heart-rates back to normal, and days to recover from the morbid imaginings we’d come up with.

We had to buy him a new swimsuit and, since it was December, they were only available at the sporting goods store. 22 euros for Speedo brand—ouch. We were able to find fitted shorts, which eased his trauma. When it was Abel’s turn 2 weeks later, they told us Elliot’s were too big on him so we bought him the underwear-style. He didn’t mind—in fact he liked them. He’s a little exhibitionist at heart.

I asked every single French person that I knew the reason for this law. “It’s hygiene,” they told me. According to them, before this law was passed, French men would wear their swim trunks as shorts. They would eat meals, and wipe their hands on their pants, and then go into the pool where bits of lunch would float off into the water. So why not pass laws about manners? Don’t be silly. I asked why that was less hygienic than wearing Speedos as underwear, under your shorts-cum-napkin, but I never did get a good answer.

We have friends who are living in the same lovely Alpine town this year, studying French at the same school we went to. They recently sent us an email—they had tried to go swimming, and the man was turned away because he had swim trunks instead of Speedo-style. The answer for him? He bought a new swimsuit at a vending machine provided at the pool for just this kind of emergency. Hmmm… Are you thinking the real reason for this law is the same as I’m thinking?

Africa is, sadly, where the rest of the world dumps its garbage. Here is where all the unwanted things end up—those puffy neon-pink parachute jackets from the 80s, car batteries with only a year left out of the original 10, the sweepings off the floor of the tea factories, repackaged and sold cheaply. Did you ever wonder where the rest of the chickens go, as you stare at the supermarket rows of boneless, skinless breasts? You can buy them here in Africa, sold as cuisse (french for thigh), arriving frozen from Europe in 10 kilo boxes. They are skin-on and bone-in, almost half a chicken with a drumstick and wing still attached.

Here, you can buy cheap plastic toys. You can pay a lot for these at the fancy import stores, or buy them cheaply at the local market, but it makes no difference—the toy will be broken literally within half an hour of coming out of its package.

In one of the poorest nations on earth, where everything is stained with dust, the desert lies deep within. Garbage lies in piles along the streets. Driving along, people toss empty pop cans and juice cartons out of their windows. The wind helps move things along. Plastic bags whirl with a weird grace, twirl high in the air, land in your yard to add clutter and ugliness.

I am thinking about this as my husband collects garbage to photograph. He has always done this; his genius is to see the potential beauty in the most mundane or unlovely of objects. When asked, he will say that “it has as much form and texture as anything else, but you don’t look at it because it’s ‘trash.’” But the trash here is so…dirty, so used, so much more, well, trashy. I don’t want it in the house.

trash-in-red.jpg

Photography is not well understood in Mauritania. People are suspicious. If you ask them why, you will hear one of several answers.

  1. Old people don’t like it because Islam prohibits images, which is why Islamic art is calligraphic and geometrical. (But, one replies, why does everyone have satellite TV then?)
  2. About 10 years ago some journalists came through and took pictures of what they called a slave market although it actually wasn’t, and tried to make it look like we still had slaves, when slavery was officially outlawed in the 1980s and no longer exists here.
  3. Journalists take pictures and make us look poor. They exploit us.

Amina and I discuss this over coffee. I argue that until Mauritanians get more comfortable with being photographed, tourism (which they desperately want) will never develop. Tourists take pictures; they want memories, souvenirs, I say. I tell of being with a visitor who wanted to take pictures of the herds of camels gathered for feeding; it was dusk and the sky was the palest of pinks, and the nomads and their tents were in the background, and we were driving along the Rue de Nouadhibou, which goes from Morocco to Senegal and is one of the main roads in the entire country. He simply wanted to capture this picturesque moment, unique in the annals of the modern world. But the people protested and wouldn’t allow even an innocent picture of some animals. She nods. Some people are like that, she comments.

I point out that Marche Capitale, the city’s main market, is colourful and interesting, with its swirling kaleidoscope of people shouting prices and brandishing goods in your face, young men in long white robes going “Psh! Psh!” to get your attention, piles of muluffas in lime, pink, midnight blue, yellow and orange tie-dye, all lying on the ground in loose folds of cloth, mounds of shoes, heaps of plastic barrettes and pony-tail holders, plastic bags of unmarked spices, etc. The market is right downtown and the streets that border it are filthy with refuse—piles of wet tea leaves, wandering goats, cardboard and plastic trash, perhaps the bones and offal from a recently-slaughtered animal.
Amina agrees that yes, the market is fine to photograph. “But I saw tourists at the market, and they took pictures of the trash,” she protests. “Naturally people were upset.”
I take a deep breath and point out that rather than get upset at the tourists, people might think of cleaning up the trash. Amina purses her lips in thought, then agrees. “But,” she says sadly, “they don’t think of that.”

They don’t; it’s true. We excuse Mauritanians and their trash by saying that of course, as nomads there was no recycling they had to just toss things, but everything was biodegradable. It doesn’t quite work anymore though. On the other hand, it’s not like Americans don’t ever litter. Until laws and fines were enacted, our highways were receptacles of junk, and I belong to one of those families who always comments in disgust at finding other people’s pop and beer cans in an otherwise pristine picnic spot.

This post is not going the direction I intended. I wanted to discuss concepts of found beauty, how we can look at the passage of time etched by sand and sun and rejoice not in youth and freshness but in age, how, as Adam Gropnik put it when discussing the mosaic mermaids at the bottom of the Ritz Hotel in Paris, “the line between art and kitsch is largely measured in ruin.” Or, to put it another way, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” But thinking of garbage led my thoughts in another direction.

Here is the picture Donn took of 2 tin cans and one ancient Coke can—although given the aging properties of a desert, the word ancient here means “outside for about a month.”

trash-2b-bw.jpg

And if sun and sand can do this to metal, imagine what they’re doing to my face!!


 

I can really relate to Noah.

Recently I posted about the locust plague of 2004 and how I was apprehensive that more plagues would come. Now I’m scanning the skies worriedly for signs of ominous rain clouds.

It all started when Mona, who is Not Our Cat although you wouldn’t know that just by looking, had 3 kittens under the flamboyant tree on New Year’s Eve. Mona is a pretty black-and-white stray who lives in our yard and lets us hold her and comes in the house every opportunity she gets. Mona is our beautiful compromise—we don’t have to feed her or spend money on her, but those of us who like cats get to enjoy her, and those of us who don’t get to enjoy the official status of Not Owning a Cat.

Mona hid the kittens under a bush round the side of the house, safe from children who wanted to hold them, until their eyes opened last week. Then she moved them to the corner of the porch right next to the door, where they are sheltered from the wind and can infiltrate the house at every opportunity. The cat-lovers among us are thrilled of course; the kittens are adorable! Two are black and one is tabby-striped.

Then, last Saturday night, we came home from the beach and our guard, Abdellahi, walked up to Ilsa and said, “Do you like puppies?” (only in Hassiniya-Arabic, which my keyboard can’t do, not to mention my brain) and plopped a wriggly squirmy bundle into her arms.

It was all over from that moment.

“Aww! Isn’t it the cutest thing?” “Can we keep it?” “I love it!” “Can we keep it?” Donn made the mistake of saying he’d think about it overnight. By morning, it was firmly installed as a member of the family.

I’m not a dog expert, but this guy seemed too little to be away from his mother. His eyes were open, which I believe is the local standard on age to wean, but he couldn’t feed himself initially, and slept most of the time. I spent the first few days feeding him with a syringe, and even did night feedings. I still can’t believe I got up in the middle of the night to feed a dog. Ilsa wanted him in her room—after all, Abdellahi gave him to her—so I agreed that first night. About 4 a.m., I was awakened by howls and yelps and very sad whines. I staggered out of bed and fed the thing to get him to shut up. Everyone else in the family slept right through it. Oh the joys of motherhood.

Once he figured out how to drink from a bowl, I figured he was big enough to make it through the night and things went more smoothly. In the meantime, we seemed to be doing something right—he was fat and roly-poly when he came to us, and every day he’s a bit bigger, into something new, and still roly-poly.weston01.JPG

Thursday morning, we got a call from another family. They were going out of town; could we dog-sit their fully-grown German Shepherd? Since we’d already agreed to this before the arrival of the kittens and the puppy (named Weston after a famous photographer), we merely arranged a time for drop-off and wondered how it would go.

It’s going ok. Mario, the German Shepherd, is a really nice dog who likes children and digging. In an effort to save our garden (which is looking fabulous these days), we chained him in one corner of the yard. Mona the cat was not happy about the situation, and stared him down all afternoon from her corner of the porch. Finally to assert her mastery, she went over and gave him a sharp swipe across the nose. Then she reverted into Halloween Cat mode, arching and hissing for several hours, basically telling him not to even think of her kittens as a delicious mouthful. Now there’s sort of an uneasy truce between them, coupled by a weird sort of sibling rivalry which has currents going all over the yard; wherein all the animals are jealous of the attention the others are getting, and all obviously feel the yard belongs only to them. I refuse to get out my parenting books though.

Plus we still have the rabbit, which we had to move out of Mario’s line of sight. And, presumably the turtle is still there although I haven’t seen it since spring. His kind live long and prosper, though, and in a big green yard like ours, I’m sure he’s munching away contently under some leaves somewhere.

I took Mario for a walk this morning and my hands still hurt. Africa is basically a Dog’s Paradise of nasty things to smell and pee on. Other dogs aren’t chained, and there are many interesting goats and chickens, and he’s a big dog with a lot of pulling power.

It’s very strange. We are not really animal people, and suddenly we find ourselves basically running a zoo for domesticated and semi-domesticated animals. Which is why I find myself relating to Noah, and worrying about floods. We had a sort of fog this morning. Do you think it means anything?

February 2007
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