We have a friend who decided to buy a car for his business, which involves helping foreign businessmen learn to navigate the city. His grandfather took him aside to counsel him. “Put your money into camels,” he told him. “If you buy two camels, soon you will have three camels. If you are ever lost in the desert, the camel will give you milk and meat. It will keep you alive. But a car will just break down and rust.”

The logic of this is irrefutable. The only problem is that I can’t see someone, newly arrived from Melbourne, Seoul, or Paris in a dark suit and carrying a laptop, being comfortable riding atop a huge swaying beast round town to view apartments, shops, hotels.

I have written before of the whiplash-inducing speed at which my adopted culture is changing, as it has changed more in the past 20 years than in the previous 1000. But there are some holdovers, even among the young, where certain beliefs are unshakable. One of these is that sitting in a breeze, from a fan, for example, will make you sick.

Donn works out at the gym too, (see previous post; my connection won’t let me link) during men’s hours. He shows up in the afternoon heat only to find all the windows closed, air-conditioning off, fans silent. One time he opened a window only to be chided by another man. “That’s dangerous!” the man told him.

He asked the manager to turn on the AC. The man complied, but spent the next several minutes explaining to Donn how sweating in a breeze causes rheumatism.

In class at Oasis, I sneeze. My students immediately offer to turn off the ceiling fan. I refuse this offer, point out that the source of my sneeze is much more likely to be the chalk dust billowing out from the board and turning my black shirt into a muted grey, or possibly the sand-filled air just beyond the closed window. They smile knowingly, unconvinced.

I have spent hours of my life trying to figure out where this could have come from. The desert is a windy place, after all. In fact, the name Nouakchott means “Place of Winds,” and it’s aptly-named. Even in the middle of the Sahara, most days there’s some kind of breeze, albeit a hot one, stirring the sands. My best theory so far? If you are out in one of these sand-filled winds for very long, you can easily end up with this weird kind of sinus infection, that gives you nasty headaches but very little drainage. I am prone to this myself, but at least medical care is simple here; you just go to a pharmacy and buy your antibiotics. A generic brand will run you about $6-8 for a full course. I will miss this when we leave.

Mauritanians believe that eating ice-cream on a hot day will give you a cold. Once, soon after our arrival, Donn used our language-learning time to run errands with our tutor. It was a hot day. (Duh. It’s always a hot day) Donn bought an ice-cream bar for himself and one for his friend. The friend held it thoughtfully for a moment, then tucked it into the pocket of his blue boubou (robe). “It’s too cold; I’ll eat it later,” he said.

When we first came to Nouakchott, we watched in amazement as the city emptied out at the end of June. Westerners went home for the summer, and the Mauritanians all went back to their little villages and towns out in the desert where they would sit under tents and drink fresh milk from large wooden bowls every day. “It’s so relaxing, so peaceful,” they assured me, as if Nouakchott were a bustling metropolis instead of a city with goats meandering down the main streets and all the shops closing at 10 a.m. on Friday on the excuse of afternoon prayers. I tried it one year, and found triple-digit heat and blasting sandstorms less than relaxing, but then I’m not a huge fan of camel’s milk as the antidote to all life’s ills.
Last night, a young Mauritanian guest told me she would stay the summer in the city. “It’s too hot in the countryside this time of year,” she told me. I agreed with her, but I noted the passing of an era. She’s used to fans, AC, electricity, and the simple life of the village has lost its charms.