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We rolled into the border about 90 minutes later. There is a small strip of shops and two cafes claiming to be hotels at that crossing. Mohamed was eager to head back so I paid him, said good-bye and surveyed the shops for what was available. I’d already been informed of the latest news from Nouakchott: that the drivers had not gotten their truck unloaded by 7:30 a.m. as agreed and so were running late. It was about 1 p.m., and I figured I had at least 3 hours before Tim would be there, so I settled on a café and asked about a room in the back. I only wanted to nap for 3 hours but it took some negotiating to get from the day rate to the napping rate.
The room was typical of a road-side inn in West Africa. It was marginally cleaner than some I’ve been in but the bedding definitely didn’t smell of soap. The door didn’t lock so I moved a heavy coat rack from the corner in front of the door, and closed it as best I could. I lay on top of the blanket and put my arm through the strap of my bag next to me. The three hours passed like the time waiting around Mohammed’s car; or like the day wandering Dakhla; or like the night before cut short by the need to sleep replacing actual sleep.
After 3 hours I went out front and ordered a goat tagine. Although it was one of the more gamy tagines I’ve had, I ate most of it and checked in with Elizabeth. I had not been able to get through on any of Tim’s numbers and consequently had been conducting all communication through my wife who relayed messages both ways. She had just been informed that the truck drivers said it was too late to leave Tim’s. “They haven’t left?” “No, they’ll be there tomorrow.” I quickly went and renegotiated for the full night’s rate.
I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting in a plastic chair like the ones in the previous post, except that these were on their first life, drinking water and coffee. The border population was 98% male and I was the only obvious foreigner. Do you ever get the feeling you are being watched? I don’t think it would be paranoid to say that my prolonged presence was widely noticed. Eventually, the waiter sat down at my table and started talking to me. I used as much Hassiniya as I could as the effort to speak the local language is usually appreciated and it also conveys right off that you’re not entirely new to the area. Nevertheless, these conversations invariably progress beyond my abilities and I’m left plugging along with Franglaniya (a mélange of French, English and Hassynia spoken by a select few).
Soon three others joined us, so that we had 3 Mohameds (which beats two-pair) and a Serien. The conversation was light and friendly except for the occasional helpful comment about what was wrong with America. This was becoming another theme of my trip. If you want to know what’s wrong with America, take a road trip in a non-western country. One difference we’ve noticed living overseas is that when it comes to politics, we as Americans tend to be very aware of our domestic policy–which is logical as it touches our lives so directly—but others judge us almost entirely by our foreign policies, which we often put little effort into understanding from the perspective of those on the receiving end.
Mohamed in Dahkla, upon learning my nationality, had told me he loved America, had no problem with America EXCEPT he had been in the process of preparing to study in Britain when Sept 11th occurred. His “life-long dream” of studying abroad was apparently a casualty of the flurry of new restrictions on Arab/Muslims traveling to the West. Whatever the actual details of his situation were I don’t know, but his disappointment was still clearly visible in 2009.
As the border was closing, some left while others joined our table. I had a long conversation with a policeman named, oddly enough, Mohamed about the role of language in understanding a culture. (i.e. what do a culture’s word-pictures, idioms, and proverbs tell you about how they think?) Eventually his “chief” came and we had a pleasant 3 hour conversation about sight-seeing in Morocco, recreation, man’s universal need for hearth and home and America’s annoying habit of meddling in other countries’ affairs. We split a gamy goat-tagine and had tea. Also named Mohamed (who says Arab names are hard to remember?), he told me he would look for Tim tomorrow and help get my things across the border.
Nouakchott is 5 hours from the border and Tim & co. had left in the middle of the night so as to be early. The border opened at 8 and I waited as the 10 or so vans and trucks that had lined up in the early morning made their way across to Mauritania. I sat in my plastic chair with a clear view of the border. Nothing seemed to be coming the other way. Around 11, I eventually got a hold of Tim who told me the Mauritanian side had just opened. Tim appeared around noon. I entered the Moroccan side and met him in the middle. There were crowds of people at various windows and it took some figuring out as to what formalities we actually needed to engage in. Tim wasn’t actually going to Morocco, I wasn’t actually going to Mauritania, and the truck wasn’t ours, so certain windows could be avoided. Tim and I hadn’t seen each other in 2 years and the souk-like atmosphere was not conducive to catching up, particularly given the magnitude of recent events such as Chris’ death 2 days earlier. The truck drivers were working on their own paperwork and Tim and I chatted as we bounced from one station to the next, realizing more often than not that we didn’t actually need to stand in that line. It was a surreal experience having two vastly different events occurring simultaneously.
Eventually one of the drivers came up, slapping an imaginary watch on his wrist in an attempt to communicate his desire for us to hurry. “Oh, these guys are Berbers. They don’t speak any French,” Tim informed me. At the market where he had hired the fruit truck and its drivers, Tim had specifically requested a driver that spoke French and was assured one of them would be a French-speaker. They also spoke no Arabic, so my Hassiniya wasn’t going to help either.
Finally we were directed to the customs office where I had to produce a list of my personal affects. I was afraid of that. The stuff had been in storage for 2 years and I remembered the big items but not the specific contents of each box. I quickly jotted down a list of what I could remember and it seemed to work. The customs agent seemed to be juggling at least 3 activities at any one time and so our interaction was interjected with long pauses. As he looked over each piece of paperwork and got to my passport, he said, “American?”
“You know, every great empire eventually comes to an end.”
“Rome, Greece, Britain.”
“That’s true,” I said, “All earthly kingdoms will eventually come to an end.”
After this bit of historical perspective, he gave the list to a field agent and sent him out to the truck with me. The agent directed the driver to bring a box from the far end of the truck. The box said “Books” on the side. “Des livres?” He asked me, pointing to “Livres” on my list. “Oui.” He motioned the driver to put it back as he surveyed the other boxes. “Do you have guns?” he asked me. I always want to joke at times like this. It’s a strange form of vertigo I have where I’m tempted to plummet myself into a chaotic, legal situation simply for the value of making a joke. I pulled back from the edge. “No,” I said as we walked back to the office.
The final stamps landed on my paper with a thud. At moments like these, I always feel like Lucy in A Charlie Brown Christmas dancing to the sound of shiny nickels. “Oh how I love to hear those old nickels PLUNK!”I feel that way about stamps on official documents.
Out at the truck, Tim formally introduced me to the drivers. “This is Saied. “What?” I thought, “Not Mohamed?” Turning to the other driver, he said, “This is also Saied.”
Well as long as I’ve got two of a kind, I thought…
…to be continued
It was not yet light when I climbed into the taxi with Mohamed, leaving the dimly lit Sahara Regency diminishing behind us. Mohamed didn’t speak French; apparently the area around Dahkla had been a Spanish enclave during the colonial period of French West Africa and he was conversant in Spanish but had virtually no French. My limited Hassiniya worked to some extent and we got our basic thoughts across. Fifteen minutes out of town was a check-point. In yet another situation where I seemed to be the only one laughing, we discovered that passport control had not actually stamped my passport coming into Dahkla. This discrepancy seemed abnormal to them. How had I gotten to Dahkla? No, really, how’d I get there? After explaining myself about 3 times they accepted the fact that there I was, no stamp, and probably someone had simply not done their job. All in all, they were very nice about it and soon we were on the road again.
Mohamed’s car had a blinking oil light which beeped audibly 3 times per second. Exactly. I counted it numerous times. I also did the math in my head. At the end of our journey, I would have heard it 48,600 times! He assured me there was plenty of oil; it was actually an electrical problem. Comforted, I settled in, counted, and did the math again. Yep, 48,600 times. Yes, I thought, this could very easily drive somebody insane.
About 9 am we stopped at a café where we had coffee, eggs fried in oil, and bread. Back in the car, we discovered that it wouldn’t start. It had been beeping right along but now… nothing. We did all the looking and poking that two non-mechanics can do and then enlisted other non-mechanics to see what they would poke or wiggle. Of course we tried pushing it and this got us well out of the café parking lot but not much further. “Problemo,” Mohamed said as he lit a cigarette. Southern Morocco is desolate; there aren’t a lot of options. The gas station attached to the café had no mechanics so we waited around, thinking, Mohamed chain-smoking, and uttering, “Problemo.” Occasionally I’d add a “Mushkila” which is Arabic for problemo. Mohamed would nod in agreement. “Mushkila.” Light another cigarette and exhale, “Problemo.”
Tim told me once that one of the effects of living in Africa for 20 years is that when his car breaks down in Minnesota, he finds himself scanning the side of the road for something useful. I knew what he meant. Africa is a land of improvisation. Something discarded always has another possible use. Shortly before leaving Mauritania, I started photographing chairs on the streets of Nouakchott, which are often made up of 2 to 4 of their broken, discarded predecessors.
Chairs on the streets of Nouakchott; used mostly by young men selling phone cards. Images © Donn Jones
Mohamed walked off a bit in search of something useful. I scanned the highway as well for something useful, such as a UN Land-Cruiser on its way to the border. Eventually Mohamed returned with a 20 ft strand of barbed wire, lit a cigarette and waited until a willing car passed by. A kind soul eventually stopped and Mohammed spoke with him, straightening the barbed wire. We attached it to both cars and began towing, pushing, hoping. It broke. But of course, a chain is only as weak as its weakest link. So we tied it together at the break and tried again, and again. And eventually we got rid of those weak spots and got enough speed to start the car! Black smoke billowed out the back. In a diesel engine, that’s unburned fuel. A trained mechanic might know what to do with that information. Soon thick clouds of white smoke followed. I couldn’t think of the significance of white smoke from diesel engines but vaguely remembered it’s not ideal. About a kilometer down the road we stopped at some empty buildings, one of which had mechanic scrawled over the door. Exiting the running car, M looked for life-forms. The car died instantly.
The place seemed as remote as the moon and I opted to stay near the capsule. It had that ghost town feel and I remembered a family vacation when I was a kid, our 69 VW bus breaking down on a long dirt-road outside of Bodie, CA. Problemo. Presently however, the same man that helped us the first time came back. He pulled in and we searched for something better than barbed wire. We found a strand of thick, blue rope. Got the car running again, quickly collected the rope, and rolled down the road. Mohammed lit a cigarette, shook his head and said, “Problemo.” It was a good two hours since breakfast and I was beginning to appreciate having left at 6…
…to be continued
Donn Does Dakhla: DAY 2
A continuation of Donn’s desert adventure in search of our things, left in Tim’s garage in Nouakchott for two years. Part One here.
One of the last things I did my first evening in Dakhla was to ask a policeman where Centre Ville was. He laughed and pointed at the waterfront in a kind of shrug, as if offering something that wasn’t much use, adding “Dakhla is very small.”
Morning in Dakhla is a quiet time. In contrast to Mauritanian shops which always seem to be open, many of the markets and hanuts were still shut as I searched for a cyber café. I found a few that were closed and so asked where the bush taxis gather. At the designated spot, a shop-keeper that was open told me there would be taxis later. At 10 a.m. it was still a bit early. I eventually found a cyber café open and seemed to be their first customer.
It’s always amazing to me how much English is used in places where the general population doesn’t speak it at all.
I called Elizabeth to see if there was news from Tim and she told me she had just gotten an email from friends in Mauritania about the murder of a friend there, just a couple of hours earlier. I sat stunned trying to make sense of it. Chris was a big guy with a bigger smile. I don’t mean to generalize but I’ve noticed living overseas that there are regional distinctives common to Americans. If we West-coasters are the standard of all that’s normal, Southerners I’ve come across really do have an out-going, social capacity that many of us have to work at. Chris had that trait in spades; a friendliness that was instantly present, natural, full of grace. I’m not just saying this because he’s dead, I’d become conscious of this years earlier. Chris’ biggest influence on me was the way he met the rampant, ethical deficiencies of Mauritania with patience and kindness. (I don’t naturally do that).
So Day 2 in Dakhla was spent, not just killing time as I’d planned (the flight to Dakhla was on Monday but Tim couldn’t meet me until Wednesday), but was spent sitting in the park, wandering around, trying to understand what type of person found kindness so threatening that they took Chris’ life. I had no answers (other than the obvious ones) and found myself repeating expressions of grief as the news of his death articulated itself in my thoughts over and over again.
Late that afternoon I received word that the drivers would need a paper I had with me on the Mauritanian side of the border. I returned to the three cyber cafes I’d found earlier in an effort to fax or scan the document. None had a working scanner or fax. I wandered by a small computer supply store and stopped to ask the man behind the desk (sitting next to a nice, new scanner) if he knew where a guy could find a scanner in this town. He offered to scan and send it for me. Mohammad had studied English ten years earlier and explained how he had no one to practice with in Dakhla. As we chatted, we scanned and emailed the document to Tim. I always marvel at how people who studied English 10 years ago and have no one to practice with always seem to speak it as well as my French, which I have been actively pursuing for the last 5 years.
Then Mohamed walked with me back to the taxi area and found a bush taxi that would leave for the border the next morning at 6 am. I knew I didn’t need to be at the border until late afternoon; couldn’t we leave later? The hotel doesn’t start breakfast till 7. I was counting on that meal and a full night’s sleep. No, Mohammad & Mohamed the driver assured me, it was best to leave early. I thanked Mohamed for all his kindness and we parted ways. On the way back, about 10 p.m. now, I stopped in a place called Pizza Rio and ordered a cheese and olive pizza. This was my only non-goat/sheep dinner of the entire trip.
Back at the hotel, I packed and went to bed with that sense of needing to get as much sleep as possible, you know, that sense of urgency that keeps you awake. At 5:59 am, when I’d been up for 14 minutes, Mohamed the driver called from downstairs. Yes, I’m coming.
A leisurely morning was not for me.
Checking out of the hotel was uneventful except for a small game I’m starting to recognize in my travels in N. Africa and Southern Europe. I won’t go into all the details as they’re more petty than interesting but I include the general experience as a heads-up for other travelers. It’s the lies-about-the-credit-card machine-so-that-you’ll-pay-cash ruse. I’d recently had similar experiences in Spain and Gibraltar where at the last minute, for one reason or another, businesses that take credit cards suddenly don’t and “couldn’t you pay cash” and it was just becoming too familiar. In this case, I was told, sympathetically, “The connection is down.” Of course that’s possible but it seemed disingenuous. My gut feeling was unsympathetic so I refused to come up with any alternative despite the clerk insisting 3 times that the connection was down. Finally I suggested that I could send him the money someday. “Well, let’s try,” he finally offered. Voila! It went through perfectly, first time. What a miracle! Taxi’s waiting. Receipt? Thank you. Good-bye.
…to be continued
Donn Does Dakhla
Yes, a guest post by Donn, in several parts.
Repetition can have a soothing effect, like swaying palms, the gentle pressure of massage, or Enya (for some people). Repetition can also drive you crazy, like the legendary dripping of water, Ground Hog Day (the movie), or Enya (for some people). The road to Mauritania and back was full of recurring events, small details, and the light sensation of déjà vu, forming the monotonous rhythm of my journey. It began as I kissed the family and headed out the door to find a taxi. That afternoon, on the corner near our house, every taxi was full. Taxi after taxi came into sight, its particular details slowly resolving as it drew near, consistently revealing a passenger in one of the seats. The waiting began.
The plan was that I would take a taxi to the train, the train to the airport, and a plane to Dakhla. From there I would find a bush-taxi to the border, approximately a five hour journey. I knew I had little control over the events that would follow so I had determined to take them as they unfolded.
While train and plane had their share of boredom, I won’t try to prove it; you’ll have to trust me. Monotony began with only slight backdrop changes along the way. Images flitted past windows and venues changed, like flipping through a stack of unedited photos until you arrive at the last one and for that reason only, look at it a little longer. My first day ended in Dakhla with a few hours of light left. I wandered the streets looking for things that would add familiarity or significance to my two days in Dakhla. Dakhla is a small, open city, the southern-most outpost of civilization in Morocco. It is cleaner, and seemingly more relaxed than most Mauritanian towns I’ve been in, though ultimately it reminds one of other Saharan desert towns–if one has had Saharan desert towns etched in their mind.
My first glimpse came as I emerged from the stark rooms that record each traveler, into the beige and tan streets under a faint blue sky that mark North African towns like team colors. I immediately asked a policeman where I could catch a taxi to the Sahara Regency. He laughed and pointed at the end of the street that exited the airport. There at the end was the Sahara Regency.
I’d been told that the SR was the only hotel in Dakhla. I’d also been told it was a modern city. Hmmm…who to believe. There are other hotels in Dakhla but the SR is by far the nicest and the only one resembling a Western-style hotel. It’s not entirely Western, though. For example, the hotel operated with no fear of lawsuits. Definitely not American…. I digress, but when one of our kids was three, despite being potty-trained, he/she pooped in a pool at a condo in Hawaii. It was easily removed and the hotel admitted that they could chemically “shock” the water and deal with any impurity but that if any of their clients heard about it and got sick for any reason, they’d be sued. So they emptied the entire pool (on a week-end) and had it scrubbed and re-filled. Then they sent me a bill. I reminded them that by their own admission, they could have chemically treated the pool and that their fear of lawsuits was not my problem. Then I gave the bill back to them.
At the SR, there was a small but fun pool on the roof. The SR is possibly the tallest buildings in Dakhla and the pool goes right up to the edge giving one a great view of the city towards the sea but also the sensation that if the pool sprung a leak, one would flop out and down like a fish on a waterfall. But that’s not the lawsuit-waiting-to-happen that I have in mind. The pool is lined with fun Moroccan lights daisy-chained along the edge–that 2 foot frame around the pool that always gets soaking wet as people swim, splash, and exit the pool. I could only suppose that the patches of electrical tape on the wires covered bare spots. As I moved towards the pool, the waiter hurried over to unplug the lights…
…to be continued
We went to a Korean cultural event tonight, at the Theatre National Mohamed V. You should know where this is. If you don’t, don’t bother with the website. “Located in the center of downtown,” it says, declining to get any more specific or give anything as boring as an address.
The show was great fun. First up were the Myo Sung Breakdancing troupe, followed by Nanta. I don’t know exactly how to describe Nanta. It included elements of drumming, a kitchen setting, mimes, comedy, more drumming, and a cabbage fountain created by some fancy knife work. We could smell the onion way in the back.
This is similar to a small part of tonight’s show:
One thing is clear. There is no way Elliot is allowed in the kitchen anymore. I could just see the ideas shaping in his head. My knives, chopping board, and countertops are no longer safe.
Among our other things in storage were 3 carpets we bought during our time in Mauritania. None of them were all that expensive or unique, but they are pretty and we like them.
Naturally, after 2 years in a dusty garage, the carpets were filled with powdery dirt. We asked Ismail if he knew of a good carpet cleaning place. He recommended one, and Donn dropped off the first rug. “Come back in a week,” they said.
A week later, he went back. “It’s not ready; come back in 3 days,” he was told. This happened 3 more times.
Finally, 16 days later, he talked to Ismail about it. Ismail phoned his friends and then told him, “Go tomorrow at 4:00. It will be ready.”
At 4:30 or so, Donn showed up. The rug was not there. One of the men crawled into our car, and directed Donn on a merry exploration of the back streets of Takkadoum—round narrow corners, through tiny twisting alleys, etc. They stopped at a house to pick up another man, who directed them even father out.
Half an hour later, they stopped in front of a second house, and both men got out. “They’ve gone to explain to the people they sold it to why they want it back,” Donn joked to a friend who was with him. Sure enough, this time they emerged with the roll of carpet over their shoulders.
As they bumped back towards the dry-cleaning shop, Donn noticed the clouds of dust filling the air, coming from the “cleaned” carpet. “It’s not cleaned?” he said. “Yes, of course it is. It’s been washed and beaten well,” said the man. But it was evidently not so.
Upon being confronted with the indisputable evidence of a small pile of Mauritanian sand, the man admitted it had not been washed. He offered to keep the rug again for an indeterminate period of time, but Donn declined. He also, somewhat optimistically, felt that we should pay him for storing our rug for 17 days, but again, Donn declined.
Now the rug hangs over the balcony. Donn has bought carpet cleaner, and we’re trying to sell the kids on the idea of a little beating for a good cause.
Yesterday was a hot day. In spite of that, I managed to forget to bring water bottles, as we loaded up the car, picked up our friend Randi, and headed out to the Royal Complexe des sports équestres et Tbourida de Dar Es-Salam.
It was the finals of the Hassan II Trophy in Tbourida, a traditional equestrian performance in which teams compete in a precision exercise; a line of horsemen (or women) race their thoroughbreds for about 200 meters, brandishing their gunpowder rifles, then suddenly stop as one and fire their guns, an explosion of noise and smoke drifting off into the clear blue sky.
Picture thanks to: http://business.maktoob.com
All my research couldn’t tell me a starting time, but several friends told us the earlier the better. Accordingly, we arrived about two, to find the place full of picnicking families, but very obviously nowhere near beginning. A couple of water trucks were driving slowly around the arena sprinkling down the dust. We asked a couple of people, and were told varying answers. The woman selling water said definitively, “3:45!” but the man sitting under a large umbrella in the stands told us “4:00.” Either way, we were far too early.
We passed the time wandering around. It had taken us a while to find the place, mostly because we’d been given very inexact directions. We admired the ponies, and joined Moroccan families in sitting on the grass in the shade of the trees. It was very pleasant. Ilsa and I pulled out our books (we are always prepared) and Randi and Abel went to look at horses. We whiled away the time until we saw a general exodus towards the bleachers, which sat out in the full sun absorbing heat onto their cement benches.
We squished our way in about halfway down. Donn and Abel took their places by the railing, but everyone else wanted to sit down. Ilsa whined about the heat and the sun pouring down its heavy golden light on our heads, so I lovingly trickled some of my water on the back of her neck. To cool her down. That really helped her attitude.
Soon, we saw the teams assembling at one end of the open-air arena. We were on one side, along with a crush of people assembled the length of the barrier. The other side was massed with enormous tents, fitted with rugs and cushions and pennants, one for each team. At the far end was a red carpet and empty tent filled with proper chairs, very formal, no doubt for royalty and dignitaries. It was completely empty.
In the meantime, we watched our fellow attendees. The tinkling of brass bells announced the arrival of a water seller. Colourfully arrayed in red and green tassels and bobbles, he carried a black goatskin under one arm, from which he would fill a brass bowl and pass it to you. I didn’t get one because I’ve had plenty of opportunity to drink water with that delicate hint of dead goat before. Instead, I swigged from my bottle of mineral water and called it good.
We also saw several other people we knew, including Megan, who was much more energetic about getting really good pictures, rather than just sitting in the hot sun, drinking tepid water, and using her camera’s tiny telephoto capabilities, which is pretty much what I did.
Promptly at about five minutes past four, the first team assembled at one end of the arena. A voice called something out into the still air. The team began to move. They trotted, they cantered, they galloped. They presented themselves before the empty, formal tent and bowed. Then, as they left the center arena to return down a sort of wide aisle in front of their tents, they gave their horses their heads. It was a marvelous sight to see, magnificent horses stretched at full gallop, riders’ scarves and capes streaming behind with the horse’s own mane and tail. In the meantime, a second team was assembling themselves beneath a giant poster of the current king’s father, Hassan II.
We eventually figured it out. There were three teams, each of whom went three times, in the same order: team 1, team 2, team 3, team 1 again, etc. After each team had performed three times, there was a pause and then a fourth team assembled themselves, charged, presented themselves, and galloped back around again.
The second time each team went, at the end they fired their guns into the air. People applauded depending on how exact they were. Were the lines of horses ragged? Were the shots fired at once or was there more like a volley of shots? However, the applause didn’t always match the performance. We found out later that different people support different teams, depending on their home region.
Picture by Megan
Each team had a leader, with a microphone attached. He or she was usually in the center, and called out when to canter, when to gallop, when to stop and fire. Randi and I discussed how difficult it would be to control the horses so exactly, and how embarrassing it would be if yours was the gun that went off that split second after everyone else’s, like suddenly singing out a high note when everyone else is still waiting several beats to come in.
The leader of one of the women’s teams; praising Allah before beginning her charge. Notice her mike. Picture by Megan
The gunpowder explosions made a surprising amount of noise. Even when I knew to expect it, I still jumped nearly every time.
Picture thanks to: http://business.maktoob.com
There was a group of young men filling the guns with new powder after every charge.
Picture by Megan
The second group of teams was female. It’s possible that the first team of this group of 3 was children; they sounded very young and they were very small. It was hard to tell. Randi felt they were 10-12 year old boys. I know there were children’s groups at this event, but I wasn’t sure. Either way, it was fun to see women well represented at this event. Traditionally, this wasn’t the case, but times have changed.
Each team had matching outfits for both horse and rider, with the leader differentiated in some way. They were very elaborate.
Picture by Megan
Picture by Megan
After their 9 runs, they departed and a 3rd group of 3 teams began to assemble. These were evidently seniors, men of experience, men who reminded you that this mock-battle was started long ago to commemorate real battles of Arab and Berber raiders who swept down fields of conquest and fired their weapons into the clash of oncoming armies.
By this point, it was getting on for 6 o’clock, and several of our party wanted to leave. It’s true that there was a certain sameness as each team performed the same 3 precision exercises, but it’s also true that there were millions of police out, not to mention a red carpet. I wanted to stay to the end and see the trophy presented and possibly a princess or some other royal personage. I was, however, outnumbered. And admittedly, an afternoon under the sweltering sky had had its effect, and I was sunburned and headachy and hungry like everyone else. It’s also true that Elliot’s birthday was Saturday and we had large groups of gallumping teenage boys over from Friday night onwards. It was time to go home, drink copious amounts of water, and relax.
Want to learn more about Tbourida? Go here.
*extra credit if you know what novel about Morocco this title plays off of
It’s normally a quiet time of night. The kids are finally in bed, a mere 2 hours after official bedtime. Summer bedtimes. We’ve got all the windows still open in spite of the fact that, for some inexplicable reason, windows in Rabat don’t come with screens. As someone who has lived in many places in Rabat in the relatively short time we’ve been here, I can say this for a fact. It mystifies me, since Rabat is quite developed and civilized. Yet Nouakchott’s windows all had screens, albeit often with enormous holes in them. Now we get lots of flies and mosquitoes through our wide-open windows. I don’t care. We get the most delightful sea breezes. Plus, I’d rather be eaten than baked.
The neighbours seem to have acquired a new, extensive drum set and set it up in the garden. We are being regaled to rhythm after rhythm. Their timing seems a bit unfair, since Elliot’s dearest wish is for a drum set and his birthday is Saturday and he’s not getting one.
Yesterday afternoon, we took 2 British girls with us to the beach, both of whom have grown up here, and they announced that our normal beach is the most dangerous. It’s true that there is quite an undertow, but the beach in Nouakchott was much worse; I remember standing in water which was flowing so strongly to the south that it was like standing in a river. The children all learned to swim in strong currents. Unfortunately, I realized yesterday, this means they have no fear of the water, and Ilsa in particular had a hard time keeping to the “not past your waist unless with an adult” rule. Since Ilsa is only about 4’6”, she feels that she is being discriminated against, and constantly pushes to be allowed further out.
The beach was crowded, as usual, with parasols of all colours and people in various stages of dress and undress taking to the water. The tide was unusually high, so that we had to move our rented parasol three times. Each time the vendor came scurrying up to help. His skin was the darkest I’ve seen, a deep copper brown and crackly like ancient leather, and he had a large mole on his bare shoulder that would have set a dermatologist to screaming for joy and calculating the cost of a new addition to his summer home. The first time, I was very happy to move, since the churning tide had deposited in the sand a large, stinking dead rat. (Query: Why do dead rats always seem to be lying on their backs? Discuss in comments) I hope this is not too much information. It rather spoiled an otherwise perfect afternoon of blue sky and sparkling green sea and white waves and shrieking children. Fortunately the boys playing football around it decided to bury rather than step on it, and it was soon hidden; out of sight and out of mind.
The vendors were out in full force. I was offered cups of instant Nescafe, lollipops, little packets of chocolate biscuits labelled “mini THANKS,” ice-cream bars, and fresh, piping hot doughnuts. All these things were carried up and down the beach to cries of “BEIGNETS!” “J’AI LA GLACE!” and other, mysterious things shouted in Dareja.
Two camels with decorative saddles were being led up and down as well, usually with children swaying on top, all huge smiles and clutching hands. The vendors obviously settled on the one obviously white family as a prime retail option, as the camels always came obnoxiously near to our little red-and-white striped umbrella. Several times, I was afraid the camel was going to step on a surfboard, which would obviously have a lot of repercussions. Luckily, the huge animals always managed to sidestep the fragile boards.
I’m waiting for Donn to finish his guest post on his trip south. In the meantime, we’ve managed to make a little more progress on tackling that last pile of boxes. We bought a cedar…hutch, I would call it; what would you call it? It has two shelves and then a cabinet in the bottom. It smells heavenly, and the two knobs are crooked. I love things that are obviously hand-made without levels, just eye-balled, apparently by a hunchback.
I think hanging art work on your walls is one of the most important parts of being settled, because it’s one of the last things you do when arriving, and taking pictures down is one of the first when leaving. One of the main reasons I married Donn was because I really like his photographs, and it feels good to have them hung again on the walls of our home. (Interested? Check out his website, which needs to be redone but will at least give you an idea).
Yesterday afternoon we went to the Rabat American School for the official American party–the sort of party guarded by police and where you have to show your passport and pass through a metal detector to get in. What, you never get to go to parties like this? Sorry, your loss. Makes one feel very special.
It was a great party. The American school grounds are spacious. Round an enormous field were stands set up where you could buy ice cream or chips (real cheetos!) or hamburgers or hotdogs with real, sour, wonderful, enticing dill pickles (and no I was not piggy with the dill pickles–that is a rumour). Best of all, if you’re in the 12-14 age set, they actually had ROOT BEER. Or Dr. Pepper. The kids were ecstatic, because they love root beer, and oddly enough you can only get it in the US. We were planning to bring home a few extra cans, but sadly, they ran out quite early.
You could play softball or ultimate Frisbee. You could swim in the amazing pool they have there, an enormous expanse of sparkling turquoise water, and get sunburned for your trouble. Why, you ask, haven’t we joined this pool and so we could go every day, and I will tell you: $500 is why. Apparently that beautiful pool sits mostly empty most of the time. Not yesterday however; it was jam packed full. Lifeguards were stationed every 5 feet or so.
We passed an awfully pleasant afternoon, watching other people’s toddlers toddling about in floppy sun hats, watching other people’s children tumbling into the pool with bright floaties on their skinny upper arms, watching my own children diving, or plunging into the deep end and “climbing up the wall like Spiderman,” or holding their breath the longest and spitting the farthest, which was frowned upon by the lifeguards. Later we sat in the shade and the cool ocean breezes, and I had a real Diet Coke (instead of the locally-sold Coca Light which has a different flavor) and we chatted with friends and watched people play softball.
Celebrating American Independence Day is always interesting overseas. We went to a couple of the embassy parties in Mauritania, with varying degrees of enjoyment. (There was the year they served us plebs leftovers from the party the night before, which was for the dignitaries, and I got food poisoning) But I remember the year we celebrated in the middle of the Sahara desert, the only Americans for miles around.
We had decided to learn Hassiniya by spending a month in a Moorish village. Unfortunately because of schooling, that month had to be July. Sun and sand had conspired to turn the village into a furnace, and the constant wind and sandstorms left me feeling like a piece of bronze being polished in a kiln. But that’s another topic.
We arrived late in the evening on July 3rd. Our host, a single man, went off to get dinner. I expected him to return with a platter of couscous made by a neighbour. Instead, he returned with a very vocal goat. I could hear it protesting the length of the street.
The children went off to watch the slaughter. They kept running back to tell me details. Ilsa, who was then 5, announced at the top of her very healthy lungs, “I’M GLAD I’M NOT A GOAT! I NEVER WANT TO BE A GOAT!” Well ok then. Abel came to show me on his own little person exactly where they cut the large hole through which they pulled out all the intestines. Elliot (7) was very mature and held the flashlight steady for the men.
I sat in the starlight on a very thin pad spread over the sharp rocks of the courtyard, drinking sweet mint tea and practicing my Hassiniya, while 2 men peeled off the skin (goat skins are used to store water), chopped up the meat, and emptied out the intestines then tied them into little bundles, which they dropped into a pot of boiling water.
All this took some time, so it was about midnight before a platter of boiled goat–organs, intestines, and a few chunks of meat–was set before us. The kids had passed out at this point. We tried to wake them up, but they cried, so we let them sleep and did our best to eat, although swallowing twisty, rubbery intestines without gagging is a skill I still need to hone. Soon, it was cleared away and a plate of the coarse Mauritanian couscous was set before us, with a pitcher of rancid goat butter to pour on if we liked, to add a bit of flavor. Afterwards, we just lay down where we were, fully clothed, and fell asleep.
“It’s July 4th,” I thought on waking up 5 hours later, which is when the sun in all its strength poured forth over the wall and into my eyes. No blueberry and strawberry desserts that year, no flag-imprinted paper plates and cold drinks. Instead, we had tepid water and unripe dates, which have a curiously woody texture that makes you feel like you’ve just wiped out the inside of your mouth with a Kleenex, and glass after glass of mint tea. It was a different sort of holiday, but certainly memorable.
Three boys lie on the floor, popping and shoving and ollying and all sorts of other things with their fingers, playing Tech Decks, which are mini skateboards. Ilsa lies on the couch, reading as always. Although Erik is Abel’s best friend, the 4 of them are more like cousins than mere friends, and relate very well together even though it’s 2 years since we’ve seen Erik.
How many pics of Ilsa reading will I post on this blog? On va voir.
Since Donn arrived last Saturday, we worked non-stop to get our house in order. We’re nearly finished too. Our only delay is a lack of furniture to unload things into, if that makes sense. We still haven’t gotten things like dressers, a TV stand, a buffet for dishes, kitchen drawers. Yes, kitchens in North Africa don’t come with drawers, only cabinets. I hate not having drawers for silverware, big knives, spatulas, tea towels, etc.
It was quite the endeavour. In one fell swoop, we tripled the amount of stuff in our apartment. But our good friends Tim and Debbie, and their son Erik, were due to arrive in Casa at 7:20 on Wednesday morning, so the goal was to have the place presentable by Tuesday night.
Taken Tuesday morning…
We did it too. Although there is still a pile of boxes in the hallway, we can’t do much about them, and I personally think the place is looking great! Rugs have been beaten and triple-vacuumed; books have been flung on shelves with little regard for separating poetry from prose or fact from fiction. The point was organization or at least a sense of it, with time for more precise sorting later.
Taken Tuesday night. This area was completely empty before.
Some of Donn’s office furniture didn’t fit through the door. That is, it got halfway in and then stuck, reminiscent of Pooh and Rabbit’s door. Apparently, the Mauritanian-made table was wider at one end than the other, and the Moroccan door was wider near the top than near the bottom. A perfect match, in other words. What to do? Donn found the skill saw and trimmed it down until it would slide through. Easy, right?
We had their arrival all planned out. Donn went to pick them up; I started coffee and Elliot was dispatched for pastries. Ilsa squeezed 2 ½ kilos of oranges, which is the only way to drink juice in Morocco, where oranges cost about 15 cents a pound. When Debbie and Erik walked in and announced that Tim had stayed behind, I thought they were joking. I craned my head to see past them, expecting to see our tall friend straggling behind with a heavy suitcase. But Debbie was serious. Tim had been detained for questioning as a material witness; yet another fall-out of our friend’s death to terrorists.
Long story short: We had a great time with Debbie and Erik, but we only saw Tim briefly, when he reunited with his family in the Casa airport and they continued on to the US. We have spent a lot of time not going too far from the computer, keeping skype open, waiting for news. That’s life in the fast lane.
In spite of the uncertainty and missing Tim, it’s been a nice visit. We’ve known this family since our arrival in Nouakchott in 2001. We share many memories; of week-long camping trips under the desert stars; of hiking in baboon-infested canyons and not swimming in crocodile-infested waters; of relieving ourselves in full view of the waiting taxi and avid villagers. We worked together at the English center, and shared carpooling activities and sleepovers and locust invasions and jellyfish stings And these are just the good times.
The logical solution is for them to move to Rabat. We have pointed this out several times. In fact, we told them, we are willing to start apartment-hunting now. Because it takes time; we know this.