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Why yes, I’m still working on telling you all about a trip I took last fall. Hang in there. Only a few more posts, and then I’ll go  back to posting once every three months.

When we first moved to Mauritania, I was amazed at the driving. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. We’d lived there only a few months when 3 kids racing horses down the street flew around a corner and smashed a horse up onto our car, leaving the horse screaming in agony with a broken leg (they didn’t put it down either; the poor thing lived another week). They claimed it was our fault, and the police agreed after a rapid discussion in Arabic in which some money may or may not have changed hands.

Driving in Mauritania was never ever relaxing. Stopping for a red light was like a jeopardy game. You know how the contestants wait with their hands on the buzzer, and the instant the question flashes they hit that buzzer, only to sometimes realize they don’t know the answer? That was what it was like. The instant the light changed–literally before you had time to move your foot from the brake to the gas pedal–the honking started.

Some events remain green in my memory. The woman in the pink muluffa driving 5 km down one of the main streets with her eyes closed, muttering prayers as her car drifted dangerously near mine. The donkey cart in the right lane suddenly swerving in front of me to turn left. Me jamming on the brakes and shouting and gesturing a bit (not rudely, just exasperatedly) and the children being so embarrassed. The habit drivers had of simply stopping their cars in the middle of the street and getting out and going into the school/shop/wherever. The pointless traffic jams where each car claims each inch of space it can, resulting in a full intersection of angry people and no one going anywhere.

IMG_1115This is my attempt to show you a pointless traffic jam. This is a normal intersection. In America, there would be one lane of traffic going each way. We are headed towards those buildings. The picture is taken through the windshield of Aicha’s car and you can see the hood and the direction we’re pointing. I’m not sure this picture does it justice, but I knew no one there would want to be photographed.

As bad as Mauritania was, Morocco was worse. The driving was the same, except there were more cars going faster, since streets were paved, and there were high curbs and sidewalks, which took away your getaway. (In Mauritania, even paved streets have wide sandy shoulders filled with children and handicapped people that you can swerve into if necessary.) Morocco was insane. If Mauritania was hell on wheels, Morocco was the 9th circle. But I learned to love the challenge. There was one road that I always felt would be instrumental in teaching fractions. It was divided in half (one half for each direction) as normal, but the entire road was also divided in thirds. This meant 1 1/2 lanes for each direction. Naturally Moroccan drivers were able to turn this into 3 lanes for each direction. I found it just as effective as anything else to simply close my eyes and use the force to steer.

When we first came back to the US, I found the driving tame and insipid. I tend to express my feelings vocally while driving, and I would sit at the green light muttering “GO!” at the car in front of me while Ilsa chirped, “Use the horn, Mom!” from the back seat. Seriously, she could not understand why her parents were suddenly so mealy-mouthed, so to speak. I tend to be a really impatient driver with a bit of a heavy foot on the gas pedal. I swerve (politely) in and out of traffic, making up time so I’m not too late, usually going ever-so-slightly above the speed limit, until I notice I’m 15 10 miles over and slow down. And this is on surface streets.

I assumed I still had what it took to be on the streets of North Africa, so it came as a shock to find that I have become timid. I’d be sitting in a taxi watching a bus coming straight towards me, about to T-bone us, and I would find myself tense, gasping, bracing for the inevitable collision as our taxi moved with less than a second to spare. When we lived there, things like this didn’t bother me. I rather liked the excitement of the near miss. But on this trip I spent a lot of our time in taxis tensing up and feebly fumbling for something to hold on to–the edge of the seat, the door handle if available, anything. My heart pounded. Pitiful.

Morocco has spent the last 3 years attempting to re-do its driving. Right about the time we were leaving, they were introducing a system of “points” where you could lose points for various infractions, although how on earth this would be enforced remained unclear. Foreigners had to get a Moroccan driver’s license, whether or not they really spoke French or Arabic. Supposedly this would make everything calmer, more civilized. I had visions of intersections with drivers saying, “No, you go first. Please” instead of charging ahead, guns blazing, so to speak. On this trip, there came a moment when we were in a taxi heading downtown and I realized that everyone was waiting in his or her own proper lane. There were supposed to be 3 lanes–there were 3 lanes, instead of the normal 5 or 6. “Wow, it’s really working,” I thought.

The traffic light changed, everyone surged forward, and within 2 seconds I realized that actually nothing had changed. Battles were still being fought over inches of pavement space. The only difference was my stress level and, apparently, gullibility.

By the time we got to Mauritania, I’d pretty much adjusted back. Donn’s friend Mohammed, who is doing really well for himself, loaned us a car for a few days. It was just like old times, driving around town, getting stuck in pointless traffic jams where the only way out is to join in and fight for those inches of progress, singing “Anarchy in the UK” (Sample lyrics: I know what I want and I know how to get it) as we wove our way in and out of oncoming traffic. It was Oregon that was once again the shock.

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I suppose, technically, I probably don’t have consumption, although my cheeks have been suspiciously flushed and I do have an echoing cough. And, I am the woman who got pickpocketed in Paris–not mugged, not held up, no a real-live Gypsy child (I know, Roma, bear with me, I’m not prejudiced) tried to get away with my husband’s wallet, and my husband sat on his chest till the police arrived. My point is, I tend towards the literary.

And I have been awfully, dreadfully sick. And I have realized that I can no longer say, “I’m never sick but this time I really was.” Because apparently I am now delicate. Usually I get sick because I’m run-down, but we just had that lovely snowstorm and I had 4 days of doing nothing but going for walks in the crisp air and coming home and building a fire and drinking hot chocolate. That hardly qualifies as stressful and busy. And yet, a week later, bam! Down I come with this terrible illness that has me practically drinking weak beef tea and having to spend a month at the seaside to restore my health. Seriously, I am feeling very Victorian.

Anyway, enough about me and my cough. I was home for an entire week, literally, from a Sunday afternoon to a Monday morning. I didn’t answer my phone for 3 days because I had no voice. I had no energy to sit up, so I spent most of my time in bed…reading! Yep! Almost everything on the list below is from the last week.

So, this month (week) I read:

The Boy in the Suitcase: This first in the Nina Borg series follows a Danish nurse who works with desperate people on the margins of society, even at great personal risk. It opens when Nina does, in fact, find a boy in a suitcase. Finding out who put him there and why shows the length some people will go to in their attempts to preserve what they value.

Invisible Murder: This is the 2nd in the series. A couple of Roma boys poking around an abandoned Soviet-era hospital complex find something worth a lot of money. Shortly after, a mysterious illness sets in to a group of Roma, and nurse Nina Borg treats them and then comes down with it herself. I actually love this series which deals with human rights issues, poverty, desperation, why people break laws, and more.

Citadel I loved this one. It’s nearly perfect. The story of a resistance group in Southern France composed mostly of women, but what makes it really good is how it shows how the women come to that point. At first it seems a bit long but soon that becomes an asset.

Children of the Revolution: When the body of an emaciated elderly man is thrown off a railroad bridge, Inspector Banks is called in. As he and his team begin to learn more about the man, they become convinced that the answer lies in his past. A very enjoyable mystery.

Minding Molly: This is the 3rd in Leslie Gould’s series in which she sets Shakespearean plays amongst Amish teenagers. This one is Midsummer Night’s Dream, and it’s fun to trace the basic elements of the story. No fairies are needed, as the insecurities of the teenaged girls are enough to cause all sorts of mix-ups and mayhem.

After I’m Gone: Laura Lippman’s latest is the story of a man who disappears rather than face prison. He leaves behind a wife, 3 daughters, and a mistress. 10 years to the day after he leaves, his mistress disappears. Everyone assumes she’s gone to join him until a few years later, when her body is found. Years later again, detective “Sandy” Sanchez opens the cold case and looks at the names in the file, certain that the person he’s seeking is already in there. Nice and suspenseful.

You can date boys when you’re 40: Dave Barry’s latest. Need I say more? He takes his daughter to a Justin Beiber concert; he contemplates his own mortality; Mr Language Person returns. The best part was watching Ilsa (my daughter) read it. She was giggling so hard she couldn’t speak. You can enter to win a free copy if you click on the link.

Murder Must Advertise: a Dorothy Sayers that I hadn’t read in ages. Lord Peter goes undercover to find the connection between a respectable advertising agency and a drug ring.

The Nine Tailors: another Dorothy Sayers that I hadn’t read in ages. A corpse is found in another person’s grave, and the cause of death can’t be discovered. Lord Peter needs to spend some time in a small village with an impressive church.

Reading:

An Unsuitable Princess: This is two stories in one, a true fantasy and a fantastical memoir. The fantasy is a vaguely Renaissance era tale about a mute outcast girl and a blacksmith boy. The memoir is a tale of growing up in 70s Laurel Canyon, just outside of LA. The stories go back and forth and it’s fun to see the connections.

The A-Z of C S Lewis: An encyclopedia of everything Lewis, from obscure characters in his novels, to real-life people he interacted with, to short articles explaining his views on various issues. A great reference book!

Boy, Snow, Bird: Boy has run away from an abusive father in New York (Boy is a woman, by the way) and moved to a remote town in New England. There, she meets and falls in love with the mysterious widower Arturo Whitman and his daughter, Snow. I know from reading the back that the child they bear will be dark-skinned because the Whitmans have been passing as white but aren’t, and it’s set in 1953 and is a reflection on race and mirrors and self-image. So far, so good.

To read:

The Moon Sisters After their mother’s death, 2 sisters who are very different travel together to lay her ashes to rest. Along the way, tensions build until they finally have to be honest with each other and face what lies between them. Includes some magical realism.

Clever Girl Stella, now in her 50s, looks back at her life. Everyone is raving about the writing, so I’m really looking forward to this one.

…and several more which are upstairs, and I’m too knackered to bother going to look. I’m at the legs-like-limp-noodles stage of recovery.

What about you? Read anything good lately? How’s your health?

First of all, you should know that in Portland, OR, snow is a rare and wondrous thing. We are not quite Atlanta, we do have snow plows, but it really doesn’t happen very often. Snow days are precious, rare things. We used to get one good snow a year but it’s years and years and years since it’s properly snowed. Admittedly I was off living in NW Africa for a large chunk of those years, but we’ve been back since summer 2010. That means this is our 4th winter, and in all these years we haven’t had a proper snowstorm. My poor deprived children had never had a snow day in their entire lives.

I saw a meme on FB, during the “Polar Vortex” that swept the entire countryside EXCEPT for Portland, OR, which had temps like those in Florida. There was a meme on FB with Oprah giving everyone a snow day except for “Portland, OR; you get cold rain.”

But on Thursday we got a real live winter storm. It was the best we’ve had in absolutely ages. Snow started around 11 a.m. and it snowed constantly for over 24 hours. We had tiny flakes, huge ones, blizzard ones with wind, soft gentle dreamy ones. We were very happy.

IMG_0243Isn’t that so pretty? Don’t you think that should happen more often?

I sent Donn to the store, about a mile away, to get firewood. Took him an hour and a half, and he’s a good driver. This was due to 2 conditions. One, there were icy hills. Anyone without chains or snow tires will have trouble on icy hills. The second condition was something that happens to Portland drivers when that first flake is spotted actually sticking to a blade of grass. (We get plenty of snow every year, but it never sticks. It just snows for an hour or two and then stops, breaking your heart every time)

Portland drivers morph into one of two types when those first flakes start sticking. The first lot turn into 15 year old boys, the kind with access to whiskey and car keys, the kind whose goal is to turn doughnuts in the ice. The second lot become 90 year old grandmothers, the kind who drive 5 miles an hour while peering over the steering wheel. There is no one left in between. You can imagine the driving, with only teens and grannies out there.

155th and weirNote: I didn’t take this picture. It’s from a local news channel, and is an intersection near our house.

So it was basically awesome. We put chains on the Volvo and conquered the streets but mostly we stayed home, built fires, cooked and ate rather too much (it was cold! I needed the calories!). We went for lots of walks, to the mis-named Summer Lake.

IMG_0285

Yes, that’s Summer Lake (behind the tree) in winter. Why do people name lakes such stupid names? The park is about a mile or less from our house, and then the hike around through the woods and over the bridges and around the lake is about another mile. It made a lovely walk, and put me right in the mood for more hot chocolate!

IMG_0270Donn looked very dashing. We realized we are sorely lacking in wintery gear. We have very few hats and warm scarves and mittens and gloves, and we are seriously lacking boots. Ilsa and I had to share a pair, which would have been all right except that her feet are a little smaller than mine. They kept my feet warm and dry and slightly cramped, but it was okay. Donn had to just wear his regular shoes.

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When we came back from “Summer” Lake, the freezing rain was starting. The entire house was covered in a sheath of ice. Here’s what it looked like through the windows:

IMG_0298

Sometimes ice storms send tree limbs crashing, downing power lines and cutting electricity. So I was very happy that things stayed warm inside the house. We built another fire, ate muffins, drank hot drinks, and were pretty happy to have another 2 days to sleep in. It was fun to have time to watch the Olympics, although apparently I am the only person in the house who wants to watch them. Luckily I can pull rank.

Aside: anyone else totally sick of Olympic commercials? I am! My “favorite” is the one that compares winning a gold medal and being a top athlete, fearless, with biting into a chicken mcnugget (go bold with habarnero ranch!). Uh yeah. They are totally connected.

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I do love ice storms, especially if no one dies and the electricity stays on. Thanks to the layer of ice on top of the snow, which made for some really fun crunchy walks, everything was still cancelled for Sunday and Monday. By Monday night, the rain had returned and the roads were slushy but passable.

And now it’s all gone and the temp is about 50 degrees F today. Warm (relatively) and rainy. Everything is back to the greens and browns that typify winter round here. But we basically had 4 days off and I got absolutely nothing done. Just wanted to gloat a little bit. How was your weekend?

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When you live in a place for 6 years, you come to think of it as home, even as you still refer to your country of origin as “home.” This is a conundrum familiar to travelers and expatriates alike. The result, naturally enough, is that you never feel completely at home in any single place again. There’s always something you miss.

We lived in Mauritania long enough for a bit of the desert to enter our souls. But we have been gone for as long as we’d lived there, and Morocco was very different. What would it be like to return after 6 years?

In a word, it was disorienting. As we drove from the airport into the dust-filled midnight, Donn said, “It hasn’t changed at all.” But it had. In the morning, we saw the water. Everyone had been telling us that the city had grown and grown and grown, but it took us several days to see all the ways that it had.

IMG_1094This is an example, an enormous fountain (?) being put in at the carrefour nearest our old house. Presumably they’ll unwrap the dolphins at some point. Can’t wait to see how long this monstrosity is used. How long before it’s left to publicly crumble, like the palm trees they used to plant for visiting dignitaries and then didn’t water once the dignitaries had left?

That first afternoon, Donn and I wandered out to begin to look for old friends. Since leaving in 2007, we’d lost track of almost everybody, and we were anxious to find again these people who live so annoyingly without facebook, email, and skype. (Aside: I am not describing everyone here, just some. But a high proportion of Mauritanians live without internet in their homes.) We decided to walk. Donn stopped to take a picture of the edge of one of the puddles, where trash floated suspended in murkiness. Some kids driving by mocked us at first, and then turned it into mocking themselves for coming from a country with trash everywhere. It was a little sad, especially as they spoke English, which means they are upper-class and educated.

We stopped by the home of the guy who was probably Donn’s closest friend when we lived there. Mohammed is someone we have kept in touch with. He occasionally will call Donn on his vonage phone. But we didn’t have a phone in Mauritania. We went to his parents’ house, which we found after only one wrong turn. A group of boys playing outside approached up, avid curiosity mingled with suspicion on their faces. “Who are you looking for?” asked one. We gave the name. “He is my grandfather,” said the boy with great dignity in spite of torn knees and dust-covered jeans. I realized he must be my friend H’s son, the one who was born during Ramadan, the one they rubbed henna all over when he was 3 days old so that he was a curious orange colour when I first saw him. Since Mohammed and his father have the same name, we knew we were in the right place.

Mohammed wasn’t there but one of his older sisters was, and she called him and handed us the phone. He no longer lives there but has his own place now, even though he’s still not married. We arranged a time to meet the following day, and walked on. I needed conditioner so we went to one of the bigger stores where we used to shop. We walked in. “How are you? How are the kids?” one of the young men shouted, running over to shake Donn’s hand and hug him. I couldn’t believe it. He remembered us.

IMG_1801Look how pink Donn looks! I don’t know why. In real life he is not raspberry coloured.

We asked him where a cyber-cafe was and he told us of a new place. Nouakchott’s main drag is wider now and there are sidewalks, at least at this end, and street lights that worked, and even a new traffic light. It was a bit disorientating. We found the cafe, and there were actual tables and chairs set out on the sidewalk, something we’d never seen before. It felt a little bit like Morocco, except for all the dust in the air, fogging the orange light cast by the streetlights, stirring in little eddies as the men in their long white robes walked past. We ordered coffee and pulled out our iPad (Donn) and smart phone (me) to check mail. We sat there, in full view of the city, obviously foreign and by extension obviously rich, oblivious. When we’d finished, we went over to visit Oasis Books, our old project. (When we lived there, Donn was the administrator and I was a teacher there. It was the first English bookstore and library in the country and also taught English classes). There, the people that run it now told us about how smart phones and iPads are the most desirable things to steal in the country, and told us of a woman who’d been killed for her smart phone by a taxi driver.

That made me feel vulnerable. I don’t know if I can describe how visible I always felt in Mauritania, where I look different from almost everyone else and I stand out. On the one hand, I value this experience. I, a white middle-class American woman, know very well how it is to be the minority. On the other hand, I am at essence a shy person and all the attention is wearing. Hearing that I had sat, my face and hair shining like the sun in its splendor, using a much-desired smart phone in a very public place made me feel a little strange.

As a result, our friends told us, the government had kicked out all non-native taxi drivers. This meant that taxis were scarce and the drivers felt they could charge you more than 100 times the going rate, which friends told us technically hadn’t changed. So instead of 80 cents, we were quoted $12 to go short distances. When we protested, the driver would simply drive off. It was frustrating.

In the 6 years since we left, Mauritania has changed so much. Yes the city has grown–it must be twice the size. But Al-Queda has also come to the area. Aid workers have been kidnapped; a friend of ours was gunned down in the streets. There was a suicide bomber outside the kids’ old school who, like a bad joke, killed only himself. All these things have taken a toll. Peace Corps left, most of the French families left along with European businesses and many of our American and European friends, and the Paris-Dakar rally has relocated to South America. Donn was talking to a man who sold souvenirs–bracelets made of wood and metal, leatherwork, picture frames and occasional tables.”We are all paying the devil’s bill,” he told Donn mournfully, “Not just us, but the tour guides in the desert and everyone at all connected to tourism.”

It’s true I felt more unsafe there, although I want to stress that nothing happened. In part, it was stories people told us, including Mauritanian friends. In part, it was probably in my head. I do know that we stood out like we did in 2001 and like we didn’t by 2007, when oil had been discovered and Europeans, Americans and Australians were flooding in. (Flooding is a relative term. Perhaps seeping would be more accurate) And being in such a noticeable and noticed minority makes one feel vulnerable, no matter the reality of the situation.

Mauritania can be an infuriating place but before you know it, the people have crept into your heart. Like the kids who started out mocking us and then turned their wit on themselves, the nation as a whole suffers from an inferiority complex that is often masked in an annoying superiority. I still remember a student I had who picked his nose with his pen. I’d look over and his pen would be half up his nose, and I’d have to look away quickly. He said to me one day, “I think Mauritanians are cleaner than Americans.” I flashed on people living in the dirt without running water, on trash-choked streets and on the unpaved roads. I asked him why he thought that, and he said, “Because we are Muslim and we wash our hands 5 times a day before we pray.” Meanwhile, in America, kids are developing asthma because their environments are too sterile and there are wipes available at the grocery store for your carts and toilet seat covers for public toilets. I thought of trying to describe it, but it was too much. I just said, “Americans wash their hands a lot too,” and left it at that.

broken chair one

I remember trying to teach a writing class to use specific descriptions. I wrote on the board, “The mountain is beautiful” and showed them two pictures, one of a flat mesa in the Mauritanian desert in shades of ochre, and one of snow-capped Mt Hood rising above deep green forests. I asked which picture the sentence described, wanting them to tell me it could be either, and they needed more picturesque and expressive words, but instead they cast their eyes down and said, “You are right. Mauritania is not beautiful.”

See? They just crept into your heart a little bit, didn’t they? Even now, thinking of those earnest students who tried so hard and who had so few chances to succeed makes me sad and angry and proud.

And so I have to say that in the ways that count most, Mauritania has not changed. It’s grown a lot. It felt more unsafe. But that curious, fascinating blend of people pushing you away and reaching out to you at the same time is still there. People stared at me on the street, but that didn’t mean they meant me harm–just that I was unusual, like seeing your TV come to life. My friend Aicha’s guard said to her, when I went for lunch, “Can I come in and just watch her eat? I’ve seen people eating with knives and forks on TV but never in real life.” “NO you can’t come watch her eat!” said Aicha, and she laughed when she told me, but I sensed she also felt shy, insecure, that she comes from a place where people can reach adulthood without ever being exposed to silverware.

I know I keep using the word “strange,” but it was strange to be there, in a world half-remembered and yet never forgotten. Our time in Mauritania changed our family, forever shaped how we view the world and our place in it, even though we were only there six years, a portion of my life that grows smaller and smaller as the years pile on. Life has an intensity there, a preciousness perhaps born of the fact that life isn’t all that precious, as babies run out behind your SUV and people die for the lack of something as basic as water. Perhaps it’s because everything you thought you knew has been stood on its head—fat is beautiful, the utility companies will cheat you and rob you blind, the cute puppy will be a skinny rabid dog in about 6 weeks. But once you’ve lived there, you will forever more be impatient with certain values the developed world holds dear. Life is precious because it is precarious, and there’s a solidity to that fact that is blurred and blunted in more affluent countries.  And in a certain sense, returning to the desert did feel like coming home.

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