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Day One: The new airport is really impressive. Built since our last visit 2 year ago, it boasts AC, and lit signs in 3 languagues (Araabic, French and English). You no longer have to walk outside to board and deplane, the hot air in your face like an oven welcoming you to the desert.
A local friend has sent a driver for us, and he manages to get past security and meet us coming off the plane. We ask how he managed this. “Oh they all know me,” he says. “Also the son of my sister works here.” The more things change, the more they remain the same…
Yes, we are traveling once again. This is our third trip to Mauritania since we moved away in 2007. “Are you back to stay this time?” people ask us, but no, no we’re not nor are we even planning this. But it’s good to come and enjoy a bit of desert hospitality and see our friends. And I’m once again attempting to blog it. I meant to write about our summer but never did, as you can see. We’ll see how far I get this time.
Late October in Nouakchott. At dusk a cool wind blows, and the sky fills with torn-wing bats, like black construction paper cut-outs pasted unevenly against a pastel orange sky. The city has changed a lot. There are more paved roads, more traffic lights, although people sail through red lights wtthout even a cursory brake or glance to see if there’s oncoming traffic. There are highways lined with solar-powered street lights, a brilliant plan in a place with excess sunlight.
This time of year, the camel herds are here. Throughout the city but especially on the edges of it, you will see herds grazing on bushes in the distance, or loping across the road, or hobbled outside a store. The result is fresh camel’s milk for sale, and people are taking advantage of that. So far we’ve only been given it once, in wooden bowls, served to us in a fancy living room (salon), chilled. I don’t like milk so it’s not my favorite, but Donn managed a whole serving. It’s thinner than cow’s milk and maybe slightly sweeter. I don’t know. I never drink milk. It’s supposed to be really good for you.
Afterward, we head out to the edges of town to drink tea on the dunes. The moon is one day past full, and I take pictures in the brightness of it. A lot of peope have had the same idea. You park and there are little stands set up where a guy will make you tea and bring you 3 rounds in small glasses, sweet and minty. He brings each glass with foam in it and pours the tea in with a flourish, then hands it to you. (The foam is made from pouring the tea back and forth ahead of time) We sit in the moonlight with a Mauritnian friend and drink tea and savor the cool air, the soft sand, the lowing of some nearby camels. A group near us starts to sing.
Several people have started following my blog recently, and I wanted to say hello and welcome. Also, I love comments! And now, back to our regularly scheduled overly-long story…
Our visit was short, just 2 full days in the village with a day each end of travel. On our second day, we went to visit a family that lives at the very edge of the plateau. Let me tell you about how we met them…
When Yahiya first moved to Oudane, in 2002, he invited us to come and visit. At that time, Oudane had no electricity, no cell phone reception, no telephone, no internet, nothing but wind and sand and innumerable stars in a sky that stretched on to infinity. “Just come, ask at any house in the village, and they will come and find me,” he assured us.
And so, about 6 months later one February weekend, we packed our 4×4 with water and sleeping bags and food and set off, bumping uncertainly down the unpaved road. It took us 8 hours of driving, including the last part where the road is more than just a set of tracks in the sand, but not by much. We picked up a hitchhiker (it is safe, or was safe, to do this back then), an old man in a stained robe, who sat in the back with the kids and watched perplexedly as they snacked on raw carrot sticks. I had the feeling raw carrots had not played any kind of role in his diet up to that point.
Eventually we bumped up the plateau and pulled up in front of the first house we saw. We asked the boy standing out front if he knew Yahiya, a high school teacher. “No,” he said. He went to fetch his mother. We asked her. “No, I don’t know him,” she said, “but come in! come in!”
A little worried and perplexed, we allowed ourselves to be guided through a doorway, into a salon. We were sat down on thin matlas against a concrete wall, were given cushions for our elbows. They sent someone out in search of our friend, and in the meantime they served us a meal and told us we could stay with them for as long as we wanted, a week, two weeks, a month, no problem. When Yahiya eventually appeared and joined us for couscous, they still urged us to stay with them. They were a family and therefore better equipped to host a family than a single man, they said. We turned them down, but the experience has stayed in our minds for years, this beautiful example of the hospitality of the desert, of a people that would take in complete strangers and welcome them.
We sat once more in the same room, although it looked different now. There were lots of teenagers, kids we didn’t recognize, who made us tea and practiced their English on us. Our host send one of the girls out to a local shop (I am tempted to put that word in quotes, since nothing in Oudane looks like any kind of shop seen anywhere else on the planet) to buy me a muluffa, which they draped around me. Then we were served banarva, which is sort of a stew of meat and onions, eaten with bread. There were also little bundles of intestines, made by coiling intestines round one’s finger and tying the end round it. Eating intestines is a skill I never managed to hone, and our hosts noticed Donn and I skillfully avoiding the small clumps. They taught us the word for intestine in Hassiniya, which I used to know, forgot, relearned, and have forgotten again. (Debbie?)
Afterwards we sit back, full, which is a mistake, because the second course comes in. This is marou ilHam, meat and rice, and it’s tasty, well-seasoned (which isn’t always the case) and steaming hot. Of course we’re sitting on the floor, eating with our hands. I am going to admit that I don’t really like eating rice and pasta dishes with my hands, although my husband and kids do. When we lived there, I could do it, of course, but given the chance, I always used a spoon. My inability to eat with my hands greatly displeased my host. I would take a small bit, halfheartedly work it into a sort of egg shaped ball, and pop it in my mouth, often scattering bits of rice. He took it upon himself to feed me. He made me an enormous ball and slipped it into my hand, motioning that I should put the whole thing in my mouth. I tried and nearly choked. I was perfectly happy making my own, avoiding the more gristly bits of meat and making small balls of rice, but he kept insisting that I was doing it wrong and making me large perfectly-round balls of rice. Embarrassing for only one of us, apparently.
Later that evening, we walked down the hill to visit Chez Zaida, Oudane’s only auberge. When we spent that long-ago summer month there, we got to know Zaida, a warm, friendly, out-going woman who invited us for lunch and used to visit us and play chess with Elliot while helping us with our Hassiniya. At the time, Zaida was in the process of opening her auberge, and we were thrilled to see her success. The auberge is located on the outskirts of Oudane, built on sand instead of rock, and I heard stories of flush toilets!
Zaida remembered us, and settled us on thin matlas outside while we caught up a bit. She’s made many friends through her inn, and spent a month traveling through Europe staying with people who wanted to return her hospitality. We showed her pictures of our kids. Her nephews took good care of us, bringing out cushions that were as big as they were! Her friend let me hold her son, the only baby in Oudane who wasn’t afraid of my freakishly-coloured hair and eyes (blonde and blue).
On our last visit, when Zaida was just opening her first auberge, she served us the specialty food of Oudane–luxoor. These are buckwheat crepes (or something like that) served with camel gravy. Traditionally, the pancakes are piled in a bowl and the gravy poured on top. You eat by digging your hand down through the layers. Tasty but weird. I mentioned to Zaida how much I’d liked them and how good they were, innocently, not realizing I was basically asking her to make them again. (I am truly clueless like this, and it’s embarrassing. I’m old enough to know better) Of course she invited us to stay for supper, so we settled in for the most Western-style meal we’d ever had in the desert.
Our food was served in courses. First came a bowl of savory, flavorful vegetable soup. Then came the luxoor, only we ate one at a time, on a plate, with knives and forks. Then we had tinned fruit salad to end with, plus of course the sweet mint tea.
We had a lovely evening, lying back in the warm dusk, drinking tea and chatting of old times, of trips taken, of new sights seen. Afterwards we walked up the hill to Yahiya’s home once again.
This is a continuation of Part 6...
Our first night in the desert in years and years. (Nouakchott doesn’t count, even though it is in the Sahara, yes, because there are houses there that often have electricity and running water) As the sun began to sink, Yahiya’s daughter, aged 9, dragged two large plastic mats out of one of the rooms, and her brothers fetched large rocks to weight down the edges. I sat down and one of the kids went running into the room to bring me out a hard cushion to put under my elbow. Although electricity has come to Oudane, it hasn’t really made its presence felt. Yahiya’s compound has a single fluorescent bulb, and an outlet in each room. In the evening he plugs in a lamp and drags it outside to the second of the two mats, where his children do their homework.
Yahiya is a teacher in the local school and rents out one of his rooms to another teacher. This proved to be problematic in the middle of the night, when it got cold and the family moved indoors. He was in his room. I wasn’t sure if I could go in there too. Donn did, thinking I was still asleep, and I lay there shivering the rest of the night and wondering what to do and being irritated at Donn for going in without me, even though I knew this was irrational and that he would feel terrible when he found out. (He did.) And it turned out that it would have been fine to go into this unmarried teacher’s room, but how was I supposed to know, in this very conservative Muslim village where daily life is mostly unchanged for centuries except that now, fish is trucked in daily from the coast, and apples are available in the local merchants’ shops? Where, when I visit an old friend, her husband rushes out to buy me a muluffa so that I’m soon enveloped in bright blue cloth?
Donn and I quickly feel the 12 intervening years since we last slept on the stony ground of Oudane. I lay down on the hard ground, wrapped myself in a purple muluffa for another layer of warmth (dubious since they are made of very thin cotton), and felt the ground digging into my hips. In the morning I felt bruised, but as the sun came up and whisked away the remaining coolness of the night, I dragged myself inside to face sweet mint tea when I longed for black coffee. The bread was fresh and hot, bought at the local bakery.
Yahiya had to work so we spent the day wandering the town, meeting people. In Oudane, people tend to sit outside their houses/shops on mats spread on the ground, drinking tea and chatting. We would greet people in Hassiniya and they would invite us to join them. We drank glass after glass after glass of sweet mint tea. Many people remembered us as the parents of those 3 tiny blonde children (even though Elliot has never been blonde in his life), because even though this is a relatively touristy part of Mauritania, few people bring their kids and stay for a month.
In the evening, we walked again through the ancient city.
Peering through a doorway into a shrine, a place where a local holy man is buried, where people visit seeking blessings and good luck. Places like this are frowned on by classical Islam but are very common throughout Morocco and Mauritania.
That night, Yahyia’s wife serves us a dish of camel meat cubes with macaroni in a creamy sauce. We eat it with our hands, of course. I can’t help thinking this could be the next new thing in America. Kraft Kamel Mac’n’cheese! Can’t you see it? Of course they will spell camel with a K. I can’t wait to tell Abel, who loves Kraft mac’n’cheese (traditional flavor), but he turns up his nose. He’s not a big fan of camel meat. I don’t know why, since it tastes almost exactly like beef, just a little different in some undefinable way (thinner, somehow, or perhaps drier. I don’t know).
It’s snowing on my blog! It’s freezing in my house! The wind is wuthering and banging things and howling down the chimney! And yet I continue to write about my recent trip to the wilds of the Sahara desert.
I’ve been having a lot of fun telling my Iraqi friends about our trip to Oudane and showing them the picture of the toilet. They are amazed beyond. They laugh hysterically as I describe the uneven stairs, but when I explain about balancing on the rafters, they are horrified. “What if you fall in?” I’ve been asked several times. They are shocked to hear of how poor many Mauritanians are, and can’t believe I survived even 3 days in the tiny village. One woman told me of a time she and her family had fled Baghdad during the war to a neighbouring village, and how they didn’t even spend the night because of the primitive toilet. I laugh. “I lived in Oudane for a month once, with little kids, and the whole family had giardia,” I tell her.
This time, we arrived in Oudane on a Monday afternoon. In the morning, we met our driver outside our friend’s business. This friend, Mo, is doing tremendously well in business and is very generous to boot, and he arranged a car to take us the 600 kilometers from Nouakchott to Oudane. I don’t know what he paid but it was a lovely thing for him to do.
We climbed in and the driver took off at a tremendous rate while I bounced around in the back. The sun beat down as we drove through the desert and I kept waiting for it to get pretty. It does, right around Tergit, where the baked plains that surround the city begin to rise into shale plateaus. I sat in the back, wishing the AC could be cranked, bored for hours and hours and hours. We stopped only at police checkpoints, of which there were many. At each they took our passports and laboriously copied down the information. And the day was long and hot and boring, but it was one of those times where I honestly didn’t mind, because I liked that security was tight and that someone pretty much always knew where we are, or could easily find out. The only negative was that the driver only stopped for police checkpoints, where you don’t want to pop out with your camera unless you’re the type of person who enjoys getting yelled at and possibly losing your camera. So I don’t have any pictures of the pretty part.
We only stopped once, just past Atar, for the driver to make tea in the bed of the pickup truck, out of the wind. I snapped a few photos, carefully making sure the nearby policemen could see I wasn’t pointing my camera at them.
We drank the tea, ate some apples we’d brought, and took off again, beginning the climb up the steep, crenelated plateaus. The road is paved intermittently, so sometimes you bump along on gravel, staring down the side of a cliff without a guard rail, but it’s really not bad and we were soon at the top.
We arrived in Oudane about 4, and met Yahyia walking down the street towards us. He was our first Arabic teacher, and the reason for our visit. We hadn’t seen him in 8 years.
Oudane is not a big place. The population is 2500 or so, and the way of life there has changed very little in the centuries since it was founded as a center for Islamic learning in the area. Ways of the desert die hard. The first time we visited, complete strangers took us into their home, sat us down and fed us, and offered to host us for a week.
We spent that first evening sitting round the courtyard, meeting Y’s wife and 4 kids, being fed 2 meals since we hadn’t had lunch and couldn’t convince them we weren’t hungry, and wandering round the old city of Oudane, which is gorgeous. It’s a UNESCO site, one of the 4 ancient cities of Mauritania, and finally “they” are getting around to restoring it. Y tells us that various NGOs have participated, making sure the stones are again reset using only the traditional manner. We walk down to the oasis and then wander up along the Route of 40 Scholars to the top, where the modern city begins.
As usual I’m getting into too much detail. “Skip a bit,” Donn urges. I will, next time.
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.
This 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.
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.
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.
It’s been nearly a month since I posted. That’s hardly an auspicious way to begin a post, but I don’t know yet where I’m going with this. I started one about Ramadan, but then I remembered I already told you about how I’m staying up late eating too much and drinking Turkish coffee at midnight and having a terrible time getting going in the mornings.
Yesterday was the Eid al-Fitr, the feast day that celebrates the end of Ramadan. (In many countries it is a 3 day feast) We spent the day visiting people, taking round platters of goodies, eating lots and admiring everyone’s new clothes.
Other things have happened. Some very good friends of ours (people we worked with in Mauritania who’ve become more like family) spent a measly 6 days with us. The time flew by. We took them to do Portland things…the Rose Garden, the waterfront, Powells, hiking down the Columbia River Gorge, etc. We also got together with 2 other families in the area who also used to live in Mauritania. It was great to see them again. One couple were childless when we knew them and now have 3 adorable kids! I know–you’d never even heard of the place before, and here are scads of people just in the Portland area who used to live there. Don’t you feel left out?
(random picture from nicest part of Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania. Also, I saturated the colours a bit; Mauritania tends to have everything covered in a patina of dust and sand)
My editor from 5 Minutes for Books came to town with her family! It was great fun to finally meet her in person. We met at our favorite Thai restaurant, and both families got along splendidly.
The males in our family went on a “man-cation.” This involved a lot of steak and bacon and pancakes cooked in bacon grease and catching fish and, apparently, a tent that no woman could tolerate even for a second. I don’t know, I wasn’t there, obviously.
(I love this picture of Elliot, taken by Donn)
We’ve had some super-hot weather! All the Iraqis are complaining about how hot it is. I find this ironic. It’s been really hot, but I can deal with it from living in the Sahara, where it isn’t as hot as Baghdad.
On the hottest day, with temps over 102 (which is very rare and brutally hot for Portland), we went with some friends to a local winery at dusk to watch a Shakespeare play–Much Ado About Nothing. It was idyllic. The setting was gorgeous, with a sweep of hills, vine-covered, large trees surrounding a lawn. And at the end of the evening, they gave us a car. Admittedly it’s as old as the twins, but it has everything I wanted in a car–AC, a working radio, and cup-holders!
We’ve now seen the latest Batman twice, and the boys have seen it three times. Several local movies have $5 movies on Tuesdays. An older Iraqi couple have told us several times that they love movies, so one night we went with them to watch it again. We couldn’t help but wonder how much they enjoyed it, but they claimed to. Afterwards, we went back to their apartment for Turkish coffee at midnight, which the kids drank as well. We’re raising them right! We are going to see the new Bourne movie this Tuesday with the same couple.
Also, on these cheap movie nights, you can get an enormous bucket of popcorn for $4–seriously, it was so huge that 6 of us couldn’t finish it, even though we hadn’t eaten supper. I’m not really sure of the point of such a large bucket–I mean, what a waste of food!–but it was cheap and fattening and, at first at least, strangely delicious. Our kids went with a friend to see the movie again, and 4 teens managed to finish the entire bucket–and they’d had supper.
What else? Wedding anniversary, discovered a great new way to cook green beans so that even Donn will eat them, lovely summer weather, lots of very late nights with friends during Ramadan…in short, a lovely, pleasant, month.
What about you? What have you been up to?
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
by T.S. Eliot. To hear him reading it, go here.
On Saturday, Feb 20th, I dropped Abel off at his friend Mathis’ house (pron like French painter—Matisse). It was the start of their two-week Winter Break, and Mathis’ family had invited Abel to go on a trip to the desert with them. They were going to ride camels, camp with nomads, and have an opportunity to buy souvenirs. Here is his account of the trip:
Sunday: we went traveling through the mountains. There was snow! We stopped by the side of the road and played in it, even though I didn’t have snow gear. No one really had snow gear. I was wearing long sleeves though, so I didn’t even put my jacket on.
We had a snowball fight! It was fun, like all snowball fights.
We continued on and we reached the hotel where we stayed that first night. I forget what it was like. We ate supper and then left next morning after breakfast.
Monday: we traveled some more, through more mountains, except this time there was no snow. We went to the studios at Ouerzazate…well, one of them.
We saw a Roman boat being made for the second movie of Ben Hur, and we went on the boat and pretended to row. Then we went on deck and I pretended we were getting boarded.
We saw the ark from Indiana Jones, I think.
At one point, at the very end right before we got on the boat, we saw a mummy (a fake person wrapped up in a coffin) and we also saw how they how made dead people. It was weird.
We also saw Egyptian stuff, and we could see the castle from Cleopatra (the Asterix and Obelix movie) but we couldn’t get to it because there was so much mud, from all the rain we’ve been having here in Morocco.
Then we traveled through more mountains. Mountains, mountains, mountains. We got to this one place where we spent the night. There were a ton of little kittens that were really cute but they were scared of us.
Tuesday: in the morning we got to this one place, left our cars and unloaded our stuff and put them in 4x4s, and drove off through the desert. At lunchtime after we had a tagine (with a ton of vegetables which I was fine with), Mathis’ sister’s friend brought binoculars and she let me use them to see when the camels would come. They came, we got on them, and traveled through the desert.
My butt hurt after a while. After a time, your butt just starts to HURT. Sometimes it kind of goes up and down and moves a lot, shakes, kind of…it depends a bit on your camel.
We traveled through dunes, then rocks, then we got to some giant sand dunes where we camped out for the night. Tents were already set up there. They brought two sleds, and we went down the dunes on them. I stood up on them, like I was surfing the dunes!
At dinner, there were other people there and I met some Americans. (Finally, someone to speak English with! I didn’t talk to them much though) One was Italian or Irish or something but still spoke English, and there were 2 men, one from the place where the Pittsburgh Pirates are from…Pennsylvania I guess. We had tagine for dinner. After dinner, the nomads did some nomad music for us.
Wednesday: In the morning we got back on the camels. At first, my butt didn’t hurt, but it only took about 15 minutes for it to start hurting again! We went over more rocky dunes, and I got off the camel for a little bit to walk with the parents. Mathis got off also, because really we couldn’t stand it—our butts were hurting!
The saddle was this round thing they put around the hump and they put blankets on the hump. At the front of the saddle it had a metal bar so you could hold on. You had to hold on cuz it was bumpy. It was fun when they stood up and got down. It was like WHOA!
So then we stopped at this well to get some water for the camels. Then we went off again and stopped at the main dune in the night. It was this giant dune, and I had to drag the snowboard all the way up it! Believe me, dragging it up that far plus that high is not fun. It is tiring! I wanted to run back down to the camp, get some water, and go back up. But I didn’t.
At the top, I was so tired I let Mathis’ sister’s friend use the snowboard. They all go down sitting. I pretended to swim after her, but you get going fast cuz it’s soo steep! I stopped about 3/4s down and climbed back up again. By the time we were all back up again, no one wanted to play anymore because we were too tired, so I rode the snowboard back down again. It was really steep; it was a GIANT dune.
The parents had already left with the camels, so we caught up with them quick cuz we were in a 4×4. We passed them! We made it back to camp, and there were some souvenirs to buy and I bought stuff for everyone in my family, plus a knife for me.
We got back in our normal cars and were off.
Friday: Two days later, in the night, we got back to Rabat!
I know it’s corny to end this way, but this is…
It’s been a crazy couple of days here on Planet Nomad. On Thursdays, I teach two classes in an office building downtown—in other words, on site, rather than at the Language Center that employs me. To answer LG’s question in comments, I am teaching adults in these classes, and they are some of the nicest adults I’ve ever met. I am in love with my students! They are articulate and funny and they all like each other and tease each other. I have never had a class like this! They’re a joy to teach. My challenge is to come up with fun and interesting ways to keep them talking, which so far has meant not sticking too closely to the curriculum.
One class is noon to two, and the next 4 to 5, so I come home between classes. Since the office building is located in Agdal, the trendy area where parking is impossible to find, I take taxis. I am learning (the hard way) that I need to allow a LOT of extra time to get to that 4:00 class, because my route lies along a street with TWO schools right next to each other. These are quite large schools, along a narrow one-way street, yet neither school has a parking lot. The street is wide enough to hold cars parked on either side with a narrow lane open down the middle. It is theoretically wide enough for those with nerves of steel to fit two lanes down between the two rows of parked cars. And that’s what we do, me and my taxi driver (the grammar is INTENTIONAL Shannon), swerving in and out and yelling and gesticulating at the other drivers and obsessively checking our watches. (I’ll leave it to your imagination which of us is doing what) It is a madhouse. It would be quicker to walk, except that I don’t—I stick it out through the long blocks until we make it through to a wider place. The cars are double-parked now, parents darting through traffic with two or three kids strung out behind them, kissing and greeting other parents, while my taxi driver gently weeps. No of course he doesn’t—he sighs and comments on how horrible the other drivers are while he takes incredible risks and drives into oncoming traffic. I fidget and fret and sometimes fume, depending on my mood and how long it took me to find this taxi and how hot it is.
For the heat has returned! Suddenly, overnight, the weather has changed, the thermostat soared, and it’s nearly 80 degrees today, with a hot dry Saharan wind banging the shutters, and flapping the towels on the line. It’s not supposed to last, but hopefully it will kill some of those mold spores.
This Thursday was not a good taxi day. I stood impatiently, sweating in the sudden heat, as taxi after taxi whizzed by already full. I would have been late but luckily it’s Winter Break and the schools are closed. The taxi driver looked at me oddly as I loudly proclaimed “Alhumdudillah! C’est les vacances!” (praise God–it’s vacation!) as we drove rapidly down the empty street.
I’d had to cut it fine because this woman I know is having a baby, Irish twins as I’ve heard it called, since her first isn’t a year old yet. I’d promised to bring them supper, racked my brains as to what to feed them (they’re Nigerian), decided on a mild curry with rice, and spent my 2 hours home between classes not only preparing for class but also cooking a meal.
I made it to class on time, had a good session, and then raced home because I had a guest coming in on the train at 6. She used to teach at the American school in Fes and is now living in France, here to visit friends for a week, stopping off to see us for a couple of nights. I went home to make tortillas and salsa (two kinds) from scratch and change the sheets on Ilsa’s bed, and we had a thoroughly enjoyable visit, hanging out till late in the evening, sleeping in next morning and drinking loads of coffee.
After an afternoon dallying in the medina, where we finally bought a light fixture for our bedroom (Hassiniya proverb: drop by drop, the valley fills with water. Soon we’ll be fully settled; it’s only been a year), we came home to pizza.
At 9 p.m. I got a phone call from Abel’s friend’s father. They were back! Ilsa and I went to pick him up. He came home with tired eyes, sand-filled hair, and skin a different colour than it was when he set out. It’s amazing how much dust can settle in the minute crevices of skin. He brought presents for everyone—I got a silver bracelet and a woven trivet—and a bag filled with many very heavy rocks that he’d collected. We popped him in the shower and I unpacked his bag, filled with memories at the sight of sand-stained socks and mini-dunes in the corner of his case. He was full of stories; sand-boarding down the dunes, riding a camel, a nomadic concert by firelight, a snowball fight when passing through the mountains near Marrakesh. I’ll have him do a guest post on it soon.
But things aren’t going to get relaxing anytime soon. We have guests arriving on Monday, which also happens to be the twins’ 13th birthday! Yes, it’s all teenagers all the time now chez nous. Should be a wild ride!
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).