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Since I have such a bad habit of never finishing my accounts of our travel, I’ve decided to do this one backwards. How will that help? you ask. Because we’ve gone to Morocco and Mauritania 3 times now in the past 6 years, and I’ve never finished an account of a trip yet. In fact, I never told you the two funniest parts of the 2013 trip. Maybe I will do so now.
Funniest Thing #1: Moh is in many ways a typical Mauritanian man; generous to a fault, proud yet insecure about his country. No matter what we said, he tried to out-do it. We were telling him about how we now live in Oregon, which is known for its tree-huggers. We know, of course, that this is a metaphor. Oregonians don’t typically actually hug trees. But he was not to be outdone. “I love trees so much, I kiss them!” he announced, going up and kissing a tree.
Funniest Thing #2: We had just finished tea on the dunes with Aicha and were heading back into town. It was after 11. Elections were coming up, and we began to see the familiar tents and men in voluminous white and pale blue robes gathering in them. (Here is a post about Mauritanian elections) We turned onto another road and found ourselves behind a truck with a loudspeaker. As we drove, the people in the truck turned on the loudspeaker and began to broadcast a song extolling their candidate’s virtues. Frustrated, Aicha glanced at the clock. “It’s only 11:30,” she fumed. “Elections don’t open until midnight! They don’t have the right to disturb people until after midnight!”
On this most recent trip, we went once again to the dunes to drink tea. The weather was pleasant, even a little cool at midnight as we stumbled in the moonlight to the top of a small dune at the edge of town. Here’s a picture of the herd of camels who were right next to us, silent shapes in the gloaming, until the headlights of a car turning around caught them in its beam.
We’ve been back 2 weeks now. We’re over jet lag, and we’re mostly recovered from traveling for an entire month. We visited friends in 3 countries, were served everything from exquisite cheeses to couscous in rancid butter, wine in stemware to camel’s milk in wooden bowls. In many ways, the month flew by. In each country, the time was too short to see everyone we wanted to see. But it’s good to be home.
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.
Well this was the year I basically let the blog die. I only posted 5 times all year, and the last time was in April!
Blogging is basically dead as an art form. Few read, fewer comment. It seems the only ones still going are some sort of niche. But I’ve decided that I’d like to revive the old girl (my blog is a girl. Yours?) after all, and post sporadically about whatever I feel like. So let’s start with me getting you all caught up about last year chez the Nomad family.
2015 was a good year with lots going on. So much, in fact, that I’m going to put this into two posts. See? 2 posts in the first week. I’m off to a great start! In the meantime, here is Jan-Aug.
January: we come home from an afternoon out to find ourselves banned from the kitchen. Ilsa is applying to art schools, and one requires that she draw a bike. Since we live in Oregon where it’s cold and dark by 5, she has put the bike in the kitchen and is lying on the floor, drawing and drinking tea. We are not allowed to bump the bike. We manage to get out cheese and crackers for dinner.
She got in! This was for her first choice, RISD (riz-de), officially known as the Rhode Island School of Design. We’ll get to the implications of this in September.
January also saw a friend from Mauritania visit. It was his first time visiting a Western country. A lot of things were new to him. For example, he had hoped to meet with some local officials, but really didn’t understand how far out he would have needed to schedule something like that. Seat belts were also very new to him. He was a good sport, although I know this had to be like another planet to him.
February is lost to the mists of time, which keep growing thicker with my advancing age. Seriously, I suppose we did something?
March: The twins turned 18. Ilsa always chooses cinnamon rolls for her birthday breakfast. I accidentally doubled the recipe–which makes tons even normally–so we had a million or so cinnamon rolls. The neighbours, random Iraqi friends, and of course the twins were very happy. I use the Pioneer Woman’s recipe, modified to not kill us quite so quickly (i.e. 1% milk instead of whole, half the amount of butter, etc), and with cream cheese frosting instead of that nasty muck she puts on hers.
April, May…I dunno. Life. Stuff. Hiking, visits from people. Oh I dyed my hair red! I’ve always wanted to be a redhead. As I’d suspected, I looked good, but it quickly faded to orange, which didn’t look good. Also I went to Memphis as part of a blog tour for St Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. It was a really cool time and I only managed to blog half of it, as is my wont.
June: This is where it gets interesting, as we began the Summer of The Visitors. Seriously, we had out-of-town guests almost nonstop from June through mid-August.
First of all, the twins graduated from high school.
Donn’s family came for graduation, and his parents stayed for a week, which is always a bit like having Archie and Edith from All in the Family to stay. Happily we didn’t have to go camping this time. Donn’s sister Kris, who reads this blog, and her husband came for the first week and then decided to stay for an extra two weeks. They stay in a hotel, so they are very easy visitors. We went down the gorge, ate giant ice cream cones from Salt & Straw, ate fresh berries, and did other summery, family-type things, like going to Powells.
Elliot came home for 2 days and then left for a summer in Jordan, where he spent the summer in an intensive language program. This was a government-sponsored scholarship, starting with a day of orientation in DC. When his 6 a.m. flight was cancelled, we waited in line for several hours only to have the airline clerk tell him they couldn’t fly him out till midnight that night, which would mean he’d miss orientation. We agreed, and were leaving the airport while he called the program to let them know. “Unacceptable, soldier!” they told him. (Not really. That is just a line from a Bourne movie.) And they put him on a flight leaving at noon. How? The person working for the airline couldn’t do it. Only the government. (Cue creepy Twilight music here).
I told Elliot that someone had probably gotten bumped. He was thrilled when they actually paged a “John M Caine” while he was waiting to board. Oh, we watched the Bourne movies too often when he was younger.
This picture was taken after his flight was cancelled and he was put on another one 5 hours later, so we took him out for breakfast. It’s still very early in the morning, which is probably why he looks so bleary.
He had a great time in Jordan. He lived with a host family and took classes and went on cultural excursions and saw ancient ruins and was tired and busy and hot and actually missed us.
July: For most of July, a friend from Morocco was here. (She’s Moroccan, but I first knew her and her family in Mauritania) We had a great time. We went hiking down the gorge, went to the coast, went downtown and ate giant ice cream cones at Salt and Straw, went to the Rose Garden and Powells, and just generally had a good time. It was her first time in America. We have now seen each other in 3 countries, and we are wondering where we’ll meet up next. Any ideas?
It was the hottest summer ever. It was terrible. We had a dry winter, a normal spring (wet and cool), and then a hot, dry summer. Sumi and I went to a lavender festival in Hood River on a day when it was over 100 degrees. Even though we lived in the Sahara desert together, we both agreed that we hated the heat.
This may not look like drought to you, but nonetheless it was a bad year. Lakes and rivers were really low, and several Oregon counties had to declare emergencies.
At the end of July, another friend came to see Sumi. We were all in Mauritania at the same time. Michelle now lives in Kansas, from which it’s easier to fly to Oregon than Morocco. We had a whirlwind few days of it, including eating giant ice cream cones from Salt & Straw. This was a theme of the summer. Actually, it’s kind a theme anyway. Come visit! We are used to people visiting and will eat ice cream anytime of year. The lines are shorter in winter.
August: Sumi left, then Michelle left, then the next day we got a visit from some French friends of ours, a family we knew in Morocco. It was blazing hot during their visit, so hot that we couldn’t enjoy being outside, even though we took them for giant ice cream cones. We went down the Gorge to Hood River on a Friday and it was 104 degrees. The next day we went to the beach and it was 65, and so foggy we couldn’t see the water while actually standing on the beach. Obviously, Oregon hates them. I don’t know why, as they are actually very nice.
Also, we saw a seal! Seal in French is “phoque” and if you exclaim that word excitedly to children on a public beach in America, you will get some side glances.
Elliot also came back mid-August from Jordan and was actually home for 2 entire weeks. Donn and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary, although we waited to celebrate properly till November. More on that later. Ilsa got all 4 of her wisdom teeth out at once and was really funny while coming out of anesthesia. Also really difficult. Pain Med Ilsa is not very nice.
Tintype (taken with app on my phone) of restaurant where we ate on actual 25th wedding anniversary. We are officially old now, although according to Ilsa, we have been for years. Oddly comforting, in a way.
So I’m going to Memphis tomorrow. And every time I say or think that, the song starts in my head.
Going to Graceland, Graceland,
I’m going to Graceland.
I’ve reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland.
I don’t actually know if I’m going to Graceland. What am I doing is joining a group of bloggers at the invitation of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. I have never done a blog tour before so I’m kind of excited. In preparation I am making sure the Paul Simon song is on my phone, so that I can listen to it on the trip. Although I don’t really need to, since it is well established in my head. They did say we might do some touristy things, which to me means Graceland. (All together now, “poorboys and pilgrims with families and we are going to Graceland…”) I did go on Graceland.com and found that not only can you stay at Heartbreak Hotel, where they feel the need to mention that every room comes with its own hair dryer and microwave (sooo posh!), but you can enter to win an Elvis-themed wedding in Vegas and Priscilla Presley will be your matron of honour. I am not making this up. I want to do this so much! Can’t you see it? Donn and I can renew our vows. There’s no way I want to start over with anyone else–I’m finally getting him trained! The pictures will be priceless; me, Donn and Priscilla. Her hair will be the biggest, I suspect. And who could you ever get as best man to match this? Seriously, who? Please comment.
Donn is somewhat bemused. He’s actually a big Elvis fan, which is that part of him that is mysterious and beyond understanding to me. He even likes sweaty 70s Elvis, and songs that make me want to fling myself from a moving car onto the pavement, like “In the Ghetto.” (Or the one where he’s something something with a stone in his shoe, searching for yooooouuuuuu! I hate that one! I can’t hear it with any patience. Happily I’ve got Paul Simon so thoroughly in my head that I’m not worried about any Elvis sticking.) So Donn is happy but suspicious of my huge interest in going to Graceland. But I want to see it. And I want souvenirs too. I would pay good money for a bobble Elvis that swayed its hips instead of its head. Wouldn’t you?
In all seriousness (Memphis Tennessee I’m going to Graceland), I am looking forward to this trip. I went on St. Jude’s website and watched a video with an Iraqi friend of mine yesterday, and we were both in tears by the end, so I expect to be a total mess but that’s okay. I’ve reason to believe I still will be received.
Aside from that, I am going to have a break. I will not be cleaning for example. Not that I ever do, but the pressure to do so will be removed. Nor will I cook, teach, visit, advocate, or any of my other daily responsibilities. I will have time to read in the evenings, alone in blissful silence. This could be nice. I have packed in readiness.
And I’m mostly going to blog over at 5 Minutes for Mom, but I plan to get in some stuff here too. I have such a good track record of blogging my trips after all.
For reasons I cannot explain there’s some part of me wants to see Graceland.
So in January, we got our first visitor ever from Mauritania.
No, scratch that, that’s not true. This guy’s best friend actually came–remember?–with a group of people from all over the world. But this was the first time we knew someone was coming ahead of time, and we planned on it. (well sort of.)
We saw him in November in Nouakchott, on that trip that I’m taking so very long to tell you about. “I’m coming to America in January,” he told us. “I’ll see you then.” We gave him all our contact information. He’s a great guy, genuinely nice, a former student who’s doing really well and has far outpaced us in life.
On January 1st, he wrote me privately on Facebook, telling me he’d arrive in San Francisco on Jan 10th and come to Portland 2 days later. I wrote back, welcoming him, and asking him to send us his flight info and itinerary. He cunningly maintained radio silence. I wrote again on the 8th, 9th and twice on the 10th, since this was the only contact info I had for him. Finally on the 10th I wrote his friend back in Mauritania, who told me he was supposed to arrive in New York that day. He contacted me late that night and told me he was going to buy his ticket to Portland next day. And so he showed up at the airport about 10:30 on the night on the 12th, Monday. He had hoped to arrange several meetings with some local government officials, but they were unable to fit him in when he called them on Tuesday morning.
Things he experienced for the first time on his first trip to America:
- wearing a seatbelt
- Thai food
- wearing a seatbelt every time he got in the car, no really, every single time, it’s not optional, put it on please
- Mexican food
- sitting next to someone who was drinking. (Mauritania is a dry country, and he had never seen someone drink alcohol before. He flew Air France. He told Donn he was afraid his seatmate would go beserk after the small bottle of Merlot. He had no idea what to expect)
- fish and chips
- how to successfully put on a seat belt (clue: it doesn’t go behind your head)
- jet lag
- indoor heating
The weather was glorious, freakishly warm, in the mid-60s. We took him to the Oregon coast, where Donn and I walked round in shirtsleeves and he wore a thick parka that we’d loaned him. He commented on how much he liked that the sun wasn’t as warm, the light more diffused this far north.
We walked through a small bit of old-growth forest on the way to the beach. He was amazed–he’d never seen trees like this before, thick and hoary, moss-covered, reaching far into the sky overhead. We all enthused about the air, so sweet and refreshing, and we all took great gulps. He commented on how great trees are–“except at night, when they can kill you,” he said. What? we said. Kill you? we said? What? we said.
Yes yes, he explained. Everyone knows that trees put out oxygen during the day but carbon monoxide at night. Um, no. No they don’t, we said. Really. Truly.
We knew Mauritanians didn’t like trees. They don’t have many of them, living in the Sahara desert as they do, and the few they have they tend to cut down. It’s common to visit a house and find the entire yard has been paved over. But we thought this was because they believe trees attract mosquitoes and because they needed the wood for charcoal.
I think we convinced him.
He also told us tales of life growing up in a small village. When he was in high school, his mother paid a local woman to serve him zrig every morning on his way to classes. Zrig is a mix of milk (usually powdered, in the city at least), water and sugar. It sounds innocuous but I never really liked it and my kids all hated it. The story he told us gave us a reason why. Apparently in parts of the country they add sheep’s urine. No that’s not a typo. Even he agreed it was gross. He said it gives a sort of astringent quality to the drink. I say it gives me an excuse to never drink it again.
On another day, Donn took him down the Columbia River Gorge, an area of breathtaking natural beauty, lush with green ferns and flowing with waterfall after waterfall. They stopped at Multnomah Falls, the biggest, and hiked up to the first lookout, along with many many other people. We’ve been there countless times, and have seen prom pictures and wedding pictures and myriad tourist pictures being taken. (aside: don’t people taking photos with tablets look silly? Remind me to never do that)
A woman and a photographer were there, and her top fell off–twice. So this was the first experience of topless photos done–and it would be done in front of someone from one of the most isolated and inhibited cultures in the world. You just can’t plan things like this. I can only imagine the stories he’s telling.
He left on the Friday, early, still jet-lagged. He is, always, unfailingly polite, but I think he had a good time. Overwhelmingly new, but good. I think he’ll be back.
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.
During the summer of either 2002 or 2003, Donn and I took our 3 children to the village of Oudane for a month. We had visited this village during the month of February, when the moon was so bright that you didn’t need a flashlight to cross the rocky courtyard at night. Oudane is one of Mauritania’s historic cities. Built in the 1200s by 40 scholars, who lived in a madressa and left each morning to teach others the ways of Islam, it is situated on a rocky plateau that rises above the desert plain. At the foot is a large oasis of date palms, divided off by palm leaf fences to keep out the goats and where small plots of mint, carrots and potatoes are tenderly cared for.
Oudane (aside: this is the frenchified spelling; in English it would probably be Wadan with 2 short a-sounds, emphasis on the 2nd syllable) is a beautiful place, but it is in the middle of the Sahara, 400 miles northeast of Nouakchott. Our goal in spending July 2002 (or poss 2003, but definitely not 2004) there was to really make progress in Hassaniya, far away from the city of Nouakchott where most people speak French. What we didn’t bank on was the fact that Oudane in July is a furnace. Exposed to the winds of heaven, which scour it daily, the village is an oven under a brazen sky with daily sandstorms. On top of that the entire family got intestinal parasites. I have written extensively of the experience, although I didn’t post it here since I had the idea of selling it to a magazine. (No one’s interested, even though the article starts, “I knew I had become accustomed to the desert when we tied the live goat to the top of our car…” which I quietly think is a great hook.)
We moved from Mauritania in July 2007 and the country kind of fell apart shortly afterward (no I don’t think these 2 things are related), with several Westerners killed, a suicide bomber just outside the French school, and many Western aid workers kidnapped and held for ransom. Last year, our first visit back, the capital felt different, unsafe in ways it hadn’t before. We had no way of knowing if this was our imagination or not, but it wasn’t helped by Mauritanian friends telling us to be careful and avoid certain areas, and official warnings not to travel outside the city.
This year, Nouakchott felt back to normal–dusty, bustling, busy, safe. I was happy about this. I wish my former home all the best and want it to succeed, and terrorism kills growth, along with so much else. The official warnings had been moved too. Now it was considered safe to go as far east as Chinguetti. Oudane is located about 30 km northwest of Chinguetti. And so, we decided to return to visit our friend Yahiya.
Since this is your introduction to a Mauritanian village, let’s take a moment to look at the houses of Oudane. First a wall is built around a rocky courtyard. On one side are 2 or 3 rooms, bare concrete with low windows, which makes sense for people sitting on the floor. (There are no couches or chairs here, just a thin rug over a concrete floor and a hard cushion for your elbow) The windows are simply holes in the wall with wooden shutters, painted a bright green and sandblasted to that country chic look so popular a few years ago.
The side of the yard nearest the street has 3 tiny rooms. The kitchen is an unadorned square with a dirt floor; the shower is a tiny room with a slanted cement floor and a hole through the wall that drains into the street outside. Upon shutting the door, the room becomes pitch black until your eyes adjust to the small streaks of light leaking through whatever cracks there are. Usually there’s a bucket of water there. To shower, you dip cups in and pour it over your body in the dim, dank twilight.
The third room is the toilet and it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Holes in the ground are common in Mauritania, but Oudane is built on a large rock plateau, and the ground is too hard for digging. Instead, you mount uneven rock stairs and come out on the roof, in full view of the village children, who wave and call to each other to come look at you, until you duck behind the low wall. Below you is an empty room. You balance yourself over it on rafters made of split palm logs, which creak and bend alarmingly, and relieve yourself into the dank below. When things get too smelly, someone dumps charcoal ash over the growing mound. When the rooms get halfway full, it is someone’s uneneviable task to open a door into the wall and shovel it out. I don’t know where it is then deposited, but my guess is that it is dumped into the desert somewhere, or possibly used to fertilize those tiny patches of mint. We were pleased to discover on this trip that the flexible palm trunks have been replaced in the newer homes by rafters made of rock. Much firmer.
Would Oudane have changed in the 8 years since we’d been there? We’d heard they had electricity and cell phones now, which would be a welcome change from before. But, given the almost primative nature of a Mauritanian village, it was hard to imagine huge changes.
…to be continued
In Mauritania, there are probably 4 main dishes; chebojan (fish, vegetables and rice), yassa poulet (chicken cooked in a mustard-onion sauce, with rice), mafe (beef or chicken in a peanut-tomato sauce, with rice) and poulet-frites (chicken served with fries and onion sauce, eaten with bread). Out of these, my favorite is probably the yassa, and last year it seemed that everywhere we went, people served us yassa or poulet-frites. It was really good. But we only ate chebojan once, and I missed it. This year, it’s the opposite. I’ve eaten chebojan at least 3 or 4 times already, and I’m longing for some yassa.
Fish is the theme of the week, definitely. We went to visit H. She was out of the country last year when we visited, and came to greet us joyously. “Can I hug Donn?” she asked me. “Sure,” I said, but she didn’t–it would be wildly inappropriate in this culture. She took us to the permanent tent her family has set up in the courtyard–the frame of the tent is metal and the sides are wire mesh to keep out animals, but open to the breezes and strewn with rugs, matlas and cushions. It’s a very pleasant place to spend an afternoon. We recline on the matlas and are served bissum (deep bright red, slightly tart, made from hisbiscus) and tajzhma:a (I don’t know what it is but it’s tasty; made from some dried pods or something. Debbie, help me out in comments) and zrig (milk, sugar and water). Her mother came to greet us. H’s brother is a very close friend of Donn’s, and this family has known us for many years. Their big disappointment was that our kids weren’t with us. I showed pictures of how big they all are now, like I do everywhere we go. Her mother said I had to be Mauritanian, and gave me a purple muluffa, which they draped round me.
Lunch was served in the tent. Large platters of food were brought, along with a muksul–a plastic bucket with a lid and a teapot on top, to wash your hands. Their nanny brought it, and poured the water over my hands while I soaped up and rinsed, then moved on to give everyone the opportunity to wash up. We tore pieces off a long baguette and ate with our hands, an entire fish served on a bed of french fries, and chunks of beef on the bone, also served over fries. “I decided to do fish instead of salad,” said H. “Don’t eat too much–there’s chebojan coming too.” We protested, so she agreed to wait a couple of hours before serving the chebojan.
After eating a lot of bread and fries, I felt sleepy in the afternoon heat. The nanny brought round the muksul again, then served us each a large class of Coke, then the guard brought the requisite 3 rounds of sweet mint tea. We lay back on the matlas–that is, Donn lay back and I lay on my side or stomach, because it’s rude in this culture for a woman to lie on her back in public. (I’m sure I’ve forgotten lots of other things but I remember that one). After a while, Donn left, but I stayed for the afternoon, reclining in my purple muluffa, enjoying the light breezes and chatting about anything and everything with my friend, so happy to see her again. Soon enough the muksul reappeared and then the chebojan, and although I wasn’t hungry yet, I ate some to be polite. Later that evening Donn and I went for dinner and I couldn’t eat a thing, just ordered a ginger drink.
When we lived here, I asked my Mauritanian househelper to teach me how to make chebojan. It’s very complicated, and I never did really learn, but I vividly remember her showing me the amount of oil she used. She took a small Coke bottle and filled it full, dumped that in, and then added another half bottle. (In American measurements this would prob be close to 2 cups of oil) I suspect that H’s cook, and Aicha’s too, are using similar amounts. It’s not surprising that I go through my days with my stomach feeling slightly upset.
Some days I feel like there are only 2 food groups; carbs and oil. Of course that’s not true. I’ve visited my Palestinian friends twice now and they give me food much more like the Iraqi food I eat in Portland, complete with lovely salads. Last night, her father was at the beach when I arrived, and he soon came with armfuls of freshly-caught fish which they grilled and served with bread and salad. There’s nothing like eating a fish that was alive less than an hour earlier, and it was delicious. But spending my days eating carbs and oil, then lying back on matlas and relaxing, is not doing my waistline any favors. It’s too hot and dusty to walk much, and besides we’re busy. When we get home, we are both going to need to go on a strict diet. I’m kind of looking forward to it.
The jet lag, it is wicked. Pervasive. Illogical.
How can jet lag be a thing? How can I lie in bed with my eyes glued shut, feeling like my body is metal and there’s a magnet under the bed holding it down, pulling it fast, and yet not sleep? How can I crave sleep with all of my soul and yet find it so elusive?
We left Tuesday but didn’t get to Nouakchott until Thursday at midnight. Friday, we were up till 3, then we got up about 11, which seemed right. We’re staying at a guesthouse and we’re the only ones here so there’s nothing to wake us and no one else to worry about. We’ve been having slow mornings, with coffee and pain au chocolat.
Saturday, we decided to really fight it. In the early evening we went to the beach with some other expatriates, and has that experience changed! When we lived here, a large group of us would head out every Saturday, to a location about 15 kilometres north of town. We’d bring a large tent and set it up for shade, and everyone would gather underneath it and share snacks, hang out, and chat while a large group of kids boogie-boarded and chased each other through the dunes. We were always the only ones there, except for the rare occasion when a fisherman passed by or an SUV drove down the beach.
Now there are businesses there, about 10 kilometres out, and that’s where everybody goes. There are little straw huts, open-air restaurants, and strangest of all, local people. In an extremely modest culture where locals are covered head to toe even at the beach, it’s more than a little uncomfortable to be running around even in a modest maillot. Regardless, we had a lovely time, catching up with people, swimming in the warm, salty Atlantic, and eating fresh grilled fish at the little restaurant.
We got home about 9 p.m. and arranged to meet a Mauritanian friend called Mohammed for coffee. He picked us up and we drove around, finally settling on a place that was here when we lived here. They used to be the only place in the city you could get whole wheat bread. We ordered coffee and sat and chatted for a while. Then he had a suggestion. Did we want to join him and his friends to drink tea on the dunes? We would leave around midnight. Sure, we said. After all, we weren’t sleeping till 3 anyway. And who’s going to pass up a chance like that?
We had a lovely time. Nouakchott is very hot this year–temps have been around 104 every day, with a dry hot wind, and my hair looks like straw by noon. But the nights are lovely, with temps around 80 and pleasant breezes. We walked a short distance through the sand and sat on a rug spread with cushions and met several faceless people, all of whom seemed really nice. It was very dark. I watched in some bemusement as one of the women built a small fire on the sand and starting fanning it with a bit of cardboard. “This is going to take forever,” I thought. That is a thought I often have in Mauritania, where life moves more slowly. I remember arriving for lunch once and watching the men take away a goat to slaughter for our meal.
It didn’t take forever, but it wasn’t fast either. That was good. It was pleasant to sit under the stars, enjoying the breeze and listening to the women chatter, joining in occasionally. I hadn’t met any of them before but they were really welcoming.There were about 12 of us there, and I was amazed at how much tea the woman was able to produce from the tiny pot. As is typical here, we stayed for 3 rounds of sweet, minty green tea served in small glasses. We got back to our guesthouse at about 2 a.m. I was tired, but didn’t sleep till 4.
This high quality photo was taken with my phone (the camera sucks) in the dark, with a flashlight from another phone shining on it. I really shouldn’t even post it, but I’m going to anyway. I wanted you to see that tiny teapot on the fire on the sand. The cushion is to block the wind, and you can see a blurry hand waving cardboard at the tiny fire.
And somehow, this has become a habit. Every night, we meet Moh for coffee. Last night it was Turkish coffee at 12:30. Tonight was early–espresso and steamed milk at 10:45. It’s barely past midnight and we’re home.
And so I think we’ve got the jet lag licked. The caffeine addiction/wakefulness? Not so much. Of course, who can tell the difference?
I’m sitting here wondering when, if ever, this cake will be done. I was supposed to be at Noor’s an hour ago, the cake was supposed to be finished 38 minutes ago, and the center is still soggy and the pick inserted is most definitely not clean, if somewhat delicious to lick. I suppose it’s my own fault for making one giant cake, to be carefully cut into two layers, instead of using two pans as the recipe instructed. It just seemed easier at the time.
Today is Elliot’s 3rd birthday celebration this year alone, which ought to tell you how thoroughly he is spoiled. He turned 19 last Friday, and I got up and went berry-picking and made him a breakfast of French toast (pain perdu, for my overseas readers) with blueberries and marionberries, maple syrup, bacon, and lashings of hot coffee even though it was approximately 185 degrees outside.
Then he had to go to work. He has a very good summer job at Fred Meyer’s, which is a local store sort of like…well I think they’re sort of unique. They are first and foremost a grocery store but they also have apparel and home goods and garden centers and they sell nearly everything, for good prices, and they have great customer service and manage to treat their employees well too. I am a loyal customer. He worked till 10 that night, so we did his birthday supper (carne asada and home-made guac) the following night.
Tonight, Wed, he is having some friends over to conquer the world. I should have known, when we got him started with LOTR Risk at the age of 10, where this would end up. Axis and Allies is a super-boring game, with instructions that fill a literal book, and it takes up my entire dining room table, but it makes him happy. So tonight is cake and homemade pizza and frankly, I could not have picked a worse day to have my oven on for extended periods of time.
We are having an unusually hot summer, in case I haven’t made that clear already. Today it’s about 93, which is unusual for the Portland area. I took one of those quizzes on Facebook about what kind of career is ideal for me, and surprisingly it didn’t mention “person who complain incessantly about the heat.” I know you are thinking that I lived in the Sahara Desert for nearly 6 years, so surely I can handle a little oppressive sun and windless air. And you’re right–I certainly have a different perspective than I used to–but I also still manage to get off a few “It’s SOOO hot!”s in every hour or so.
Well the cake is finally out, although it’s rather alarmingly cracked on the top. I will frost it with ganache and candied orange slices, and it’s Elliot’s very favorite cake because it’s really rich and tastes a bit like one of those Lindt dark chocolate-orange bars, also his favorite. I’m off to Noor’s.