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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.
I think this will be the last part! (unless I decide that Korea gets its own post…) Then I will return to my regularly-scheduled life, which is actually far from boring. This week, for example, I sat with a newly-arrived refugee (she’s been here a month) and admired the way she has made a home from other people’s furniture–faded red couches, light teal chairs, a new-but-dinged dining room table. She has decorated with embroidered cloths brought from Iraq that tie the colors in the room together. She insisted I eat with them so I did, even though I’d already had lunch a few hours earlier. She proudly showed me how she’d arranged her tiny bedrooms, and I saw her teenage son taking a nap on the single bed in the room he shares with his 22-year-old brother.
But enough about my current life…let’s finish Thailand!
This is the first thing you should know about Thailand: everything is SUPER cheap. You can get an hour-long massage for $6. You can get a mani-pedi for $10. You can buy a plate of fresh, hot Pad Thai for 65 cents. You can buy a journal made of paper that is made from elephant poop for $1. You can buy Thai silk scarves, in gorgeous colours and patterns, two for $3.50. Get your hair highlighted for $15. “I could get used to this,” you will think.
And you’re not the first. We were in Chiang Mai, and it is hands-down the place with the most tourists I’ve ever been, with the possible exception of Paris. Of course I’m used to Nouakchott, which rarely makes the list of Top 10 Places on the Planet to See This Year, but still. I’ve been to London. I’ve been to Marrakesh. Never before have I been in a foreign land where I stood out so little. They were used to people like me only, in general, younger, thinner, showing a lot more skin, and actually looking good in the baggy elephant pants.
I didn’t look good in the baggy cotton elastic-waisted pants, but I did get food poisoning or something so I didn’t care, because I didn’t feel well and they were so comfortable! And cheap, of course. $2/pair. I didn’t buy any for myself, knowing they wouldn’t be flattering, but we had bought several pairs for Ilsa and then I took the purple ones. She still got 5 pairs to share with her college roommates. (I know this from snapchat) Donn, on the other hand, looked good, and loves comfortable cotton clothing that we might call ethnic, and he now owns more Thai clothing than many actual Thai people. He could probably clothe an entire small village.
Donn photographing a shrine. Apparently I have no real photos of him; I included him in this one to give an idea of the size. But you can see his comfortable, loose cotton clothing. It was very hot and humid even in November, and jeans were right out. Also notice the shrine. They were literally everywhere–most businesses had one inside and one out, and there was at least one public shrine or temple per block.
Since we were celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary, we splurged for luxury, and stayed in the nicest hotels. One was $40/night and the other was $50, but we were living it up! I spent two entire days sitting by the pool and reading books and going for dips, because that is my definition of complete relaxation. Donn gets bored so he’d go out exploring, get a massage or two, join me for a bit late afternoon, then we’d go in, shower, and go out for dinner.
Pool. Picture taken in morning. It curved round the side of the hotel and was very refreshing, since it wasn’t heated. It was surrounded by deck chairs to lounge on, and there were umbrellas to shade under (I really didn’t want to burn). It was, in a word, absolutely delightful (oh I was never good at math).
We did touristy things. We rode elephants. We arranged this by stopping by a random barber shop with a table outside covered in brochures. The very sweet woman who manned it in between hair customers was named Ma and she spoke enough English to get by with people like us, who spoke no Thai beyond “hello” and “thank you.” She pulled out several brochures, made some phone calls, and arranged for us to be picked up at our hotel.
Next day, we were picked up in a nice, new, air-conditioned 15 passenger van and driven into the nearby mountains to an elephant farm. We fed them bananas, which they slurped up so eagerly that I couldn’t decide if they were being starved or if they just love bananas and always slurp them down eagerly, leaving little bits of elephant slobber on the proffering hands.
Then we crossed a bridge over a river and went to a sort of platform halfway up a hill. The elephants walked through the river and then up to the platform. We left our shoes on and stepped on their heads, which I found stressful but they didn’t seem to mind. They each had a little bench tied onto their backs, and we settled ourselves there (2 people per elephant. That was specified in the brochure. You don’t get your own elephant.) A driver settled himself in front, on the elephant’s neck, and we were off for a ride that was mildly terrifying, to be frank.
We were up amongst the forested hills, and the elephants (3 of them) headed up a steep hill. The elephant swayed back and forth, up and down, as we went up an uneven tiny track that wove in and out of the trees. That was all right, but when we were going straight down the other side, I started to slide forward and nearly fell off the elephant. My bag kept going but I managed to catch it with my foot. I had to wrap my arms through the little railing across the back to stay on. So it was a little stressful.
The elephants walked for about 45 minutes, through the forest, through the river, past the most enormous spider I’ve ever seen–big as my hand!–and back to the platform. Afterwards we walked down to the river where we bathed the elephant while the handler tried to get it to splash us. It was more fun than I expected. Then we went back across the river and played with a month-old baby elephant for a bit.
They let us get in the pen and play with it. It was kind of shy, and mostly liked the handler best. They played chase. It was pretty cute.
AND you know what? I’m over 1000 words and blog posts are supposed to be short. I still have at least one more about Thailand, plus we did have that day in Seoul. So stay tuned…
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.
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.
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
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?
In ESL class the other day, the topic was Halloween. This was because Massi, who came from the Middle East this summer and is mystified by much that she sees in American culture, asked if we could talk about it. I asked her what she thought it was. “Americans believe it’s a day when ghosts come back and walk the earth,” she told me. Well, no, not exactly, I told her. But she was adamant. She was sure someone had told her that.
I tried to explain how people like to be scared, how they pretend to believe scary stuff but really don’t. I had prepared a lesson that included some of the history of Halloween, questions that asked if they believed in ghosts or witches, and references to the Salem Witch Trials.
We were talking about that, and it suddenly occurred to me that what’s happening with the Ebola scare is, in many ways, a modern day version of the same paranoia and fear of something that’s just not well understood, something that happens to this group of people there who need to be kept away from our group of people here. I tried to explain this, although I think I lost most of my class. They are doing very well but this was just too theoretical!
Ebola is perfect for Halloween. It’s really scary but in many ways it doesn’t seem quite real, occurring as it does only on our televisions (unless you live in Dallas or, of course, in West Africa).
Donn and I are on our way to Mauritania again (literally. I’m typing at 36,000 feet, although it won’t post till later) and it’s been fascinating to me how many people have asked us about Ebola. No, it isn’t in Mauritania or Morocco. Senegal had one case but contained it and is now considered Ebola-free. Our risk is virtually non-existent. Africa is a very large continent, not a country.
I had mostly given up on this blog. I never even finished writing about our last trip to these 2 countries, and I was saving the best, funniest stories for last. Maybe I’ll still write one last post about the ’13 trip, but it seems unlikely at this point. In spite of previous failures, I’m going to try again. I started an instagram (planetnomad) and I’m hoping to at least post lots of photos, but I want to write. I brought a laptop this time. We’ll see how it goes.
And, when we landed in Nouakchott, they checked our temps. Donn joked that, had he known that would happen, he would have kept a mouthful of food and pretended to vomit. I asked why he’d want to get quarantined here? He’s crazy.
The airport here is changing; we got the most modern, up-to-date visa I’ve ever seen, and they even took my fingerprints. We have wicked jet-lag. The airport personnel in the Casa airport lived up to their reputation and rifled through our bags, helping themselves to some of the gifts we’d brought people.We had a 36-hour layover in Casa, where we stayed with friends and spent an afternoon wandering round the Grand Mosque and the Corniche, and I found a mall filled with American stores…Starbucks, Payless Shoes, H&M, all high-end and gleaming here, stores for the Very Rich.
I’ll write again soon.