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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.
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.
Waking up that first morning back in Nouakchott was strange. I had slept surprisingly well on my solid-as-a-rock mattress. But I was unprepared for the sight that met my eyes, as I rubbed sleep from them and stared out the front window.
Puddles and puddles and puddles! What was up? I well remember, in fact it is seared into my memory, how hot and dry Nouakchott was. Located where the sands of the Sahara meet the Atlantic Ocean, built on some salt flats by the French who decided on a relatively-neutral spot to build a new capital city for a new country in 1960, Nouakchott was the exact opposite of Portland. It rained 4-6 times a year, always harsh and sudden and preceded by a wind that whipped the reddish sand straight up into a wall that was then slammed down hard by the rain, rendering anything outside, like clean clothes on your washline, covered with reddish mud. Rainstorms lasted anywhere from 10-30 minutes, then they were over. They left lots of puddles, that disappeared within a day or so as the hot thirsty air drank all moisture available and the sand eventually absorbed what was left. It only rained between July and September. I remember one year in which it really didn’t rain at all.
This was different. Since we left in 2007, the sea has risen, so that now there are actually permanent ponds, almost lakes, in this desert city. There are rushes, and ducks and egrets. I can not emphasize strongly enough to you how strange this is. It would be like leaving Portland for 6 years and returning to find a barren wasteland that no one had thought to mention to me.
We arrived very late on a Wed. night, around midnight. Thursday was normal weather-wise, but the Friday and Saturday of that week it rained all day. It was bizarre. In spite of huge changes in the amount of paved roads, most of Nouakchott remains sand instead of pavement, and the sand turned instantly to mud. I was wearing very long skirts (well, long skirts on a short person) that dragged in the mud.
After 2 days of rain, the place was truly flooded. Several large intersections were impassable. When I went to visit Aicha, we had to park a long ways away and walk to her house over a trail made of sandbags, cement blocks and other debris. We heard stories of people in the poorer sections of town who lost everything, of children drowned in houses. Tim and Debbie’s old house was unreachable without wading through deep water.
It rained for 2 days and was pleasant, temperature-wise, although unpleasant to walk around in. But then the weather cleared. The sky was actually blue! (In Nouakchott, it’s usually white with dust and haze) And it was hot. It was around 100 degrees for the rest of the time we were there. The heat slowly shrank the puddles and the wind whipped up the drying sand. It achieved a state I would previously have thought impossible–it managed to be muddy and dusty at the same time.
I wrote the kids long emails that I would send when we had internet access, which wasn’t very often. (Ilsa: “Your letters are so long. You’re not going to have anything left to tell us.” It’s like she doesn’t even know me. She complained often about the length of my emails, which made me feel great about her interest level in me, but she did read them.) I told them over and over about all the water. Donn did too. And yet, when we were back and Abel was looking at my phone pics while in a doctor’s waiting room, he shouted, “WHAT??? WHAT IS ALL THAT WATER???” Everyone looked. I tried to explain, sort of. It was awkward.
Seeing all that green was nice. Donn and I are hoping that the city learns to deal with its new water, and that it ends up being a good thing. In the meantime, the water is brackish and not really anything you’d want to get too near.
Before we moved to Mauritania, I read everything I could lay my hands on that had been written about the desert country about to become my new home. Perhaps you will not be surprised to know that wasn’t much. I could not find a book, in English, with Mauritania as its subject. The best I could do were books written by people who had traveled through the Sahara, who had visited Algeria and Tunisia and Egypt and Mali and Morocco and Mauritania.
In general, these travelers loved Algeria and Tunisia and Egypt and Mali and Morocco, but they didn’t love Mauritania. They found it hot and dusty and dirty, and they found the people isolated, suspicious, even hostile. I think what really determined their reaction was the city of Nouakchott which, I must admit, can be isolated, suspicious and even hostile, not to mention hot, dusty and dirty.
The one writer I found who actually seemed to like the country, to accept it as he found it and respond to the people with equanimity, was Quentin Crewe who wrote In Search of the Sahara. A British journalist with MS, confined to a wheelchair, he gathered a group and headed through the desert in the mid-80s in two Unimogs. Crewe is a great writer, and I appreciate that he includes a lot of the history of Europeans in the Sahara, although I skimmed those parts because what I really wanted to learn about was the Sahara in the mid-80s.
He writes of Oulata (where we visited ourselves, one Spring Break, and that was the trip where we nicknamed our guide Uncle Pervie cuz he wouldn’t stop holding Ilsa’s hand even when we told him not to, and that was also the trip where we saw the sleeping crocodile less than 10 feet from Elliot who was shouting, “LOOK!” It was a great trip.). He comes through Nouakchott and they head up the beach to Nouadhibou, because of course the road between Mauritania’s two main cities was another 20 years away from completion. He sees the great fishing grounds before they were depleted, and sees the fishermen and the dolphins working together to allow both man and dolphin to catch and eat fish. He recognizes heat and dust and dirt and suspicion, but he transcends it because he begins with a different sort of attitude. And, heading north of Nouadhibou towards the Moroccan border, their Unimog hits a landmine and blows up! Everyone survives, but they have to fly out. I’ve heard there are still land mines along that border, and when Donn went there I warned him not to wander off. He gave me a look. In general, it’s best not to wander along borders away from official crossings but in full view of them.
Last month, Donn’s sister and her husband came to see us (YAAY!) and of course we went to Powells. We always go to Powells. Most of our friends are avid readers, and even if they’re not, it’s a Portland landmark. I am always up for a trip to Powells, even if the urgency has been lost since I started this gig with 5 Minutes for Books, which guarantees that I always have a guilt-inducing stack I’m working my way through. (I am greedy when it comes to free books.)
I was wandering through the travel section, and I saw a copy of In Search of the Sahara! It’s been out of print for years, and I’d forgotten about it. Only $6! I picked it up and it smelled musty and damp and loved , that smell of old books that seems to be dying out in this brave new world where Powells only buys your newest, most pristine books, and even I got a Kindle at Christmas. Of course I bought the book, and I’ve been enjoying it. It’s really fun to reread his descriptions all these years later (I initially got the book from the library in the late 90s) and after visiting the places described.
On that visit, I also saw copies of all the books I own on the Sahara (Sahara Unveiled, William Langewiesche’s similar trip from Algeria down across Mali and Mauritania; his account is so depressing that it scared me to death about moving there; and Mali Blues, in which the rather clueless Lieve Joris travels from Dakar, Senegal, along the bottom of Mauritania to Mali, where she interviews musicians. In one of my favorite examples of her obtuseness, she is visiting a French friend in Senegal and sees his child leave her clothes on the floor, and judges, because the child obviously only does that because she has a maid, thereby revealing herself as both childless and unmarried.) It was a little weird, like someone else had collected the same books and decided to get rid of them.
I was at Powells just before Christmas and I picked up an atlas put out by the Onion, flipped it open at random, and started that choked-down quiet giggle one gets in bookstores, shaking with laughter and blocking the aisle. It was so funny! I bought it for Donn and we’ve had lots of fun going through it. My favorite page is Sudan–slogan “All Better Now, Thanks to You,” which goes on to claim that the government, on hearing of a woman in Iowa wearing a “Save Darfur” t-shirt, was overcome with shame and changed their ways. They present Malaysia as a place for jihadists to vacation, relax, loosen their suicide belts.
But they go too far. I understand–how funny can one be about places like the Democratic Republic of Congo? Still, there’s a kind of anger that comes through, a slamming of anything that is not how the editors think the world should be, which is great if you happen to agree with them, and belittling if you don’t. That may be okay for a satirical atlas, but it’s a poor attitude for a traveler.
Donn and Elliot were recently looking through old photos and he posted this one to facebook. Looking at it, I was unprepared for the flood of memories it produced. I had all the normal “my BABY is now a stinky hairy man!” emotions of a mother of a soon-to-be 17 year old male, but mostly I remembered the circumstances in which that photo was taken.
We’d just arrived in Mauritania. Elliot was 5. Colleagues met us at the airport—we’d been traveling 2 days at that point, and Ilsa was covered in airline food (she was barely 4, poor thing), and I still remember that hot dry air sucking the breath from my lungs as I stepped to the open plane door and went down the steps, and I wondered, “Can I do this? Am I going to make it?” It was only April, 10 p.m., the air filled with dust and smoke and still hotter than Portland usually gets in August.
None of our suitcases arrived with us. Colleagues met us at the airport, all smiles, sweeping the twins into their arms. They took us first to their house, where they fed us spaghetti, and then to the apartment where we’d stay while we looked for our own house. The apt had been rented by a single male who’d come for a year-long internship and would be leaving soon. He was the type of single male who is clean and neat and just does things a little differently than your typical woman, like lining the bedroom with wires to dry your clothes on. Since none of our luggage had come, we ran the washing machine (located in the kitchen) and it flooded the kitchen, the soapy water full of little dead bugs. We squee-geed it right out the back door onto the balcony, which seemed very strange to me. Who knew you did it like that? In my American kitchen, that was not how you cleaned the floor.
When our clothes were clean, we hung them round our bed (weird). We stirred briefly at the dawn call to prayer, unused as yet to the loudspeakers near our windows, then slept deeply till noon, when our new friend knocked at the door to take us to lunch. He’d brought us clothes to borrow from various people, including a family with small girls who live near us now in Oregon and are good friends, though at this point we hadn’t met them.
But our own clothes were bone dry, another mystery. How could they have dried in the NIGHT like that? It was a good introduction to the Sahara, where clothes hung on the line at 8 will be dry by 10.
We began to settle in, adjust. Donn and Dave spent a lot of time at the airport, where eventually most of our luggage showed up. We began to learn where we could buy what, and I realized that I could feed my family on what was available there. Every morning Donn would walk to a tiny storefront in a garage of a house nearby and buy bread, and we’d eat bread and jam and coffee for breakfast. The kids loved the mango juice in small bottles. We all hated the milk.
Donn and Elliot went to the market together on our 2nd or 3rd day, ostensibly to buy things for the house. They returned with a tea set, a large Senegalese drum, and a robe (dra:a) for Elliot. Not my idea of necessities, although that tea set got a lot of use. Elliot had a Coke and came home wearing his robe, saying “Salaam A’lauykoum, Mom!” as he walked in the door. We were so excited to be there, and so scared and overwhelmed at the same time. Mostly excited though. There’s nothing like your first overseas move.
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…
…parting is not always such sweet sorrow.
Our friends have been back to visit us and are again gone, but things were a bit slower this time round. For one, it’s not the twins’ birthday. We have actually managed to get both of them feted and fed with cake (well not Ilsa, but at least she had baked apple French toast with strawberries and fake maple syrup last Saturday) and they’ve had the friends over and we’re done. At least till July, when Elliot has his birthday. I’m impressed that we managed all this within 2 weeks of their actual birthday. Believe me, this is not a normal occurrence.
Also, kids are back in school. It’s spring; the evenings stay light; the yards and gardens and roadways are green and filled with wildflowers. Abel and I are sneezing up a storm.
In between our friends’ first visit and their second, they spent a couple of weeks in Nouakchott closing up the house where they’d lived for years. It’s the end of an era for them. They were there before we arrived in 2001, and they stayed on after we left.
Mauritanians are an unusual people. I don’t want to generalize, but there are certain tendencies that outsiders who live there notice. And so, the difficulties they faced are in many ways typical.
For example, their landlord. They had a standard contract, renewable yearly. They gave 3 months notice. He waited til their last evening, then announced they owed him a year’s rent. “It’s in the contract,” he claimed. He threatened to surround the house with policemen, effectively holding their stuff hostage. He also pointed to tile damage obviously caused by the ground resettling after unusually heavy rains, and claimed that, although they’ve been gone for 6 months, they must have dropped something heavy. “Like an elephant?” they quipped.
This is, sadly, not unusual behaviour. The thinking goes something like this: These are rich Americans. I wanted Americans for tenants, and these have lived up to expectations: They have been good tenants, paid on time every month, paid more than a local would have paid PLUS taken good care of the place. But they’re leaving now. This is my last chance to get as much money out of them as I can!
And so he pushed and pushed and pushed, keeping them from their supper for hours, continuing on with emails after they left.
We could relate. The same thing happened to us once. Our landlady had always been nice, until we gave notice. Then she sent in her sister, a lady that would make the Harpies seem like reasonable and kind elderly ladies. The sister brought with her someone who was viewing the house, and proceeded to insult us up and down (You’ve never cleaned these toilets in the two years you’ve been living here! And, like all Americans, you’re stupid with languages! etc. It was actually much worse, but I’ll keep it family friendly.) We were shocked, angered, and embarrassed. I’ll say the potential renter was also embarrassed. We were very hurt too—after all we’re good renters, who pay on time and who clean the toilets regularly. Also, and ironically, if you’ve ever visited a house recently vacated by Mauritanians, you will know where she got the idea that some people never clean toilets.
Our friends sighed a bit as they told us the story of their landlord, the story of the final electric bill that was $500 when it should have been about $40, other stories of acquaintances trying to squeeze a last bit of money out of them. They had good stories too, but their landlord’s tricks on their last evening left them with a bitter taste in their mouths.
It’s hurtful to be viewed as just a resource, just someone to be exploited, to be judged on the colour of your skin instead of the contents of your heart, to paraphrase someone who approached the problem from the opposite end. But, I told them, in some ways it makes it easier to leave.
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!
Sunday night, just before sunset, we loaded the cameras and twins into the car and headed just south of downtown Rabat and the Oudayas. It’s a beautiful area. The land falls down sharp rocky cliffs, at the bottom of which are rock shelves visible at low tides. The ocean surges up around the edges of these shelves, sending up enormous crashes of surf. Yet fisherman are always visible, lone figures in oilskin boots, standing with poles at the very edge and getting drenched with spray as they are dwarfed by the sudden-rising waves. I always worry about them, as it seems more than likely that they’ll be swept over the edge. I can’t decide if they are just fatalistic (which I’m sure they are; every North African I know is) or if they just know more about it than I do (also true).
The sun was low in the sky; the sea opalescent in the mist. The distant fishermen leaned far out into the surf. I don’t know what he was fishing for. Fishermen are a common sight along the coast, with long poles, but the stuff offered for sale by the side of the road doesn’t seem to me like things caught with a pole; mostly tiny crabs and mussels and other fruits de mer. Do you catch such things with long poles off steep rocks?
The weather has been terribly humid lately, the air so hot and still that even someone walking past stirs it, creates a slight movement of air, as if the air really were water and we were drowning in it. I move languidly, like seaweed, and have a hard time getting things done.
This morning, Donn and I both had unexpected free time. (He had a cancellation; I rearranged some things and put off others) We headed down to another beach for a couple of stolen hours. This is the beach where Donn went surfing with a friend, went over some rocks to dive in, and got snatched by a wave, dragged over the rocks, and slammed into coral and sea urchins. He came home limping, missing large patches of skin, his feet like pincushions full of urchin spikes. In spite of this, he went back. (“It’s a bit tricky,” he told me)
It’s a beautiful beach, and we mostly had it to ourselves, thanks to Ramadan (people won’t swim as they might unintentionally swallow water, thereby negating their entire day of fasting). We sat in the sand, under a sort of permanent umbrella, staring out at the deep bottle-greens and watching white egrets stalking amongst the tide pools bursting with eels and crabs and millions of prickly sea urchins, just waiting to stab their toxic spines deep into tender feet. The water was calm, the waves only about six inches if that. It was very peaceful.
I like how this shows the rock shelves, although without the cliffs or the huge pounding surf.
Crab in tide pool
On the way home we stopped by a sort of farmer’s market. All along the coast road were tiny stands, many just a chair under an umbrella and buckets of produce out in the sun. Some had hutches with rabbits, or strings of live chickens. Just behind them were fields of vines hung with tiny sweet green grapes, or staked tomatoes ripening in the sun. Men on bicycles stopped to bargain and departed with handlebars slung with plastic bags full of grapes; women in djellabas deliberated over dusty peppers and eggplant. We stopped at a bigger stand, with 3 or 4 tents in a row, and bought melons and tomatoes, better and riper and cheaper than in the supermarket, and took the scenic road home.
Ramadan continues. We’re about 2/3rds of the way through the month. Every night, the imam at our neighbourhood mosque reads a long sura, or a chapter, of the Qu’ran. (There are 30 chapters so you can get through it in one Ramadan). He is getting popular, and the sidewalks are crowded with parked cars. When it ends, the little street in front of our house fills with hundreds of people walking home, chattering away, their voices like flocks of birds. I like to go out on our balcony and listen, unseen, to the cadences of their speech. But I’m not so intrigued at 3 a.m., when a drummer passes along, pounding out loud, intricate rhythms, to wake the faithful so they can eat once more before sunrise. In the late afternoon he comes round again, banging away, to get paid for his services, but I don’t want to be woken at 3 a.m. so I don’t pay him.
At the end of June, Donn went to the Mauritanian border and met a fruit truck with all the things we’d left in storage there 2 years ago. This is the final segment of his story of that journey. Read parts one, two, three, four and five here.
Yes, this is the truck
I’ve been meaning to ask Tim who drove from Nouakchott to the border. Saied 1 drove from the time we met, mid-day, until 2 AM when we stopped at a gas station that I think was in Layoune. Here we installed a massive gas tank on the left hand side of the truck and filled it with over 800 liters of diesel fuel. We had dropped our hitch-hiker somewhere along the way and S2 slept in the small bed behind the seats for 5 to 6 hours until he took the wheel in the wee hours of the morning.
He drove for an hour and a half and then pulled off the road where we slept for about 3 hours. When we woke, S1 took the wheel again and drove most of the day. S2 went back to lying down. Traveling with Saied 2 was like trying to row a boat with an anchor hanging off the back. At least that was the image that came to mind.
For breakfast we pulled into a small restaurant and had tea and fried eggs from a communal plate from which we pulled bits of egg off with our bread. At each café, S2 found a group of men to socialize with after the meal while S1 and I waited around the truck. This wouldn’t have been so bad if it weren’t for his insistent wrist slapping at the border. I fought the urge to gesture towards my imaginary watch. Instead I waited by the truck and imagined pouring molasses on a cold day. The Saied Brothers apparently made up for lost time by keeping a stack of 20 dirham notes in a cubby-hole in the dash board and shaking hands with the officer on duty at every checkpoint. This seemed to save us bags of time which could be better spent loitering around truck stops.
S1 and S2 at breakfast
S1 played Berber music intermittently throughout the trip. Not being musical at all, it really is beyond my ability to describe but I’ll give it a shot. Only know that you need to then find some Berber music and listen to it. Ok, so it’s repetitive. The rhythm, the melody, and the vocals are all repetitive. Everything in it repeats not twice or thrice but until you stop counting. There is a musical phrase that winds through a constant, dare I say repetitive, rhythm over and over again while the singer presumably tells a story with each verse ending with the same phrase. It was not entirely unpleasant. Traditional Mauritanian music has no reference point for western ears, but the Berber music Saied 1 played was ultimately kind of catchy. I mean it was no Bob Dylan but seemed a propos to the drone of the highway, the many Mohameds I’d met, the number of times America’s shortcomings were the topic of conversation, and the multiple goat tagines that blur in my memory. At one point, S1 scanned the radio for something western. We found the theme to Flashdance. It’s hard to feel stupider than driving through the desert with two men you can’t communicate with while listening to Flashdance. I think even S1 understood that because after one song it was back to the hypnotic strains of his cassette.
Before lunch I made contact with Elizabeth who informed me of Michael Jackson’s passing. I tried to communicate this news to S1 & 2 since in my experience, pop music icons seem to be one of the most common points of reference for North Africans on the subject of The West. That and America’s failings.
I pronounced his name the way I would say it. MY-kul JACKson. Then I tried the French, or at least the Peter Sellers way. Mee-shell Zhjackson. And then the incredulous way. “C’mon guys. Michele Jackson. [falsetto] ‘Just beat it!’” Nope, Nothing. In simple phrases, trying both Hassynia and French: Il est mort. No? Hua matt. No? Unbelievable. I gave up. Shortly after that we pulled into a truck stop, perused the menu and decided on the goat tagine. A television anchored to the ceiling was on showing….. Michael Jackson. “You know him?” I asked. Of course they knew him. What a stupid question. “He died today.” “Really?” All of the sudden S2 decided to understand a few words and related it to S1.
When we reached their home town of Agadir, we pulled off the highway onto a street lined with trucks. This was the kind of place one could find a truck to rent and I was a bit concerned they were going to try and off-load me. They had already broached that possibility with Tim and I was really wondering what was going on as we pulled into this truck mall with no explanation. Fortunately, we only changed the oil and were off again. As we left Agadir, we wound up behind an empty truck from Kenitra which is a city just north of Rabat. S2, now driving again, gestured at it repeatedly and spoke at length about it. I didn’t understand a word and yet I feel I know the jist. S1 occasionally replied to S2 and we kept driving northward.
Near Marrakech I was in regular contact with Elizabeth estimating the time of our arrival, planning who would be there to help unload, etc., when…. we turned around. What??? We spent half an hour driving up and down the same section of road lined with truck stops. Are we looking for a specific goat tagine? I imagined their conversation as something like, “You know, these guys drove the old Cup-o-Tagine guys right out of town.”
Apparently, we were looking for a friend of S2’s. He had been on the phone coming into Marrakech and had arranged to meet a friend, so back and forth we went, looking for him. (I had imaginary friends too, but I outgrew them) S1 explained it to me with a Berber word but I didn’t understand. I forget the word now but when we stopped, I looked for someone that spoke French (and presumably Berber). “Excuse me, do you speak French? What does this word mean?” “Friend.” Are you kidding me? Ohhh. I wanted to slap more than his imaginary watch. S1 and I waited round the truck for another ½ hour. I tried to exude annoyance and wondered if S1 would ever find a new partner. He is using you, Saied.
Eventually S2 sauntered over to the truck and we all piled back in. Language barriers can be a gift, I suppose, as we rolled on in silence.
On the other side of Marrakech, we had our final and best tagine. This was technically a michwi, not a tagine, michwi being grilled meat and tagine being more a stew. It was actually phenomenal. Grilled mutton chops with onions, tomatoes and salt. Soo good.
Choosing our michwi, pre-cooking
Back on the road, I calculated our time to Rabat and called Elizabeth. Looks like we’ll be there around 3 AM, assuming Saied doesn’t have any “friends” in this neck of the woods, I told her. Earlier I had realized we wouldn’t be there at a time when anyone would want to help so Elizabeth suggested we stop somewhere and sleep. “You want me to prolong this?” I asked. If I was scheduled to be released from prison, would she say, “Boy, tomorrow’s not a good time. See if you can stay another week.” I suggested to Elizabeth that she let Elliot have a sleepover. The more the merrier! “Have fun, watch a movie and at 3 am boys, we’re going to unload a truck!” It’s amazing what sounds fun to young boys if pitched the right way. I felt a bit like Tom Sawyer but hey, it worked. We rolled in at 3 AM, woke everyone up and unloaded. The guard on our street, who was awake (!), also pitched in and it took us about 2 ½ hours.
We’ve discovered we’re missing a few small items including Elliot’s Louisville Slugger baseball bat, which Elizabeth saw in the truck as we were unloading, but all in all, it was a successful trip. I made it home alive and we have our STUFF. Was it worth it? I don’t like to think about it. Would I do it again? Not without putting something about “friends” in the contract. Does Elliot miss his Louisville Slugger? Yes. I only hope S1 uses it to keep S2 in line.