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Abel ready to go! 

This summer, Donn’s mother broke her hip. They live in the Southern California desert, and she went outside barefoot in the blazing sun to get the mail, and fell. We rearranged our lives and spent nearly a month total with her after she got out of rehab, and she was stubborn and determined and did really well. Then, in November, her heart stopped. Happily she happened to be at a concert held at a retirement center, and a nurse stepped in. But that fire and determination were lacking the second time around. She just wasn’t fighting as hard. And so we put our heads together and decided to drive down the 1200 miles and surprise her for Christmas.

Every year, we hold a Christmas party for our Iraqi refugee friends, and every year, it just gets bigger and bigger. It’s always held the Friday before Christmas, which was of course the 22nd. This year, we had about 250 guests, mostly from Iraq, with a good representation from Syria, Egypt, Jordan and Iran as well. It was a huge success. The food was fantastic! We had it catered by a local Iraqi restaurant which does great dishes, and we went all out…kabobs, chicken skewers, falafel, hummus, bread. For dessert we had baklava and then a friend made hundreds of orange-fig shortbread cookies and coconut lime shortbread cookies that were amazing. We had an awesome program for the kids, run by talented people who run our church’s all-day summer camps, fantastic live music, and SnapBar donated their services!

We had tons of help but it was still exhausting. And so, it was with no great joy that we dragged ourselves out of bed the following morning, loaded the car, and headed south. Abel, who is still youthful and energetic, was the only one excited at that point. Donn and I were just trying to make sure we’d packed everything–the air mattresses, the presents, the snacks, the plates of food that Iraqi friends had made up for us to bring. Because yes, that was a feature. We had a plate of leftover kabobs, plus an ENORMOUS platter of fresh falafel and 2 plates of hummus from another friend, and a plate of quba from someone else. It was, frankly, a bit much. We drove to Eugene and Elliot’s house, where we ate lunch and left some falafel and hummus for his roommates to enjoy.

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I suck at selfies

We drove down through the forests of Oregon, which don’t seem like much until you leave them behind. Of course it was dark shortly after 4. We wound our way through the foothills of Mt Shasta, then hurtled down I-5 to Sacramento, where Ilsa lives.

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Blue winter’s sunset, somewhere at the bottom of Oregon

We picked up Ilsa and saw her new apartment and met her puppy, who wiggled out of her arms with joy at meeting new people. We went for pizza, crowding round a small table in a noisy bar because the restaurant end of things was already closed at 10 p.m. on a Saturday. One thing I did not expect to find in Sacramento was the best Starbucks I’ve ever been to, serving juniper lattes and affragatos and all done in cool blonde wood and stainless steel, huge and beautiful and open till midnight.

After that, we settled into the dreary part of the trip. Because we hadn’t been able to leave till December 23rd and because we needed to get to Hemet in time for me to do some shopping on Christmas Eve before the shops closed and because we were now 5 and that meant 2 hotel rooms, we’d decided to drive the night through. We’d rented a car–our Volvo sedans don’t really have room for 5 adults, 4 air mattresses, presents, luggage, etc–but the kids were still too young to be able to drive. Donn and I spelled each other, the passenger trying desperately to sleep while the driver played music to stay awake. Amazingly enough, no one got grumpy. We were all too happy to be together again, excited to surprise Grandma, tearing through the night which stayed dry and bright.

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These photos are from my snapchat

We stopped in a rest area for a while, where Elliot and Donn made fun of my desire for an eyeshade to help me sleep under the glare of the street lamps. “Something to cover your eyes? What about eyelids?” they quipped while I glared at them. Then we drove on again, into a terribly bright sunrise where all was certainly bright, and mostly calm too.

We stopped at Starbucks time and time again. I know all the arguments against this store but I don’t care. You can get decent coffee all the way to the inlaws now, and that’s always a good thing. We stopped for breakfast at one point, playing for time as we were in danger of arriving before my mother in law was up.

Finally we arrived. Abel knocked on the door. “Come in!” we heard her yell. We all trooped in, holding our phones like shields in front of our faces as we filmed her. “Merry Christmas!” we yelled! She just sat there, in shock. My father in law appeared with tears in his eyes. We’d made it, we’d surprised her, and, as they’ve told me approximately 1000 times a day, we were the best Christmas present ever! All together now, “Awww….” Also, I am, as always, their favorite (and only) daughter-in-law. So there’s that.

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Christmas in the desert. I personally think they’re trying too hard… 

 

Happy New Year to you all! Any plans for 2018?

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In 2017, I didn’t leave the USA at all. (yes I know I still have 2 weeks, but I have no plans to do so) I went neither to Canada nor to Mexico. More notably, I didn’t go to Mauritania, or Morocco, or France. No Spain. No Thailand. I didn’t even go to Florida, as I did in August 2016. I didn’t leave the West Coast of the United States.

This blog came by its name honestly. I get itchy feet. Our family moved internationally 6 times in 9 years, and we lost count of all our temporary housing along the way. Then we kind of washed up in the suburbs of Portland, and we’ve had the same house, and almost the same neighbors, for 7 years now, which is mind-boggling to me. But even though we haven’t packed all our belongings into boxes and inexplicably lost things along the way, we have still traveled. We went to North Africa 3 times, once to France, once to Thailand, and once to Korea.

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this year, I didn’t go to Marseille. pic taken Nov 2016

This year, I didn’t go to Marseille. Or Arles. I didn’t wander the dusty streets of Oudane, an ancient village in the Sahara, or sip coffee in the uptown shopping district of Rabat, Morocco. And I feel fine about that.

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Looking down at some ruins in Oudane, a city  built in the 12th century in the middle of the Sahara desert. Another place I didn’t go this year. Picture taken in October 2016.

Because somewhere along the way, dealing with jet lag and exhaustion while still trying to maintain an everyday schedule of full time work, I got really tired. I was ready to stay for a whole autumn in Oregon, to pass out candy on Halloween and take a language class at PSU and not be as tired.

We still did some scary things this year. For a start, we remodeled our kitchen. Elliot, now 22, was very stressed when I told him this. “So this means you’re never leaving?” he asked. He’s innocent, poor lad. We explained that the element caught fire in the oven so we needed a new stove, which meant we needed a new floor, and if we were going to do that we should repaint the cabinets, right? This should probably have its own post. We managed to choose a new cabinet color without even mentioning the words “divorce,” “over my dead body,” or “of course your mother would have loved this color; she had no taste either!” Success! We didn’t even scare the salesman at the paint place, as we rapidly went from our first choices (wildly divergent) through our second, third and fourth (question: how have we stayed married 27 years?) until we landed with a thud on our fifth choices, a lovely spring green we could both live with, although it gets mixed reviews from our friends. The most common reaction is, “That’s bold!” which of course means, “You’re crazy.”

It was very strange to remodel a kitchen. I felt like a real grown-up at last! We’ve never remodeled anything in our lives. In Morocco, we lived with a kitchen designed for Wile E Coyote after he falls off a cliff and turns into an accordion; there was no other person it could possibly have been designed for. I’m 5’2″, and the counters were too short for me while I had to stand on tiptoes to reach even the lowest shelf of the cabinets. But we didn’t change a thing.

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Outside one of our favorite restaurants in Rabat, just opposite the medina. Another place left unvisited in 2017.

Overall, I’m okay with my lack of travel for a year. But every so often…

…Donn’s sister just moved to Amsterdam.

…Elliot might move to Iceland.

…We just had coffee with a friend who is moving to Jordan, a place I’ve wanted to go for years.

In the meantime, it’s snowing on the blog, there’s a fire in the fireplace and Christmas jazz on the free-trial of Pandora Prime. Life’s good in Oregon.

For now.

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This kitten’s not going anywhere! Taken at the Chellah, Rabat, Morocco, in October 2016. 

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Colosseum at Arles, France. Taken on a sunny but freezing day in November, 2016.

Sigh. See post title for where I’m at with this.

Last time we saw our intrepid heroine, she was celebrating her 25th wedding anniversary a mere 2 1/2 months after the fact in Thailand (!!!). In fact, she was in a lovely boutique hotel, with the Queen of Concierges bringing her dry toast and jasmine tea, lying in a very comfortable bed having a very uncomfortable time. Was it food poisoning? A virus? No one knows. There was a fever involved, and if someone is going to get gastrointestinal distress it’s usually Donn, but still. The fact remains that out of 8 precious days, she lost an entire 2…and then spent the 3rd wanting things like crackers and yogurt instead of super-cheap-and-delicious Thai food. Sigh. Obviously she needs to go back.

We had scheduled me to take a Thai Cookery class on the Monday, but when I got sick on Sunday (the day we rode elephants; I was running a slight fever and actually slept in the van both ways), Donn spent ages moving my appointment to Tuesday. Then on Tuesday he had to move it to Wednesday. By Wednesday I was determined to go. They picked me up from the hotel in a little pick-up with benches down the back, and I climbed in and met my fellow students–one from Brazil and a couple from New Zealand.

IMG_6317The school slogan was “Our food is guaranteed to make you look pregnant,” which I found of dubious desirability.

The cooking school was great. I learned to make 6 items, many of which I have actually made here in Oregon. First they took us to the school where they served us tea and pastries, then they took us to the market where they showed us what to shop for. I took a million photos, roughly, but I’ll only make you look at a few close ups of dragon fruit, bananas, and mushrooms.

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Then back to the school. I made (you know you care!) chicken coconut soup, green curry paste (which I will never make here. Let’s be serious. It has about 20 obscure ingredients and you pound it in an enormous mortar and pestle), green curry itself, Pad Thai because Abel loves it so, green papaya salad, and mango with sticky rice.

IMG_6328I made this Pad Thai and green curry. You could choose from a variety of dishes, but I picked these because my family loves them. I have made Pad Thai in America now but it wasn’t as good. I was missing an ingredient or two though; I need to try again.

I ate everything I made! Actually, I took a lot of it back to the hotel with me, because my stomach wasn’t up to 5 meals in the space of a few hours, but really I did great. It was so much fun. I loved the people who ran the school, and my fellow learners. We all promised to keep in touch and send each other photos and everyone else did but me because I have good intentions but lousy follow-through.

IMG_6397I didn’t make this particular sticky rice with mango, but I ate it! I did learn to make it and mine tasted great but wasn’t as aesthetically pleasing as this dish from a restaurant. I felt you needed more beauty in your lives so went with this photo. And yes, I have successfully made this in Oregon. The mango was the least successful part. 

Chiang Mai really was fantastic. The old city has an ancient, 700-year-old wall and moat around it, which is now filled with fountains and lined with flowers and crossed by charming bridges. There are masses of temples and many many markets filled with fun, cheap things to cram into your luggage. Our time was far, far too short and we hope to go back some day.


ancient wall chiang mai

 

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So once again I’ve proved that I really don’t have time to maintain a blog, at least not the way I write. Maybe if I was doing short accounts of my day. But I think you’d be bored with that. My life isn’t all that blog-worthy.

December is once again winding down. What happened this year? We traveled for a month, which is really too long when you have high school seniors, I have to say. The kids did great, even fantastic, but they really needed their mum for things like college apps and planning larger homework assignments and talking to teachers and things like that. It also took a tremendously long time to recover from. I don’t just mean jet-lag; that was normal. Donn and I returned bone-tired from traveling for a month. It took us probably 3 weeks to get over it, and even then I maintained a sort of vagueness, or numbness, that endured into the Christmas season. I just couldn’t get into doing things, and as a result was the most disorganized I’ve ever been. I started Christmas shopping on December 20th. The nice thing about doing that is it enlarges the holiday, as presents arrive in the days following. “On the second day of Christmas my mother gave to me, yet another thing from Amazon.” All together now! “On the third day…”

In retrospect, December seems like a nice month. Elliot came home. We got a large cheap tree which is actually really ugly, with several huge holes, but it’s a 10 foot noble that cost $10 so there.

christmas 14See? Magical, I tell you. Or at least real. One or the other.

We had our annual party for our Iraqi refugee friends, about 200 of them, and that was crazy but good. I realized that I kind of know how to plan a party for 200 people, a talent that is outside of the rest of my skill set, which mostly involves reading novels really fast and making good pies, not to mention the ability to drink astonishing amounts of coffee.

I tried to gain weight and succeeded! Yaay! I’m not a loser! Of course most people would think I should be, but I decided to enjoy the mince pies guilt-free this time round. January with its cold hard reality of scales and dutifully-eaten veggies will come soon enough, and if I eat enough shortbread I might actually look forward to some austerity.

On December 23rd, Donn and I went downtown. I had to stop by Powell’s to get Ilsa a book she really really wanted, and so we braved the holiday traffic and found parking a mere 7 blocks away. The queue was the longest I’ve ever seen, stretching to the back of the store. I put Donn in line and rushed away to get the book and look for a Dr Who travel mug for Abel (they had nothing!), and by the time I got back he was at the front of the fast-moving, super-organized line. That’s teamwork! Afterwards we walked around, had a slice and a cold IPA, and wonder of wonders, saw the Unipiper in person!

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The Unipiper is a Portland institution, a young man who spreads joy throughout our world by riding a unicycle and playing the bagpipes while wearing a kilt and a Darth Vader costume. (He also sometimes dresses as Gandalf. Truly he is a delight) He kind of makes you wonder what you’ve accomplished with your life. We heard the whine of the pipes from a block away and we came with haste to see him. We found him signing an autograph for a young man, and he wrote, “May your side always be dark.” And we put it on Instagram and Facebook.

Christmas Day was quiet, not to mention filled with envelopes of printed pictures to be opened (of the things that had been ordered and not yet been shipped). We ate a lot and lazed around a lot, which is how it should be if at all possible. We are having a LOTR themed Christmas, in which we attempted to see the Hobbit: Bloated Beyond by Peter’s Fan-Fic or whatever it’s called, only to find the cheap seats sold out. (A local chain does $5 Tuesdays, and if we miss we tend to wait for the following week) So we watched the first 2 parts, and then segued into watching the LOTR trilogy. Since I haven’t sat down and watched them in about 10 years, I’m really enjoying them.

And there you are. Caught up. Bored. Whatever. How was your December? What did you do this year?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

broken chair one

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

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

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

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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IMG_1026(sorry this is blurry. I was trying to be subtle with my camera. Also this was taken from a moving car using telephoto)

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.

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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.

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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.

 

I really wanted to post more in December, because I love how wordpress makes the blog snow the entire month and I wanted to have readers come see it. But the problem with December is that it’s busy. I don’t have a lot of concerts and parties, which is too bad since I like concerts and parties. (Except for small shrill children. I can skip those) We did go to two white elephant parties, both of which we won. What? Of course someone wins. Whoever brings the present that causes the entire room to erupt into gales of laughter, that makes that one woman with the great sense of humour and the really loud laugh actually cry with joy and hold her head, is the winner.

I probably need to be careful here. Let’s just say that part of what made our gifts so great is caused by a difference between cultures in what is considered beautiful and what is considered seriously over the top. We have been gifted throughout the year with some things that were seriously over the top–a large shiny gold plastic crucifix (a. we’re protestants b. where would you ever find something like that?), a clock/lamp shaped like a galleon in full sail, complete with sea gulls and frolicking dolphins, also of impressive size, a 3-D picture of Jesus that was actually 3 pictures, which you could spot as you moved it. See? Don’t you wish you could go to white elephant parties with us?

In other party news, we reprised our party for our Iraqi friends. Last year, we had a party to which the entire community was invited, which meant 250 in our church’s foyer and a lot of chaos. We broke the record for largest gathering of Iraqis in Oregon and also the largest amount of cigarettes ever smoked at our church. (Our church let us hold it there because they are nice and they like us. They also provided high school boys to help clean up, which is terrific when you need to vacuum an enormous floor or stack chairs.) But it was too loud and chaotic. So this year, we invited a much smaller number of people (i.e. 100)and it was great fun, although still an awful lot of work.

In family news, Elliot is home for the holidays, which is making me grateful that he’s at a state school only a few hours away. He got his summer job back and has had only 2 days off so far, the day of the Iraqi party, and Christmas Day. Poor kid. They really really like him, because he’s a good worker, and he really really hates this job, because they don’t treat him with respect and instead keep a skeleton staff on even at the busiest times, so everyone’s overworked. Oh well. It’s a starter job for a college student and it’s fine for that, although a. I would hate to work it as an adult, and am thankful I don’t have to, and b. there’s no excuse not to treat employees with respect, even if they are 18 and only there for 3 weeks. Ok. Done ranting now.

We had a lovely quiet Christmas en famille. We kept it mellow this year, and had lots of really good food and some time with good friends. And it’s not over yet! I’ve rehung the stockings because they look so pretty, there’s lots of leftovers still to eat, and I have a stack of books to read. We finally got our hot little hands on Season 7 of Dr. Who (the one season not on Netflix; borrowed from friends) when the DVD player went out but that’s okay–Amazon was late with a Christmas delivery and sent us a $20 gift card as an apology, which was awesome of them, so we’re getting a new one. Hope this Christmas season was as delightful for you and yours. Merry Christmas!

As I was saying when I was so rudely interrupted by my own stupidity, I adore the Rabat medina. Each of the ancient Moroccan cities has its own medina–the old part of the city, usually a warren of winding tiny alleyways punctuated by closed doors and cats that weave their way in and out, along with a colourful marketplace selling traditional hand-crafted items to tourists. And if some of these items have been added to the repertoire more recently than others, who really cares? It’s cool stuff.

IMG_0996This isn’t exactly what I’m talking about, but I was amused to see they’re now making beautiful lanterns out of old olive and tomato paste tins, and managing to make treasure out of trash.

There are medinas–old cities, marketplaces–in all of Morocco’s major cities. Many are bigger, better-known than Rabat’s, which is relatively small and straight-forward. Fez’s medina, for example, is the largest pedestrian-only city in the world and a guide is requisite to get through it. It’s fascinating, but enormous. Meknes is built over a huge prison that housed European slaves, and people told us you used to be able to explore it but too many tourists got lost and died so they closed it. Marrakesh is world-famous and has huge variety. But Rabat is nice. It’s big enough to have plenty of variety, but small enough that you don’t get overwhelmed.

We went to the shop where we bought our leather pouffs, over 3 years ago now. This guy has beautiful leather-work. Donn asked him the price of one of the pouffs, and he said, “Same as last time.” We did a bit of a double-take. “It’s been, what, about two years?” he asked us. “Three,” we said.

We couldn’t believe it. This guy’s shop is popular; he has a workshop in the back and uses really high quality leather, and his shop is constantly busy. How could he remember us from 3 years ago? But he had. This cemented the beginnings of a real friendship. We ended up sitting and chatting; we drank tea with him, and discussed our pasts and futures, and told him to come stay with us sometime if he ever comes to the US.

(I had a photo for you of him sitting in his shop, but when I uploaded it off my phone the quality was so bad I can’t share it with you. Unless you like feeling slightly queasy and motion sick from blurriness.)

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Random shot of fountain and one of the doors into the medina, or ancient walled city.

The medina is more than the marketplace. It is also home to a lot of people. Medinas are where you find the old riads, those houses built round courtyards that are so often turned into stunning hotels by foreigners these days. But more often, normal Moroccans live there, climbing uneven tiled staircases daily where grandmas and toddlers come to grief,

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walking past shops,

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doing their laundry,

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and going about their daily lives.

IMG_0986(and yes, that is a total hip shot, because I knew he wouldn’t want me taking his photo!)

 Donn and I spent a fair amount of time just wandering the back streets, getting away from the touristy end of things and more into just the regular part. He got great photos. Me, not so much.

IMG_0974This is near the wool market, and also near, or possibly a part of, the old slave market, where the Barbary pirates used to sell European slaves captured on raids.

IMG_0988Motorcycles are great for these tiny alleyways, especially if you are comfortable swerving around small children, cats, elderly people with canes, and the occasional somewhat clueless tourist.

IMG_0976I couldn’t figure out what was going on until we walked by, and I saw that everyone was gathered round a giant plate of couscous.

IMG_0992I never get bored of these alleys. At least I haven’t yet.

The markets we came across in the residential area (for lack of a better term) sold fruit and olives, or pots and pans, or soap.

IMG_0946Soap with ground olive pits in it

When you go to a Moroccan hammam (the local kind, not the tourist kind. I went to a tourist kind on this trip and it was fantastic! We’ll get to it at some point, possibly in February at the rate I’m going), you take this dark soap that has ground olive pits in it. You smear it on your body and let it sit a bit, presumably loosening up all that dead skin. Here’s my description of going to a local hammam.

Donn and I wandered through the alleys, turning at random, hoping not to get lost. Eventually we always found our way out, although I was sometimes surprised at where. IMG_0968

A shrine near the wool market

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also near wool market

IMG_0944 where we came out

Anyone who read this blog during our years in Morocco knows how much I love the Rabat medina.

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When we lived there, I was always posting pictures about it. Nothing’s changed.

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I just accidentally hit “publish” instead of “preview.” Augh! Oh well. Enjoy these pictures, and come back tomorrow for more pics and a teeny bit more text.

 

 

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