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Since I have such a bad habit of never finishing my accounts of our travel, I’ve decided to do this one backwards. How will that help? you ask. Because we’ve gone to Morocco and Mauritania 3 times now in the past 6 years, and I’ve never finished an account of a trip yet. In fact, I never told you the two funniest parts of the 2013 trip. Maybe I will do so now.
Funniest Thing #1: Moh is in many ways a typical Mauritanian man; generous to a fault, proud yet insecure about his country. No matter what we said, he tried to out-do it. We were telling him about how we now live in Oregon, which is known for its tree-huggers. We know, of course, that this is a metaphor. Oregonians don’t typically actually hug trees. But he was not to be outdone. “I love trees so much, I kiss them!” he announced, going up and kissing a tree.
Funniest Thing #2: We had just finished tea on the dunes with Aicha and were heading back into town. It was after 11. Elections were coming up, and we began to see the familiar tents and men in voluminous white and pale blue robes gathering in them. (Here is a post about Mauritanian elections) We turned onto another road and found ourselves behind a truck with a loudspeaker. As we drove, the people in the truck turned on the loudspeaker and began to broadcast a song extolling their candidate’s virtues. Frustrated, Aicha glanced at the clock. “It’s only 11:30,” she fumed. “Elections don’t open until midnight! They don’t have the right to disturb people until after midnight!”
On this most recent trip, we went once again to the dunes to drink tea. The weather was pleasant, even a little cool at midnight as we stumbled in the moonlight to the top of a small dune at the edge of town. Here’s a picture of the herd of camels who were right next to us, silent shapes in the gloaming, until the headlights of a car turning around caught them in its beam.
We’ve been back 2 weeks now. We’re over jet lag, and we’re mostly recovered from traveling for an entire month. We visited friends in 3 countries, were served everything from exquisite cheeses to couscous in rancid butter, wine in stemware to camel’s milk in wooden bowls. In many ways, the month flew by. In each country, the time was too short to see everyone we wanted to see. But it’s good to be home.
Day One: The new airport is really impressive. Built since our last visit 2 year ago, it boasts AC, and lit signs in 3 languagues (Araabic, French and English). You no longer have to walk outside to board and deplane, the hot air in your face like an oven welcoming you to the desert.
A local friend has sent a driver for us, and he manages to get past security and meet us coming off the plane. We ask how he managed this. “Oh they all know me,” he says. “Also the son of my sister works here.” The more things change, the more they remain the same…
Yes, we are traveling once again. This is our third trip to Mauritania since we moved away in 2007. “Are you back to stay this time?” people ask us, but no, no we’re not nor are we even planning this. But it’s good to come and enjoy a bit of desert hospitality and see our friends. And I’m once again attempting to blog it. I meant to write about our summer but never did, as you can see. We’ll see how far I get this time.
Late October in Nouakchott. At dusk a cool wind blows, and the sky fills with torn-wing bats, like black construction paper cut-outs pasted unevenly against a pastel orange sky. The city has changed a lot. There are more paved roads, more traffic lights, although people sail through red lights wtthout even a cursory brake or glance to see if there’s oncoming traffic. There are highways lined with solar-powered street lights, a brilliant plan in a place with excess sunlight.
This time of year, the camel herds are here. Throughout the city but especially on the edges of it, you will see herds grazing on bushes in the distance, or loping across the road, or hobbled outside a store. The result is fresh camel’s milk for sale, and people are taking advantage of that. So far we’ve only been given it once, in wooden bowls, served to us in a fancy living room (salon), chilled. I don’t like milk so it’s not my favorite, but Donn managed a whole serving. It’s thinner than cow’s milk and maybe slightly sweeter. I don’t know. I never drink milk. It’s supposed to be really good for you.
Afterward, we head out to the edges of town to drink tea on the dunes. The moon is one day past full, and I take pictures in the brightness of it. A lot of peope have had the same idea. You park and there are little stands set up where a guy will make you tea and bring you 3 rounds in small glasses, sweet and minty. He brings each glass with foam in it and pours the tea in with a flourish, then hands it to you. (The foam is made from pouring the tea back and forth ahead of time) We sit in the moonlight with a Mauritnian friend and drink tea and savor the cool air, the soft sand, the lowing of some nearby camels. A group near us starts to sing.
So yes, this is still happening. This is the last day of that trip we took to Thailand, oh, 7 months ago or so. I have a bad habit of never finishing my little travelogues. The sad fact is, the only way for me to finish this is to allow myself 7 months. But you don’t care, right? My one day in Korea was in November and I’m writing it up in June, yes, but what difference does it make on the internet whether it’s October or January or November or June? none. None at all.
Warning: I have way too many pictures!
We left Chiang Mai, Thailand, at midnight at Saturday and arrived in Seoul for a long layover at about 7-something Sunday morning, Korean time.We flew out at about 5:45 or so Sunday night, had an 8 hour flight, landed in Vancouver BC, had a 2 hour layover, flew down to Portland, and got in about 4 on Sunday afternoon.
It messed with my mind. And that’s the joy of crossing the International Date Line.
With a 10 hour layover, we knew we had to go into the city, although I do want to take a moment to rave about their airport. They have free showers and nap options, a museum of Korean history, a place to do Korean-themed crafts for free, plus live music to entertain you. When we were on our way to Thailand, it was a string quartet playing Bach. On our way home, it was a boy band in white suits, crooning away. I tried to get pictures but Donn was in Capt Stress mode and wouldn’t let me even pause, so the pictures are too blurry to post. More on Capt Stress’ appearance later. But that airport is fantastic! OH and free 5G wifi.
Donn googled “what to do with a long layover in Seoul” while we were still in Thailand so we were prepared. Then we found that the airport offers a free bus (I know! Amazing! WHY must American airports suck so?) that went to all the sites we were planning to see. However, being us, we opted instead to buy two $10 tickets for the hour-long bus ride downtown and just be on our own. We don’t like tours. We like to explore on our own, although this inevitably means we miss some things and are usually in a rush at the end.
It had been hot and humid in Thailand, but Korea felt like Oregon on a mild November day. Of course we hadn’t brought warm clothes. I was wearing sandals and 3/4 length leggings under a cotton dress, and Donn was wearing jeans and a cotton shirt. I did have a scarf. It was spitting rain and freezing as we wandered through downtown Seoul, stopping at a cafe for a hot drink in a desperate attempt to warm up.
Although admittedly I have a very limited acquaintance with it, I have to say I loved South Korea and hope someday to go back for longer.
Our first stop was the Gyeongbokgung Palace (linked to wiki and including lots of information which I won’t go into here except to mention it was originally built in 1394 and it is right smack in the middle of a very modern city, which makes it even cooler). First we admired the funny hats of the people outside the gate.
Then we watched the changing of the guard. More really great outfits!
We walked into the first courtyard. The palace is built with 3 very grand entrances. One thing I learned on this trip was how very little I actually know about Asian art, architecture, religion, and culture in general. But I guess the Korean palace was purposely designed to be simpler than others throughout the region. There was still a lot going on though. We passed through three very impressive gates into enormous stone courtyards, ending up at the third peering into the throne room.
Then we sort of turned to the left and went through a little wooden doorway and found ourselves in a magic kingdom. Ok not exactly. For one, there were still lots of tourists, and we were still walking on pavement, but the farther we went, the more beautiful the views.
The detailing was fantastic!
There were lots of beautiful wooden buildings, set over water that reflected the autumnal trees, leaves drifting down to add to the palette of various tones on the still grey water.
Eventually, regretfully, we reached the end of the palace, and came out the opposite end.
We asked the guards for directions to our next destination–a neighborhood of art galleries and trendy boutiques tucked amongst ancient alleyways. They gave us directions to a certain point and said, “And then one more ask,” which I found an adorable way of telling me I’d have to find someone else to question at that point.
We wandered past entrancing shops, stopping for the best Bulgogi (a sweet pork dish. I’ve always had it with beef in the US. Seriously amazing) I’ve ever had in the tiny, hole-in-the-wall down-that-ally round-a-corner restaurant, a place with quilts on the back of the chairs and only room for about 20.
Entrance to restaurant. I don’t know if we could even find it again, but it was great! I recommend it, if you’re ever in Seoul. And this is one reason why we don’t like tours; we like to at least have the opportunity to find places like this on our own. Sure you don’t always, but it’s worth a shot.
We came down into an area that reminded me of Chinatown in San Francisco–lots of outside shops selling cheap knick-knacks. I bought socks with the Gangham-style guy for the twins, and a fancy bookmark for a friend of mine who loves Korean culture.
We still had HOURS to get back to the airport, but Donn, rather like Bruce Banner under stress, began to transform before my eyes into his super alter-ego, Captain Stress. Captain Stress looks like Donn, but he possesses incredible powers of Worry and Fuss. He appears at times involving airports, the birth of our firstborn, and car breakdowns in the desert. The problem was, we had to find a bus going to the airport and buy tickets to get on it, and we didn’t have much Korean money and didn’t really want to change as who knows if we’ll ever even go there again? We walked fast, and he refused to let me stop and photograph anything. We still had hours to get back, I pointed out reasonably. We walked through a gorgeous hotel lobby, decorated for Christmas, in hopes of changing money. I used the fanciest toilet in the world. It had push buttons for everything imaginable that you might want from a toilet.
Meanwhile, Capt. Stress was continuing to manifest. We talked to a bus driver but…I forget why, but his bus wasn’t an option. We found our way to a subway station, where there were trains going to the airport, but we were short the equivalent of 25 cents in Korean money. Remember that it was Sunday, and everything was closed. A very kind young man with a black umbrella tried to help us, and practice his English at the same time. I will skip how very complicated everything was, and how we ended up taking a taxi to another subway station where there were actual people working, and how we bought tickets and ran to catch the fast train and made it back to the airport just barely in time, sigh, so he was right, sigh, which was just so lame.
We rushed past the boy band and made it to our gate with enough time to wander round the folk museum. Our flight to Vancouver was not full and we EACH got an entire row in which to stretch out and sleep, which made me wonder if in addition to crossing the International Date Line, we might have crossed the Planetary Time Travel Line and were actually enjoying a bit of 1985. Seriously, planes are always full nowadays. Can you remember the last time you got extra room?
We had two hours in Vancouver, enough time for coffee, and got home at 4 p.m. the same day we left. It took me two full weeks to get over jet lag. And with this very long post, I have finished a travelogue.
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.
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.
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.
I 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.
I 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.
I think this will be the last part! (unless I decide that Korea gets its own post…) Then I will return to my regularly-scheduled life, which is actually far from boring. This week, for example, I sat with a newly-arrived refugee (she’s been here a month) and admired the way she has made a home from other people’s furniture–faded red couches, light teal chairs, a new-but-dinged dining room table. She has decorated with embroidered cloths brought from Iraq that tie the colors in the room together. She insisted I eat with them so I did, even though I’d already had lunch a few hours earlier. She proudly showed me how she’d arranged her tiny bedrooms, and I saw her teenage son taking a nap on the single bed in the room he shares with his 22-year-old brother.
But enough about my current life…let’s finish Thailand!
This is the first thing you should know about Thailand: everything is SUPER cheap. You can get an hour-long massage for $6. You can get a mani-pedi for $10. You can buy a plate of fresh, hot Pad Thai for 65 cents. You can buy a journal made of paper that is made from elephant poop for $1. You can buy Thai silk scarves, in gorgeous colours and patterns, two for $3.50. Get your hair highlighted for $15. “I could get used to this,” you will think.
And you’re not the first. We were in Chiang Mai, and it is hands-down the place with the most tourists I’ve ever been, with the possible exception of Paris. Of course I’m used to Nouakchott, which rarely makes the list of Top 10 Places on the Planet to See This Year, but still. I’ve been to London. I’ve been to Marrakesh. Never before have I been in a foreign land where I stood out so little. They were used to people like me only, in general, younger, thinner, showing a lot more skin, and actually looking good in the baggy elephant pants.
I didn’t look good in the baggy cotton elastic-waisted pants, but I did get food poisoning or something so I didn’t care, because I didn’t feel well and they were so comfortable! And cheap, of course. $2/pair. I didn’t buy any for myself, knowing they wouldn’t be flattering, but we had bought several pairs for Ilsa and then I took the purple ones. She still got 5 pairs to share with her college roommates. (I know this from snapchat) Donn, on the other hand, looked good, and loves comfortable cotton clothing that we might call ethnic, and he now owns more Thai clothing than many actual Thai people. He could probably clothe an entire small village.
Donn photographing a shrine. Apparently I have no real photos of him; I included him in this one to give an idea of the size. But you can see his comfortable, loose cotton clothing. It was very hot and humid even in November, and jeans were right out. Also notice the shrine. They were literally everywhere–most businesses had one inside and one out, and there was at least one public shrine or temple per block.
Since we were celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary, we splurged for luxury, and stayed in the nicest hotels. One was $40/night and the other was $50, but we were living it up! I spent two entire days sitting by the pool and reading books and going for dips, because that is my definition of complete relaxation. Donn gets bored so he’d go out exploring, get a massage or two, join me for a bit late afternoon, then we’d go in, shower, and go out for dinner.
Pool. Picture taken in morning. It curved round the side of the hotel and was very refreshing, since it wasn’t heated. It was surrounded by deck chairs to lounge on, and there were umbrellas to shade under (I really didn’t want to burn). It was, in a word, absolutely delightful (oh I was never good at math).
We did touristy things. We rode elephants. We arranged this by stopping by a random barber shop with a table outside covered in brochures. The very sweet woman who manned it in between hair customers was named Ma and she spoke enough English to get by with people like us, who spoke no Thai beyond “hello” and “thank you.” She pulled out several brochures, made some phone calls, and arranged for us to be picked up at our hotel.
Next day, we were picked up in a nice, new, air-conditioned 15 passenger van and driven into the nearby mountains to an elephant farm. We fed them bananas, which they slurped up so eagerly that I couldn’t decide if they were being starved or if they just love bananas and always slurp them down eagerly, leaving little bits of elephant slobber on the proffering hands.
Then we crossed a bridge over a river and went to a sort of platform halfway up a hill. The elephants walked through the river and then up to the platform. We left our shoes on and stepped on their heads, which I found stressful but they didn’t seem to mind. They each had a little bench tied onto their backs, and we settled ourselves there (2 people per elephant. That was specified in the brochure. You don’t get your own elephant.) A driver settled himself in front, on the elephant’s neck, and we were off for a ride that was mildly terrifying, to be frank.
We were up amongst the forested hills, and the elephants (3 of them) headed up a steep hill. The elephant swayed back and forth, up and down, as we went up an uneven tiny track that wove in and out of the trees. That was all right, but when we were going straight down the other side, I started to slide forward and nearly fell off the elephant. My bag kept going but I managed to catch it with my foot. I had to wrap my arms through the little railing across the back to stay on. So it was a little stressful.
The elephants walked for about 45 minutes, through the forest, through the river, past the most enormous spider I’ve ever seen–big as my hand!–and back to the platform. Afterwards we walked down to the river where we bathed the elephant while the handler tried to get it to splash us. It was more fun than I expected. Then we went back across the river and played with a month-old baby elephant for a bit.
They let us get in the pen and play with it. It was kind of shy, and mostly liked the handler best. They played chase. It was pretty cute.
AND you know what? I’m over 1000 words and blog posts are supposed to be short. I still have at least one more about Thailand, plus we did have that day in Seoul. So stay tuned…
Ok I am going to finish my year. It wasn’t all that eventful, really, just that I am verbose. Very very verbose. How did I handle not blogging?
October: or possibly late September. Finally it cools down. It even rains a little bit. We take newly-arrived family to Hood River to visit the orchards. There are tons of them—growing myriad varieties of apples, pears, pumpkins, fantastically-shaped gourds. It’s very beautiful, and they love it. I mean, who wouldn’t?
We all bought some and decorated our houses.
This pumpkin shell is like lace, isn’t it?
We did other things. ESL classes started up again. Every year we get more organized. This is only impressive when you realize that I started the program and that I have no organizational skills whatsoever. I know six year olds who are more organized than I am! However, we have muddled along and now have 4 levels and around 40 students, plus about 30 volunteers driving our students to and from class, watching their children so they can study, greeting them with coffee, teaching or tutoring them. Our students include a group of women in their 50s and 60s who have never really gone to school before. They grew up in the countryside, in villages where education was for boys, and they married young and raised children and grandchildren. Now they are students themselves with notebooks and pens, and very proud of themselves! Their progress is slow, as one would expect, but they view each incremental gain with great satisfaction and never tire of practicing their short sentences on me, and bringing me large platters of dolma and briyani. (I don’t teach their level but they all know me) Last summer, Donn and I ran into an Iraqi man at Fred Meyer’s who told me that my class is “number one for women with PTSD.” I don’t know if he’s right, but I do know that our little school has a very homey atmosphere, and these students are thriving, each in her own way. On the other end, we have lawyers and professors and pharmacists who come to our classes as well.
October: Donn and I went to Thailand. I’ll pause and let you imagine all the exclamation points. Thailand has been a place I’ve wanted to go for years and years and years now. We had to go to an international conference and since we were there, we stayed an extra week. It was blissful.
Thailand was therrific! (What is wrong with me?) Just as cool as you think it’s going to be. I consciously decided not to blog it, because I have a bad habit of going into way too much detail and saving the best stories for last and then never finishing the series. Seriously, our last two trips to Mauritania have included many cool things that I never got around to recording.
I was just glancing through my pictures and it’s evident I’m going to stretch this out even further. So let’s take a few moments and just enjoy some of the amusing signs. And this isn’t all. I never did manage to get a picture of the restaurant called “Egg Slut.”
We didn’t eat here, but it was sort of a McDonald’s knock-off, featuring (among other items) the MookMuffin.
Saw a lot of ads for this whitening cream. I understand the concept, but feel the marketing really fell down on this one. A friend told me the tv ads for this feature an actual snail crawling across a woman’s face, leaving it sparkly (slimy) white!
Sadly, all these pictures are of places (or items) I didn’t try. Which would you go for? Tell us in comments.
…in which I divide my year into
two three parts cuz it was oh-so-interesting.
September: Ilsa is off to Rhode Island for art school, which is pretty much exactly opposite Portland, Oregon, and nearly as far as you can get and still be on the same continent. Meanwhile, her twin brother is staying home and going to the local community college. They’ve always been opposites in every way, so it’s reassuring to see that continuing. Right?
She got FF miles from her grandpa, so Donn and I ended up having to take the red-eye the night before, arriving in Boston at 7 a.m. Donn had cleverly googled “how to get out of Logan Airport without paying tolls” so we drove for hours and hours, down bumpy railroad tracks and through sketchy-looking industrial areas, eventually ending up far to the north east of Boston, when our hotel was far to the south west (towards Providence, which is an hour south of Boston). By this point it was after 10 and we were starving. No tolls though! Triumph! We found a hole-in-the-wall diner with wonderful eggs and bacon and low prices and thick china and where everyone talked like they’re supposed to in Boston. “They-ah, dea-ah,” said the waitress as she banged down the plate in front of me. (I’m not sure I’m doing the dialect right) We asked for directions to the hotel, and she yelled at the guys in the back and they came out and looked at the address and talked amongst themselves for ages before telling us which alleys and lanes to traverse on our way back to the toll road that didn’t require us to buy a special Boston pass, which also required an extra $20 to the rental car company. This was the real reason we were avoiding certain roads. We had to pay tolls (question: WHY? The roads were not that amazing) but we preferred to pay cash rather than have to buy a special gadget for a short visit.
People do complain about east-coast drivers. We thought they were fine, if a bit confused at times…
Yes, that’s a holiday-weekend-start-of-college-busy road in one direction only.
We eventually found our hotel, and they let us check in early so we passed out on the bed for a few blissful hours. (Remember, we’d been up all night) It was a super cute, very fun hotel, set in the middle of a sort of commercial wasteland. We drove back into Boston and drove to the Common and looked for parking. We ended up finding a place just across from Cheers, so we went in for a pint, but no one knew our name, it was crowded and no one was glad we came, and the beer was $7.50 a pint for something that claimed to be an IPA but wasn’t. It just wasn’t.
Swan at Boston Common
This was later though. At first we wandered round and found someplace to eat. We were somewhat bemused to find that Portland, OR is trendy place in Boston. We saw menus proudly touting their use of Tillamook cheddar and Willamette Valley hops, and the guy at the front desk told us he’d always wanted to come to Oregon. And after that pseudo-IPA, I could see why!
We walked part of the Freedom Trail, which was super cool and interesting. We collected Ilsa at the airport at midnight, drove 45 minutes to the hotel, and unsurprisingly missed breakfast the next morning.
Boston at night…
We had a day to explore before taking Ilsa to school, so we went to Concord, and Lexington.
We explored the outside of Louisa May Alcott’s home and also the gift shop.
This perfect tree is just outside the Alcott family home, and it was all too easy to imagine Jo (from Little Women) sitting here eating apples.
We wandered through the Boston Common, where we saw 3 different bridal parties having photos done.
This just amused me, the bride frowning at her phone, the limo driver taking pics with the groom’s phone (not pictured).
The next day, we drove down to Providence and left Ilsa in her own little dorm room, at the top of a hill and on the 4th floor. No elevators. She was ecstatic to be there, and waved us off with a big smile, anxious for us to go and leave her to the serious business of Being a College Student.
On the plane on the way home, I read a book written by a woman who was raped on her second day of college. I do not recommend this. It was a good book, but still. Dang! Ilsa was fine though.
Here is Donn, checking the wording of the Constitution on his phone so as to help the Founding Fathers get it right. (They had these panoramas (diaromas? Cardboard cutouts? What would you call this?) set up at Logan Airport.)
AND I think we’re going to have to stretch this into 3 parts, since in October, we went to Thailand…
So I went to Memphis last week. I didn’t make it to Graceland, although I did go to the Stax Museum. Mostly I visited the St Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Before I went, I had a basic familiarity with the place, but knew no specifics. So suffice it to say I was totally blown away. I am blogging about it at 5 Minutes for Moms so I won’t repeat myself too much here, but I will just say that I was really impressed.
There were 10 of us on the tour, and I was the only one coming from the West Coast. Because events started at noon on Wednesday, they flew me in on Tuesday and put me up in a downtown hotel. I don’t think I’ve ever stayed on my own in a hotel before; I’ve always been with someone else. Is this unusual? I have stayed in far more hotels than I could remember, but always with someone–husband, or mother, or kids, etc.
So, Tennessee. These people have accents! “Is this considered the south?” I asked at one point, because it seemed that way to me but I didn’t want to continue in my possible ignorance. I was assured it was, and they proved it to me with their sweet “tea” and bbq and people actually saying things like “Heavens to Betsy!” and “Lawd a’ mercy!” quite unironically. “Didn’t you know people said that?” asked Donn and I said yes, of course, but I thought it was only people in books or in 50s television shows. I loved it!
A limo picked me up. The driver was a retired police officer who’d had to quit because of arthritis but who could still drive, and was determined to work as long as he could. He was chatty and filled me in on local geography and history. Once I’d checked in to my room, I kicked off my shoes and collapsed on the fluffy white bed with a sense of glee. I put on my sweats and ordered a room service hamburger, another new experience. I grabbed the remote and starting channel surfing–in effect another new experience, since Donn hates TV and so even where we are in places that have cable, I don’t get to watch what I want.
It turns out what I wanted to watch was reality TV, surprising even to myself but there was really nothing else on. I have never watched reality TV and have never really wanted to, but I found myself strangely attracted and repelled at the same time by that enormous family at 19 Kids and Counting. It was like the proverbial train wreck. Everyone was constantly clean and shiny and smiley so I knew it was carefully edited because I only have 3 and they fight, and I felt that the mom, Michelle, talked to us like we were mentally-challenged preschoolers she was determined to love.
I couldn’t sleep till 2 a.m, which is midnight in Oregon. Not surprising. At 4 a.m., the loudest WHOOP WHOOP WHOOP in the universe came through a vent in the wall that had been invisible until that moment rent the time-space continuum.
Could I possibly have dreamed it? I wondered. Should I call the desk? Surely if they wanted me to evacuate, they would somehow communicate through the phone, though a knock on the door, something. I considered calling downstairs, but decided instead to go back to sleep. Just then a voice came through the vent. “It has been determined that there is no emergency at this time,” it told us. Phew! Back to sleep.
At 6 it happened again. WHOOP WHOOP WHOOP. Then the voice. I had already determined it would tell me if I needed to dress and make coffee and evacuate, although possibly not in that order, and only wanted it to stop talking. But it wouldn’t. It forgot to turn the switch off, so we got to listen to people at the desk chattering. The only thing in the world I wanted right then was quiet, even if it meant burning to a crisp, but it was not to be for fully 15 minutes. Finally it announced, after another annoying set of WHOOPs, that someone on floor 12 had attempted to dismantle their smoke alarm (go, crazy drunk person on floor 12) and that it had been determined that there was no emergency at this time. I listened to the fire engine arriving downstairs and went contentedly back to sleep.
I got up at 9 and went downstairs for breakfast. I was the worst dressed person in the dining room, which I found stressful. I had heard things were more formal in the south; was I doomed to be the only person on the blog tour in red jeans and open-toed sandals? Finally I figured out that everyone else was there for some convention, and that I might be dressed okay for my own events (I was). They all seemed to know each other, and there were several large black men in striped suits being jovial near the grits. The waitress called me “sweet pea” twice, which I don’t think has ever happened before, served me Starbucks, and forgot my refill for a long time. (I drink astonishingly amounts of coffee) I avoided the grits, whatever they are, and also the “gravy,” which was white and looked lumpy and also, gravy for breakfast? I was content with bacon and eggs and lashings of fresh fruit.
Around noon I met the other members of the blog tour and we all set off for the hospital. And I will finish this tomorrow.
So in January, we got our first visitor ever from Mauritania.
No, scratch that, that’s not true. This guy’s best friend actually came–remember?–with a group of people from all over the world. But this was the first time we knew someone was coming ahead of time, and we planned on it. (well sort of.)
We saw him in November in Nouakchott, on that trip that I’m taking so very long to tell you about. “I’m coming to America in January,” he told us. “I’ll see you then.” We gave him all our contact information. He’s a great guy, genuinely nice, a former student who’s doing really well and has far outpaced us in life.
On January 1st, he wrote me privately on Facebook, telling me he’d arrive in San Francisco on Jan 10th and come to Portland 2 days later. I wrote back, welcoming him, and asking him to send us his flight info and itinerary. He cunningly maintained radio silence. I wrote again on the 8th, 9th and twice on the 10th, since this was the only contact info I had for him. Finally on the 10th I wrote his friend back in Mauritania, who told me he was supposed to arrive in New York that day. He contacted me late that night and told me he was going to buy his ticket to Portland next day. And so he showed up at the airport about 10:30 on the night on the 12th, Monday. He had hoped to arrange several meetings with some local government officials, but they were unable to fit him in when he called them on Tuesday morning.
Things he experienced for the first time on his first trip to America:
- wearing a seatbelt
- Thai food
- wearing a seatbelt every time he got in the car, no really, every single time, it’s not optional, put it on please
- Mexican food
- sitting next to someone who was drinking. (Mauritania is a dry country, and he had never seen someone drink alcohol before. He flew Air France. He told Donn he was afraid his seatmate would go beserk after the small bottle of Merlot. He had no idea what to expect)
- fish and chips
- how to successfully put on a seat belt (clue: it doesn’t go behind your head)
- jet lag
- indoor heating
The weather was glorious, freakishly warm, in the mid-60s. We took him to the Oregon coast, where Donn and I walked round in shirtsleeves and he wore a thick parka that we’d loaned him. He commented on how much he liked that the sun wasn’t as warm, the light more diffused this far north.
We walked through a small bit of old-growth forest on the way to the beach. He was amazed–he’d never seen trees like this before, thick and hoary, moss-covered, reaching far into the sky overhead. We all enthused about the air, so sweet and refreshing, and we all took great gulps. He commented on how great trees are–“except at night, when they can kill you,” he said. What? we said. Kill you? we said? What? we said.
Yes yes, he explained. Everyone knows that trees put out oxygen during the day but carbon monoxide at night. Um, no. No they don’t, we said. Really. Truly.
We knew Mauritanians didn’t like trees. They don’t have many of them, living in the Sahara desert as they do, and the few they have they tend to cut down. It’s common to visit a house and find the entire yard has been paved over. But we thought this was because they believe trees attract mosquitoes and because they needed the wood for charcoal.
I think we convinced him.
He also told us tales of life growing up in a small village. When he was in high school, his mother paid a local woman to serve him zrig every morning on his way to classes. Zrig is a mix of milk (usually powdered, in the city at least), water and sugar. It sounds innocuous but I never really liked it and my kids all hated it. The story he told us gave us a reason why. Apparently in parts of the country they add sheep’s urine. No that’s not a typo. Even he agreed it was gross. He said it gives a sort of astringent quality to the drink. I say it gives me an excuse to never drink it again.
On another day, Donn took him down the Columbia River Gorge, an area of breathtaking natural beauty, lush with green ferns and flowing with waterfall after waterfall. They stopped at Multnomah Falls, the biggest, and hiked up to the first lookout, along with many many other people. We’ve been there countless times, and have seen prom pictures and wedding pictures and myriad tourist pictures being taken. (aside: don’t people taking photos with tablets look silly? Remind me to never do that)
A woman and a photographer were there, and her top fell off–twice. So this was the first experience of topless photos done–and it would be done in front of someone from one of the most isolated and inhibited cultures in the world. You just can’t plan things like this. I can only imagine the stories he’s telling.
He left on the Friday, early, still jet-lagged. He is, always, unfailingly polite, but I think he had a good time. Overwhelmingly new, but good. I think he’ll be back.
Several people have started following my blog recently, and I wanted to say hello and welcome. Also, I love comments! And now, back to our regularly scheduled overly-long story…
Our visit was short, just 2 full days in the village with a day each end of travel. On our second day, we went to visit a family that lives at the very edge of the plateau. Let me tell you about how we met them…
When Yahiya first moved to Oudane, in 2002, he invited us to come and visit. At that time, Oudane had no electricity, no cell phone reception, no telephone, no internet, nothing but wind and sand and innumerable stars in a sky that stretched on to infinity. “Just come, ask at any house in the village, and they will come and find me,” he assured us.
And so, about 6 months later one February weekend, we packed our 4×4 with water and sleeping bags and food and set off, bumping uncertainly down the unpaved road. It took us 8 hours of driving, including the last part where the road is more than just a set of tracks in the sand, but not by much. We picked up a hitchhiker (it is safe, or was safe, to do this back then), an old man in a stained robe, who sat in the back with the kids and watched perplexedly as they snacked on raw carrot sticks. I had the feeling raw carrots had not played any kind of role in his diet up to that point.
Eventually we bumped up the plateau and pulled up in front of the first house we saw. We asked the boy standing out front if he knew Yahiya, a high school teacher. “No,” he said. He went to fetch his mother. We asked her. “No, I don’t know him,” she said, “but come in! come in!”
A little worried and perplexed, we allowed ourselves to be guided through a doorway, into a salon. We were sat down on thin matlas against a concrete wall, were given cushions for our elbows. They sent someone out in search of our friend, and in the meantime they served us a meal and told us we could stay with them for as long as we wanted, a week, two weeks, a month, no problem. When Yahiya eventually appeared and joined us for couscous, they still urged us to stay with them. They were a family and therefore better equipped to host a family than a single man, they said. We turned them down, but the experience has stayed in our minds for years, this beautiful example of the hospitality of the desert, of a people that would take in complete strangers and welcome them.
We sat once more in the same room, although it looked different now. There were lots of teenagers, kids we didn’t recognize, who made us tea and practiced their English on us. Our host send one of the girls out to a local shop (I am tempted to put that word in quotes, since nothing in Oudane looks like any kind of shop seen anywhere else on the planet) to buy me a muluffa, which they draped around me. Then we were served banarva, which is sort of a stew of meat and onions, eaten with bread. There were also little bundles of intestines, made by coiling intestines round one’s finger and tying the end round it. Eating intestines is a skill I never managed to hone, and our hosts noticed Donn and I skillfully avoiding the small clumps. They taught us the word for intestine in Hassiniya, which I used to know, forgot, relearned, and have forgotten again. (Debbie?)
Afterwards we sit back, full, which is a mistake, because the second course comes in. This is marou ilHam, meat and rice, and it’s tasty, well-seasoned (which isn’t always the case) and steaming hot. Of course we’re sitting on the floor, eating with our hands. I am going to admit that I don’t really like eating rice and pasta dishes with my hands, although my husband and kids do. When we lived there, I could do it, of course, but given the chance, I always used a spoon. My inability to eat with my hands greatly displeased my host. I would take a small bit, halfheartedly work it into a sort of egg shaped ball, and pop it in my mouth, often scattering bits of rice. He took it upon himself to feed me. He made me an enormous ball and slipped it into my hand, motioning that I should put the whole thing in my mouth. I tried and nearly choked. I was perfectly happy making my own, avoiding the more gristly bits of meat and making small balls of rice, but he kept insisting that I was doing it wrong and making me large perfectly-round balls of rice. Embarrassing for only one of us, apparently.
Later that evening, we walked down the hill to visit Chez Zaida, Oudane’s only auberge. When we spent that long-ago summer month there, we got to know Zaida, a warm, friendly, out-going woman who invited us for lunch and used to visit us and play chess with Elliot while helping us with our Hassiniya. At the time, Zaida was in the process of opening her auberge, and we were thrilled to see her success. The auberge is located on the outskirts of Oudane, built on sand instead of rock, and I heard stories of flush toilets!
Zaida remembered us, and settled us on thin matlas outside while we caught up a bit. She’s made many friends through her inn, and spent a month traveling through Europe staying with people who wanted to return her hospitality. We showed her pictures of our kids. Her nephews took good care of us, bringing out cushions that were as big as they were! Her friend let me hold her son, the only baby in Oudane who wasn’t afraid of my freakishly-coloured hair and eyes (blonde and blue).
On our last visit, when Zaida was just opening her first auberge, she served us the specialty food of Oudane–luxoor. These are buckwheat crepes (or something like that) served with camel gravy. Traditionally, the pancakes are piled in a bowl and the gravy poured on top. You eat by digging your hand down through the layers. Tasty but weird. I mentioned to Zaida how much I’d liked them and how good they were, innocently, not realizing I was basically asking her to make them again. (I am truly clueless like this, and it’s embarrassing. I’m old enough to know better) Of course she invited us to stay for supper, so we settled in for the most Western-style meal we’d ever had in the desert.
Our food was served in courses. First came a bowl of savory, flavorful vegetable soup. Then came the luxoor, only we ate one at a time, on a plate, with knives and forks. Then we had tinned fruit salad to end with, plus of course the sweet mint tea.
We had a lovely evening, lying back in the warm dusk, drinking tea and chatting of old times, of trips taken, of new sights seen. Afterwards we walked up the hill to Yahiya’s home once again.