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I teach ESL to adult learners, pretty much all of whom are refugees, although our classes are open to everyone. This week, I introduced the concept of Show & Tell. Sure it’s a kindergarten concept, but I knew my students would not bring in stuffed animals. It was supposed to get them to speak English uninterrupted, express their thoughts, use idioms and practice fluency. And I think it was a success. I was careful to explain the things didn’t have to be emotionally weighty, because I didn’t want my students to feel coerced. I used as an example a ticket stub from a play we went to with friends a few weeks ago* But everyone brought in things from their original home. And to see what things refugees have carried with them on their long journeys to safety is, I think, a privilege.
Student #1: H slowly unfolded a scarf and held it up for everyone to see. It rippled in many colors–shades of brown and pink arranged geometrically. “This scarf belonged to my mother,” she said, and kissed it. “She used to wear it when she lived in the village.” H draped it around her own black hair. Then she took it off and held it up to her face. She has never washed it, she told the class, and it still smells of her mother. Everyone passed it around reverentially. Mothers are highly esteemed in Arab culture, and of course the bond between older mother and adult daughter is universal. At the next class, she brought in a picture of her mother, her hair tied back in a scarf. H is from a Christian background, so her mother wore the scarf differently than Muslim women do and I had had a hard time picturing it. She also brought in baby pictures of herself with her sisters. Again, she kissed their faces.
Student #2: S took out of her purse a plain brown envelope, the kind that official documents come in, but it was empty and held no interesting marks. “This envelope changed my life!” she announced dramatically, waving it in the air. S is from Iran, and 5 years ago her husband won the lottery for a green card, and brought her and her youngest daughter to America. The announcement arrived in this very plain brown envelope.
They first lived in Texas, she told us. A fellow immigrant told them they needed to go to the Social Security office, so they looked the address up online but ended up at a building that looked like a house to them, but was flying a big American flag. That confused them. Many people from other countries don’t understand Americans’ propensity to fly flags at all times from all types of buildings, not to mention turn them into jewelry, t-shirts, hats, bumperstickers. etc. The flag, plus the fact that the address on the house matched that of Google maps…this had to be the place, right? So they went up to the door. They were greeted with the sound of a deep, throaty barking. Why would Social Security have a large dog? They stepped back in alarm. The door opened, and a woman appeared. They showed her the piece of paper on which they had scribbled the address and tried to explain what they were looking for, but it was too late–she had already called the police, alarmed by the mere presence of a middle-aged couple on her front walkway.
S started to cry when the policeman questioned her. He was very gentle, she tells us now, but he told her not to walk up to private people’s houses. I think this is terrible advice. What kind of world do we live in? When I lived overseas, I only had to look sort of lost and people would help me find my way. (Sure they might expect payment, but they didn’t threaten me) I told her that I was glad she had found her way to Oregon, and to my class in particular.
Student #3: A brings his marriage license, showing he’s been married to his wife for 37 years. We talk a little bit about marriages. I’ve been to a few Iraqi weddings now, here in the US, and they can be summed up best in one word: LOUD. So loud. We compare Iraqi wedding customs to Mauritanian ones. As always, I’m amazed at how many similarities there are between the 2, separated by thousands of miles and in many ways very different.
*in part because I forgot to bring anything even though it was on my lesson plans, and I found that stub in my purse. The best teachers are good at improv, right?
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…
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.
This is a continuation of Part 6...
Our first night in the desert in years and years. (Nouakchott doesn’t count, even though it is in the Sahara, yes, because there are houses there that often have electricity and running water) As the sun began to sink, Yahiya’s daughter, aged 9, dragged two large plastic mats out of one of the rooms, and her brothers fetched large rocks to weight down the edges. I sat down and one of the kids went running into the room to bring me out a hard cushion to put under my elbow. Although electricity has come to Oudane, it hasn’t really made its presence felt. Yahiya’s compound has a single fluorescent bulb, and an outlet in each room. In the evening he plugs in a lamp and drags it outside to the second of the two mats, where his children do their homework.
Yahiya is a teacher in the local school and rents out one of his rooms to another teacher. This proved to be problematic in the middle of the night, when it got cold and the family moved indoors. He was in his room. I wasn’t sure if I could go in there too. Donn did, thinking I was still asleep, and I lay there shivering the rest of the night and wondering what to do and being irritated at Donn for going in without me, even though I knew this was irrational and that he would feel terrible when he found out. (He did.) And it turned out that it would have been fine to go into this unmarried teacher’s room, but how was I supposed to know, in this very conservative Muslim village where daily life is mostly unchanged for centuries except that now, fish is trucked in daily from the coast, and apples are available in the local merchants’ shops? Where, when I visit an old friend, her husband rushes out to buy me a muluffa so that I’m soon enveloped in bright blue cloth?
Donn and I quickly feel the 12 intervening years since we last slept on the stony ground of Oudane. I lay down on the hard ground, wrapped myself in a purple muluffa for another layer of warmth (dubious since they are made of very thin cotton), and felt the ground digging into my hips. In the morning I felt bruised, but as the sun came up and whisked away the remaining coolness of the night, I dragged myself inside to face sweet mint tea when I longed for black coffee. The bread was fresh and hot, bought at the local bakery.
Yahiya had to work so we spent the day wandering the town, meeting people. In Oudane, people tend to sit outside their houses/shops on mats spread on the ground, drinking tea and chatting. We would greet people in Hassiniya and they would invite us to join them. We drank glass after glass after glass of sweet mint tea. Many people remembered us as the parents of those 3 tiny blonde children (even though Elliot has never been blonde in his life), because even though this is a relatively touristy part of Mauritania, few people bring their kids and stay for a month.
In the evening, we walked again through the ancient city.
Peering through a doorway into a shrine, a place where a local holy man is buried, where people visit seeking blessings and good luck. Places like this are frowned on by classical Islam but are very common throughout Morocco and Mauritania.
That night, Yahyia’s wife serves us a dish of camel meat cubes with macaroni in a creamy sauce. We eat it with our hands, of course. I can’t help thinking this could be the next new thing in America. Kraft Kamel Mac’n’cheese! Can’t you see it? Of course they will spell camel with a K. I can’t wait to tell Abel, who loves Kraft mac’n’cheese (traditional flavor), but he turns up his nose. He’s not a big fan of camel meat. I don’t know why, since it tastes almost exactly like beef, just a little different in some undefinable way (thinner, somehow, or perhaps drier. I don’t know).
It’s snowing on my blog! It’s freezing in my house! The wind is wuthering and banging things and howling down the chimney! And yet I continue to write about my recent trip to the wilds of the Sahara desert.
I’ve been having a lot of fun telling my Iraqi friends about our trip to Oudane and showing them the picture of the toilet. They are amazed beyond. They laugh hysterically as I describe the uneven stairs, but when I explain about balancing on the rafters, they are horrified. “What if you fall in?” I’ve been asked several times. They are shocked to hear of how poor many Mauritanians are, and can’t believe I survived even 3 days in the tiny village. One woman told me of a time she and her family had fled Baghdad during the war to a neighbouring village, and how they didn’t even spend the night because of the primitive toilet. I laugh. “I lived in Oudane for a month once, with little kids, and the whole family had giardia,” I tell her.
This time, we arrived in Oudane on a Monday afternoon. In the morning, we met our driver outside our friend’s business. This friend, Mo, is doing tremendously well in business and is very generous to boot, and he arranged a car to take us the 600 kilometers from Nouakchott to Oudane. I don’t know what he paid but it was a lovely thing for him to do.
We climbed in and the driver took off at a tremendous rate while I bounced around in the back. The sun beat down as we drove through the desert and I kept waiting for it to get pretty. It does, right around Tergit, where the baked plains that surround the city begin to rise into shale plateaus. I sat in the back, wishing the AC could be cranked, bored for hours and hours and hours. We stopped only at police checkpoints, of which there were many. At each they took our passports and laboriously copied down the information. And the day was long and hot and boring, but it was one of those times where I honestly didn’t mind, because I liked that security was tight and that someone pretty much always knew where we are, or could easily find out. The only negative was that the driver only stopped for police checkpoints, where you don’t want to pop out with your camera unless you’re the type of person who enjoys getting yelled at and possibly losing your camera. So I don’t have any pictures of the pretty part.
We only stopped once, just past Atar, for the driver to make tea in the bed of the pickup truck, out of the wind. I snapped a few photos, carefully making sure the nearby policemen could see I wasn’t pointing my camera at them.
We drank the tea, ate some apples we’d brought, and took off again, beginning the climb up the steep, crenelated plateaus. The road is paved intermittently, so sometimes you bump along on gravel, staring down the side of a cliff without a guard rail, but it’s really not bad and we were soon at the top.
We arrived in Oudane about 4, and met Yahyia walking down the street towards us. He was our first Arabic teacher, and the reason for our visit. We hadn’t seen him in 8 years.
Oudane is not a big place. The population is 2500 or so, and the way of life there has changed very little in the centuries since it was founded as a center for Islamic learning in the area. Ways of the desert die hard. The first time we visited, complete strangers took us into their home, sat us down and fed us, and offered to host us for a week.
We spent that first evening sitting round the courtyard, meeting Y’s wife and 4 kids, being fed 2 meals since we hadn’t had lunch and couldn’t convince them we weren’t hungry, and wandering round the old city of Oudane, which is gorgeous. It’s a UNESCO site, one of the 4 ancient cities of Mauritania, and finally “they” are getting around to restoring it. Y tells us that various NGOs have participated, making sure the stones are again reset using only the traditional manner. We walk down to the oasis and then wander up along the Route of 40 Scholars to the top, where the modern city begins.
As usual I’m getting into too much detail. “Skip a bit,” Donn urges. I will, next time.
During the summer of either 2002 or 2003, Donn and I took our 3 children to the village of Oudane for a month. We had visited this village during the month of February, when the moon was so bright that you didn’t need a flashlight to cross the rocky courtyard at night. Oudane is one of Mauritania’s historic cities. Built in the 1200s by 40 scholars, who lived in a madressa and left each morning to teach others the ways of Islam, it is situated on a rocky plateau that rises above the desert plain. At the foot is a large oasis of date palms, divided off by palm leaf fences to keep out the goats and where small plots of mint, carrots and potatoes are tenderly cared for.
Oudane (aside: this is the frenchified spelling; in English it would probably be Wadan with 2 short a-sounds, emphasis on the 2nd syllable) is a beautiful place, but it is in the middle of the Sahara, 400 miles northeast of Nouakchott. Our goal in spending July 2002 (or poss 2003, but definitely not 2004) there was to really make progress in Hassaniya, far away from the city of Nouakchott where most people speak French. What we didn’t bank on was the fact that Oudane in July is a furnace. Exposed to the winds of heaven, which scour it daily, the village is an oven under a brazen sky with daily sandstorms. On top of that the entire family got intestinal parasites. I have written extensively of the experience, although I didn’t post it here since I had the idea of selling it to a magazine. (No one’s interested, even though the article starts, “I knew I had become accustomed to the desert when we tied the live goat to the top of our car…” which I quietly think is a great hook.)
We moved from Mauritania in July 2007 and the country kind of fell apart shortly afterward (no I don’t think these 2 things are related), with several Westerners killed, a suicide bomber just outside the French school, and many Western aid workers kidnapped and held for ransom. Last year, our first visit back, the capital felt different, unsafe in ways it hadn’t before. We had no way of knowing if this was our imagination or not, but it wasn’t helped by Mauritanian friends telling us to be careful and avoid certain areas, and official warnings not to travel outside the city.
This year, Nouakchott felt back to normal–dusty, bustling, busy, safe. I was happy about this. I wish my former home all the best and want it to succeed, and terrorism kills growth, along with so much else. The official warnings had been moved too. Now it was considered safe to go as far east as Chinguetti. Oudane is located about 30 km northwest of Chinguetti. And so, we decided to return to visit our friend Yahiya.
Since this is your introduction to a Mauritanian village, let’s take a moment to look at the houses of Oudane. First a wall is built around a rocky courtyard. On one side are 2 or 3 rooms, bare concrete with low windows, which makes sense for people sitting on the floor. (There are no couches or chairs here, just a thin rug over a concrete floor and a hard cushion for your elbow) The windows are simply holes in the wall with wooden shutters, painted a bright green and sandblasted to that country chic look so popular a few years ago.
The side of the yard nearest the street has 3 tiny rooms. The kitchen is an unadorned square with a dirt floor; the shower is a tiny room with a slanted cement floor and a hole through the wall that drains into the street outside. Upon shutting the door, the room becomes pitch black until your eyes adjust to the small streaks of light leaking through whatever cracks there are. Usually there’s a bucket of water there. To shower, you dip cups in and pour it over your body in the dim, dank twilight.
The third room is the toilet and it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Holes in the ground are common in Mauritania, but Oudane is built on a large rock plateau, and the ground is too hard for digging. Instead, you mount uneven rock stairs and come out on the roof, in full view of the village children, who wave and call to each other to come look at you, until you duck behind the low wall. Below you is an empty room. You balance yourself over it on rafters made of split palm logs, which creak and bend alarmingly, and relieve yourself into the dank below. When things get too smelly, someone dumps charcoal ash over the growing mound. When the rooms get halfway full, it is someone’s uneneviable task to open a door into the wall and shovel it out. I don’t know where it is then deposited, but my guess is that it is dumped into the desert somewhere, or possibly used to fertilize those tiny patches of mint. We were pleased to discover on this trip that the flexible palm trunks have been replaced in the newer homes by rafters made of rock. Much firmer.
Would Oudane have changed in the 8 years since we’d been there? We’d heard they had electricity and cell phones now, which would be a welcome change from before. But, given the almost primative nature of a Mauritanian village, it was hard to imagine huge changes.
…to be continued
Why yes, I’m still working on telling you all about a trip I took last fall. Hang in there. Only a few more posts, and then I’ll go back to posting once every three months.
When we first moved to Mauritania, I was amazed at the driving. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. We’d lived there only a few months when 3 kids racing horses down the street flew around a corner and smashed a horse up onto our car, leaving the horse screaming in agony with a broken leg (they didn’t put it down either; the poor thing lived another week). They claimed it was our fault, and the police agreed after a rapid discussion in Arabic in which some money may or may not have changed hands.
Driving in Mauritania was never ever relaxing. Stopping for a red light was like a jeopardy game. You know how the contestants wait with their hands on the buzzer, and the instant the question flashes they hit that buzzer, only to sometimes realize they don’t know the answer? That was what it was like. The instant the light changed–literally before you had time to move your foot from the brake to the gas pedal–the honking started.
Some events remain green in my memory. The woman in the pink muluffa driving 5 km down one of the main streets with her eyes closed, muttering prayers as her car drifted dangerously near mine. The donkey cart in the right lane suddenly swerving in front of me to turn left. Me jamming on the brakes and shouting and gesturing a bit (not rudely, just exasperatedly) and the children being so embarrassed. The habit drivers had of simply stopping their cars in the middle of the street and getting out and going into the school/shop/wherever. The pointless traffic jams where each car claims each inch of space it can, resulting in a full intersection of angry people and no one going anywhere.
This is my attempt to show you a pointless traffic jam. This is a normal intersection. In America, there would be one lane of traffic going each way. We are headed towards those buildings. The picture is taken through the windshield of Aicha’s car and you can see the hood and the direction we’re pointing. I’m not sure this picture does it justice, but I knew no one there would want to be photographed.
As bad as Mauritania was, Morocco was worse. The driving was the same, except there were more cars going faster, since streets were paved, and there were high curbs and sidewalks, which took away your getaway. (In Mauritania, even paved streets have wide sandy shoulders filled with children and handicapped people that you can swerve into if necessary.) Morocco was insane. If Mauritania was hell on wheels, Morocco was the 9th circle. But I learned to love the challenge. There was one road that I always felt would be instrumental in teaching fractions. It was divided in half (one half for each direction) as normal, but the entire road was also divided in thirds. This meant 1 1/2 lanes for each direction. Naturally Moroccan drivers were able to turn this into 3 lanes for each direction. I found it just as effective as anything else to simply close my eyes and use the force to steer.
When we first came back to the US, I found the driving tame and insipid. I tend to express my feelings vocally while driving, and I would sit at the green light muttering “GO!” at the car in front of me while Ilsa chirped, “Use the horn, Mom!” from the back seat. Seriously, she could not understand why her parents were suddenly so mealy-mouthed, so to speak. I tend to be a really impatient driver with a bit of a heavy foot on the gas pedal. I swerve (politely) in and out of traffic, making up time so I’m not too late, usually going ever-so-slightly above the speed limit, until I notice I’m
15 10 miles over and slow down. And this is on surface streets.
I assumed I still had what it took to be on the streets of North Africa, so it came as a shock to find that I have become timid. I’d be sitting in a taxi watching a bus coming straight towards me, about to T-bone us, and I would find myself tense, gasping, bracing for the inevitable collision as our taxi moved with less than a second to spare. When we lived there, things like this didn’t bother me. I rather liked the excitement of the near miss. But on this trip I spent a lot of our time in taxis tensing up and feebly fumbling for something to hold on to–the edge of the seat, the door handle if available, anything. My heart pounded. Pitiful.
Morocco has spent the last 3 years attempting to re-do its driving. Right about the time we were leaving, they were introducing a system of “points” where you could lose points for various infractions, although how on earth this would be enforced remained unclear. Foreigners had to get a Moroccan driver’s license, whether or not they really spoke French or Arabic. Supposedly this would make everything calmer, more civilized. I had visions of intersections with drivers saying, “No, you go first. Please” instead of charging ahead, guns blazing, so to speak. On this trip, there came a moment when we were in a taxi heading downtown and I realized that everyone was waiting in his or her own proper lane. There were supposed to be 3 lanes–there were 3 lanes, instead of the normal 5 or 6. “Wow, it’s really working,” I thought.
The traffic light changed, everyone surged forward, and within 2 seconds I realized that actually nothing had changed. Battles were still being fought over inches of pavement space. The only difference was my stress level and, apparently, gullibility.
By the time we got to Mauritania, I’d pretty much adjusted back. Donn’s friend Mohammed, who is doing really well for himself, loaned us a car for a few days. It was just like old times, driving around town, getting stuck in pointless traffic jams where the only way out is to join in and fight for those inches of progress, singing “Anarchy in the UK” (Sample lyrics: I know what I want and I know how to get it) as we wove our way in and out of oncoming traffic. It was Oregon that was once again the shock.
Waking up that first morning back in Nouakchott was strange. I had slept surprisingly well on my solid-as-a-rock mattress. But I was unprepared for the sight that met my eyes, as I rubbed sleep from them and stared out the front window.
Puddles and puddles and puddles! What was up? I well remember, in fact it is seared into my memory, how hot and dry Nouakchott was. Located where the sands of the Sahara meet the Atlantic Ocean, built on some salt flats by the French who decided on a relatively-neutral spot to build a new capital city for a new country in 1960, Nouakchott was the exact opposite of Portland. It rained 4-6 times a year, always harsh and sudden and preceded by a wind that whipped the reddish sand straight up into a wall that was then slammed down hard by the rain, rendering anything outside, like clean clothes on your washline, covered with reddish mud. Rainstorms lasted anywhere from 10-30 minutes, then they were over. They left lots of puddles, that disappeared within a day or so as the hot thirsty air drank all moisture available and the sand eventually absorbed what was left. It only rained between July and September. I remember one year in which it really didn’t rain at all.
This was different. Since we left in 2007, the sea has risen, so that now there are actually permanent ponds, almost lakes, in this desert city. There are rushes, and ducks and egrets. I can not emphasize strongly enough to you how strange this is. It would be like leaving Portland for 6 years and returning to find a barren wasteland that no one had thought to mention to me.
We arrived very late on a Wed. night, around midnight. Thursday was normal weather-wise, but the Friday and Saturday of that week it rained all day. It was bizarre. In spite of huge changes in the amount of paved roads, most of Nouakchott remains sand instead of pavement, and the sand turned instantly to mud. I was wearing very long skirts (well, long skirts on a short person) that dragged in the mud.
After 2 days of rain, the place was truly flooded. Several large intersections were impassable. When I went to visit Aicha, we had to park a long ways away and walk to her house over a trail made of sandbags, cement blocks and other debris. We heard stories of people in the poorer sections of town who lost everything, of children drowned in houses. Tim and Debbie’s old house was unreachable without wading through deep water.
It rained for 2 days and was pleasant, temperature-wise, although unpleasant to walk around in. But then the weather cleared. The sky was actually blue! (In Nouakchott, it’s usually white with dust and haze) And it was hot. It was around 100 degrees for the rest of the time we were there. The heat slowly shrank the puddles and the wind whipped up the drying sand. It achieved a state I would previously have thought impossible–it managed to be muddy and dusty at the same time.
I wrote the kids long emails that I would send when we had internet access, which wasn’t very often. (Ilsa: “Your letters are so long. You’re not going to have anything left to tell us.” It’s like she doesn’t even know me. She complained often about the length of my emails, which made me feel great about her interest level in me, but she did read them.) I told them over and over about all the water. Donn did too. And yet, when we were back and Abel was looking at my phone pics while in a doctor’s waiting room, he shouted, “WHAT??? WHAT IS ALL THAT WATER???” Everyone looked. I tried to explain, sort of. It was awkward.
Seeing all that green was nice. Donn and I are hoping that the city learns to deal with its new water, and that it ends up being a good thing. In the meantime, the water is brackish and not really anything you’d want to get too near.