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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.
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.
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
In Mauritania, there are probably 4 main dishes; chebojan (fish, vegetables and rice), yassa poulet (chicken cooked in a mustard-onion sauce, with rice), mafe (beef or chicken in a peanut-tomato sauce, with rice) and poulet-frites (chicken served with fries and onion sauce, eaten with bread). Out of these, my favorite is probably the yassa, and last year it seemed that everywhere we went, people served us yassa or poulet-frites. It was really good. But we only ate chebojan once, and I missed it. This year, it’s the opposite. I’ve eaten chebojan at least 3 or 4 times already, and I’m longing for some yassa.
Fish is the theme of the week, definitely. We went to visit H. She was out of the country last year when we visited, and came to greet us joyously. “Can I hug Donn?” she asked me. “Sure,” I said, but she didn’t–it would be wildly inappropriate in this culture. She took us to the permanent tent her family has set up in the courtyard–the frame of the tent is metal and the sides are wire mesh to keep out animals, but open to the breezes and strewn with rugs, matlas and cushions. It’s a very pleasant place to spend an afternoon. We recline on the matlas and are served bissum (deep bright red, slightly tart, made from hisbiscus) and tajzhma:a (I don’t know what it is but it’s tasty; made from some dried pods or something. Debbie, help me out in comments) and zrig (milk, sugar and water). Her mother came to greet us. H’s brother is a very close friend of Donn’s, and this family has known us for many years. Their big disappointment was that our kids weren’t with us. I showed pictures of how big they all are now, like I do everywhere we go. Her mother said I had to be Mauritanian, and gave me a purple muluffa, which they draped round me.
Lunch was served in the tent. Large platters of food were brought, along with a muksul–a plastic bucket with a lid and a teapot on top, to wash your hands. Their nanny brought it, and poured the water over my hands while I soaped up and rinsed, then moved on to give everyone the opportunity to wash up. We tore pieces off a long baguette and ate with our hands, an entire fish served on a bed of french fries, and chunks of beef on the bone, also served over fries. “I decided to do fish instead of salad,” said H. “Don’t eat too much–there’s chebojan coming too.” We protested, so she agreed to wait a couple of hours before serving the chebojan.
After eating a lot of bread and fries, I felt sleepy in the afternoon heat. The nanny brought round the muksul again, then served us each a large class of Coke, then the guard brought the requisite 3 rounds of sweet mint tea. We lay back on the matlas–that is, Donn lay back and I lay on my side or stomach, because it’s rude in this culture for a woman to lie on her back in public. (I’m sure I’ve forgotten lots of other things but I remember that one). After a while, Donn left, but I stayed for the afternoon, reclining in my purple muluffa, enjoying the light breezes and chatting about anything and everything with my friend, so happy to see her again. Soon enough the muksul reappeared and then the chebojan, and although I wasn’t hungry yet, I ate some to be polite. Later that evening Donn and I went for dinner and I couldn’t eat a thing, just ordered a ginger drink.
When we lived here, I asked my Mauritanian househelper to teach me how to make chebojan. It’s very complicated, and I never did really learn, but I vividly remember her showing me the amount of oil she used. She took a small Coke bottle and filled it full, dumped that in, and then added another half bottle. (In American measurements this would prob be close to 2 cups of oil) I suspect that H’s cook, and Aicha’s too, are using similar amounts. It’s not surprising that I go through my days with my stomach feeling slightly upset.
Some days I feel like there are only 2 food groups; carbs and oil. Of course that’s not true. I’ve visited my Palestinian friends twice now and they give me food much more like the Iraqi food I eat in Portland, complete with lovely salads. Last night, her father was at the beach when I arrived, and he soon came with armfuls of freshly-caught fish which they grilled and served with bread and salad. There’s nothing like eating a fish that was alive less than an hour earlier, and it was delicious. But spending my days eating carbs and oil, then lying back on matlas and relaxing, is not doing my waistline any favors. It’s too hot and dusty to walk much, and besides we’re busy. When we get home, we are both going to need to go on a strict diet. I’m kind of looking forward to it.
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.
I’ve noticed that when one is flying to another country, one’s experience in that country often seems to begin in the first country’s airport. So, for example, when one arrives at the gate at Casablanca’s Mohamed VI airport where one will board the flight to Nouakchott, it’s like one is already there.
At the end of October, we took the train down from Rabat to Casa. It was yet another gorgeous day, the sky a deep blue, the shade crisp and cool and the sun giving off real warmth. Since we would be landing in Nouakchott (I’m going to call it by it’s airport name now, NKC. So much easier to type. Thank you) after midnight, I dared to wear jeans and a long tunic. The daring to wear jeans bit has to do with heat, not culture. I figured it just might be bearable, and I was mostly right.
We got to the train station early, and had a coffee in the newly-finished cafe. Well, new-to-us. From when we first visited in 2007 to when we left in 2010, the main station in Rabat (Gare de Rabat Ville) was under construction, with no end in sight. Now it’s finally finished, and it’s very nice.
The basic platform hasn’t changed, but the inside has–now you take escalators up to a small shopping centre/food court area. Ok, that part isn’t totally finished yet, but it may never be. Who knows? The point is, it’s much improved.
The part that’s the same is the platform. I was amused at the security officer standing there, bored, while everyone crossed in front of the sign forbidding crossing. “It is officially forbidden to cross the tracks,” says the sign. A steady stream of people crossed in front of it, while a bored officer watched them.
We took the train to the airport, found our gate, and joined the “queue.” It was like already being back in Nouakchott, paying my bill at Mauritel. It was actually a little surrealistic.
I’m going to be stereotypical for a minute here, but of course I know that not all White Maure women are this way, blah blah blah. Seriously. Aicha, for example, doesn’t behave this way. But in NKC, it is not uncommon to see White Maure women standing imperviously, snapping their fingers, while darker-skinned men scurry to obey. They have been raised to expect their every whim to be attended to, and that carries over into their interactions with you. They sail through intersections, expecting others to stop. They cut “queues” at Mauritel and anywhere else. They hire other people to write their papers for English class, which means an A in class and an inability to carry on even the most basic conversation in English. Maure society is very much based on class, and while slavery has officially been illegal for several years now, old habits die hard.
In the “line” at the Casa airport, we watched in bemusement as White Maure women, their faces the colour that can only be produced by years of lightening creams, snapped their fingers at young men pushing carts heavily laden with luggage. The women would sit at cafe tables nearby and watch while porters nudged their heavy carts in front of other people. We stood in the “queue” nearest the edge, where the cafe was roped off from the area where we were all standing with our luggage, and watched as people tried to cut by going up to the front, leaning over the rope, and attempting to push their tickets and a wad of cash into the airline person’s hand. The airline people mostly ignored them, waving them away like mosquitoes.
We eventually got through the melee, and made our way through passport control to the gate and then onto the plane itself. There it was evident that many people were unaccustomed to modern flying. The young man sitting next to Donn was unfamiliar with seat belts and adjustable seat backs and the concept of personal space. Many people didn’t feel the need to sit down even when the attendants demanded they do so. As the plane began to taxi down the runway, I watched a White Maure woman, strolling unconcerned, baby on hip, to fetch something from her carry-on, which was now safely stored in an overhead compartment. She snapped her fingers to get someone to get it down for her. I thought the flight attendant was going to have an apoplectic fit! He turned quite red and shouted at her. She won though, returning complacently to her seat with the baby’s bottle. Donn and I exchanged glances, but I must admit mine contained mostly amusement. We were really back!!
The instant the plane’s wheels touched ground in Nouakchott, everyone was on their feet, while the overhead announcement pleaded uselessly in 3 languages for everyone to remain seated with their seat belts securely fastened until the plane had come to a complete stop.
An old friend met us at the airport in the dust-filled midnight and took us to our first guesthouse. Two other couples were there, both close friends and colleagues from our time in Mauritania, both of whom now live in another country. We had a joyous reunion and stayed up another couple of hours. Then we sorted out sleeping arrangements. Donn and I had a room with a twin bed and bunk beds. My mattress was so firm that you could have bounced a ball off it. And so, feeling a bit like the princess who woke up black and blue from the pea in the mattress, I drifted off under the whirring of the fan. November in Nouakchott.