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Since I have such a bad habit of never finishing my accounts of our travel, I’ve decided to do this one backwards. How will that help? you ask. Because we’ve gone to Morocco and Mauritania 3 times now in the past 6 years, and I’ve never finished an account of a trip yet. In fact, I never told you the two funniest parts of the 2013 trip. Maybe I will do so now.
Funniest Thing #1: Moh is in many ways a typical Mauritanian man; generous to a fault, proud yet insecure about his country. No matter what we said, he tried to out-do it. We were telling him about how we now live in Oregon, which is known for its tree-huggers. We know, of course, that this is a metaphor. Oregonians don’t typically actually hug trees. But he was not to be outdone. “I love trees so much, I kiss them!” he announced, going up and kissing a tree.
Funniest Thing #2: We had just finished tea on the dunes with Aicha and were heading back into town. It was after 11. Elections were coming up, and we began to see the familiar tents and men in voluminous white and pale blue robes gathering in them. (Here is a post about Mauritanian elections) We turned onto another road and found ourselves behind a truck with a loudspeaker. As we drove, the people in the truck turned on the loudspeaker and began to broadcast a song extolling their candidate’s virtues. Frustrated, Aicha glanced at the clock. “It’s only 11:30,” she fumed. “Elections don’t open until midnight! They don’t have the right to disturb people until after midnight!”
On this most recent trip, we went once again to the dunes to drink tea. The weather was pleasant, even a little cool at midnight as we stumbled in the moonlight to the top of a small dune at the edge of town. Here’s a picture of the herd of camels who were right next to us, silent shapes in the gloaming, until the headlights of a car turning around caught them in its beam.
We’ve been back 2 weeks now. We’re over jet lag, and we’re mostly recovered from traveling for an entire month. We visited friends in 3 countries, were served everything from exquisite cheeses to couscous in rancid butter, wine in stemware to camel’s milk in wooden bowls. In many ways, the month flew by. In each country, the time was too short to see everyone we wanted to see. But it’s good to be home.
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
If you had told my grandmother, born around 1900, that her grand-daughter would circumnavigate half of the globe not in 80 days, not in 80 hours, but in 28 hours, she would have been amazed. So I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that really, this is kind of cool. But at the same time, it is rather hard on the body.
I’m typing this in my Portland living room. The place is a wreck–obviously the twins’ definition of “cleaning the house” differs more radically from my own than I had realized. (They did great overall but I will share with you that about a week ago, when we said, “What are you going to do today?” they replied “Dishes.”) Add to their peculiar sense of what is implied by “organized” our 4 cases spewing their contents onto the floor, and you can imagine the state of affairs. I am in a daze of jet-lag and travel exhaustion so I’m working at it slowly, with frequent breaks. So far I’ve cleaned out the fridge, gotten the kitchen to the point where one can see the countertops, and started the mountain of laundry. As the Mauritanian proverb goes, “Guttruh, guttruh, i-seel i-waad.” (Drop by drop, the valley fills with water.)
We left our friends’ house in Rabat at 4, driven 100 kilometres to Casablanca by Annie, who went far above and beyond the normal requirements of friendship and hospitality. She dropped us off at the airport, and we were in ample time to commiserate with some traveling Canadians about the Moroccans cutting the line, and buy bottles of water for our flight. We had 2 layovers; one in Paris and one in New York. Both layovers were short–the one at JFK short enough to be stressful, although we made our gate with 5 minutes to spare. The flights were long and boring, enlivened only by seatmates who were also expats. On our last flight, Donn sat next to a woman who’d been in Mauritania for 2 years in the mid-80s with Peace Corps. Truly it is a small world. (I’ll pause while tiny voices start shrieking in your head “…after all! It’s a small world after all!!” You’re welcome)
We arrived in Portland just before 10 local time, which is of course nearly 6 a.m. Moroccan time. We came home starving, as that last 6 hour flight had given us nothing more than tiny packets of pretzels or peanuts. We stayed up another 2 hours chatting with the twins and ravenously scarfing down the dinner Ilsa had made us (all together now: awwwww) and cruelly giving them only half of their presents, because it’s so close to Christmas.
I’m at the point where someone can speak to me in English and I’ll answer in French or vice versa, but this won’t last. We slept 7 hours and then couldn’t, although I lay in bed another hour with my eyes glued shut with tiredness, my mind restlessly lashing back and forth with strange memories of cramped medinas and haggling shopkeepers and open desert skies. I’m off to take a nap soon but thought I’d say hi, and warn you of many more posts lurking in my head.
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.
The jet lag, it is wicked. Pervasive. Illogical.
How can jet lag be a thing? How can I lie in bed with my eyes glued shut, feeling like my body is metal and there’s a magnet under the bed holding it down, pulling it fast, and yet not sleep? How can I crave sleep with all of my soul and yet find it so elusive?
We left Tuesday but didn’t get to Nouakchott until Thursday at midnight. Friday, we were up till 3, then we got up about 11, which seemed right. We’re staying at a guesthouse and we’re the only ones here so there’s nothing to wake us and no one else to worry about. We’ve been having slow mornings, with coffee and pain au chocolat.
Saturday, we decided to really fight it. In the early evening we went to the beach with some other expatriates, and has that experience changed! When we lived here, a large group of us would head out every Saturday, to a location about 15 kilometres north of town. We’d bring a large tent and set it up for shade, and everyone would gather underneath it and share snacks, hang out, and chat while a large group of kids boogie-boarded and chased each other through the dunes. We were always the only ones there, except for the rare occasion when a fisherman passed by or an SUV drove down the beach.
Now there are businesses there, about 10 kilometres out, and that’s where everybody goes. There are little straw huts, open-air restaurants, and strangest of all, local people. In an extremely modest culture where locals are covered head to toe even at the beach, it’s more than a little uncomfortable to be running around even in a modest maillot. Regardless, we had a lovely time, catching up with people, swimming in the warm, salty Atlantic, and eating fresh grilled fish at the little restaurant.
We got home about 9 p.m. and arranged to meet a Mauritanian friend called Mohammed for coffee. He picked us up and we drove around, finally settling on a place that was here when we lived here. They used to be the only place in the city you could get whole wheat bread. We ordered coffee and sat and chatted for a while. Then he had a suggestion. Did we want to join him and his friends to drink tea on the dunes? We would leave around midnight. Sure, we said. After all, we weren’t sleeping till 3 anyway. And who’s going to pass up a chance like that?
We had a lovely time. Nouakchott is very hot this year–temps have been around 104 every day, with a dry hot wind, and my hair looks like straw by noon. But the nights are lovely, with temps around 80 and pleasant breezes. We walked a short distance through the sand and sat on a rug spread with cushions and met several faceless people, all of whom seemed really nice. It was very dark. I watched in some bemusement as one of the women built a small fire on the sand and starting fanning it with a bit of cardboard. “This is going to take forever,” I thought. That is a thought I often have in Mauritania, where life moves more slowly. I remember arriving for lunch once and watching the men take away a goat to slaughter for our meal.
It didn’t take forever, but it wasn’t fast either. That was good. It was pleasant to sit under the stars, enjoying the breeze and listening to the women chatter, joining in occasionally. I hadn’t met any of them before but they were really welcoming.There were about 12 of us there, and I was amazed at how much tea the woman was able to produce from the tiny pot. As is typical here, we stayed for 3 rounds of sweet, minty green tea served in small glasses. We got back to our guesthouse at about 2 a.m. I was tired, but didn’t sleep till 4.
This high quality photo was taken with my phone (the camera sucks) in the dark, with a flashlight from another phone shining on it. I really shouldn’t even post it, but I’m going to anyway. I wanted you to see that tiny teapot on the fire on the sand. The cushion is to block the wind, and you can see a blurry hand waving cardboard at the tiny fire.
And somehow, this has become a habit. Every night, we meet Moh for coffee. Last night it was Turkish coffee at 12:30. Tonight was early–espresso and steamed milk at 10:45. It’s barely past midnight and we’re home.
And so I think we’ve got the jet lag licked. The caffeine addiction/wakefulness? Not so much. Of course, who can tell the difference?
In ESL class the other day, the topic was Halloween. This was because Massi, who came from the Middle East this summer and is mystified by much that she sees in American culture, asked if we could talk about it. I asked her what she thought it was. “Americans believe it’s a day when ghosts come back and walk the earth,” she told me. Well, no, not exactly, I told her. But she was adamant. She was sure someone had told her that.
I tried to explain how people like to be scared, how they pretend to believe scary stuff but really don’t. I had prepared a lesson that included some of the history of Halloween, questions that asked if they believed in ghosts or witches, and references to the Salem Witch Trials.
We were talking about that, and it suddenly occurred to me that what’s happening with the Ebola scare is, in many ways, a modern day version of the same paranoia and fear of something that’s just not well understood, something that happens to this group of people there who need to be kept away from our group of people here. I tried to explain this, although I think I lost most of my class. They are doing very well but this was just too theoretical!
Ebola is perfect for Halloween. It’s really scary but in many ways it doesn’t seem quite real, occurring as it does only on our televisions (unless you live in Dallas or, of course, in West Africa).
Donn and I are on our way to Mauritania again (literally. I’m typing at 36,000 feet, although it won’t post till later) and it’s been fascinating to me how many people have asked us about Ebola. No, it isn’t in Mauritania or Morocco. Senegal had one case but contained it and is now considered Ebola-free. Our risk is virtually non-existent. Africa is a very large continent, not a country.
I had mostly given up on this blog. I never even finished writing about our last trip to these 2 countries, and I was saving the best, funniest stories for last. Maybe I’ll still write one last post about the ’13 trip, but it seems unlikely at this point. In spite of previous failures, I’m going to try again. I started an instagram (planetnomad) and I’m hoping to at least post lots of photos, but I want to write. I brought a laptop this time. We’ll see how it goes.
And, when we landed in Nouakchott, they checked our temps. Donn joked that, had he known that would happen, he would have kept a mouthful of food and pretended to vomit. I asked why he’d want to get quarantined here? He’s crazy.
The airport here is changing; we got the most modern, up-to-date visa I’ve ever seen, and they even took my fingerprints. We have wicked jet-lag. The airport personnel in the Casa airport lived up to their reputation and rifled through our bags, helping themselves to some of the gifts we’d brought people.We had a 36-hour layover in Casa, where we stayed with friends and spent an afternoon wandering round the Grand Mosque and the Corniche, and I found a mall filled with American stores…Starbucks, Payless Shoes, H&M, all high-end and gleaming here, stores for the Very Rich.
I’ll write again soon.