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Sigh. See post title for where I’m at with this.
Last time we saw our intrepid heroine, she was celebrating her 25th wedding anniversary a mere 2 1/2 months after the fact in Thailand (!!!). In fact, she was in a lovely boutique hotel, with the Queen of Concierges bringing her dry toast and jasmine tea, lying in a very comfortable bed having a very uncomfortable time. Was it food poisoning? A virus? No one knows. There was a fever involved, and if someone is going to get gastrointestinal distress it’s usually Donn, but still. The fact remains that out of 8 precious days, she lost an entire 2…and then spent the 3rd wanting things like crackers and yogurt instead of super-cheap-and-delicious Thai food. Sigh. Obviously she needs to go back.
We had scheduled me to take a Thai Cookery class on the Monday, but when I got sick on Sunday (the day we rode elephants; I was running a slight fever and actually slept in the van both ways), Donn spent ages moving my appointment to Tuesday. Then on Tuesday he had to move it to Wednesday. By Wednesday I was determined to go. They picked me up from the hotel in a little pick-up with benches down the back, and I climbed in and met my fellow students–one from Brazil and a couple from New Zealand.
The cooking school was great. I learned to make 6 items, many of which I have actually made here in Oregon. First they took us to the school where they served us tea and pastries, then they took us to the market where they showed us what to shop for. I took a million photos, roughly, but I’ll only make you look at a few close ups of dragon fruit, bananas, and mushrooms.
Then back to the school. I made (you know you care!) chicken coconut soup, green curry paste (which I will never make here. Let’s be serious. It has about 20 obscure ingredients and you pound it in an enormous mortar and pestle), green curry itself, Pad Thai because Abel loves it so, green papaya salad, and mango with sticky rice.
I made this Pad Thai and green curry. You could choose from a variety of dishes, but I picked these because my family loves them. I have made Pad Thai in America now but it wasn’t as good. I was missing an ingredient or two though; I need to try again.
I ate everything I made! Actually, I took a lot of it back to the hotel with me, because my stomach wasn’t up to 5 meals in the space of a few hours, but really I did great. It was so much fun. I loved the people who ran the school, and my fellow learners. We all promised to keep in touch and send each other photos and everyone else did but me because I have good intentions but lousy follow-through.
I didn’t make this particular sticky rice with mango, but I ate it! I did learn to make it and mine tasted great but wasn’t as aesthetically pleasing as this dish from a restaurant. I felt you needed more beauty in your lives so went with this photo. And yes, I have successfully made this in Oregon. The mango was the least successful part.
Chiang Mai really was fantastic. The old city has an ancient, 700-year-old wall and moat around it, which is now filled with fountains and lined with flowers and crossed by charming bridges. There are masses of temples and many many markets filled with fun, cheap things to cram into your luggage. Our time was far, far too short and we hope to go back some day.
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
When you live in a place for 6 years, you come to think of it as home, even as you still refer to your country of origin as “home.” This is a conundrum familiar to travelers and expatriates alike. The result, naturally enough, is that you never feel completely at home in any single place again. There’s always something you miss.
We lived in Mauritania long enough for a bit of the desert to enter our souls. But we have been gone for as long as we’d lived there, and Morocco was very different. What would it be like to return after 6 years?
In a word, it was disorienting. As we drove from the airport into the dust-filled midnight, Donn said, “It hasn’t changed at all.” But it had. In the morning, we saw the water. Everyone had been telling us that the city had grown and grown and grown, but it took us several days to see all the ways that it had.
This is an example, an enormous fountain (?) being put in at the carrefour nearest our old house. Presumably they’ll unwrap the dolphins at some point. Can’t wait to see how long this monstrosity is used. How long before it’s left to publicly crumble, like the palm trees they used to plant for visiting dignitaries and then didn’t water once the dignitaries had left?
That first afternoon, Donn and I wandered out to begin to look for old friends. Since leaving in 2007, we’d lost track of almost everybody, and we were anxious to find again these people who live so annoyingly without facebook, email, and skype. (Aside: I am not describing everyone here, just some. But a high proportion of Mauritanians live without internet in their homes.) We decided to walk. Donn stopped to take a picture of the edge of one of the puddles, where trash floated suspended in murkiness. Some kids driving by mocked us at first, and then turned it into mocking themselves for coming from a country with trash everywhere. It was a little sad, especially as they spoke English, which means they are upper-class and educated.
We stopped by the home of the guy who was probably Donn’s closest friend when we lived there. Mohammed is someone we have kept in touch with. He occasionally will call Donn on his vonage phone. But we didn’t have a phone in Mauritania. We went to his parents’ house, which we found after only one wrong turn. A group of boys playing outside approached up, avid curiosity mingled with suspicion on their faces. “Who are you looking for?” asked one. We gave the name. “He is my grandfather,” said the boy with great dignity in spite of torn knees and dust-covered jeans. I realized he must be my friend H’s son, the one who was born during Ramadan, the one they rubbed henna all over when he was 3 days old so that he was a curious orange colour when I first saw him. Since Mohammed and his father have the same name, we knew we were in the right place.
Mohammed wasn’t there but one of his older sisters was, and she called him and handed us the phone. He no longer lives there but has his own place now, even though he’s still not married. We arranged a time to meet the following day, and walked on. I needed conditioner so we went to one of the bigger stores where we used to shop. We walked in. “How are you? How are the kids?” one of the young men shouted, running over to shake Donn’s hand and hug him. I couldn’t believe it. He remembered us.
We asked him where a cyber-cafe was and he told us of a new place. Nouakchott’s main drag is wider now and there are sidewalks, at least at this end, and street lights that worked, and even a new traffic light. It was a bit disorientating. We found the cafe, and there were actual tables and chairs set out on the sidewalk, something we’d never seen before. It felt a little bit like Morocco, except for all the dust in the air, fogging the orange light cast by the streetlights, stirring in little eddies as the men in their long white robes walked past. We ordered coffee and pulled out our iPad (Donn) and smart phone (me) to check mail. We sat there, in full view of the city, obviously foreign and by extension obviously rich, oblivious. When we’d finished, we went over to visit Oasis Books, our old project. (When we lived there, Donn was the administrator and I was a teacher there. It was the first English bookstore and library in the country and also taught English classes). There, the people that run it now told us about how smart phones and iPads are the most desirable things to steal in the country, and told us of a woman who’d been killed for her smart phone by a taxi driver.
That made me feel vulnerable. I don’t know if I can describe how visible I always felt in Mauritania, where I look different from almost everyone else and I stand out. On the one hand, I value this experience. I, a white middle-class American woman, know very well how it is to be the minority. On the other hand, I am at essence a shy person and all the attention is wearing. Hearing that I had sat, my face and hair shining like the sun in its splendor, using a much-desired smart phone in a very public place made me feel a little strange.
As a result, our friends told us, the government had kicked out all non-native taxi drivers. This meant that taxis were scarce and the drivers felt they could charge you more than 100 times the going rate, which friends told us technically hadn’t changed. So instead of 80 cents, we were quoted $12 to go short distances. When we protested, the driver would simply drive off. It was frustrating.
In the 6 years since we left, Mauritania has changed so much. Yes the city has grown–it must be twice the size. But Al-Queda has also come to the area. Aid workers have been kidnapped; a friend of ours was gunned down in the streets. There was a suicide bomber outside the kids’ old school who, like a bad joke, killed only himself. All these things have taken a toll. Peace Corps left, most of the French families left along with European businesses and many of our American and European friends, and the Paris-Dakar rally has relocated to South America. Donn was talking to a man who sold souvenirs–bracelets made of wood and metal, leatherwork, picture frames and occasional tables.”We are all paying the devil’s bill,” he told Donn mournfully, “Not just us, but the tour guides in the desert and everyone at all connected to tourism.”
It’s true I felt more unsafe there, although I want to stress that nothing happened. In part, it was stories people told us, including Mauritanian friends. In part, it was probably in my head. I do know that we stood out like we did in 2001 and like we didn’t by 2007, when oil had been discovered and Europeans, Americans and Australians were flooding in. (Flooding is a relative term. Perhaps seeping would be more accurate) And being in such a noticeable and noticed minority makes one feel vulnerable, no matter the reality of the situation.
Mauritania can be an infuriating place but before you know it, the people have crept into your heart. Like the kids who started out mocking us and then turned their wit on themselves, the nation as a whole suffers from an inferiority complex that is often masked in an annoying superiority. I still remember a student I had who picked his nose with his pen. I’d look over and his pen would be half up his nose, and I’d have to look away quickly. He said to me one day, “I think Mauritanians are cleaner than Americans.” I flashed on people living in the dirt without running water, on trash-choked streets and on the unpaved roads. I asked him why he thought that, and he said, “Because we are Muslim and we wash our hands 5 times a day before we pray.” Meanwhile, in America, kids are developing asthma because their environments are too sterile and there are wipes available at the grocery store for your carts and toilet seat covers for public toilets. I thought of trying to describe it, but it was too much. I just said, “Americans wash their hands a lot too,” and left it at that.
I remember trying to teach a writing class to use specific descriptions. I wrote on the board, “The mountain is beautiful” and showed them two pictures, one of a flat mesa in the Mauritanian desert in shades of ochre, and one of snow-capped Mt Hood rising above deep green forests. I asked which picture the sentence described, wanting them to tell me it could be either, and they needed more picturesque and expressive words, but instead they cast their eyes down and said, “You are right. Mauritania is not beautiful.”
See? They just crept into your heart a little bit, didn’t they? Even now, thinking of those earnest students who tried so hard and who had so few chances to succeed makes me sad and angry and proud.
And so I have to say that in the ways that count most, Mauritania has not changed. It’s grown a lot. It felt more unsafe. But that curious, fascinating blend of people pushing you away and reaching out to you at the same time is still there. People stared at me on the street, but that didn’t mean they meant me harm–just that I was unusual, like seeing your TV come to life. My friend Aicha’s guard said to her, when I went for lunch, “Can I come in and just watch her eat? I’ve seen people eating with knives and forks on TV but never in real life.” “NO you can’t come watch her eat!” said Aicha, and she laughed when she told me, but I sensed she also felt shy, insecure, that she comes from a place where people can reach adulthood without ever being exposed to silverware.
I know I keep using the word “strange,” but it was strange to be there, in a world half-remembered and yet never forgotten. Our time in Mauritania changed our family, forever shaped how we view the world and our place in it, even though we were only there six years, a portion of my life that grows smaller and smaller as the years pile on. Life has an intensity there, a preciousness perhaps born of the fact that life isn’t all that precious, as babies run out behind your SUV and people die for the lack of something as basic as water. Perhaps it’s because everything you thought you knew has been stood on its head—fat is beautiful, the utility companies will cheat you and rob you blind, the cute puppy will be a skinny rabid dog in about 6 weeks. But once you’ve lived there, you will forever more be impatient with certain values the developed world holds dear. Life is precious because it is precarious, and there’s a solidity to that fact that is blurred and blunted in more affluent countries. And in a certain sense, returning to the desert did feel like coming home.
One of the adventuresome things about traveling in the Arab world is learning how different the dialects of neighbouring countries can be. How hard can it be? you think at first. Say, for example, you have been working on Hassiniya, the Mauritanian dialect. Surely Dareja, the Moroccan dialect, will be similar, since they share a border and were divided up by those pesky French in the 60s, which really wasn’t all that long ago. You will be wrong though. And one of the fun differences is that in Mauritania, 2 is “ethnane” and in Morocco it is “juge.”
Of course this isn’t just the Arab world. We lived in the town of Chambery, France, for a year. Chambery is located so close to the border of Italy that it was at one point part of Italy, and the last king and queen of Italy are buried by the shores of a lake not too far away. I figured when we went to Italy, my French would work better than my English, but I was wrong. Also in Spain, English will get you further than French or Arabic will.
I loved living in Morocco, and I cried like a baby, only more bitterly, when we had to leave. But living anyplace is…well, just life. There are bills, and you have to go to work, and kids have problems at school, and housing is
hard impossible to find, and sometimes the taxi drivers are surly and you get a cold and it’s so damp that your books mould. Visiting Morocco, however, is just wonderful, plain and simple.
We spent a lot of our time in Morocco playing tourist. Oh sure we visited people, and it was wonderful to see them. We had lunch with old colleagues and ate chicken and olive tagines for about $4 in a basic area of the city, and we met a friend for ice-cream in the expensive European part of the city and it costs $7 for 3 little boules (scoops), but mostly we just wandered around happily. I got a pedicure. I love getting pedicures but I never do, as they are expensive. In Rabat, you can go to the European section and visit a spa and still pay $12 for a very nice, very long pedicure. My nails are still a delightful red, although of course now I’m wearing socks and no one can see them. But I know they’re there.
No you don’t want a pic of my toes. You want cool arches!
We took a lot of taxis and it was fun to watch Donn plunge right back into Darija, chatting away to the taxi drivers, who are always impressed and happy if you speak even a smattering of Arabic with them.
When we lived there, I made friends with an Italian woman with a Moroccan husband, whose daughter was in Ilsa’s class at school. Irina’s dream was to open a small store selling organic produce and her own home-made jams, jellies, and sauces. She was an incredible cook. We’d lost touch, and I wanted to find her. We walked to her old home and rang the bell several times. No one was home. A Moroccan man came up to see what we wanted. “The Italian woman?” we asked. He shook his head, but went to talk to someone else who was coming up to see what we wanted. (This is common.) Oh yes, he knew her, and pointed to a house across the street.
When we pushed open the door, we saw mounds of gourds, enormous pumpkins and squashes, piles of pomegranates and peppers, and more. The small garage was filled with parsley, lettuce and other greens, and behind a table with a cash register on it was a shelf groaning with jars of jellies and sauces, all prettily labeled in Irina’s own hand. And there was Irina herself, in a white coat, chatting with a French woman who had obviously just come to pick up her order, and was loading it all into an enormous straw basket.
This would prove to be a theme of our trip–finding people with whom we’d lost contact, and finding them doing really well, succeeding at what they’d hoped to do. I was thrilled to see Irina, and to see how busy she was. She had people stopping by nonstop to pick up their orders. She asked us to come back on Monday afternoon for coffee, which we did, and had a great time catching up on the news. I took her card and gave it to all my friends, hoping to drum up even more business for her. I hope next time we go, she has her own shop.
So. Our first day in Morocco, we walked by the kids’ old school and took pictures, visited Irina, and went downtown and wandered round the Oudayas until sunset, at which point we went back to our friends’ house, where we spent a thoroughly delightful evening eating and talking till late. Sunday we went to church with them, where we saw many old friends and attempted to cram 3 years into 10 minutes. Then we had lunch with former colleagues. Then we had expensive ice-cream with a Moroccan friend, then another late evening just talking with our hosts. We sat round a table in their garden, staring out at trees and sometimes with a fire warming our backs from the small fireplace on the patio, ate good food, drank good wine, and shared good conversation. Life doesn’t get much better than that, right?
The ol’ blog’s been quiet lately. Nothing much going on that I feel like blogging about. Donn was gone all last week on a photo excursion in the region of Morocco south of Marrakech and Agadir, returning exhausted from photographing sunrises and with two new rugs for the house, handmade berber rugs in sunrise colours of oranges, yellows, and blues. (I will photograph them once I get batteries for the camera) So the kids and I had a quiet week, eating less meat, staying up later and reading during meals. I never know how much of daily life to post about, but I doubt you want to hear about me rereading an Agatha Christie till 1 a.m., or about how none of the teens showed up for my class last week and how most of the business-people skipped theirs too. All was quiet here in the land of the sunset (which is what Morocco’s name in Arabic, “Maghreb” means. Makes sense, since we’re at the western extreme of the Arab world).
Yesterday something blogworthy happened. I was on my way to class. Twice a week, I teach a group of business-people in their office, which is downtown. Parking is nonexistent at best, often simply imaginary, so I usually take taxis. I am a very organized person and never get involved reading a book or blogs and so have to stress about finding a taxi…cough…but exceptionally, yesterday, I was running late. And, as is usual when one is running late, there were no taxis to be found, not for love or money. (It was only money I was offering, in case you’re wondering) To be more exact, there were plenty of taxis, but all full, or not heading in my direction.
I was starting to feel somewhat panicky when a nice car pulled up in front of me, and a woman I’d never seen before said to me, in French then in English, “Where are you going?” Agdal, I told her. “Get in!” she said.
Obviously I must know her, so I got in, racking my brains as to where we could possibly have met and who she could be. “I live nearby,” she said, gesturing at the neighbourhood on the other side of the main avenue. “I know how hard it is to find a taxi around here!” Ironically, I think we live in a good area for taxis, unless you’re late of course.
I realized that I did not actually know her, but we introduced ourselves and chatted away, quickly finding that my French was better than her English. She was really nice! We established that she’s a fan of America, and that her dream is to become a photographer, and that I live in Rabat and have 3 kids and teach English.
We made good time down that street with all the schools, and at the end she ran a red light and got stuck in the middle of an intersection! If I’d been one of the other drivers, I’d have been enraged, but from my new and improved perspective, I just laughed. She carried on a conversation by gesture with a policeman who was eyeing her askance, and she laughed at herself for doing such a thing with an American passenger. “What will you think of me?” she said, but I reassured her.
She dropped me off near the office and gave me her business card. I promised to call her. After all, it’s not every day you make a new friend when you’re just trying to catch a taxi to work.