Sunday, July 5, 2009

Unfinished Business

So, as some of you know, I've decided to accept the offer of interrupted service. I'm not sure yet when I'll be coming home, nut I'm already starting to wrap things up around here. I've been going through my stuff, deciding what will go to whom, cleaning and organizing like mad, preparing to battle my landlord this morning. My housing contract states that we agreed upon a rent price for 2 years, but that if I decide to leave the house I must give 30 days notice. So, I'm going to end up paying through August 4th, but that's fine. My landlord just requested that we go to the police together at 11 today so they can mediate. They witnessed the original signing of the contract and I really hope all goes smoothly so I can leave here on good terms.

Anyway, I'm pretty frazzled at the moment, so I'm not feeling so creative. I did happen to find an unfinished blog draft from a while ago, so I'll share it now:

"Walking around in sandals, covered by yards of fabric, I sometimes feel like one of the felt board Bible characters from Sunday school when I was a kid. Times like today when the rest of my service here stretches out ahead of me like an endless walk to town on trash-filled streets. The hot wind kicks up, bringing the smell of rotting carcass to my nose. I do the one-finger-bookshelf-dust-check in my ear and find a layer of grit so tangible that it rolls into a thin brown wad on my finger. I don't even want to think about the lines on my neck (or what my ankles look like, for that matter). I wonder what it was like for Jesus, wandering around the desert as a human. Could he really have known everything and still have been human? Isn't part of being human dealing with disappointments, surprises and unexpected changes of plan? Did he ever have a sick day where he just couldn't make it out of bed to do the miracle he'd planned? Or an off-day where he got ripped off at the market, and then no one would listen to his speech. Or maybe they listened but didn't pay attention. Maybe some guy in the front row stood up and left half-way through to see about a new camel saddle. Did he ever go home after a hard day and close himself up in a room to cry and pull out his hair? Did he ever trip on a rock and break his sandal, forcing him to walk the rest of the way with one bare foot on scorching sand? Or step on a thorn so big it punctured all the way through and made his foot bleed? What word escaped his lips at the sudden pain?"

I think what I was trying to get at is that I have a very different perspective of Biblical times, having lived in a harsh climate so similar to what it may have been like. With this new understanding I've been re-reading the stories of my childhood and really putting myself in their places. It's fascinating. Ironically enough, as I read Exodus, the story of Israel's escape from slavery in Egypt, the plagues (8 of the 10 can be found here from time to time) and Pharaoh's final release... I find myself once again living a somewhat parallel story. Okay, so not that grandiose or miracle-filled, but think about it--I've at last been given a pardon of sorts that lets me escape a land of oppression and plagues to a homeland filled with milk and honey.

Now all I've gotta do is cross the Red Sea.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Waiting For The Storm

Lily and I have super powers. Well, I guess, to be honest, they’re not so much “super” as just slightly-better-than-normal powers. Lily can predict storms. It’s got something to do with the drop in barometric pressure and she’s usually about 20 minutes ahead of the giant orange sand cloud. Her power really comes in handy here—especially at night, when you can’t see the storm building on the Northeastern horizon. Usually an extremely sound sleeper (I once watched her dog run across her face without budging her), Lily will sit up out of a dead sleep and say, “It’s coming.” This usually gives us plenty of time to pack up our sleeping gear, bolt all the windows closed and get inside as opposed to waking up as the wall of sand begins to pelt you, threatening to destroy anything that isn’t cemented down. My power is a little different. If you’ve seen the first season of Heroes then you know about the artist who paints scenes of the future. A while ago I thought it would be fun to draw my own comic strip—a little tongue-in-cheek homage to my time here as a volunteer. It was called “The Horrors and Harrows of Life in Mulafa Land” and featured little blobular people accidentally lighting themselves on fire, getting run over by donkey carts, chased by animals, etc. When the story lines started coming true I decided it was time to put away the colored pencils. What fun is a flaming mulafa when a 12-year-old girl suffers third degree burns? My power can’t be stopped that easily though. Even though I’ve resigned myself to drawing about only minor annoyances (cockroaches, sandstorms, God’s judgement in Deuteronomy 28:19-24), it’s found a way to manifest itself in my dreams. For a while now, since before we had any idea of the trouble the new PC invitees would have getting visas, I’ve been having dreams about the end of Peace Corps Mauritania. At first I chalked it up to Mefloquine side effects, but the situation here continues to spiral downwards and now those dreams seem more and more likely. I can’t have an opinion on the political situation here, but I can say that a lot rests in the balance in these coming months. The election, which has been pushed back to mid-July, will determine how other countries see Mauritania, and the person who is elected will decide how Mauritania views the rest of the world, including the US. And then there’s the visa situation. Will we get new volunteers to work alongside, to whom we can pass along our projects? No one is sure. All we know is that the storm is on its way, but there is no way to predict its intensity or its after-effects. Will we have to pack our things and run for cover or will it be light shower we can sit through before normalcy returns? All we can do at this point is wait and hope for the best.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Wanna Know How Hot It Is?!

So I'm back in Mauritania after a whirlwind trip to DR (Congratulations Todd and Rachel! Your wedding was beautiful and the lightning only made it that much more exciting!). Despite an excess baggage fee of 450 Euros (Lindsey is going head to head with Air France for me), and nearly getting deported (for real!), I am here. And sort of glad to be. Really, I'm finding small things to be happy about. Like the way the Neem trees in Nouakchott are all blooming right now and so for once the city smells something you could describe as lovely! The tiny, delicate, white blossoms look like baby daffodils and smell like lilacs (my favorite!). Aleg doesn't have enough Neem trees to smell as fragrant, but there was a clean/smoky type smell in the air today that suggested something like wood was being burnt rather than charcoal or dead animals. What's making me most happy though, is having my little Brookstone travel clock/calendar/thermometer. I can know what the temperature is any time I want now!

When I got home on Thursday evening I was greeted by Lily and so-happy-to-see-me-she-piddled Soeur (Lily's puppy). Almost everyone else in in St. Louis for Jazz Fest right now. Lily informed me that the water had been off for 2 days at that point (it has yet to come on) and that the power has, of course, been off and on as well. But we both rejoiced that it was cool out, eating dinner outside and noting that Brookstone said it was 90 degrees. The next morning I woke up cold around 5:30am and saw that it had dipped below 90 during the night and was inching its way past 88 as the sun came up. Around 11:30am I wimped out at 118 degrees and crawled into my tent with the fan on to read. I passed out and woke up at 3:30pm to find that it was 131 degrees (probably the peak for the day).

All these temperatures may not fascinate you as they do me, and despite the warning many of you gave me that I wouldn't want to know, don't be surprised if every future blog enty I make comes with a weather report. I'm not sorry. You have movie theaters, libraries, art galleries, BARS, public parks, TV, etc. to entertain you. I have a stack of books (courtesy of the Grace cousins and my sister) AND my thermometer. It is enough to keep me content for the next 14 months and 18 days... I hope.

Current weather: 96.5 degrees inside, not a cloud in sight

Thursday, April 30, 2009


45 minutes: The amount of time I spent waiting for Telba in his air-conditioned office, after 4 phone calls to arrange a meeting with him, and a final promise of "I'll be there in 3 minutes". Although my water bottle was empty, I was more than glad to be out of the 130 degree sun for a while.

45 minutes: The amount of time it took me to fill all the buckets last night, when the water came on at midnight.

45 seconds: The amount of time it took the water I splashed on my face, neck, chest and back to dry after I'd finished filling the buckets

45 minutes: The amount of time it took me to calm down and get back to sleep after a 2-inch shadow, terrifyingly reminiscent of my recurring Mefloquine nightmare, ran across the roof of my mosquito net and down the side. It turned out to be a cockroach--thankfully on the outside of the tent this time.

4.5 hours: The amount of useless down time during the hottest part of the day, where I can't even nap because of the sweat puddle created when my head touches the pillow.

Monday, April 20, 2009

1:17 am

Why am I awake writing this? It’s been one of those nights—thankfully they aren’t too frequent—where at some point I realize there is no way I’m getting any sleep. Sometimes it’s due to vivid Mefloquine nightmares involving things crawling on my mosquito net or dropping onto my face. Tonight it was reality. I recently lost a cat that had been an excellent hunter, both of mice and large insects. Over the past week I’ve come to see just how much he did to keep the cockroach population under control in the douche (latrine). Their numbers have increased exponentially, ballooning in an outpouring of unbelievable numbers during the last day. With the help of Lily, and for a while Dave, we battled in that douche with cans of Yotox, a foul-smelling, surely carcinogenic spray, bleach, a strange chalk they sell here that promises to poison roaches that walk through it “in one to two hours”, flip flops and a shovel. An hour’s time made it clear that we were losing the battle, despite the 100+ bodies in and around the douche. I’d already resigned to using the yard as my toilet some days ago, but now the awful bugs were making an endless exodus into the shower, the yard and the house. Tomorrow, we said, tomorrow we’ll try this icky black grease that Peace Corps gave us during training called Gresil Noir. But for tonight, I set my tent up around the corner of the house, in the farthest point from the douche. After carrying my net outside I saw a sizable roach on the outside and killed it, hoping to myself that none of its siblings made it through the not-so-challenging entrance. My zipper is broken, and I’ve been trying to order a replacement tent from REI’s website, but it turns out the model I have has been discontinued. So for now I either clip the opening shut with clothespins (takes a long time and lets lots of bugs in), or drape an ill-fitting PC issue hanging-style net over the opening. I could just use the hanging net, but it’s getting much too hot to sleep inside. Anyway, I settled in with a book, headlamp and iPod, as usual, and started to drool my way to sleep. I awoke to a sharp poke on my left arm and reaching across with my right arm, felt the unmistakable texture of a large, round form with stiff, brush-like legs. I screamed, and in under a second had found my light and began slamming the bug with my book. In order to kill it I had to mash its body into my bedding using Three Cups of Tea, which, if you read my last blog, still has dried dog vomit on it. I didn’t cry right away. I tried to calm myself by putting on my iPod but the battery was almost dead. I hung my headlamp from the top of my net, hoping to discourage any other roaches that might be hiding in my bed from making an appearance. I tried to read on in my book, but the scene kept replaying in my mind and I thought about how I was probably touching the place on the book where its guts squished out. “That was one,” I thought, recalling a deal I made with myself several months ago. I’d spent another sleepless night after seeing a snake in the douche and then a scorpion in the yard that literally scared me sh**less. I decided back then that I should give myself a limit, since daytime challenges seem to be surmountable and it’s the nighttime ones that threaten my sanity. Three things in one night—that would be my limit. The snake and scorpion were two, if that prowler had chosen the same night rather than a different one to invade my yard… I’d have been done. So tonight was one, and even though I’m now inside, resigned to spending the rest of the dark hours awake, the thought that brought tears to my eyes was, “is this really worth it? Is anything I’m doing making enough of a difference for me to be here, teetering on the edge of my sanity?” Times like this I don’t know. I pray that I am. I pray and cry and grit my teeth, pulling my new kitten close, hoping that I will find some way to make it through all the nights it will take to grow her into something that can protect me. Hell, if I make it through this night alone, that will be a miracle.

When Poets Ruled On Me

I’ve been dog-sitting this week while Lily is in Morocco. Soeur is a generally adorable and well-behaved puppy, although she’s still quite young and doesn’t like to be left alone. I’d been planning a weekend trip to Nouakchott for a while, hoping to stock up on supplies and go to Easter mass at the Catholic church. Lily and I agreed that I would take Soeur with me for the weekend and she left me some cash so I could buy her a seat in the taxi. This meant that rather than an obese Moor woman, I’d have a smallish 30 lb puppy on my lap during the three-hour trip to the capital—maavi mushkile (no problem)! She happily enjoyed the view out the window for a while and every now and then did her best to come between me and Three Cups of Tea, my current read. About an hour into the trip she started making a noise I thought was the hiccups, which she usually gets once a day, but these were a bit more violent than normal. All of a sudden she opened her mouth wide and out came what looked like an entire can of wet dog food… right onto my lap. Stunned, I turned to Melissa, who was heading to Nouakchott as well, and said, “Soeur just puked on me,” as if it were another camel crossing the road. She came to her senses more quickly and told the driver to stop. He didn’t listen at first, and then the two men sharing the front passenger seat turned and saw what must be the most unclean substance known to Muslims and forced the driver to pull over. Luckily it wasn’t very moist and it didn’t get on the seat (which could have gotten us booted from the car). I was able to shake it off and then rinsed the front of my grand boubou with water from my bottle. Melissa asked me if I wanted to change, but I said no, we’d better get going. We’d already left town an hour and a half later than planned. I figured her little stomach was empty at this point—how much food can a puppy hold? Apparently more than that. Another half hour or so later she started making that same sound again. I quickly picked her up and aimed her face out the window and then in a split second envisioned vomit all over the side of the car, vomit flying back in through the open window, and I knew I had to take one for the team. I pulled her close to my chest, leaned over, and weathered the storm. It was worse the second time. I had to change my clothes on the side of the road while Mauritanians stood by and muttered about the Nasraniye and her dog. Once we were going again the driver cracked his window open a bit so he could spit out splinters of the toothbrush stick he was chewing on. He missed. A wad of saliva, plaque and splinters hit my cheek. I started to laugh. “Need to blow your nose? ‘Cause I’m here,” I joked to Melissa. “At least it didn’t go in my mouth… I do have some standards left.”

If you’re wondering about the title, I tried to send out a text about what had happened, but my phone didn’t recognize “Soeur” or “puke” – it came out “Poets just ruled on me!”

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Real Challenge to Staying Fit

Somewhere across town the first prayer call breaks the dark silence around 4:30am and is soon interrupted and overlapped by mosques scattered in every direction. Each one seems to have their clock set to a different time, so the calls stretch on for several minutes.

I am half-conscious. I know that the mosque next door has yet to sound, and that the caller seems to have a cold these days. As he coughs and rasps “Allah ekbar…” stopping to clear his throat, I take comfort in the fact that I have an hour until my alarm will go off, and roll over, pulling my fuzzy blanket around my shoulders.

I run before dawn for two reasons: to beat the heat and to avoid being seen in pants. Some of the other female volunteers have been called “Hobara” for being out after sunset, so I do whatever I can to maintain what’s left of my reputation. During the day I often wear mulafas, which are floor-length veils that leave only your face, hands and feet uncovered. Lately I’ve been experimenting with more Western (yet still appropriate) clothes to see how I’m treated. So far it’s been alright, but I do get more attention, more calls of “Nasraniya, ha!” (Hey, white girl!), and I get ripped off more often at the market. Being seen running… and in pants… that wouldn’t be so good. Even though I try to get out and back early I’ve still startled the occasional man on his way to the mosque. For this reason I wear a short sarong to cover my hips, and, more importantly, the place where my legs meet (gasp!). Amanda and Ashley run a little later than I do, but they bring mulafas with them to put on over their running clothes on the way back.

To get to the raised gravel road that runs a horseshoe around the edge of town I take a 7 minute walk, winding between houses, past the high school and Ministry of Education. I pass the slaughtering field where goats and the occasional cow or camel are cut open, drained, skinned and put into the trunks of old Mercedes to be sent to the market and mishui stands where swarms of flies wait to land. Remarkably, it doesn't smell bad there. It's a little farther down the trail where some unseen carcass is left rotting, the smell threatening to turn my stomach inside out (good thing I haven't eaten breakfast yet).

This raised path is the only suitable place to run--not too public, and not scattered with the softball-sized rocks that sit on the parched desert pavement around the high school and Ministry of Education. Trying to run before you reach the path can be treacherous. Especially when you are wearing cheaply made, oversized sneakers that have "A B C Zidane 2007" written on them.

I found these shoes, awful in so many ways, among the faux leather men's sandals sold in town, and paid about $4 for them... it was probably too much. The selection of women's shoes is reflective of the local female culture. You have two choices: the pastel foam-plastic half-moccasin that seems to have been formed in a mold, and the open-toed mule with a spectrum of gaudy embellishments. The first would seem to be comfortable yet frumpy (in a Crocs kind of way), yet I've been told that they are surprisingly painful to wear, and a preferred hideout for scorpions (you always see the women who wear them kicking them a few times before slipping them on). And if those are uncomfortable, I can only imagine trying to wear heeled mules in sand. No wonder women have to waddle so slowly down the street.

With all these obstacles holding me back, I find it even easier to give in to that voice telling me to sleep in... "you can run tomorrow!" But on days like today, when I've made it out and back, and done sit-ups and pilates, I feel like I've already accomplished something before the sun was even up. That is what gives me the energy to face the rest of my day.