Peace Corps Part deux: Moroccan Nights

Mandatory Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or people, the Mauritanian government or people, or the Peace Corps.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Stuck in the middle

I told Peace Corps that they could send me to anywhere in the world so they sent me to Mauritania. Then I told Peace Corps that they could send me to anywhere in Mauritania so they sent me to Tijidkja. Last week we received my site announcement that I will be going to Tijidkja the capital of the Tagant Region in central Mauritania.

The training coordinators drew a map of Mauritania on the sand outside our training center complete with buckets, rocks, leaves and a shovel to represent various features of Mauritania. All of my fellow trainees stood around the outside of the map as our assignments were announced site by site. Like captains choosing an elementary school dodgeball team our bosses read out our names as excited volunteers learned of their great locations in Naoddihibou or in a beautiful spot along the Senegal River. Like the fat kid in dodgeball I waited patiently for my name to be called as more and more of my friends were packed into Peace Corps dense spots in the South. Finally my name was called for Tjidkja and while the map was certainly not perfectly drawn to scale there was a lot of sand between me, my three region-mates and the next closest group. As far as I know there are three frisbee players in P.C. Mauritania and we are all within 4 hours of each other. Not quite the frisbee density of Ithaca but still good enough to keep my flick in shape for the next two years.

As part of the training we take a break from language training and spend a week in our permanent sites and so I got to spend a couple of days in Tijidkja. While the drive from Rosso was certainly not short and was definitely monotonous there were some really beautiful spots along the way. Tagant is on a plateau and the drive up out of the valley to the Plateau is beautiful and the first viewpoint from the plateau out into the desert is stunning. Tjidkja is actually a beautiful city, at least by Mauritanian standards. The city is divided by two sand canals and along the canals there are a lot of oases/ palmeries (it’s the same word in Hassiniya). My few days in the city actually went so well that I am worried that things are going too well. I met my counterpart who is the inspector for a few schools in the region and is really enthusiastic about me. He speaks some English and is really passionate about education in Mauritania. I found a great place with a teacher/ journalist right near the regional headquarters and I met a bunch of people. I was told that everyone would be aloof to us at first but everyone seemed to understand my position and be a good combination of patient and enthusiastic.

One of the nights in Tjidkja we had the sandstorm rainstorm combo that I am rapidly getting used to. The next day we had to get across town but the sand canals had flooded. Half the town was hanging out next to the canal watching the flood. We had to cross the canal so we did what everyone else does: jump on the back of a pickup truck going across the canal and then according to Mauritanian hospitality stay on the truck for as long as you want and then hop off.

Raves: Peace Corps Volunteers hospitality in Tjikja and Aleg, (great food, great booze, great hanging out, good times)
Palmeries: Beautiful and great places to relax in
Rain: The country is twice as green after the rains came.

Rants: French keyboards (the q’s and a’s are switched surprisingly difficult),
drinking coffee and making plans to change the world
Some links about Tijidkja,-13.897705&spn=5.240706,9.84375&z=7

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Learning to speak

Life in P.K 10. has been going really well. I have developed a good routine. I wake up every morning drink three small cups of tea (shot glass size) loaded with more sugar than your average bowl of fruit loops. I eat a piece of bread made by one of my friend’s host fathers and drink a cup of milk (sorry not fresh but instead from a can). After that I go to language class to study Hassiniya from 8-12. Take a break from the heat from 12-4 , class again from 4-6 and then work on the garden talk to people, eat dinner and play dominoes until I go to sleep.

The class consists of 4 Peace Corps Trainees and 1 language facilitator. The class is a lot of fun as we improve our Hassiniya by insulting each other by calling each other mejnoom (crazy) and making phrases like Seth doesn’t have a head or figuring out how to tell Janna to shut her mouth. We’ve also made our share of mistakes as I accidentally said that I boiled myself (instead of water) and one of my classmates told her family that she was a story when she meant to say that she was sick.

It is also a really cool process developing language with my family. While my Hassiniya is still very limited and they don’t speak any French we have been able to communicate pretty effectively because we spend a lot of time together they are better able to understand my occasionally less than perfect pronunciations and they have a pretty good understanding of what words I know so I can understand them. We play dominoes almost every night, which is really cool for a couple reasons. We get to spend time together despite the language barrier, I am getting really comfortable with numbers in Hassiniya and finally I get to show that I am not an idiot. For all of my shortcomings in Mauritania, (take all of my flaws in the U.S. and then add not being able to eat, speak or dress myself) I can count it is surprisingly good for my self-esteem to be able to actually do something competently.

Part of living as an American in Mauritania is marriage proposals. One of my friends said that he was married to the rice fields to avoid proposals. My host family brought up my marital status and then brought up my friends marriage to rice fields. I then joked that I was married to macaroni. That has become a running joke with my host family and has been surprisingly effective in deterring proposals.

We discovered this beautiful spot just outside of town. As you walk away from the town there is a spot where the sand changes color from white-ish gray into a beautiful lush deep-red. The flat sand turns into rolling sand dunes as far as the eye can see and small trees dot the horizon. It is really incredible and only a 10 minute walk from town.

I went out to the rice fields with my friend’s host father the other day. We sat under the tent for a while and then this huge machine came (all of the people called it “the Machine) to cut the rice stalks. It was a really interesting combination of a very low-tech looking canal used for irrigation, little kids (and three crazy Americans) stuffing the rice into reused rice bags juxtaposed with a huge combine. It was also interesting to learn that they were using seeds that the farmers were buying pesticide resistant seeds which means that they were probably genetically-modified. It’s kind of crazy to think of how agriculture has changed to the point that small plots in Mauritania are using GM seeds.

I will post pictures of it as soon as I get around to taking my camera out. I have hesitated to take pictures thus far because taking out my camera would attract a lot of attention and I am trying to integrate into the community as much as possible.

If anyone has any questions or suggestions for what I should write about let me know or leave a comment and I will try and write about it in my next entry.

Also I got a phone and my Mauritanian number is 4598522 and the country code is 011222. I will leave my phone on Fridays and Saturdays and if you are reading this I would love to hear from you. It is pretty cheap to set up a skype account.

Friday, July 4, 2008

I see sand

After a week in P.K. 10, I have been exposed to so many new things, people and had so much happen that, I have absolutely no way to begin attempting to describe my past week. Telling any specific story would require so much explanation and setting description that it would be impossible to even follow the story, so I guess I'll just do my best to convey some of the essence of life in one Mauritanian village. Despite some difficulties, I am having a great time, I like the people and the town of P.K. 10, I couldn't ask for a better experience and I am becoming increasingly sure that joining the Peace Corps was the right choice for me.

Last Friday, the Peace Corps van dropped us off in the center of P.K.10 where our host families picked us up. Since we didn't have language class until Sunday and my family spoke only a couple licks of French, I spent the first two days repeating Hassiniya nouns mostly body parts. For some reason, my family decided that the most important words to learn were the body parts and so they would make me repeat the parts of the body over and over again even though I can't imagine a situation where I would need to tell someone that I desperately needed an ear or the key to planting a succussful garden was knowing the Hassiniya word for knee. Eventually I was able to coax a verb out of them, to see, and put together my first Hassiniya sentence: aane reia terrab: (I see sand). One minor note on the difficulty of language learning without a common language is that someone pointed to me and said the word for drink and then pointed at a female trainee and said the feminine word for drink and for the first day I though that the word sherub meant man instead of two drink. Another language note, their is no Hassiniyian word for snow which provided to be difficulty for a fellow trainee. The next day we asked out language instructor and he said they just use the word "glace" which is the French word for ice.

I am staying with a really great, nice family. As far as I can tell, and that's not very far, the family consists of an elderly matriarch who has approximately three teeth, two of her daughters who both have kids even though to my American eyes, I can't see how there is any way that one of them is older than 14. There are a handful of small children running around as well and even though some of them are pushing 5 they apparently feel that pants are completely optional.

Short of writing a novel I don't have time to elaborate on any of these stories but I'd just like to point out that the following things actually happened to me. A boutique owner told another trainnee that she needed to eat to gain weight so she could be fat enough to get a husband before she got wrinkled, after a crazy sandstorm a friend found a cow in his bathroom, a 7-8 year old kid doing an incredible feat of climbing to rescue one of my tennis balls from the roof of a small building, using a dented trash can as a ladder,

It's also interesting to note that there are some things that I do that make me feel incredibly patron even though I would never have thought of these things as the hallmarks of a rich person. My headlamp which I use to help them see while they are cooking dinner will after dark. My notebook that I write down Hassiniya words. People keep looking through my notebook, even though they can't read it, and asking me to read it. I drink a lot of water and even add some gatorade mix and it is really awkward lying under the tent with my nalgene and then leaving to refill it, since that is more than they drink in a day.

That's all for now. Happy 4th of July to everyone.