Peace Corps Part deux: Moroccan Nights

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Sunday, October 5, 2008

Mauritania is Gorges

This past week, I ventured out of Tdjikja for the first time in a month to visit a region-mate at a rural site called Gnimlane, for the celebration to commemorate the end of Ramadaan and then for a camping trip at a site called Matmata in the Tagant Region.

The Id-Vitter was a lot like Thanksgiving on Steroids. My friend’s counterpart, who essentially hosted us, killed a sheep and we spent the better part of the day eating said sheep. Our first meal of the day was mid-morning and was a plate with nothing on it but meat that was shared between 5 people. That meal would have been a big lunch on it’s own but it was immediately followed by a huge plate of rice and more sheep meat. After that they very considerately gave our vegetarian friend her own special plate with Potatoes, bread, peas and oh more sheep meat. After helping her polish that off I was about as stuffed as I have ever been. The day was then topped off with a huge plate of macaroni and more meat for dinner. I noticed a few cool things about the holiday. Since the holiday is based on the lunar calendar nobody knows the actual date until an announcement the night before proclaiming the holiday over based on if people can actually see the full moon or not. Everybody listens to the radio the night before and waits to hear if the next day is either going to be a huge party or a day of fast. Also everybody donates a big bag of cous-cous, or rice to the poor which is I think a good way of supplying food to people who need it. One depressing conversation occurred while watching a soccer game. I was chatting with a high-school student who spoke excellent French and seemed to actually care about school and other things. I told him that I was doing environmental education and he had no idea what I was talking about. After much discussion he told me that my sector was “agriculture.” If this seemingly excellent student didn’t even know the word for the environment then I certainly have my work cut out for me.

After that all of the volunteers in the region went down to Matmata for a brief camping trip. Matmata is a massive gorge/canyon like structure. Water drains into it after it rains leaving small swimming holes throughout the canyon and making it one of the greener spots in the region. When we got to our camp spot there was an interesting cultural juxtaposition. Next to the Americans with our backpacks and mosquito nets, there were two Mauritanians in our party. They were just staying for the day not camping out. Our driver who brought nothing but a hunting rifle which he used to either look cool or because he thought he had a realistic chance of heating tiny birds 100 meters away, and another volunteers friend who brought with her nothing but a small stove and tea-making supplies. After the car ride and lugging our stuff down to the camp spot in the mid-day heat I have never appreciated the Mauritanian tea-making ritual more. We went for a walk through the canyon and my first impression was that it reminded me of the place in the Lion King where Mufasa is killed rescuing Simba from the stampede of Zebras. On the walk down we found what we thought were wild watermelons but in hindsight our excitement was unfounded as the watermelons actually turned out to be the most disgusting food I have ever tried, and which one region-mate quite accurately described as tasting like our Malaria medicine. If you haven’t tasted Mefloquine that is about the lowest descriptor you could give to a food somewhere in between leftovers from Shoney’s and cow manure. After tricking a few people into trying the unripe fruit and a few tosses of the Frisbee we found a swimming hole which while the water was certainly not potable was decent enough for a little dip. After swimming for a while we looked up and saw the clouds moving into position for one of Mauritanians famous sand storms. Given that we were already in the water about 30-45 minutes from our camp and that staying in the water would minimize our exposure to sand we made the decision to wait out the storm. Let me tell you that playing games of “500” with a Frisbee in a sandstorm is not very effective. Finally as dusk approached it was duly noted that we needed to get back so we walked the half hour back to our camp through the sandstorm.

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