Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Site Visit

I'm back from site visit! What an awesome week. The day after our sites were announced, we all shipped out. People from the same region traveled together in caravans. I was in a Peace Corps truck, which was air conditioned (woohoo!). Most people were not so lucky and got stuck in taxi brousses, which are basically 20 year old station wagons or pick up trucks that pack as many people as possible and will take you anywhere in the country you need to go. I got to ride one of those on the way home. Not fun.

We left at about 7:30 in the morning, stopped in the capital, Nouakchott, for lunch and a pit stop at the building where the country Peace Corps office is located. That was a trip. Nouakchott is nothing compared to NY or Paris or even DC, but as far as Mauritania goes, the place is heaven. The PC building is the largest in the country (10 whole floors!), and has escalators (which don't seem to actually work, but still!) and bathrooms with toilet paper and everything.It was a little overwhelming, being in an actual city environment again, and I've only been here for a month! I can't imagine what it's going to be like the first time I get back to civilization.

Anyway, we got in around 7:30 that night. Atar is beautiful. The surrounding region is gorgeous (see pictures), and the city itself is well kept since it's a big tourist destination.

Spent the night at a volunteer's house, which was like being on vacation (electricity, running water, shower head, fridge, stove, chocolate pie, illicit substances).

The next day we all did protocol, which is something you have to do in Mauritania to get anything done. You have to get permission for the work you want to do from a number of officials, in order of rank from lowest to highest, unless what you're doing involves large amounts of funding, in which case you're supposed to go from the bottom up. It seems like a huge waste of time cause some officials don't know what the hell you're doing there and some do and just don't care and some don't speak any language you speak, so it can be frustrating. Luckily, everyone I met that day seemed happy to have us and at least willing to give us the time of day, which was encouraging. On the other hand, I'm not going to be working with those guys too often since my site isn't actually Atar. But they still need to know I'm there.

After protocol, I went out to Ain Eheltaya with Beddih, one of the language facilitators, who luckily speaks French cause my community contact, Rouqaya, only speaks Hassaniya (we all have these people, either community contacts or counterparts, which are supposed to at the very least introduce us to the community and help us integrate, and at best will end up being work partners.) Ain Eheltaya is a pretty cute little village. There are a ton of palm trees (the Adrar region is famous for it's dates), and it's nestled up against the side of this canyon. And it doesn't seem to be too conservative. I think it's primarily a Moorish community, both black and white, and I had thought that Moorish communities are mostly conservative. That may be true compared to the other ethnic groups in Mauritania (Pulaar, Soninke, and Wolof), but I think the Moors in the east are more conservative than in the north, which is where I am. I felt totally comfortable running in the mornings and walked around with my head uncovered. Such a relief. If I had to run around in a mulafa for the next two years I'm pretty sure I'd be miserable. I mean, they're pretty, but they never stay on right and they're hot, and when it really comes down to it, the concept of women having to cover up like that doesn't exactly jibe with my sense of morality.

We stayed with Rouqaya for three nights. She lives in a fairly large compound with her three younger sisters (they're probably about 15, 13, and 7, respectively, and she's probably 25), and her 6 month old baby. I don't think she's married, which is fine with me cause I don't have to worry about having a man around. I'm probably going to end up renting a room out of her compound, which her father owns. It's a big room with electricity, and they're going to wall off a section of the compound so I can have my own space, which is essential for me. I originally wanted to live on my own, but there aren't a whole lot of options in my village, and those that are available are pretty crappy (mud huts, no electricity or running water...not something I'm going to deal with if I don't have to). The village has electricity from 7 PM to 2 AM, which is more than enough.

I got to meet some of the village officials and other community members I'll probably end up working with. Everyone seemed really nice and excited that I was there, though I had a tough time explaining exactly what my objectives are. But at least they're enthusiastic. Hopefully the concept of girls' education won't put them off.

So I spent my three days at site meeting people, drinking tea, eating dates, laying around, reading. I'm going to get very good a killing time here. I'm thinking about starting a garden. And I'll be able to go into Atar on the weekends if I want, so I won't go too crazy.

After that I went back to Atar and met up with the other trainees and volunteers. We all went out to a little auberge (hostel type thing) in the brousse (country), which was near an oasis with an awesome watering hole where we got to swim and chill out all day. We spent the night there, but the next morning I got really sick and took a taxi brousse back into town. That was a pretty miserable day. I don't care if there's no humidity, 105 degrees is freaking hot. Luckily I had brought some meds with me and by the end of the day I was exhausted but pretty much better, for the most part. We left the next morning around 6:30, stopped in Nouakchott for pizza and milk shakes (amazing!), and got back into Rosso around 5.

Favorite parts of site visit in no particular order:
- food
- oasis
- getting to know my site mates

My site mates are all awesome, which is good considering that I'll basically be living with them for the next two years. It was kinda sad seeing some good friends being placed in regions far, far away from mine, which means I'll probably only see them every few months, but oh well. Such is life. All in all, a good week. :)

Monday, July 21, 2008

Site Announcements!

I'm going to Ain Eheltaya! We finally had our site announcements this morning. Ain Eheltaya is 40 KM south of Atar, a major regional capital in the north of the country. I'm gonna be the first and only PVC there, so I'll be starting my GMC from scratch!

Most Girl's Education and Empowerment (GEE) volunteers work out of a girl's mentoring center (GMC). GEE as a sector just started a year ago, but a lot of GMCs had been started previously by Education volunteers, so many of the new GEE volunteers were able to continue and expand on the work that was already being done. A few volunteers last year started their own GMCs, and I think there are 6 of us starting new ones this year. Four of those volunteers will be working in pairs as site mates, and another girl and I will be going it alone. Eek! I'm very excited.

Ain Eheltaya is a village of about 5,000 people. From what I can tell, it has running water but no electricity. My info sheet called it a "beautiful and elegant village", and it has palm trees, which is very cool. I'll obviously know more about it after my site visit, which starts tomorrow. It'll probably be a 7 or 8 hour drive, and its on paved roads, so I've heard.

So I'm obviously excited beyond words. Adrenaline is running high all around, and I just seriously can't wait to head out. We've got prep this afternoon, and then a tech session. I'm glad we got all the heavy sessions out of the way before they announced our sites cause I wouldn't have been able to sit still!

I'll probably spend my time in both Ain Eheltaya and Atar, which is where a lot of the volunteers will be and a number of trainees have been placed. It's gonna be awesome to get away for a week and cut loose. Fill you in when I get back!! :)

Saturday, July 19, 2008


As promised, I'm going to jot down some things I've enjoyed so far in Mauritania:

- cool, quiet mornings
- sunset
- the last call to prayer of the day
- showers
- learning Hassaniya
- taking a break from learning Hassaniya
- fresh bread and strawberry jam
- storms
- Biscrem (delicious chocolate-filled cookies)
- fruits/veggies (though these are few and far between)
- Sidi dances: our language facilitator knows how to break it down
- fellow trainees, without whom I would surely have ripped out all my hair by now
- the countless, daily absurdities that, while annoying, do provide comic relief - just another day in Mauritania

Also, I've lost 10 pounds since I've been here, and that's not even dramatic compared to some of the other volunteers. Most people have lost at least that much; some of the guys have dropped more than 20 pounds in the last 4 weeks. Just goes to show what a repetitive diet, constant sweating, chronic dysentary and no booze will do to your body.

Side note: tonight we watched Wall-E on a projector screen! Adorable.

Center Days

Back at the Center now. We spent the day in Mbalal, a brouse site where some of the other GEE trainees are staying. It's gorgeous out there. I'm going to try and post pictures, but the internet is being really slow so check back if they're not up yet.

I don’t think I posted about this at the time, but I dropped my camera in the sand like my second day here. It’s not completely busted, obviously, but I think there’s sand stuck in the lens or something because most of my pictures come out more or less blurry. I try to post the less blurry ones, but they’re still a little off, which sucks.

For anyone trying to send a package, I think I posted the address already, but I wanted to add that you should indicate “West Africa” so that it doesn’t get misplaced and wind up taking a ridiculously long time to get here. Apparently USPS thinks that Mauritania is somewhere in the vicinity of Madagascar or Mauritius. So here’s what the address should look like:

Elise Szabo
Corps de la Paix
B. P. 222
Nouakchott, Mauritania
West Africa

Mail gets distributed from the office in Nouakchott to wherever the volunteer is in country, so you can use that address for as long as I’m here in Mauritania. For those of you who are interested in sending care packages, here’s a list of things I‘ll love you for:

- Gummy bears/Starbursts/any sort of packaged candy that won’t melt too badly (no chocolate), preferably in large quantities
- Dried fruit
- DVDs
- Spices
- Flinstones vitamins

I'll update this list periodically. Thanks guys!


Backlog: 7/18/08

Tomorrow we move back to the center for a few days. They’ll be announcing our permanent sites on Monday, and then we all get shipped off on our site visits for a week! Everyone’s really excited to finally find out where they’re going.

So today was the last weekend day I’ll have to spend with my family for a little while. Not that I don’t like my family, but there’s just nothing to do on the weekends. My language class had an evaluation at 9:00 this morning, and I managed to kill some time afterwards running errands and such. Came home around 11:00, swept my room out (I could throw a frat party with the amount of sand my room collects in a week) and did my laundry (which somehow just ended up dirtier - I really need some practice with the whole doing laundry in a bucket thing). I sat in my room for a few hours before going certifiably stir-crazy, after which I managed to collect some people for a romp in the Sahel.

A storm had come through earlier, so the clouds were moving off in the distance. Once you get a little ways outside the city, the sky just opens up. I can’t even begin to describe it, and these pictures definitely don’t do the scene justice. The sky curves around the flatness of the earth, infinitely far away but just out of reach.

Being out underneath that sky gives me a sense of calmness that usually eludes me here. In the city, I’m constantly on my guard, surrounded by people I don’t completely understand and who are even more baffled by me. Every time I head out to the desert, though, I manage to re-center myself. I don’t even notice it happening.

In other news, I officially confronted my fear of cockroaches tonight by purging my room of one the size of a small cat. I am the man.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


Just a quick note, since I just put up plenty of fun reading material: I'm feeling much better now that I finished a round of antibiotics for my Toubab disease. As a side note, I've never be so comfortable discussing my pooping habits.

I wanted to put up pictures, but the upload thingee is being difficult. Next time!

Backlog 7/15: Thoughts

My host mom and I were chatting over dinner tonight. It was a pretty somber conversation. A friend of the family’s died today in a car accident and a number of his friends were injured. Transportation is probably the most dangerous part of living in Mauritania. There are two highways in the country, and by “highway” I mean an unlined, unlit, pockmarked strip of pavement winding through desert. Each highway links the capital with one of two cities: Rosso and some other city who’s name I can’t remember. To get around the rest of the country, people drive on dirt roads which I’m not even sure can accurately be called “roads”, since there’s not much to distinguish them from the rest of the desert floor. Anyway, I’m rambling now, but you get the picture.

So I’m chatting with my mom about this whole incident, and Muslim funerals, and rising food prices (she was shocked to hear that the Post ran a story on the food crisis in Mauritania), and somehow we ended up on the subject of Meme (my grandmother) being sick. I explain to her that my grandparents have been living in a community exclusively for senior citizens, but now Meme has been placed in a home so she can be taken care of. All that sounds bizarre enough, I’m sure, to someone who’s extended family mostly lives within a five minute walking radius of her house, but then she asks me how my grandparents are paying for it. In my broken French, I try to explain the concept of health insurance, which inevitably leads me to comment on how big a problem insurance is in the States. And then I realize, this woman could very well have never seen a certified doctor, never filled a prescription, never seen the inside of a hospital, and I’m trying to tell her that Americans being uninsured or paying too much for health insurance is a big problem. I was completely humbled by that experience.

The other day I gave her some Neosporin for an infected sore behind my brother’s ear that had refused to heal. It was better in two days. All she needed was Neosporin.

I’ve had two reactions to this: overwhelming appreciation for the life available to me as an American and incredulity at the staggeringly low standard of living here. Americans definitely have our issues, and I’m not saying that the U.S. is the best thing the world’s got going, but it’s exponentially better than a lot of what else is out here. I can drive down the street to the CVS for some Neosporin if my weird skin infections don’t go away. In Mauritania, Neosporin is practically a miracle drug.

Ok, that definitely wasn’t a post about how great Mauritania is, but it does make you realize how badly this country and others like it need attention from the rest of the world. It’s good to know I’m doing something right just by being here.

Backlog 7/14: TTATHOOMIM

I’ve finally contracted the Toubab disease, so I’m going to take advantage of this opportunity to vent about a number of Mauritanian absurdities/annoyances:

1. Toubab disease: a mysterious illness inflicting all (Western) foreigners living in Mauritania at one point or another, usually multiple times, and resulting in such pleasant symptoms as diarrhea and/or vomiting. No one knows the ultimate cause or origin of the Toubab disease.

2. The wildlife: various animals which roam freely through the streets in large numbers, consisting of donkeys, goats, chickens of a wide variety, dogs and cats, roaches, flies, spiders, and the occasional rat.

You have not known fear if you have never been awoken from a deep sleep by a donkey braying outside your bedroom window. This also applies to rooster crows and dog/cat fights. The aforementioned occur regularly, though donkeys tend to suffer conniptions during napping hours whereas dog/cat fights usually take place in the late night and rooster crows at an ungodly hour of the morning.

Armies of flies invade the house when the temperature rises above 85 degrees, which usually occurs at the break of dawn. Little short of a power washer will clear them out until the temperature drops again.

3. The walking circus: by that I mean us, the Toubabs. Whether we are walking, talking, or enjoying a mango in the peace and quiet of our own room, we manage to attract a crowd. Usually involving several dozen small children, these crowds will gather behind you as you walk, around you as you talk, or in your bedroom window as you eat, screaming, “Toubab! Toubab!” or “Bonjour, Madame!” regardless of whether you are, in fact, a woman.

These children are also carriers of what are commonly referred to as “jam hands” by the local Toubabs. Most notably contracted through the very messy eating of bread and jam, jam hands include all small hands covered in a slimy, sticky, often unidentifiable substance. Jam hands are highly contagious, as they are regularly thrust in your direction for a handshake in conjunction with the ritual screaming of, “Bonjour, Madame!”

Stay tuned for regular episodes of “Things That Annoy The Hell Out Of Me In Mauritania” or TTATHOOMIM. This acronym is also likely a word in Hassaniya which I will never manage to correctly pronounce.

There, I feel much better now. :)

In all seriousness though, I do love why I’m here and what I’ll hopefully succeed in doing. So, while there will surely be many more additions to this post, I’m glad I’m here, and I can only hope that a good sense of humor (among a great many other things) will carry me through. And to even things out (and keep Mom from worrying too much), I’ll make sure to post on all the great things about Mauritania soon.

Love you guys!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008


I finally have some decent pictures of where I am. There will definitely be more to follow, but for now, here's one of me on a hike outside the city. We're in the south, so this isn't really the desert, it's the Sahel. Looks pretty desertish to me, but I haven't been to the north yet. Up there it's all just dunes. Apparently there's sand boarding, which I'm pretty stoked to try.

Then there's the two street shots. The first one is of the main drag here in Rosso. The second is just a side street. The house where my classes are held is actually around the corner.
Just for some context. Enjoy!

Saturday, July 5, 2008


I'm definitely overblogging at this point, but I'll take advantage of it while I can. I just wanted to post a link to the other PC Mauritania blogs: There's more than enough to entertain you there if you're really ridiculously bored. Or if you just have some strange fascination with living in underdeveloped nations in Saharan Africa. I mean, who thinks that's cool...?

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


Toubab! Toubab! That's what the little kids in the street yell when the see us. By "us" I mean myself and the other 75 Americans wandering around the city. You think they'd get used to us, but we're just as much a spectacle here as we were two weeks ago.

I'm at homestay now, which means I'm living with a family. You can see my room in the picture: my matle, which is what I sleep on, my mosquito net, you can see my water filter in the back lefthand corner. I bought a fan the other day, which was pretty much the best purchase I've ever made, and my house has running water!
All in all, I've been pleasantly surprised by my homestay. My family consists of a mom (Miriame), two boys and two girls. I'm not exactly sure how one of the girls is related to the family, and Miriame keeps talking about her kid's Dad who apparently is in some other city doing who knows what. The two boys are really young and think I'm like the funniest thing ever. The girls are older, probably about 12, and they help me practice my language. (By the way, I'm learning Hassaniya, which is exactly what I wanted!) My mom speaks some French, but she's got a really heavy accent, so I have no idea what's going on half the time. It's cool, though, I just chill.

Here's a day in my life: I wake up around 7:00, get ready for class, and my friend Sia comes by the house to walk with me to class. I have a Hassaniya lesson with four other trainees from 8-12:30, and then we all go home for lunch. I usually hang out with the family for an hour before lunchtime watching TV and practicing whatever fun phrases I learned that morning, such as: "Good morning," and "What work do you do?" I'm pretty sure this is the most entertaining part of the day for the kids. They don't do much cause they're out of school for the summer. The mom is an Arabic teacher, but during the summer she pretty much just lays around. Literally. They don't do furniture in Mauritania, and the women just don't do anything. They lay around on the floor and watch Bollywood or cheesy Spanish soap operas. All day. I don't know how they do it. On the other hand, its too freaking hot to do anything other than lay around between the hours of 11:00 and 4:00 anyway, so I don't blame them.

Back to class at 4:00 until 6, then I'll hang out with some other trainees until 7 or 8, head home, hang with the fam, eat dinner around 9 or 10, and then retire to my sweet room. Seriously, my room may look spartan in the picture, but I've got a fan and my computer and I rock the West Wing in there at night like it's my job. :)

The only thing I can really complain about is the fact that my mom doesn't understand the concept of being full. In Mauritania, fat women are attractive, so girls are encouraged to eat their faces off. And the food here is heavy stuff, soaked in oil. Whenever I stop eating, my mom gives me this evil look and says "Mange! Mange!" which means, "Eat! Eat!" I'm pretty sure she thinks they starve their women in America. I've explained to her that I don't actually want to gain 50 pounds over my 2 month stay with her, and she's grudgingly accepted that. But I'm pretty sure she thinks I'm emaciated.

Other than that, things are really going well. 7 hours of language class a day is a little intense, but it's necessary, and at the very least it gives me something to do during the day. They say training is the toughest part of our 27 months here. I can definitely see why, but at this point its all I know, and it's not nearly as bad as I was preparing myself for.

Hope all is well back home. I miss you all!