Friday, August 21, 2009


Ive been trying to work out this really depressing blog post about how Peace Corps Mauritania got evacuated, but I havent been able to figure out how to express what the past few weeks have been like. Stressful and emotionally draining and tearful, definitely. But Ill tell that story another time.

I just finished the first leg of my trip back to AMERICA! And this is just so much more exciting than any story about terrorist attacks and abandoned friends and family. (Thats not to say that Im not a little bitter, if you cant tell, ha. Ive actually been refered to as a "refugee" in the past two weeks.)

The trip is going to take about 48 hours altogether. I flew out of Dakar, Senegal at 12:30 this morning and arrived in Madrid around 7 AM. I probably got about 3 hours of sleep on the plane, and Ive been sick, so I was a wreck when I got into the airport here. Luckily a couple of people had started a little slumber party on the floor in a corner of the airport. It was kinda like a free hostel without beds. There were four or five good sleeping spots in that corner. I curled up with my bag in one of them, and a half hour or so would pass and Id wake up and there would be completely new people passed out in the other spots. Like musical spots to sleep on the floor.

After a couple of hours, I was feeling a lot better, so I decided to come into town. I literally just picked a metro stop on the map in the station, said to myself, that looks good, and went. Just my luck, the first thing I saw when I came up from the metro station was....STARBUCKS!! Yay globalization!! I didnt even get anything, but it was pretty amazing just seeing that happy green sign. I wandered around for a while checking things out. This is my first time in a Western city in 14 months. A little overwhelming, but AWESOME. I forgot how pretty things can be! People in the world actually DO build side walks and drive cars without the doors falling off of them and grow grass! GRASS!!!

I would up at this gorgeous park full of trees and fountains and benches and people just hanging out enjoying the non-sweltering weather. Not gonna lie, a tear or two came to my eye. I never realized how much I missed these things. And this is in some random city! I cant imagine what its gonna be like to be back home. CANT WAIT!

Next stop: leaving Madrid tonight around 6:30 for Paris. Hopefully Ill be able to check in from there. Let you know how it goes!!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Moor Next Door

For those of you interested in the recent elections here in Mauritania, check out this blog. It also has good info and commentary on general happenings in Western-Arab relations.

I'll write more on the elections soon...

Thursday, July 16, 2009

To Mali and Back

I realized its been way too long after I read my last post. Developments between then and now include but aren't limited too: a tour of Mauritania, a trip to Mali, a World Cup qualifying match, a homemade wine festival, a girls' conference in Nouakchott, a mass exodus of volunteers from Mauritania, a hand-me-down guitar, and a new house. I need to elaborate on all of the above, but its a lot and I have pictures I want to put up so I'll probably spread it out into a few posts.

The Mauritanian tour, trip to Mali, World Cup qualifier, and wine festival are all pretty much the same trip. I spent about a week traveling through Mauritania, starting in Atar and hitting up fellow volunteer sites in Akjoujt, Nouakchott, Gerou, and Kiffa on my way east to Mali (check out the map). It was a good chance to meet up with people and see a lot of the inhabited country.

We left Kiffa around 7 PM on a bus that was completely overbooked and stifling hot. Since we didn't have seats, we spent the better part of 6 hours alternately sitting and standing in the aisle. It was a rough ride, to say the least. We got to the closest Mauritanian town to the border around 1 AM, where we had to find a taxi to take us across the border. We got there around 3, waited for our paperwork to get through and for our bags to be searched before finally getting back on the road and arriving at the bus station in Nioro (first town in Mali) around 4 AM. We had to wait a few hours to catch the next bus to Bamako, so we literally passed out wherever we could: wood benches and plastic lawn chairs on the side of the road. We were so exhausted we didn't even care, and I actually slept really well.

We finally caught a bus around 9 AM, and the rest of the trip just got better and better. By the time we pulled into Bamako, the dusty brownish yellow desert had been replaced with lush greenery and streams and rolling hills.

Bamako is beautiful. It's relatively small, but for what we're used to, the mild bustle of the lazy west African city, with its blossoming trees, star burst markets and belching taxis, was plenty of action.

One of the main inspirations for the trip was a World Cup qualifier between Mali and Ghana at the stadium in Bamako. The entire city was decked out in Malian flags on the day of the game. We went to the market to buy jerseys, and everywhere we went people were cheering and singing and cars were honking. The ride to the stadium was even more chaotic: scooters with three people piled on all yelling and waving flags, taxi cabs packed to the brim with people hanging out the windows cheering. Everyone was calling back and forth to each other between the cars and the honking was non-stop.

The grounds around the stadium were swarming with people. The first semblance of organization we saw was a huge, snaking line at least 5 people across with everyone pressed up against each other basically hugging the person in front of them so that no one could cut the line. They were all singing and bouncing forward inch by inch so it almost looked like a dance. At first it was impressive and kinda cool to see, but then we realized that we actually had to wait in it, and it was looooooooooooonnnnng. So we finally got to the end of the line (it took at least 10, maybe 15 minutes to walk the length of it) and started waiting. About five minutes later, we saw some people gathering a little ways away around what looked like another entrance that had been locked up. Before we knew what was happening, everyone near us started bum rushing the gate they had just unlocked! People were full on sprinting. There were so many of us that if you had stopped or even really slowed down, you probably would have gotten slammed into by about 7 people running behind you. Think the stampede in The Lion King. It was awesome.

Once we got through the gate, things calmed down a bit. Somehow we managed to find everyone we had come with inside, about 30 of us all together. The stadium was nice and the crowd was pretty peppy at first, but Mali was the underdog and it showed both on the field and in the crowd. Especially in the second half, the stadium was pretty low key except for this one section of Ghana fans, which was rocking the entire game. Ghana won a pretty easy 2-0 victory. Still, it was sweet being there and we got to see some well known players.

The market was another highlight of the trip. Mauritanian markets generally lack variety or creativity. They don't have a lot of crafts or artwork or much of anything interesting to look at. The markets in Bamako are bustling and full of color: wax print and tie dyed cloth, soccer jerseys, drums, leather work, silver work, wood work, paintings, the smell of grilling street food and men and women calling out. There's even a fetish market which, despite what the name might suggest, is full of dried out, rotting monkey heads, alligators, snake skins, pigs feet, and pretty much every other animal part you can think of. I never found out what exactly the stuff is used for, but they definitely don't have that in Mauritania.

A little bit on wax print: many of the black Africans in Mauritania and the rest of West Africa wear this fabric on a daily basis. Mauritanian wax print is usually pretty average looking: bright colors but no crazy patterns or themes. Sometimes you'll get a wax print with something like keys or high heeled shoes all over it, which looks even funnier than it sounds because women especially wear the same fabric from head to toe. In Mali though (and I've also seen this in Senegal - I imagine its the same in the rest of black West Africa), they have every kind of wax print you can imagine. The Peace Corps volunteers in Mali have had a PCV print made that incorporates the PC logo and Malian flag. Even better, we found Barak Obama wax print in Bamako, and a friend of mine bought it and had an outfit made! When she wears it, she has life sized images of Obamas head on her stomach, shoulders, back, and all along her skirt.

That about sums up the Mali trip. The rest was basically just partying and lounging. On the way back though, some volunteers near the border were hosting a wine festival. I might have mentioned before that a lot of PCVs here in Mauritania make their own wine. The PCVs in that area are particularly into it and and they decided to throw a weekend long party/wine tasting/competition for those of us passing through on our way back from Mali and whoever else felt like coming by. The wine was tasty, and they had bought a few sheep which were running around the house for a while until we slaughtered them and cooked them up on the last day of the festival. So yummy!

Pictures of all these happenings to follow, as well as a continued update on the events of the past few months. Check back soon!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Maintaining Sanity in Sandland

So I just got back to site after about a week off. I spent a few days in Nouakchott to get visas for Mali and just generally chill out in air conditioned hotel rooms. After that, we went to Atar for a belated Cinqo de Mayo party. One of our regionmates had 5 bottles of tequila sent over from the States, someone else made a blobby looking pinata, and a real live Mexican came! I'd say it was pretty authentic.

Like I said, I just got home. I chased a camel spider around my room, then decided that instead of unpacking and/or picking up the wreckage left behind when I left the house at 7 in the morning, I should update my blog! The hot season has officially arrived and with it, a number of ways to keep my mind off the fact that I'm sweating out water faster than I can piss.

I have developed an intimate relationship with my bath bucket. I use it at least twice a day to completely drench myself, fully clothed, and often just sit in it in an effort to preserve water. My bucket is the only thing that makes me feel remotely human between the hours of 12 and 4 PM.

I spend an inordinate amount of time examining what I've decided are mouse poops. I have never actually seen a mouse in my house, but these tiny little poops have started appearing lately and I can only assume they come from tiny little sand gnomes or mice. One of a long list of Mauritanian Mysteries.

My current reading list consists of the following: Happiness by Mattieu Ricard (geneticist turned Buddhist monk - still working on it, Mom), Rogue States by Noam Chomsky (rogue linguist, philosopher and political scientist), News of a Kiddnapping by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Power Rules by Leslie Gelb (apparently the foreign policy establishment just needs to use a little common sense), Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling (I'm refreshing my memory for the movie), and Micro-Finance and Economic Empowerment: Women's Cooperatives in Nigeria by Chineze Onyejekwe. I haven't made it halfway through a single one of these books, mostly because I currently have the attention span of an ADD three year old.

I've also decided to take up the guitar. Achieving this goal will be slightly problematic due to the fact that I don't actually have a guitar, but I spent two days fiddling around on Chelsea's and I'm optimistic. The first two songs we worked on were Since You Been Gone by Kelly Clarkson and Apologize by Timbaland. I think if I can nail those two I'll have a pretty decent repetoir.

I have come to the conclusion that in another life (in which I had style and upper body strength), I was a break dancer. This realization was sparked when I watched the complete season 3 of America's Best Dance Crew in a single 6 hour sitting and only grew stronger when I watched Planet B-Boy (break dancing documentary). I recommend seeing both, but go with ABDC first cause it'll only be disappointing after seeing the moves they pull in the documentary. Myself and a few regionmates are currently putting together our own, albeit slightly modified, break dance routine. Don't expect fireworks, but we're pushing boundaries. It's not about skill, its about self-expression. Freak the dream!

Other movies I've see recently: Religulous, which I definitely recommend (unless you're offended by the paragraph titled People Who Don't Believe in Evolution but Love Antibiotics in this article). In the past week, I've also been introduced to Eastbound and Down, the new HBO series staring Danny McBride, watched the complete 4 and 5 seasons of Entourage, Traitor, He's Just Not That Into You, a Star Trek: the Next Generation movie, most of season 2 of Arrested Development, Yes Man, and part of Home Alone.

I've been so productive, can't you tell? I'll pretty much do anything right now, as long as it helps pass the time. Luckily, work ethic in this country is even lower than usual from May through September, so I'm just being culturally appropriate. Only two more weeks til school is out, the GMC is closed, and I'm heading off to Mali!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Ugly Underbelly

(Disclaimer: this post is mostly going to be me complaining about life back at site. It's not as bad as it's going to sounds, but I got spoiled in Morocco.)

Looking back on my last few posts, I realized that I haven't posted much about site or Mauritania in general lately. I've been traveling a lot, and work hasn't been too eventful. I was back at site for less than two weeks post-Morocco before I went into Atar to plan a conference for the mentors and teachers from my regional and a couple of other GMCs. In Mauritania time, thats nothing. It took me a few days to get settled in before I could even think about teaching.

Maintaining my own house is a lot of work. In fact, just living is a lot of work. Cooking dinner in a 2x2 meter concrete box, hauling water out of a cistern for washing dishes in a bucket, bathing in a bucket, watering my bush, constantly refilling my water filter, washing my face and brushing my teeth in my yard with a plastic teapot for water. When I get back from even a few days out of site, I have to sweep a layer of sand out of my room, kitchen and two bathrooms (2x2 meter concrete box with hole in the floor for toilet, identical 2x2 concrete box with hole in the floor for shower) with a bunch of sticks tied together. And that's just my house.

To maintain friendships in this country, you're expected to visit regularly. Close friends visit daily, but as a foreigner, I can get away with once every two or three days. However, if you've been traveling, you need to catch up with everyone as soon as humanly possible. Since visiting usually involves at least an hour or two of eating, tea drinking, and/or sitting around watching TV and chatting, it takes the better part of three days for me to get all my house work and socializing out of the way. I usually get antsy to start working and gloss over the socializing part.

To get started working, I have to plan four separate weekly schedules for my college girls, my "working" women, my primary school girls, and my teachers. Inevitably, their schedules conflict. I have to get in touch with all 40 of these attendees to check their schedules and then put something together that works for all of them, keeping in mind that I have no electricity between 4 and 7 PM (which makes computer classes a huge hassle). Then I have to get in touch with all of them again to make sure they know when their classes are. And getting in touch with people is surprisingly difficult, considering that I live within a kilometer of everyone I work with. I see them pratically everyday, but when I actually need to get in touch with them for something other than shooting the shit, they don't have their cell phones on them, I don't have their number, reception is out, or I don't have the money to pay for the credit to call them all. When I actually get them on the phone, I have to explain things in my still limited Hassaniye. Eveyone expects me to adjust the schedule to meet their individual needs (but usually just wants), and inevitably, I have to redo the schedule 3 times before I can finalize it. Then I have to hope that everyone finds out what it is in time to make it to their classes.

Then I have to put up with less than half of my students showing up to classes because they didn't know when classes were or they just didn't feel like coming to class and I wasn't around to harass them about it. Right now, that's about where I am. I'm starting to get the hang of all this, but its hard to plan ahead because no one else here does.

Had my first real day of classes since I got back today, and it was exhausting. Up at 7 30 (slept through my bread delivery), spent an hour finishing my taxes, tried getting in touch with women to make sure they were going to make it to the 10 AM computer class I scheduled before I left for Atar three days ago. That class was cancelled, and only 2 out of 4 women showed up for the 11:00 class. Worked on the schedule for an hour after class, posted the weeks announcements, then walked home for a quick lunch on my own (usually I eat with a family, but that takes an hour, which I didn't have to spare today). Walking home at mid-day is already scorching, and the hot season hasn't even arrived yet! Back to the GMC half an hour later to finish the schedule and prepare for a two hour english/geography lesson. I usually spend half of class yelling at the girls to be quiet and pay attention. Its not that they're uninterested (well, sometimes it is), but they just have no discipline. After that, I spent an hour sitting in on a french class (my male teachers aren't allowed to be with the girls without a chaperone) and putting together a computer competency program. Finally started to make my way home at 6, which can take anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour, depending on who I see on the way back.

I was supposed to teach a computer lesson from 7 to 8, but I was just not up for it tonight. Another hour to make dinner, whenever I can squeeze that in, or wait until 9 and eat with a Mauritanian family. Hopefully take a bucket bath at some point, and then, if I can keep my eyes open, watch a little something (I've been keeping up with LOST - keeps me sane, ha) and then pass out between 10 and 11. Done.

On top of that, I've got a few secondary projects I've been trying to get off the ground for a while but just haven't had the time. I'm going to try to put together a project to have toilets built for my primary school. I need to get the estimate for that and then write up a grant proposal.

I'm also about to float this idea that's been rolling around in my head for a while. We have a feeding center supplied by an Italian NGO that distributes flour to local vendors for cheap (the grain comes from the World Food Programme). This same Italian NGO has been talking about starting a food program through the primary school, supplying mid-morning snacks (which would serve as breakfast for most students) and lunch. Right now, they want to serve a traditional Mauritanian porridge called inche, which has virtually no nutritional value. However, another PCV trained a women's cooperative in Atar to make a porridge called ceramine, which is a mixture of ground grains that provide a complete protein.

I want to train a women's co-op here in Ain to make ceramine, and have the Italian NGO buy it up and serve it at the school instead of inche. Most of these women's co-ops have no goods worth selling, and even if they did, there's no market for them. They mostly survive from selling vegetables from their gardens, and since everyone grows the same things (not a whole lot of options in the desert), the market is flooded and I can't imagine they make very much money. So, if the ceramine thing flies, these women will not only have a viable product but a market for it. And the kids will actually have something nutritious to eat. Should be an easy sell for the Italian NGO, but I don't know if the women will go for it. Mauritanians are very stubborn and set in their ways, regardless of how successful they are.

So, that's work at the moment. Stressful, but the end of school in June will open up my schedule a bit. I feel like a big whiner right now, ha, but it helps to vent about it. Also puts it in perspective. I can only do so much, and while all my traveling doesn't help, a lot of the difficulties I face here are beyond my control. I just have to accept those limitations. And if I choose to travel the way I do, I have to accept that it'll have an impact on my productivity at site.

Sunday, April 5, 2009


So I guess I should preface this little tale by saying that this trip was probably the most fun I've had traveling, ever. Morocco is beautiful, the people are amazingly friendly and helpful, and I'd have a hard time finding a more ridiculously fun and relaxed group of people to travel with.

We kicked off our trip in true Peace Corps fashion by spending the night of St. Patty's in Nouakchott. We had a few celebratory drinks that night (including the infamous 3,500 UM carbomb at Shenkers...we thought it was a good idea at the time), saw a full moon, ripped some pants, had a heated discussion about religion, and left the next morning to make our way up to Nouadibouh. We managed to snag ourselves an awesome driver in Nouakchott who we used for the rest of the trip. Nouadibouh is on the coast about a 6 hour car ride directly north of Nouakchott on the border of Mauritania and Western Sahara (more on that later).

We got into Nouadibouh in the evening. It has a big fishing industry and is the port from which iron ore mined from the north of Mauritania is shipped out to the rest of the world. Since fishing and mining are two of the country's only real sources of income, Nouadibouh is central to the Mauritanian economy and is relatively international (I use that term extremely loosely).

So the seven of us met up with some of the PCVs in Nouadibouh and hung out for two nights. We went out to the ocean one day to play on the beach and explore the ship wrecks just off the coast. Apparently someone decided that Nouadibouh would make an excellent ship graveyard and people started running ships into the shallows near the port. It really does look like a graveyard with all those hulking iron carcasses rusting out in the waves.

We left Nouadibouh on the 21st to make a flight out of a city called Dakhla in Western Sahara. Western Sahara is a huge chunk of territory in between Mauritania and Morocco that the two countries went to war over around 1989. The dispute was never settled, and to this day, the land is simply considered occupied territory. Morocco essentially governs the territory, but it's sovereignty isn't formally recognized. When you cross the Mauritanian border, there's a 5 kilometer "no man's land" before you actually enter Western Sahara. This strip is essentially a buffer between Mauritania and the occupied territory that Morocco claims for itself. It's mined, and the road is unpaved, so drivers have to take extra care to keep to the car tracks that wind through this desolate piece of desert. Even worse, there's actually a population that's trapped there. Citizens of neither Mauritania nor Morocco nor any other country, these people can't ever leave that little strip. They're like people stuck in an international airport or something. It's sad.

We obviously made it to the entrace to Western Sahara (Morocco, for all intents and purposes) in one piece, and crossed the border without any problems. The drive up to Dakhla was beautiful, right along the beach, and we got into the city that evening. The difference between Mauritania and Morocco was noticeable as soon as we crossed the border. Almost immediately we found delicious food and bathrooms with real toilets. And it only got better!

After a quick flight from Dakhla to Casablanca, we crashed at the airport to wait for Steph to arrive from the States. We got in at 2 AM, so we just curled up in our sleeping bags (well, those of us who had them) on the floor and passed out until about 7, when she got in. I was so happy to have her there, and she got along with everyone soooo well. She put up with all of our Mauritania talk and handled the turkish toilet thing like a champ!

So to move this story along (cause I could probably go on forever about all this), we hopped a train to Tangiers after we met up with Steph. Lonely Planet described Tangiers as a seedy port town, but we thought it was gorgeous. Maybe our judgement is slightly impaired, coming from a place like Mauritania, but we really did have a great time there. Our hostel could have used some work, but the city itself was beautiful. Each city or town we visited had a "medina" or marketplace. Usually the oldest parts of the town, they're primarily only open to pedestrians, and the tight, winding little streets are lined with street food, crafts, and some of the cutest clothes ever! We mostly just wandered around the medina in Tangiers. Chels and I got haircuts at a genuine Moroccan women's hair salon, which was an awesome way to get a taste of real Moroccan life. We went out once, but there weren't a whole lot of bars and clubs were generally super expensive. We tended to wander around, drink coffee or Moroccan mint tea, eat street food, hit up a supermarket for wine or something, and then just hang out in our hotel rooms. We were very good at entertaining ourselves.

Our next stop was Fes, which was my favorite of the trip. The medina there is the largest urban pedestrian zone in the world. It has something like 9,000 streets, and it's pretty much impossible to navigate the thing without a guide. The first place our guide took us was the tanneries, which are apparently pretty famous. Also, possible the nastiest things I've ever smelled, but it was cool seeing how they dye all the hides and all the beautiful leather goods they make from them. Our guide took us around to a bunch of other little workshops: weavers and smiths and perfumeries. It was so hard not to wander off cause there were just so many interesting things to check out!

The new part of Fes was also beautiful, but in a totally different way. It was like a modern European city. We stumbled across a real live movie theater one night (granted, we were the only people there, but still!), and went to McDonald's multiple times (I even ate fries...I know, who am I?). I could totally see myself living in that city. It has the perfect combination of old world history and new world conveniences.

After Fes, we had a day-long trek by train and then bus to Essouiera, which is a small town on the coast a couple of hours northwest of Marrakesh. Essouiera is a cute little beachy town that supposedly attracks windsurfers and hippies, but most of the people we saw seemed pretty normal. We rented out a cute little apartment for all 8 of us, and had so much fun. We found a bona fide Moroccan bar (basically a cafe serving beer to a bunch of heavily smoking men) and had some of the best seafood I've ever eaten. Essouiera is a big fishing town and you can buy fish at auction at the docks. There's a strip of shacks right by the port with fish straight off the boats on display, and you just point to what you want or give them whatever you've already bought and they'll grill it up and serve it to you right there. The boys bought some barracuda and crabs at auction, and we all went down to the shacks and had that cooked up with calamari, sardines, eel (I think) and some other fish I didn't recognize. Delicious!!

Our last stop was Marrakesh, which was cool but a little overwhemling at first. It's definitely more of a big city than any of the other stops we made, and the main attraction is this huge square in the middle of the medina. A little touristy (complete with snake charmers, acrobats, and men covered from head to toe posing as belly dancers - I think they really thought they were fooling people), but cool to see, especially at night. Twinkle lights light up the whole square, and throngs of people crowd shoulder to shoulder, wandering through the maze of food stands and performers.

We also spent a day bike riding around the city. Considering that many of us hadn't been on bikes in years, that might not have been the best idea. The streets of Marrakesh are crowded with cars, mopeds and bikers, and lanes are apparently only suggestions. Right after we all got on the road, we were crossing over and these two women on a moped totally wiped out. Rob bit it trying to get up on the curb in the chaos that ensued, and Eric fell cause he was laughing so hard at the whole situation! Ridiculous, haha. After a little while, though, we all got used to the craziness and just went with it. It was a great way to get to know the city, get some exercise and enjoy the sun.

Steph left a night before we did, and being as amazing as she is, put herself and I up in a really nice hotel near the airport her last night. It was 3:30 in the morning when she left, but I was sad to see her go. Still, our last night in Marrakesh was probably my favorite of the trip. The seven of us took over this really cool lounge room on the roof of our hostel and sang and danced and just engaged in all sorts of hooliganry. We were doing impressions of each other and acrobatics and having intense political discussions for no reason in french. Which pretty much sums up the entire trip. As amazing as Morocco is, I think we had such a good time because we were just such an amazing group! As PCVs, we've gotten extremely good at entertaining ourselves and each other with very little to work with. Putting us in a country where even the most boring people could have a good time was like giving someone who can cook fillet mignon on a Foreman a state of the art kitchen. In fact, we are so good at kicking back, rolling with the punches and having fun no matter what, the train to Fes stopped at some station, and we all sat there for 45 minutes before we realized that we had actually arrived in Fes. We read, we chatted, people got off the train to smoke, got back on the train, hung out for a while. Mashallah, the train sat in the station for so long, or we would have been on our way to Tunisia or something in no time.

So we left Marrakesh by plane and arrived in Dakhla in the evening. Spent the night in a hotel, then left the next morning for the border. The drive was fine (though a lot less upbeat than it had been in the opposite direction) until we had to cross into Mauritania. The guards there were holding everyone up trying to extort money from silly foreigners. Luckily it wasn't a problem for us (in that we didn't have to pay, but we still had to wait like 4 hours to get through), but some Portuguese suckers in front of us spent 100 euro and made in through in about as much time we did.

Once we got across the border, Chelsea, Eric and I caught the sole train in Mauritania. It runs from Nouadibouh to Zourat, north of Atar, which is where the iron ore is mined. The train really only exists to ship the ore from Zourat to the port in Nouadibouh, and most people ride for free by jumping in the freight cars. On the way inland, though, the freight cars are empty so you sit in the bottom of what is essentially a huge iron bath tub, can't see anything, and freeze your butt of once the sun goes down. And it's on overnight trip. So we opted to ride in the moldy, rotted out passneger car. It wasn't as bad as we'd been preparing ourselves for, but I think the only reason we managed to sleep as well as we did was because we were so exhausted.

We got off the train around 7 the next morning, and after 3 hours of off roading in the back of an overpacked pick up truck, we finally arrived back in Atar. So, door to door, it took us 3 days of pretty puch constant travel. Kind of intense. I spent a day or two in Atar, then came back to site four or five days ago. I'm still adjusting to the slower, more solitary way of life back in Ain. Once I start teaching again this weekend, I think it'll be easier.

Well, I hope that wasn't unbearably long. I tried to condense things, but it was a pretty eventful trip, and I had fun reminiscing. I'll post pictures as soon as I can!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


So I know I've been awful about blogging lately. I haven't posted anything about work, etc in forever. Fact is, I've been super busy. I'm currently in Nouakchott on my way up to Morocco. Should be getting back to Mauritania in early April, so I'll be sure to fill you in on the past few weeks and the trip then!

Just wanted to let you all know I am safe and happy. Talk to you soon!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Empowered Women Making it Big

Check out this documentary, airing live on March 5: A Powerful Noise. It follows the lives of three women living and overcoming in Mali, Bosnia, and Vietnam. Wish I was going to be around to see it, but I'll take comfort knowing that I'll be spending time with my own empowered women when it comes out...

Let me know if anyone decides to catch the show! I'd love to hear about it.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

WAIST - The Return

WAIST - all I can say is wow. First and foremost, check out the pictures. Nothing that I write here will be able to convey the ridiculousness of this event. WAIST was talked up by all the second years beyond belief, and it completely defied expectation. More than 100 PC RIM voluteers met up in Rosso about ten days ago to head down to Dakar together. The bender began before we left and didn't stop until we got back to Mauritania. We left Rosso around 7 AM and stopped off at a little hole-in-the-wall little bar as a pit stop. We must have been quite a sight to the locals at this little road-side Senegalese town, piling off of two big chartered buses. It was after 5 PM when we finally pulled up to the Club Atlantique in Dakar, the site of the softball tournament and our future debauchery.

The Club is a little bit like a country club back in the States, but without a golf course. It has basketball/tennis courts, a volleyball court, a restaurant/bar, a little food stand (the Shady Shack, without which I would have lived on a completely liquid diet the three days we spent in Dakar), a pool, and a number of softball fields. One of them, the field where the final game was played, is directly on the cliffs above the ocean. Gorgeous.

PC RIM completely dominated WAIST, in every way possible. We rolled up at least twice as deep as any other group there. We were loud, racous, mohawked, and ready to win us a championship. Team C was the party team. We managed to win a game against Senegalese PCVs, but in general we concentrated on the music playlist and the next beer run. One of our PCVs walked around literally the entire three days carrying a giant old school boombox, which kept the party going.

Those of us on teams mostly stayed in the homes of American ex-pats living in Dakar. I had about ten PCVs staying with me at a house about five minutes from the Club. Every morning, we headed over to the Club, played our games, cheered for the other PC RIM teams, and then went out for the night. Our A team put on a fine show, winning the tournament with ease and grace, supported by the rest of our constant cheering. I'd say about half of us, including myself, lost our voices from all the screaming. I still don't have mine back; all the Mauritanians back at my site think I'm sick.

(To be fair, they also don't really get that I was just in another country. Life beyond Mauritania is very difficult for them to imagine. Actually, even some places in Mauritania are very difficult for them to imagine. Some volunteers have had to explain to their host families that the US is not, in fact, south of Senegal, but on a completely different continent. They don't get the continent thing either. Some Mauritanians couldn't even tell you what, let alone where, Africa is.)

The tournament lasted three days, after which I was so exhausted I had to peace out. Some people stayed to check out Dakar, and I do feel a little guilty that I didn't see more of the city than the house, the Club, and a random bar or two. Next time I will have to stick around and explore. Dakar is huge and definitely the most like an American city that you can find here in West Africa. That in itself was a little mind-blowing: highways and traffic lights and grocery stores and office buildings. Weird. Even weirder to think that I'm sitting in a mud brick one-room house as I write this.

So after Dakar, Zach and I and a couple of friends made our way north to St. Louis and chilled out on the beach for a day or two. We like to travel in increments, a few hours here and there, since its so uncomfortable/tiring/can sometimes take three times as long as it should. After a couple days of detoxing in St. Louis, we finally made it back to Mauritania, where we split up to head to our respective sites. Parting was a little sad, but luckily we will all be together again in a month or so.

I'm going to Morocco at the end of March, and after that all the PCVs in Mauritania are getting together in Atar (my regional capital) for a marathon and some environmental work. The environmental work is productive but also just a good reason to get everyone up here. We're so out of the way, it takes too long for most PCVs to make it up to this part of the country, so this is a good opportunity for them to check out how aweomse the Adrar is.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

WAIST - Where All Insane Scallywags Travel!

Ok, not really. WAIST stands for the West African Invitational Softball Tournament, and its where Ill be heading on the 8th! Ok, not really, I'm technically not leaving Mauritania until the 12th, but I'm leaving site the 8th. Chelsea and a couple of other friends are meeting me in Ain, and we're heading down to Akjoujt to celebrate yet another birthday as only Filipino miners can: with booze and karaoke!

I'll hang out there for a day or two, after which I'll meet up with some other friends (Pablo and Amanda, for those of you who are stalking other PC RIM blogs...ahem :) in Nouakchott. They're visiting their host families from training for a day and invited me to come along. They had really good experiences during training, so I'm gonna go see what all the bragging was about.

On the 11th, all the volunteers heading to WAIST (probably about 100 of us) are meeting up at the training center in Rosso. Weird. We have a safety and security session, and the next day they ship us all down to Dakar, Senegal on buses.

I have no idea what to expect out of this "softball tournament". I've heard stories about crazy partying, but its also apparently a family event. We formed three PC RIM teams: A team (Pirates), B team (I forget) and C team (Scallywags). I'm a scallywag (its a pirate themed event for PC RIM - arrrr)! Note: I actually had to try out to be on the C team. We pride ourselves on our dancing skills, our pantsless inning, and showing up the 12 year olds we inevitably have to play at least once (and who inevitably beat us). The A team is actually really good. They've won the tournament something like 4 out of the last 5 years. Its a point of pride for PC RIM. Actually, its THE point of pride for PC RIM. Apparently there's a decent amount of healthy competition between the regional PC programs over WAIST. People take it pretty seriously. But for those of us not on A team, its a chance to hit some balls, drink some beers, and check out Dakar.

In the meantime, my GMC will remain open for classes. Supposedly. We'll see how good my teachers are. If they manage to keep things up and running, I'll be amazed. Ultimately thats the goal, but considering that I just opened a week ago, I'm expecting some drag while I'm gone. Let you know how it goes!

Monday, February 2, 2009

Itchy Patches, a Stray Puppy and Tyrannosaurus Rex

It's been a rough week for the animal kingdom in Ain Ehel Taya. This morning, I identified the mysterious circle-shaped itchy red patches on my collarbone and rib cage as ringworm, undoubtedly given to me by my streetcat, Petey. According to WebMD, ringworm is not, as I previously thought, a worm, but a fungus, and unfortunately, not the yummy kind. More like the itchy, gross, get it away from me kind. My first course of action: applying liberal amounts of anti-fungal cream, wisely included in our medical kits for sappy do-gooders who can't seem to leave the animals here to suffer in peace, to said itchy patches. Second course of action: ditching the cat. I carried him as far away from my house as I could, and then set him "free". He stood there on a pile of rocks and garbage and watched as I walked away. I haven't seen anything that sad since I watched "The Hurricane" last night (which had me in tears for the better part of the three hour long movie). But before that, not for awhile. Sigh.

This post is so uplifting, isn't? I promise, I'll finish with something silly. Anyway, the day before yesterday, I'm walking down the street and see this kid standing in the middle of the road, staring at something on the ground: a puppy with his eyes barely open. I ask him where its mother is, and he points in the general direction of about half the village. So I ask him whether she's far or not (the only question used in this country to determine location, to which the usual responses "far" or "not far" are frustratingly subjective). He says she's not far, and I pick up the puppy to take back to his mother, naively assuming that she belongs to someone. After a 20 minute trek across the village and up the side of a mountain, we find the mother hiding out among some rocks. She's obviously a stray and won't come anywhere near us. My first course of action: climbing down off the mountain, followed by finding a comfortable looking goat pen in which to deposit the little guy. He's not there anymore. Maybe him and Petey will find each other and make friends. I just hope I don't wind up seeing either one of them dead on the side of the road.

As promised, here's a little something to take the edge off: I discovered a new constellation last night! My evening routine consists of dinner around 8 or 9, followed by a movie/a few episodes of whatever TV show I happen to be addicted to at the moment/reading, followed by facewashing/teeth-brushing/sitting around outside and looking at the stars. During the hot months, I slept outside and became very well acquainted with the phases of the moon, when it rises and sets, and a few easy to discern constellations, such as the Big Dipper. After a while, I realized that the Big Dipper is a pretty boring constellation. Seriously, a spoon? Unfortunately, I know very little about the stars, so I started coming up with my own constellations. My newest discovery: T-Rex. His head is those three stars known as Orion's Belt (I get the belt thing, but I have never been able to see the guy supposedly wearing it). His body extends down and out to the left. That's not a very astronomical way of describing him, but hopefully you'll be able to make him out. 100 UM if you do!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Already Addicted

I think I might have lied in that last post. Its going to be very easy for me to keep in touch now that I have internet because I'm apparently willing to forgo sleep for it. I'm going to be up way past my old lady bedtime tonight!

I just finished uploading pictures to Picasa, which you can check out here. See, I'm doing better already!

And I figured I should post a bit on my non-work life so you don't get the impression that I'm a complete workaholic. Though, as I've mentioned before, work and non-work lives are inextricably linked here. Working has helped me feel more a part of my community. Not that I didn't feel comfortable before, but it's given me a firmer sense of my role within the community. I don't feel like an observer anymore. I'm doing something that other people can see, and they respond to that.

With many Mauritanians, I've had to reconsider my idea of friendship. I've learned that the ritual exchange of a passing greeting can also be friendship, when you come to not only expect but look forward to it on a daily basis. You don't have to speak the same language or share similar life goals or views of the world to enjoy a friend. Funny how when you adjust your definition of a friend, you seem to have that many more of them.

Of course, sharing those things does make it a little easier. Outside of my family, I've bonded most with the small Pulaar community here. Two of them speak decent English, and the rest speak French. They are all teachers affectated from the south, meaning that the government assigns them to different locations all around the country without much regard for where they're from and where their families live. They just pick up and go where they're told every school year.

The oldest, Sy, is like a second host dad to me. Actually, I'm not really that close with my first host dad (he's a pretty aloof, older Moorish guy), so Sy is really it. He's lucky enough to have his wife and two little girls living with him here. They serve as a surrogate family for the rest of the Pulaar community in Ain, which consists of five other younger men and one of their wives. They eat all their meals together and generally keep to themselves. While they're friendly with the rest of the community (all Moors), they're still seen as and feel like outsiders. The ethnic divide in this country is painfully apparent.

Lucky for me, I can kind of float between all the different groups here. My being here provides opportunities for these groups to interact more than they normally would and, hopefully, an example for some of the younger people. I'd like to think that seeing me accepting and being accepted by different groups gives them the chance to realize that they have more in common than they might have thought otherwise.

Anyway, back to the Pulaars: they're awesome. Tonight, for example, I ran into one of them on my way home. We stopped off at his place, and one of his roommates had a portable radio on him and was dancing in the yard while he did some chores. Moorish music can be stifled and oppressive, but Pulaars like listening to music from Senegal and other black West African countries. Pretty much what you typically think of when you think of African music. Its got that Carribbean vibe (well, I guess Carribbean music has more of an African vibe). Either way, I don't hear much of it up here in the north, so it was pratically impossible to keep from bouncing to the music coming out of that radio. It wasn't long before the three of us were having a full-on dance party in the yard. Completely randomly. We had to shut the front door, of course, because everyone else in town would think we were a little crazy at best, unpardonably lewd at worst. Which I respect, but its so nice to be able to cut loose once in a while.

Great Strides

I have internet in Ain now! Disclaimer: regular access to internet does not mean that I'll be any better about updating my blog, but I'll definitely try.

Mainly I can't promise anything because if the last few weeks are anything to go by, I'll barely have time to brush my teeth in the morning and cook myself dinner at night. As soon as I started GMC shopping, life got a little crazy. My GMC is now (mostly) furnished. I'll be posting before and after photos as soon as its totally done. Its hard to believe how much has happened in such a short amount of time. I was so overwhelmed by it all that I was a little hesitant to just dive in (worried I'd let something fall through the cracks, I guess). But once I did, it was either sink or swim, and I think its safe to say that so far I've been able to keep my head above water. Classes should be starting next week!

I think the most valuable lesson I've learned in the past few weeks is that taking the plunge is the hardest part of getting involved in something that intimidates you. I spent a lot of time worrying about how I was going to pull everything together and make this happen, never having been single-handedly responsible for a project like this before. Since I actually started doing it, I've gained confidence with every obstacle I've overcome. And I've been working on giving myself permission to not do everything perfectly all the time. That's another lesson I've recently learned: I tend to put a lot of pressure on myself. Pressure is a good thing, to an extent, but it can be utterly debilitating in large amounts.

That being said, I can't imagine how unhinged I would have been the past 7 months (can you believe its been that long!?), and even more so the past few weeks, without the unwavering support of my friends and especially my family. The confidence you all have in me and your words of love and encouragement have been invaluable to me. I would not be nearly as capable if it weren't for all of you.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

A Few Random Notes...

After a thorough crotchal examination, Chelsea and I discovered that the kitten I picked up as actually a he. His name is Pierre Esteban Vieira Herion-Szabo (a.k.a. Petey). I brought him back to Ain, and he's the most well-behaved little thing. My family thinks I'm a little crazy for having a pet (they don't do that here), but they thought I was a little crazy before, so no harm done. Also, they captured another kitten thinking it was Petey, tied her up and left her for me to find. So I now have two identical kittens. They're super cute together, but I feel like two cats a cat-lady makes, so we'll see what I do with the second one.

Work is about to start getting a little crazy. I'm aiming to open up my GMC on March 8 (International Women's Day). In between now and then, I plan on purchasing all the furnishings and other materials for the center, setting it all up, having a meeting with my mentors and teachers and other people who have been involved in the planning process to settle on a preliminary schedule, running a brief "gender in the classroom" workshop for my teachers and mentors, holding an open house for the girls and their parents, and coordinating a hopefully not too elaborate ceremony for opening day. Eek, that's a little overwhelming, writing it all down like that, but I think I'll be able to swing it. One thing at a time.

Smack in the middle of all that, we have WAIST: the West African Invitation Softball Tournament. More on that later, but I'll be traveling down to Dakar in mid-February for a week or so. Not the best timing, but it'll be a good break. And something to look forward to while I'm running around taking care of all this GMC stuff.

I'll especially be looking forward to WAIST because Zach is leaving the country now and we'll be out of touch until everyone meets up in Dakar. He's going over land to Ghana for an environmental conference (and monkeys, apparently) with some other volunteers. Should be an awesome trip, and I can't believe I have to wait a whole month before I hear anything about it!

Luckily, I have plenty of traveling to look forward to in the near future. I love that about Peace Corps. When else would I have had the chance to explore this part of the world? Who knows if I ever would have made it to West Africa otherwise (there's too much to see!), but now that I'm here, I'm glad I'm getting the chance to check it out. I'm such a travel junky. Anyway, we're planning on heading up to Morocco in late March/early April. Exact dates have yet to be settled on (sorry to those of you who are waiting to buy plane tickets, it's not my fault!), but we're meeting up with home friends there and I'm beyond excited about it.

So that's whats up with me at the moment. I'm getting internet hooked up at my GMC, so whenever I actually figure out how to do that I'll be in touch!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Christmas and New Years Shananigans

I didn't get to talk to all of you on the phone around Christmas, so MERRY CHRISTMAS AND HAPPY NEW YEAR!! Being away from family and friends for the holidays was a little weird. You were all in my thoughts, and hearing from some of you was one of the best Christmas presents ever!

Even though I wasn't at home, I had some awesome people to spend Christmas with this year. All the volunteers got together in Nouakchott and had a huge party on Christmas Eve. Everyone was so excited to catch up with people and cut loose after a rough few months for us first years. Most of the past two weeks was carefree good times, but we also got to vent to each other and realize that we're dealing with similar issues back at site.

We spent Christmas day at our Country Director's house in Nouakchott. Some of the volunteers spent days before putting together a huge feast with all this American food. Yum! After that we went down to Rosso for a couple of days, so I stopped off to see my old host family. They were so excited to see me! I wasn't really expecting that because we didn't have a close relationship or anything, but my mom was all about me coming back to visit over the summer. They were all impressed with my Hassaniye now, and it was pretty awesome seeing how much I've progressed in the last four months.

After a couple of days, it was time to start vacation for real. We hopped the ferry across the Senegal River in Rosso and caught a taxi down to St. Louis. Taxis in Mauritania are usually packed four people across in the back seat and two in the passenger seat, maybe another three or four in the very back seat if it's a Peugot station wagon. It's one of the most painful experiences ever. Inevitably you're squished between two massive Mauritanian women who think that because you weigh less than 200 pounds, you don't need any room, so you end up crushed sideways between them for a six hour trip. Luckily, you kind of go numb after the first two hours. In Senegal, though, they let everyone have their very own seat! Our car traveled at a maximum speed of 30 miles per hour the entire way down, and it kept running out of gas and we kept having to get out and push, but none of that mattered because I had my own freaking seat. It was awesome.

Eventually we made it into St. Louis, which is an old French colonial town at the mouth of the Senegal River. It spans the coast of the mainland and two other islands, one in the river and the other on the ocean. I've never been to New Orleans, but a lot of people said that's what St. Louis looked like. Lots of old colonial architecture, thick old trees, and bougainville everywhere. And the cool thing was you had this vibrant, beachy African culture mixing with the European vibe. And it's a fishing town, so you can see all these brightly painted wooden fishing boats lining the banks of the river. The whole place was awesome.

A bunch of us stayed in a hotel right on the beach. It was a little far from the center of town where all the restaurants and bars and clubs are, but we managed to get around pretty easily. And we spent most of our time partying on the beach anyway. It was heaven. The beach was gorgeous, despite some trash (we're all a little desensitized to garbage now) and some creepy Senegalese dudes. Mostly they just wanted to scavenge floating beers, but some of them would sit down and stare at all of us like we were putting on a play or something. One cracked out dude came over in nothing but a tank top and sat next to us and sang at the top of his lungs for hours. He kind of ruined that day, actually, but for the most part it wasn't a huge problem.

We had a big bonfire on the beach one night, which was probably my favorite of the trip. For New Years a bunch of us had dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant and then met up with people in town. It was almost like being back home, but better. Not only did we have a social scene to enjoy, but we were on a beach in Africa! I like reminding myself of that fact every once in a while; it still blows me away when I really think about it :)

We were kind of a force to be reckoned with that night: this rowdy group of 70 or 80 deprived PCVs showing up at the bar together. I think we might have frightened some of the Senegalese PCVs we ran into. First of all, Senegalese and Malian PCVs have apparently been banned from traveling to Mauritania because of extreme culture differences and the political instability. And yet, we're allowed to live here. Badass. Second of all, we're all just a little crazy. PCVs in Senegal can just walk into a bar and chill out with a beer, go to pools, wear pants, whatever, whenever they want. We can't, so being in Senegal after six months of social oppression was pretty much like letting a kid into a candy store after nothing but broccoli and spinach for six months. I think it's safe to say that we got a little crazy on New Years, but luckily everyone made it out alive, with only a few scrapes and bruises to show for it :)

After that, it was back to Nouakchott for a few days of "training", and now I'm back in Atar. I'm heading out to site tomorrow with Chelsea, and hopefully my house and GMC will be all set for me to start moving into both. Yay! Also, I just picked up a stray cat. I'm gonna try and keep her, so I'll let you know how that goes. The next few weeks should be pretty busy, but I'll be around. Hope you are all doing well. I love and miss you!!