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!!