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!