Saturday, October 18, 2008

Christmastime in Aleg

Sometime after despair faded a bit—when just a bit of confidence had dawned that I can be happy in this country and that I might just be better off for having lived here, Christmas came. Now, keep in mind, there are two calendars in this country, and I can’t really say which calendar we were functioning on today, but today was the first delivery of packages from Nouakchott since moving to Aleg, seven weeks ago. It was Christmas.

While folks back home relayed doubt and exhaust after the length of time it took for packages to arrive, I tried to convince my loved ones that yes, indeed, the packages would eventually come. Well—I was more or less begging them not to lose faith in the postal system, because I would obviously be at a loss for receiving packages if they stopped trying to send them. In truth, I wasn’t too sure the packages would make any short or direct trip to Nouakchott or Aleg, even though I was assured by volunteers that packages always came. Well, they come eventually.

We originally had been expecting packages yesterday. After finding out that they would be delayed until today, this morning nearly every volunteer in the Brakna region (and a few visitors from afar) sat, anxiously waiting the Peace Corps van—coming at noon, coming at noon, coming at noon. We all joked that it was Christmas in Brakna, but I talked with another volunteer after the gift-opening, and we agreed that it was just a little bit better than Christmas—everything in the boxes was a bit more touching, everything everyone else received was that much more exciting, and no gift was too small or strange. I got a sonogram of my niece, who’s now long-since born, and a drawing from my nephew, which pretty much broke my heart. French textbooks that will help me and a few of the others who don’t have golden, fluent Fran├žais. Mashed potatoes and jerky and any number of munchables and sanity savers. What I really mean to say is thank you Christa and Mom, thank you, everyone—

Friday, October 3, 2008

A thousand serious moves

Every now and then, in my compulsive “working through” books of poetry, I’ll come across a poem which will inspire me to sabotage my bookmark so that I can read the poem again the next time I sit with the book… I was struck last night by this poem from Hafiz, a 14th century Persian poet.

Tripping Over Joy

What is the difference

Between your experience of Existence

And that of a saint?


The saint knows

That the spiritual path

Is a sublime chess game with God

And that the Beloved

Has just made such a Fantastic Move

That the saint is now continually

Tripping over Joy

And bursting out in Laughter

And saying, “I surrender!”

Whereas, my dear,

I am afraid you still think

You have a thousand serious moves.

—Hafiz, transl. Daniel Ladinsky in I Heard God Laughing.

ͨ iid sa ͨ iid! Ramadan is over! The streets in Mauritania have a different quality of silence during the fast. Everywhere, there is bustle and activity, but the fast creates a demeanor of silence that is pretty hard to put one’s finger on—impatience mingles with perseverance the closer the sun comes to the western horizon and the evening prayer call. People reference the “crankiness” of people during the fast—I didn’t notice that so much as the marked return of the jovial spirit and hospitality of local folks when they break fast. Sweet cool drinks and tasty tajeens are served up early in the night and even in the middle of the night you can hear soccer games and music in the streets, which is a bit strange during a 2 AM run to the toilet. I hear the last meal is at four in the morning or so, but with my health on a see-saw, I decided to sleep through the night and eat in the day. The celebration is still strong on the third day of the Eid, and I almost don’t know what to expect when “life as usual” resumes on Sunday—I’ve never really experienced life as usual in Aleg!

I spent about half of the month sick as a dog and the other half appreciating solid food and solid stool more than ever. I can read and write Arabic now, which is funny because my Hassaniya is mangled and my French mediocre. Eating with an extremely generous and welcoming Pulaar family, I stare at Al-Jazeera for thirty minutes, and occasionally exclaim when I figure out a word that has been flashing on screen every couple minutes—no one is impressed when I laugh, “Hey, that says ‘the News’!”

The bugs run this town. A couple weeks ago, a huge sandstorm turned the afternoon sky the color of burnt sienna. I think a swarm of locusts rode in on that storm, as they have been *everywhere* since. Though I hear they are tasty when fried in butter. I’ll make sure to let you know.

There’s a bug light at a friend’s house which traps a hundred June beetles every night but that, combined with the bright fluorescent lights of the house, attract so many insects that they come to this house directly every night. We also have a burgeoning frog population, since it’s the end of the rainy season and the frogs eat all the insects. Since the frogs are more intelligent than the beetles, when we turn on the bug lamp, the frogs are the first to arrive, waiting for their dinner to be drawn in. A lot of the beetles are huge and so many of the frogs are barely past being tadpoles so, for the most part, they aren’t eating a lot of the beetle and grasshopper population. I sighed last night as I packed up my things—“I don’t mind the frogs much, I just wish they ate more.”

I have my own house now, which is pretty wonderful. I have a stand up shower, which is amazing, but since it drips a little bit, I have a medium sized frog living there. When I start the shower, he usually hits the road, so it’s not a big problem. Last week, when I came into the shower, there was a fat momma frog with whom I was less comfortable. I tried chasing her out of the shower with the bottom of my sandal, but she hopped straight past the open door into the corner of the shower. To my surprise, she hit an ant hill that I wasn’t aware of and a swarm of the medium sized biting ants came out. At first I thought “Shit, now I have two problems…” But as the ants came out, defending the hill, the frog started twitching and throwing limbs. I have nothing but sympathy for her—those ant bites really suck. I laughed and resigned to turning on the shower, letting the fauna sort out its’ own problems.

A Pulaar boy who I don’t know walked by as I was going over to another PCV’s home yesterday. He bellowed, “Vock yooou.” And then, unsure of his consonants, tried “Juck yooou.” I smiled and said “Nte ish gilt? / What’d you say?” He said something in Pulaar. I smiled as I ignored him and came up to knock on the other volunteer’s gate. To my surprise, this boy and his friend kept close behind me. “What are you doing? What do you want?” The door opened and I was about to step in, but they came closer, like they would follow me in. “Are you looking for someone?” I don’t speak a word of Pulaar and these boys didn’t speak Hassaniya or French. Still, they got the gist—“Khaalig kelb menvga ͨ honne. Il a le mal comportement. / There’s an angry dog here. He has (the!) bad behavior.” Luckily Bella, another PCV’s dog who doesn’t really do much other than sleep and vie for loving attention, was sitting in the front yard. On cue, she raises her head and starts growling. The two boys looked at each other and darted.

With the end of Ramadan, school should be starting in the next couple weeks, which means work and (*gasp*) activity. As teachers return from the countryside, we may be able to hire a good Hassaniya/Arabic tutor. Since everyone is eating again, we are being welcomed for three cups of tea and lunch again—life’s not too bad.

I am more than inspired by thoughts of travel—Istanbul and Lagos, hopefully—and now that I can eat again, I sit, slouched over a stashed bag of Trader Joe’s trail mix, giddy at the thought of more-on-the-way. I’ll keep studying Arabic for now, and be ever-ready for change as the pace of work (and life) speeds up again.