Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The end

Yesterday we got some terrible news. Because of classified security reasons, Peace Corps will be suspending the Mauritania program indefinitely. What that basically means is it will be off-limits to all PCVs for at least 3 months, and we have several options. I'm not sure exactly what they are yet, since I'm in France and getting all of this info through phone calls and texts, but what I do know is that Peace Corps will fly me home from France on the 18th. What happens next is up in the air. I'm really, really hoping to finish my service in another country (Senegal, Mali and Niger all really want us because they know how badass we are), but that depends on a lot of factors (timing, placement, if John and I could be together, etc). I should know within a few days--we all need to decide by Friday. Needless to say there has been a lot of heartbreak and a lot of tears.

I want to say that I have nothing but thanks and warm thoughts for the staff of PC RIM. They have gotten us through so much in the last few months, and I don't envy what they've had to deal with. They have been so accessible to us and so kind, and I hope they all know how much that means to us. They love this country and this program, and I know we're all together in hoping that this is not the permanent end for PC RIM. I've also heard that the director of Peace Corps flew to Senegal to tell the volunteers in person, and I know that was deeply appreciated.

Also, please, please don't think of this as a reflection of Mauritanians. They are some of the kindest, most welcoming people I have ever met, and the vast majority want us there and have taken excellent care of us for the past year. (and only in RIM would a suicide bomber only kill himself and mildly wound 2 others while not even doing damage to the building). I respect and understand Peace Corps' decision, but the giant sandbox of a country that I have come to love is so much more than the problems we read about in the news.

I'll keep this updated as I figure out what I'm doing, but to any RIM PCVs who might be bored enough to read this, it has been so wonderful serving with you. I love you guys. And (more likely) if the families of my friends and sitemates read this, thank you for giving me the chance to know your children. They are fabulous. My wonderful regionmates Shelby, Sari, Tabatha (who will forever be Tako Guy) and Tim, as well as Kim, Morgan, Sam and Levin, made the last 13 months a wonderful time for me.

Alright, enough shmultz for now. John and I are, despite a 7 hour time difference between here and Iowa, working on our plans, so I'll let everyone at home know where I'll be and for how long as soon as possible. For now, I have to make the most difficult phone call of my life to my Mauritanian family and try to figure out how to get my dog.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A little more damage control

OK, just to clear everything up that you may have heard in the news/parent group/other random sources that seem to have just as crazy a rumor mill has PC RIM has:

1) Our program has not been evacuated. We're doing a test of the Emergency Action Plan (kind of like a big fire drill) that moved our Mid Term Reconnect (as well as a few days of In-Service Training) to the PC Senegal training center. It's cheaper than putting everyone up in Nouakchott for 10 days, plus Senegal has a few benefits that we lack here (cough cough beer cough).

2) We aren't being shut down. Well, probably not. There is a safety team coming to evaluate the country, but that was planned a long time ago and will be looking at Mali and Niger as well. Our country director and all the folks at the embassy thing we'll be fine, and don't see a reason to pull us (or any change in the security situation). So, while there is a very small chance that our program will close, the vastly more likely situation is that the security team will visit our sites and see that our actual situation here is far from what they've read on cnn.com.

Everything clear? I swear, it's like being in middle school all over again sometimes. Information gets so twisted and confused, but it's hard to know what to believe. Americans are so used to relying on news sources, but honestly, most of the news articles about what's been going on in Mauritania have been blown waaaaay out of proportion and are written by people who don't really understand this country and its history. So, just to re-cap, I'm fine, the program is fine, and Mauritania is...well, as fine as it ever was.

Now that we're all on the same page, I want to thank everyone for the birthday wishes! It's hard to believe I've already had 2 birthdays here in Mauritania. On the first, we found out where we would be placed permanently and backed up for site visit. Needless to say this year was a little less hectic. I had a wonderful day thanks to my fabulous sitemate Shelby and John (who, in about a month, will be my sitemate as well. That is, if he makes is through the region's hazing...mwahahaha), who cooked for me all day. It was great. Thanks guys! Our friends Serge and Virginie came over for dinner, and we had eggplant burgers, cheese popcorn and chocolate cake (sounds like a real meal right? I'm telling you, Shel and John are that good). Now that's what I call turning 24 in (Mauritanian) style.
Speaking of John's upcoming move to Selibaby (I assume this isn't news to anyone, but check out his blog if you want more details--it's linked on my page), I just want to point out that not only did the Guidimakha not lose anyone to the IS option, we actually gained a person. That's right, we're that awesome. Unstoppable. Watch out. Now if we could just get a real road...

In other news, we recently had elections for the first time since the coup last August (we've been through a lot in our 13 months here...just making us that much more badass than PC Senegal). Election day was very calm in Selibaby--it was actually calmer than it had been in a while, since one of the candidates parked all of his campaign trucks outside of Shelby's house and played really bad music all day...we were glad for them to leave. Anyway, Aziz (who staged the coup) won by a majority, which avoided a run-off election in early August. The opposition complained that Aziz stole the election, and there were rumors about paying for votes etc., but the results have been confirmed and recognized by a lot of the international community. Basically, since the former president formally stepped down to allow a democratic election, Aziz is now a democratically elected president. We're all hoping that means the aid money will be restored to Mauritania, and now that the US has recognized Aziz as president and lifted travel bans on members of the RIM government, it's expected that all the visa problems will be resolved. We still might not get a new training class until June, but it's a step in the right direction.

For now, I'm just happy to continue my vacation. On the 2nd, I fly to France to meet up with my family for a couple weeks of wonderful food and maybe being clean enough to feel like a real person again (no promises). I can't wait!! I'll be sure to post pictures when I get back (although the majority of my readers will have been there...so it won't be that exciting). John will be home at the same time to see his family and meet his niece, and when he gets back we'll both head to Selibaby, hopefully find him a house quickly, and settle back into life as usual. And I'll still have a month or so before I have to go back to school. Haha, I got more vacation than anyone! Oh come on, this is the only chance I get to brag about how easy my job is, no one would be jealous any other time so let me have my moment :)

That's all the news that's fit to post. I hope everyone is well and enjoying the end of July!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A big loss, and some camels

So I'm sure by now you've all heard the big news. Our lives have been kind of turned upside down. It's been hard to deal with. Everyone's talking about it but no one really saw it coming, although I guess it isn't that surprising...but still, it's hard to believe the US soccer team lost to Brazil after being up 2-0 at the half. It will be tough, but I know we can get through this.

Anyway, it's been a crazy couple of weeks here in Peace Corps RIM. Other than the tragic soccer game, there was the minor detail of losing about 1/3 of our class. With the security issues that have been filling nervous parents with terror lately, our country director got permission from PC Washington to offer Interrupted Service. IS basically gives you the benefits of an RPCV without finishing the 2 years, and is generally offered (or sometimes required if a program closes) when there are safety issues in a country. For us, it was a choice, and I'm staying.

Before anyone starts thinking I've totally lost it, let me explain. Keep in mind that this is based on my personal experience, so if there are any parent stalkers out there (including my own!) who have heard other points of view, remember that each person's experience is very different. I do not personally believe that our security situation has changed. Of course there are always risks to living in an underdeveloped country, but there are also risks to living in any major city in the US. Yes, there was an American who got killed in Nouakchott, but the life he led here was very different from ours and he made some very, very different choices that ultimately led to his unfortunate death (he had received several threats before, and continued his work as a Christian missionary in an Islamic Republic). Some people in the North have dealt with unfriendly people and anti-American sentiment, but I have never experienced anything like that. Selibaby (and much of the south in general) loves Peace Corps, and I have a strong network of people who keep me safe there. I feel welcome and useful in my community. I think that if you gave the IS option to all PCVs worldwide at the one year mark, you would have very similar numbers. Two years in a foreign country sounds great in theory, but there are a lot of challenges that go along with it, and some people don't want to be in it for the long haul. I completely respect their choice, but it's not one that appeals to me. So to summarize, don't worry, I'm fine, and I'll see you all in 2010.

Meanwhile, in spite of all of this craziness, we're all trying to continue our normal lives. As a teacher, "normal life" right now means trying to get in as much traveling and time out of site as possible because once the school year starts I'm pretty limited in that. I went up to Nouakchott on the 29th, and after a couple days there headed north with John, Brian and Kristy. We went to Atar, which was very beautiful and so, so different than the south! It has a lot more money, which is evident in every aspect of the city, and the style of buildings is also very different. The next day we went to Chinguetti to visit Carl, who took us all around the city. We walked through the old part of town, which is mostly crumbling ruins dating back to the 1100s (just outside of town there are other ruins buried in sand that date back to the 700s). Chinguetti was a stop along the trade route from Mali to Morocco, and is a really amazing place to visit.

After a day in Chinguetti, the four of us headed out on an overnight camel trek. It was really spectacular. Once you get a little ways out of the city, all you can see is dunes for miles and miles. It's intensely quiet and beautiful experience. Plus, camels are really funny! They remind me a lot of moose, just with big goofy feet and in sand. John's camel was the most ornery of the bunch, and kept making gurgling noises whenever she had to sit down or stand up (and sometimes at random during the trek). The others were pretty friendly. We got to a little oasis around noon (it gets too hot to trek all day), and we spent the afternoon lounging in the shade of date palms. Around 4, John, Brian and I thought it would be cool enough to go sandboarding out on the dunes, but didn't take into account the temperature of the sand (scorching), so we ended up going down a few times and then waiting until almost sunset. Sandboarding is pretty sweet, although the whole carrying the board back up a steep dune part is a pain. Luckily a few kids came to help with that--come on, who can resist a group of toubabs trying to ride a snowboard down a dune?? That's worth carrying a board up a big hill! We spent the night just outside the oasis, lying under the stars. One of our guides made us bread (with just flour and water) that he cooked in hot coals; basically, he shaped a round loaf, got a fire going, then spread the coals out and buried the bread right in them. It was pretty good, and really cool to see it done. We left around 6 the next morning to head back to Chinguetti, and although we were hot, tired and I was down a shoe (a dune ate my flip flop, it got pulled off when I was walking down hill and after searching for about 15 minutes we gave up--it was just gone), we had a fantastic time. Plus, now I can cross "ride a camel" off my list of life goals!

We went back to Atar on the 4th, and after a couple days there headed down to Nouakchott. John and I got back to Kaedi yesterday, and will probably be here for a few days before heading to M'Bout and Selibaby. We both need to get our passports so we'll be ready for our trips in early August--as much as I love it here and am looking forward to heading back to my host family and my little house, I can't wait to see my wonderful family in France in a few weeks! Plus the wine and cheese don't hurt : )

OK, I hope this post finds everyone happy and healthy. Below are links to the pictures from my various travels, so enjoy!

Camel Trek

Sunday, June 28, 2009

More travel adventures

Well, obviously the biggest news from here (well, besides political instability and election problems…but that’s not news) is that we aren’t getting new volunteers anytime soon. Since the government still hadn’t issued visas, Peace Corps decided not to make the invitees wait in limbo and assigned them to other programs. We pretty much knew they weren’t coming, so it’s good that they don’t have to sit around and wait to hear. If/when the government (which will be decided in next month’s elections Inshallah) decides it will issues visas again, Peace Corps will look into opening the program, but it will most likely not be until next June. Bummer. So basically, the 71 of us still in country will be alone for the next year. The details aren’t really clear yet, but I’m sure we’ll know more after the elections.

After it turned out we weren’t going to Rosso for stage, John and I bummed around Kaedi for a while (and got rained in for a few days), then I headed back to Selibaby to say goodbye to my COSing regionmates and help move Shelby into the region house. I figured I would be there for a week or two, then head up to Kaedi en route to Nouakchott, then visit the north of Mauritania a little. There was just one tiny problem that I didn’t fully take into account in my travel planning: the rainy season. This is the first rainy season that we’re here for when we’re not traveling in and out of the Guidimakha in Peace Corps cars, and let me tell you, that makes quite a difference. It’s hard to plan a trip when you’re not sure when you’ll be able to get out of the region. I decided to travel on the 25th with the girls from the Selibaby Girls Mentoring Center, who were on their way to Nouakchott for the Girls’ Conference (each GMC sends 3 girls and a mentor to the conference where they get to meet strong, professional women, visit the university, see Nouakchott, go to the beach, etc.). Kim had already left Selibaby, so I took charge of the 3 girls and mentor. Sam and Levin were both on their way up to Kaedi, so they joined in as well. Then plan was for us to rent out a car in Selibaby, pick up the M’Bout crew on our way through, spend the night in Kaedi, then John and Cortney would take the girls up the rest of the way. Needless to say, it did not go well.

We planned to leave Selibaby around 7:30. I spent most of the night before lying awake, watching lightening and dust storms off to the east and thinking “shiiiiiiiiiit.” The driver showed up at the house at 6:30, and let me tell you, this was shocking because Mauritanians aren’t always the most time-conscious people. He explained that he was early because he was worried about the rain, so we rounded up the girls and got on the road around 7. It took about half an hour to get out of town because the driver wouldn’t go on the main road (he didn’t want to pass the garage because he would have to stop and give the guys there some money), so we took random back roads and got stuck a few time trying to get out. OK, no big deal, we finally got on the road and headed out.

This is where the real problem starts: the sky around us was getting really dark, mostly to the south and the east, and there was clearly a large storm rolling in. I had asked the driver before we left if he had a tarp to cover the bags, and he said he did. We ended up putting most of them inside the car (it holds 14 people and we were only 7 leaving Selibaby), but there were a couple on the roof. So he gets out and messes with something on the roof as the rain starts, and we keep going. Then the rain really came, and it came hard. Looking out to the side of the road, it almost looked like snow because there were huge puddles of water covering everything. Oh, and the car had no wipers. The driver kept putting his window down a little to wipe the windshield with a towel. Then he would put the window up and the car would immediately fog up, but no matter how many times Sam and Levin tried to explain it, the concept of hot air on the inside making condensation went way over his head. Oh well.

The mentor, Haji, started yelling at him, and when I asked her what was wrong she told me that he didn’t have a tarp and was refusing to stop to put the two bags on the roof in the car. They both belonged to one of the girls, and held all her clothes and stuff for the next week. He kept saying he’d stop in the next town, but then wouldn’t stop, so we’d yell at him again. After a few river crossing adventures, we made it to a decent sized town, and the driver announced we’d stay there until the river on the other side receded some.

Now, you have to understand, seasonal rivers here aren’t little streams. With as little as half an hour of rain, they become anything from slight annoyances to raging rivers of death that sweep away cars and trees. When that happens, there’s nothing you can do but wait. So wait we did. It was still raining, so I asked the driver to finally get the bags down. He refused. We started arguing, and he told me to get them down, so I told him that it was his job to which he replied that it wasn’t. So I called the guy at the garage who we had arranged the car with, and he yelled at the driver on the phone. Then the driver crossed his arms and refused to look at me or talk to me for a while before finally getting the bags down. Oh, and he pulled out a tarp that he’d had inside the car the whole time. Nice work. Sometimes drivers here are wonderful, and other times they act like they’re doing you a favor by letting you pay for a seat in the car, and you should really be thanking them.

So he stormed off to have tea somewhere, and the rest of us sat around. When he finally came back, he was in a much better mood—he bought some meat to cook for us, and even apologized to me. It was seriously shocking. So he grilled up some meat and onions, and we all sat outside of a little boutique and ate. We stayed in the town for about 2 hours, then decided to try to road. We made it about 2 minutes outside of town before we got stuck in the mud.

If you hadn’t realized by now, this driver was not particularly open to comments and suggestions. All he would do for about half an hour is try to get up this small, muddy hill, get stuck, try to back out, and try it all again. He wouldn’t turn the wheel or try a different way up (of which there were many) or put the car in the low 4 gear, all of which we tried to suggest. He pretended not to hear us. He kept yelling at a group of kids to come help, but it was a lot more fun for them to sit on a wall and watch him walk around the car again and again, staring at the tire holes. Finally he got one of the kids to bring him a shovel, and was able to fill in the holes enough to get up. We drove through the river and kept going.

After a few more tough spots (such as a new bridge that is passable but not entirely done so therefore not open which crosses one of the raging rivers of death—seriously, we would have drowned or been stuck there for a couple days waiting for the water to go down—which was luckily solved by a phone call to our amazing friend Luis, who got the guard to let us pass on the new bridge), we made it to a town that (in non-rainy season time) is about 45 minutes outside of M’Bout. There are a bunch of cars sitting there, and everyone says the road up ahead isn’t passable. So we get out, sit under a tent, and wait. And wait. And wait. We end up spending about 4 hours there, and after we’d had lunch and slept a bit, everyone was eager to go. We finally found the driver, who had wandered off somewhere, and he said we were waiting to see if any cars got through coming the other way. Now, no one had actually gone to check on the road for a good 3-4 hours, and I pointed out that there was a good chance that the cars on the other side were doing the exact same thing we were doing, meaning we were all sitting there like idiots for no reason. I kept trying to convince him to let us try to get through, and if it didn’t look safe we could come back. He refused, yelled a lot, stopped talking to me again, then finally said OK. We all got back in the car, and about 2 minutes out of town saw the problem.

A river had sprung up, and when one truck tried to get through, it got stuck. There were a lot of cars waiting around, trying to help or just watching, and they finally got the stuck car out of the river, after which several others crossed with no trouble. Then an army of giant trucks that carry road supplies went through, also with no problem. So at this point, the other side of the river was clear of cars, and all the drivers on our side were waiting around because no one wanted to be the first to cross. Good God. Finally one went through, and our driver followed. We made it through easily.

Now, from texting with John throughout the trip, I learned that M’Bout was totally cut off by the river there (the bridge right outside of town is nowhere near done and there were about 20 feet of water), so our plan to pick them up kind of fell apart. We didn’t want to spend the night on the side of the road, so we decided to push through to Kaedi (the road technically bypasses M’Bout by about 2 kilometers even though all the cars go into town, so we could get by but not in and out of the town itself). A lot of cars came through right after us, so we ended up in a caravan of sorts, with each driver stealing the other drivers’ spots in line and trying to get ahead and nonsense like that. By this point it was dark, so we carefully crossed a few more rivers before something I couldn’t see stopped us. The driver got out, so Sam and Levin went to see what was up. A crowd of men gathered around what turned out to be a small bridge that had partially been washed away. It was only about 3 feet up, but underneath was rushing water. So the men drag a large stone over and prop it up in such a way that if a driver keeps one wheel on the broken bridge and the other on the stone they can maybe get over. Great plan right? I’m still in the car at this point, with no idea what’s happening, but Sam and Levin come back saying we’re stuck. Suddenly, our driver rushes to the car so we can be the second ones to make it over. The guys (smartly) don’t get in, and before they had time to argue with him we’re starting over the make-shift bridge. What I heard afterwards is that once our front tires made it, the rock gave out, so the driver gunned the engine and somehow managed to get across. The guys said it was the scariest travel thing they’ve seen in their two years here. Everyone else was really mad at our driver for ruining the bridge so no one else could get through, but we just drove off. We finally got to Kaedi around 11. The trip, which usually takes 5-6 hours, took us 16.

So that’s been my latest adventure. Since it probably took as long to read this as it did for us to do it in the first place, I’ll stop here. I’m hopefully going up north for a camel trek next week, so stay tuned.

Oh, and for being such good sports, here are some pictures. Enjoy!

updated album

new album

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


After my mom's comment about posting everyday, here I am! Ha. But seriously, I just got some new pictures up so I thought I'd send out the link. They're mostly from St. Louis and around Selibaby, and there are a bunch of the Girls Mentoring Center end of the year party. Enjoy!


Monday, June 8, 2009

Yup, I'm still alive

Yeah yeah yeah, I know, it's been a really long time since I've posted. I have several excellent excuses ready:

1) I was finishing up my first year of teaching, which included holding review sessions 4 days in a row for my kids and then giving and grading 150 or so exams
2) John and I made a last-minute, sanity-saving decision to go to St. Louis (Senegal) with a bunch of other volunteers for Jazz Fest, so we were out of the country for a bit
3) Our bureau has been without power for a good 3 weeks or so now because the cord that needs constant duct tape repair by the electric company guy stretches from our room into the room next door, and the man with the only key to that room left for Nouakchott for several weeks. Fun. Which brings me to...
4) My lovely home of Selibaby was without power in almost the whole town for 15 days straight, and then it came on for about 10 hours before going out again for another 12, then on for 10, then just off. Grand.

Now I'm in Kaedi with John and have no excuse, so here I am. We left Selibaby yesterday afternoon (inside a truck, fancy fancy!) and spent the night in M'Bout. That trip wasn't too bad, especially when we got traided about half way there to another truck which only had a cow tied in the back with a net, so we went pretty fast (poor cow). We left M'Bout this morning in the back of an almost empty truck, which is actually much worse than sitting on a huge pile of stuff because you feel the bumps a lot more sitting on just a spare tire (which was so worn that little bits of metal were sticking out all over it...yeah that hurt) than on a big pile of bags. The driver was also going way too fast, so we got jostled around a lot. I spent a good portion of the trip clinging to the side of the car with my boubou poofing out behind me like a cape (faster than a cow-laiden truck, stronger than a scary old woman's handshake grip! it's a donkey! it's a goat! it's super toubab!). We made it with the usual scrapes and bruises but in one piece, and went straight to the post office to pick up John's mail (thanks to Allison for sending candy and to my mom for the cheese box--it made it!). We got to the house to see our very excited Maggie dog, who has gotten so big!! She magically remembered all of her training once we had cheese and bagel chips in our hands (sorry pupper, I love you, but this is cheese....).

I'll be in Kaedi for about a week or so, then heading down to Rosso to meet the new trainees. That's so unreal. I can't believe that all of a sudden I'm the person who's supposed to know stuff (sorry in advance to anyone coming to Mauritania on the 18th! Ha). We're closing in on our 1 year Mauritanian anniversary, with 71 of the original 77 still here. And we've got the heat rash, dripping sweat and layers of dirt coating our skin to show for it!

All of this also means that our 2nd year volunteers are heading out soon, most in the next month and all by August 6th, which will certainly be a transition. In the Guidimakha, we're losing 4 of the 9 volunteers in the region, so that will be strange. They'll certainly be missed (like crazy).

OK, that's about all the news for now. I'll try to be better about blogging (big Inshallah for power and the like). I hope everyone's having a great start to the summer back at home!!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

As my parents remind me regularly, it's been too long since I've written. I guess I've been too caught up in the baseball debate taking place on John's blog to pay attention to my own (GO RED SOX). Not too much is new here really, just trying to get through the rest of the school year. It got cut by about 3 weeks because of the elections on June 6th, so after this week I only have 3 weeks of classes. The downside of this is that I lose this time with my students, and it makes it tough to get everything done that I'd hoped to. And by tough, I mean impossible. But they've definitely made progress--they now mostly greet me in English on the street and have started arguing with each other in English in the classroom (I have to let them off the hook when they yell "that is my pen!" at the kid who took their pen).

John is visiting Selibaby this week, which has been great. He's used his time here to catch up on internet stuff, raid our book collection and chase children away from our wall. Oh, and along with Kim we spent about an hour yesterday pouring water down ant/termite hills. This is what we do for fun here. I'm not joking. Sometimes we draw on the dog too. The power has been out for a couple days now, so that cuts down on your options! Being bored takes on a whole new meaning here.

I also recently started a prep class for the 6th year students who will take the BAC in June. Basically, it's the end of high school exam that determines if you even get the option of going to college. Nationwide, about 10% of students pass. That number is usually lower here in the south and in other rural areas. So every Friday, I run an optional class to get students ready for the English section of the BAC. They never learn how to take this kind of test (during the first class, I gave them a practice test and most didn't understand the format of multiple choice questions...the real test is in 2 months), so I'm trying to work with them on how to go about answering reading comprehension, make educated guesses, budget their time, etc. Most students didn't even attempt the essay question on the practice test, and almost all of them said "teacher, it is very hard!" as if I had written it to torture them. It was a word for word copy of the BAC from 2004. I only have time to do 6 or 7 classes, but hopefully it will help a little and I can start the same class earlier next year. It's been fun working with older students too, and quite a change from teacher first years!

OK, that's all the news from here. But for being such good sports you get a new photo link! Enjoy!

new picts