Archive for June, 2003

day seven b

Today we did more general introduction stuff. The rain has made it really humid, so with the temp at around 90 I am really sweating. I managed to find an outlet, but I am typing in the dark, so hopefully this thing is charging…

We learned a little more about our language classes. This is something that can keep someone from becoming a volunteer. Right now we are just trainees, and we have to get recommendations from different coordinators to actually become volunteers. Apparently though, people who are having alot of language trouble often see themselves that they aren’t making it and ET (early termination.)

We have bunches of acronyms. I am an ICT (Information and Communications Technology) trainee. We are a subset of the SED (Small Enterprise Development) group. There were 3 of us in the last group and all of them ET’d. One did not make it through stage (pronounced stahje, like in French) which is this training period. There are 5 of us now and all in all we seem to be a solid group.

We will be doing our language on a fairly personal level. There is a facilitator who knows a local language and French and we go to their house based on competence level. My group is so small that I am the only novice, so I may be studying alone. My French has been improving slightly. I have found some French speaking volunteers and keep harassing them “comment dit-on…” (“how do you say…”) Once I get to intermediate French I will start in with Hassineya.

My hamstrings will be nice and loose by the time I come in. There is nothing like squatting for 15 minutes trying to get you ass as far out over your feet as possible so as to not shit in your shoe. I managed it though. How women around here manage to not live without constantly carrying bottles of monostat speaks of coordination beyond mine. =)

Also, pulling up sweaty khakis with one hand and getting them buttoned is damn near impossible. I have a ring that Steph gave me before I left and I have been wearing it on my left hand. I was wearing it on my left hand so that I would not have to eat off of it, but I’ve decided to move it over.

On the subject of cleanliness we took showers this morning and the general consensus was it was asking to being pissed on. Well, I have no real point of reference, but someone said so and judging from the volume I am inclined to agree. The people out in the countryside though will be taking bucket bathes where you scoop and wet yourself then lather up and scoop some more to rinse. So, I’m not going to complain about being pissed on.

We went into town and there is lots of garbage. It literally smells like a dump. It is very hard to keep the place clean with so many animals wandering around and so little money to pay for garbage pickup. We walked down to the Senegal River and looked over at Senegal. Looks quite a bit like Mauritania. There are supposedly monkeys in some places and some of the trainees are hoping for pet monkeys.

Oh yeah, eating rice has its benefits stoolwise. I talked to a RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) from Nepal before I came and he told me he used to spend hours discussing his poop with his friends. I am understanding how it becomes such an important part of your life. A couple of the guys have already gotten sick.

Anyhow, I’m going to go read a bit and sleep under my mosquito net. In the morning if it isn’t raining I’ll try and take some pictures of the school that we are staying at. It feels like such a different world. Just after being here for two days I am starting to see how living in this different world changes you.

Anyhow, dormir beckons.

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day seven a

Didn’t get to write yesterday since most of it was riding down from Nouakchott to Kaedi. It was five hours of desert with little villages along the way. Maybe a dozen little brick cubes covered with mud.

Once we got in they introduced us to all the staff. Each group has a set of language facilitators who will be teaching a local language. The tricky part is they are teaching in French. It will be interesting learning a third language in a second I hardly understand.

Most people will learn different languages depending on what region they are working in. For the sorts of things I will be doing, because it will be business related and in the city, I will likely be using French, or maybe Hassiniya which is a dialect of Arabic.

There are four local languages: Hassiniya, Wolof, Pulaar and Sonike. I hope to learn more about just who speaks what later.

Once we got settled in we broke into groups and walked around learning how to greet in the different languages. All of them start off with “Asillah Melecume” (Peace be with you) to which the response is “Melecume Asillah” (Peace be with you). Then there is a local part along the lines of “How ya doin’?” “Fine.”

More chchumba (fish and rice) for lunch and then chicken with french fries for supper. It is interesting trying to tear chicken apart with one hand. You often have to get someone else to hold it for you so that you can tear off some meat. Eating that requires cooperation was another one of those “the U.S. is so far away” sorts of moments. There is a sort of thick onion soup with the chicken and you sop it up with bread that you are allowed to hold in your dirty hand, interestingly.

Amazingly, it is raining right now. Really pouring. Kaedi is down by the Senegal River and they get more rain during this part of the year. It is still just desert and scrub, but currently wet desert.

Well, breakfast is ready and my battery is low, so ttfn.


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day five

We are really starting to get into the serious stuff. The big thing for the day was the butt pot. I asked a friend of mine who went to Ghana who Africans wipe their butt. He told me that they use toilet paper which surprised me since it seems like the shipping would be a real hastle.

Turns out that they don’t. When you go to the latrine you take a little tea kettle full of water and when you are done you reach under and give yourself a washing. This was demonstated for us today. =) (Well, simulated.) I wasn’t real clear on the left hand thing (you don’t use the ass hand for any public exchange (no handing money, no shaking, etc…)) it makes alot more sense now. =)

Eating is really cool too. We get this big dish which today contained a base of rice and a chunk of fish with vegetables on top. You scoop out hadfulls of rice, ball them up, squeeze out the oil and them pop it in your mouth. Something that is cute is that while you eat other family members might flick little chunks of good things to eat in front of you. Women have a hell of a time because largeness is a sign of wealth in women, so they like women to eat alot. There were several volunteers that have been here a year and they didn’t look especially chubby though.

All of it is eaten while sitting on the floor. I was thinking that the people will wonder why I have food stains all over the cuffs of my pants when I come home. =)

They also talked about the tea, which we haven’t had yet. I’ll write about it when we do…

It is a much more affectionate society intrasexually. Men and men (or women and women) can apparently be seen walking down the street holding hands. It is customary often to keep a hand on the other person while talking to them. Very different than the American bubble of personal space. Intersexually though things are very different. The Moors are very conservative and many won’t shake the hand of a member of the opposite sex at all. In general a handshake might happen, but pda’s simply don’t happen at all.

I am running on a rapidly dying battery, so one last thing…

About the tea: between each cup a new pot is boiled, and that can take a while on a wood stove. So, sometimes people fall asleep and it is considered a compliment. You are trusting the people with your life and valuables essentially. Women however may not fall asleep flat on their backs because it is “an obvious invitation for some man to jump on you.” Similarly, men are not supposed to lie on their front.

Well, gotta go. Some other trainees are playing cards downstairs. Tomorrow we journey to Kaedi.


P.S. Mauritania is one of four Islamic nations with a death penalty on the books for the practice of homosexuality.

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day four

Wow, what a hell of a day. I have been in a plane for over 13 and a half hours now. I would start and stop my watch each time we would take off. Unfortunately Delta overbooked the flight to Paris and so another PC group to Gabon, which had a longer layover, had to give up some of their seats so that we could make our flight and the ensuing luggage debacle took two hours and ate our whole Paris layover.

So, I have some rushed shots of running through the Paris airport trying to make our flight. Interestingly the last flight of the Concord was going out as we were sitting in line and so I got to watch it take off. There was a bunch of cars with lights flashing that followed it out.

The Paris flight was pretty rough. All 6’3″ of me could not sleep at all well in the 20″ of seat space I was allotted. I ended up half flopped over onto the girl sitting beside me and still didn’t actually do more than doze.

Speaking of people:

I rode on the plane next to Cat. She is a poly-sci major who is hoping to use her PC experience to help her work with the State Department. She was entertaining to talk to though eventually the conversation devolved to an argument between Stephanie (who was sitting on the other side of Cat) and I about the reality of gender stereotypes. Cat is a SED volunteer.

Behind me was Julia who I mentioned before. She was wading through the 900 page children’s book that is the new Harry Potter.

The plane ride on Air France was very fancy. I don’t especially enjoy wine, but they were handing out beer, champagne and wine, so I drank about a half a bottle of reasonably nice red. The dinner was very nice too. Calamari with steamed vegetables in olive oil. Then veal in mushroom sauce with rice. There was even a mini-baguette. Also, the plane had a little tv behind every seat and you could play video games or listen to music or watch movies. I watched About Schmitt and Catch Me If You Can.

We flew over desert for a very long time. It is really amazing when the expanse is sand is so great that it covers everything; even from 35,000′. There were two colors: tan on the bottom and blue on the top with a little bit of white fluff in the middle.

Mauritania is very poor. I mean, I knew that, but it is really poor. We are in the upscale part of town and the shape of the buildings is like in the inner city. They are more widely spread out than the inner city though. All the streets but one are sand. There are lots of goats and kids just milling in the streets. It isn’t like there is a sort of normal city and then really poor parts toward the outside. It starts out as rough and goes to mud huts and tents.

We got some more shots and met for a while. I am getting tired of writing, so I will return to that later.


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day three

6:00am – Last night was interesting. I went out and explored the streets for several hours. There are lots of little shops and places to eat all over the downtown. Along the Delaware river there is a very nice walk which connects a couple parks. I tried out my new cheap digital camera (which, I verified last night, thankfully talks to the computer.) The pictures look a little pixelated, but hopefully that’s just the little screen on the camera and the screen on the laptop. I’ll find out more soon.

As I was going back to the hotel I ran into April, Andy and Charlie. They were headed to a place called Dave and Busters which is an “adult Chuckie Cheeses.” It was in an old warehouse and there were about 20 pool tables and a huge arcade. I played some pool and surprisingly won both games.

People I met were:

April, who is a construction worker. She is most the the way through an anthropology degree, but her entrance into the PC is based on having 5+ years of construction experience. We talked for a bit about cabin building and roofing. =)

Andy, who is doing agro-forestry. His major was geography. He and Matt Mills are runners and both went jogging earlier. He was leading the way to Dave and Busters since even though it was about two miles away they had run past it. He was really cleaning up at pool initially, but somehow the game got away from him.

Jason, who is another ICT worker. He is 28 and is a funny fellow. He is the Spanish major with a concentration in French. He looks pretty young and I was surprised to discover that he is 28. I played my second round of pool with him and he took it easy on me. He said that managing one of the womens’ centers was something that he was interested in, but he thought that Lisa (who is apparently a sixth ICT volunteer I have not met) may be the only one who is allowed to do that sort of work.

Karl, who has dubbed himself “Good Karl, the one with a K, not evil Carl with a C” was there. He is the one that I visited the liberty bell with.

Annika, who I trash talked some during a pool game, but just realized I know remarkable little about. =) Actually, I do know that her whole name I Annika Louise Assue DeSomething. I kept calling her Anita and she corrected me “Annika, like Monica without the M.” Apparently the name is Swedish.

Stephanie, whose name should be easy to remember. She has a hell of a background. Environmental engineer from MIT. She also sings in operas and was talking about the last one she did was in non-transliterated Russian, so she had to learn to read Cyrillic to sing the piece. It made me long again for an environment like MIT where they’d just plunk down impossible things in front of me and expect me to pick them up and go with them.

Audrey, from the plane was there. Also, someone named Margaret who I didn’t talk to and I guys named Dan, Dana and Angus. All I know about Angus is that he is a Texan with the accent to back it up. =)

Another girl I didn’t talk to much was Julia. I remember her name though from the training. We did a “cross-cultural exercise” where they took half of us outside and told us to be open and friendly: look people in the eye, give them a firm handshake and leave them their room. The other half stayed inside and was told to be warm and comfortable: make lots of physical contact, defer your eyes as a sign of respect (which is done in Mauritania apparently) and don’t be audaciously loud. They then mixed us all together and then polled us as to our impressions. Julia (a quiet one) said that they seemed scared of her because they kept backing away and Chris wrote on the board “scared of Julia” as one of the characteristics of the gregarious bunch. As we were going back through and each side got to defend itself I quipped that “while we weren’t loud, distant or crude; Julia certainly can be intimidating at times.” So Julie is the intimidating one.

(That was alot of telling for that little story.)

Anyhow, I am going to go try and find some stamps and a phone. Maybe I’ll manage to get his stuff sent out soon.


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day two b

5:30pm – We are all through with staging now. We are free to roam Philly until 11:00am tomorrow when the bus takes us to NYC then it is off to Paris and on to Nouakchott (which is pronounced, not Nolichucky, but Noahck-chuht.) We will stay there until the 29th when we will travel to the training center in Kaedi.

From there we will supposedly be breaking up into groups and wandering off into the countryside. We will be gathered together every 10-12 days to work together. It ought to prove interesting.

I do not know what my internet access will be like for a bit. I really don’t know if I’ll even have power, though I really hope that I do. It wouldn’t be as big of a problem except for the fact that this battery doesn’t hold a charge anymore, (a semi-common lithium-ion problem) so once it is unplugged it will stay on for only about 5 minutes.

I’m sure that everything will work out…

Notes for the day:

They told us that from the PC accident reports the most common words are:
1. Alcohol
2. At night
3. In the capital
4. Alone

Our leader, Chad Fleck, closed with a quote he discovered while working in Nepal:
“Go with the people.
Live with them.
Learn from them.
Love them.

“Start with what they know.
Build with what they have.

“But, with the best of leaders,
when the task is done,
the people will say,
‘we have done it ourselves.'”

It is from the Tao Te Ching, but in Steven Mitchell’s translation (which is the one I have read frequently) the last stanza is all there is. I really like the more personable Taoism that this represents and I think it really connects more with the compassion. Maybe I’ll go try and find me a new Tao Te Ching tonight. =) Aaron complained of Mitchell flavoring his work alot and I think I should have listened to him.

(On a related note, I tried once again to say what the “three treasures” of Taoism were last night and could only remember compassion and poverty. I really need to get that last one down.) =)

Gonna go try and find some calling cards to make my last calls home. Couldn’t get the stamps, but I should be able to tomorrow morning.


P.S. With the yellow fever vaccine there is:
1 in 131,000 doses have a “life threatening allergic reaction”
1 in 150-250,000 doses have “severe nervous system reactions”
1 in 200-300,000 doses (1 in 40-50,000 of those over 60) have
“severe illness with major organ failure; more than 50% die”

P.P.S. I’ve been sharing all the scary stuff because it helps me get it out and to let it go. I hope that none of you reading this get too stressed over it. I am paying attention to it all and I’ll be careful.

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day two a

10:30am – Went to visit the liberty square. Saw the Philadelphia State House, also known as Independence House. It was really neat to see “the most historic room in the most historic house in the most historic square mile in the country.” They had the original chair that George Washington sat in during the Continental Congress.

Our tour guide was really cool too. It was a pudgy fellow with long gray hair and big round spectacles. He was working the Ben Franklin look hard.

I was traveling with another volunteer who is a triple chemistry/history/German major. He has recently come back from a year in Germany studying abroad. Heather, who I was walking with last night came back from teaching English in Taiwan and spent alot of time in Honduras. Melanie, who I ate supper with, was off doing health work in Mexico. My roommate, Bob, flew in from taking French lessons in Nice. It is just amazing how well traveled all these people who are younger than me are. I figure I’ll be learning soon enough. =)

We went to see the Liberty Bell. The building they have it in is pretty cool. Lots of aluminum and glass. History note for the day. The name “Liberty Bell” actually didn’t come into usage until the 1830’s when a poem written by an abolitionist coined the term. It weighs 2080lbs and rang for 93 years.

Well, more training. A couple of you can expect bell postcards if I can find some stamps.


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day one

Well, here I am. My first day of “staging” for my Peace Corps trip to Mauritania has ended and I am free to wander Philadelphia…

My family and Stephanie and Matt Estes saw me off from Tri-Cities Regional this morning at a bright and early 8:30. I had to make my way through security and have my shoes taken off and laptop sniffed for explosives fortunately no one stuck any bombs into my stuff. After about an hour trip over to Charlotte I killed an hour in the airport and then it was about an hour to Philly.

In Charlotte I noticed a girl waiting for the Philly flight writing in a journal. I figured she looked like a good PC candidate, so asked her where she was headed and she turned out to be Small Enterprise Development (SED) volunteer Audrey. The seat net to me on the place was vacant, so we chatted as we flew.

She is an economics major and interested in microfinance. Her time in Mauritania is a professional boost. I’ve run into quite a few people interested in development and international finance who are using this to build their careers.

Once we got to the hotel I started meeting so very many people. It looks like our group is down two, to 56. We all gathered together in a big conference room for about six hours and learned all about the mission of the Peace Corps.

Some statistics they listed as they were quizzing us:

| General | Mauritania
Average Training Group | 35 people | 56 people
Average Age | 28 years | 26 years
Percentage of Females | 60% | 61%
Percentage of Minorities | 15% | 17%
Percentage Married | 9% | 0% (3 couples in our class)

169,000 volunteers since 1961. 2003 budget is $295 million. That’s 1% of the foreign appropriation which is 1% of the total budget. (That’s also the cost of a single B2 bomber.) 7000 current volunteers in 70 countries.

I am really liking things so far. I am having interesting conversations with people and I am proud of myself for being fairly friendly and secure. I get nervous sometimes and don’t talk, but that’s not been happening much so far. I think having a much bigger issue of heading off to Mauritania helps push the little insecurities aside.

Keeping busy has been keeping my mind off of the fact that I left everyone I know behind this morning. I came back to the room to start to write this and it started to set in, and I took a little nap. Then a bunch of people came by and we went and had supper. (The gave us $120 to cover expenses until Mauritania.)

Most of the speaking today centered around what the PC is and what its goals are:
1. Promote understanding of the United States in foreign countries
2. Promote understanding of other countries in the United States
3. Provide assistance for basic survival skills to countries in

I have been talking to alot of people and the general consensus seems to be that we all hope to do some good (#3), but we recognize that it is very difficult and so most people seem more focused on simply going for the cross-cultural exchange and trying to do the best they can at making a difference. I expected to find a bunch of idealists out to change the world, but most of these people are simply braced to face some pretty serious hardship and just try and nudge the bar rather than move it.

Well, I’ll talk more in the PC later. It is getting late and I have to be down at 7:30 in the morning to get the first round of shots. Apparently we get a set here and then they take us to a relatively disease free area and we’ll get the rest as time goes on. I understand the logistical imperative, but it does seem like certain things like malaria are going to be unavoidable. I’ll write and tell you if anyone gets it.

Anyhow, I miss everyone already and I start to get choked up thinking about it. I’m going to try some sitting and see if that makes things worse of better.


P.S. One person tonight told the story of a volunteer who had a man and a woman over to his house to work on some project and it got late and he had them stay over because their village was two hours away. You are not allowed to have a woman stay the night with you if you are not related to them though and he was arrested for it.

They put him in jail and he caught hepatitis while there (though we are being vaccinated supposedly) and then he was stoned. I didn’t know there were non-lethal stonings, but apparently you can get into just enough trouble that you warrant being pelted with small stones.

This seems like the sort of place that is really easy to fall in love with.

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fwd: from mauritania

Got this from a volunteer in Mauritania.

Date: Fri, 13 Jun 2003 22:42:44 -0000
From: "kristeninafrica" <>
Subject: [AdventuresInMauritania] Free At Last!

Read the rest of this entry »

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sperm banks

Anyone know anything or have any opinions about sperm banks. I don’t really expect to come back dead or sterile, but you never know and I have been contemplating going to one.

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