Archive for June, 2004


Well, I just had my bit of surrealism for the day.

I was limping my way over to the university to get a little bit of work done. As I’m walking past the Saudian mosque I see a fellow walking toward me. He has the sense of being at least a little “fou.”

“Fou” means “crazy,” but to understand the sense you need to use a more 19th century definition of the word; think Boo Radley crazy. It doesn’t necessarily mean “mentally ill” as much as “unwilling or unable to recognize and abide by social mores.” I mentioned a while back that there is much more uncorrected physical deformation here than you’d see in the States. The same is also true of mental handicaps.

The fellow coming up to me is both dirty and looks distracted rather than showing any real focus on me. As I am passing him though he looks toward me and holds up his left hand as though for me to shake.

This would make sense in the U.S. since in his right hand he is holding a stack of probably a dozen little notebooks. Here though you would hold your right arm out and permit the other person to grasp your wrist or your forearm. You’d never give them your left hand though. It is ritually unclean and even handing someone money with the left hand is something I’ve never seen.

I just sort of looked at him since I’m well enough trained now that I had no more impulse to stick out my left hand than I had to bow or salute. It simply isn’t the right response and my body knew that even before I thought it.

Seeing that I wasn’t going to take his hand he grabbed my left wrist with his hand. He grabbed it really firmly and I was surprised. As I was prying his hand off of my wrist he asked me where was from. When I said I was American he gave a little cry and sort of skipped back throwing his little notebooks all over the place.

He seemed angry, I’m assuming with my country. As he occupied himself with the collection of his notebooks I limped off since I saw nothing good coming of hanging around.

I noticed as I was walking that my wrist was bleeding from where he was holding it. The thought of what might have entered the wound from the fellow’s left hand is not comforting. I’ll take my festering sores one at a time if you please.

Well, our new volunteers arrive tomorrow. I’m off to work.


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Having a boil cleared is a rather unpleasant process. It involves quite a bit of squeezing and bleeding and pain. In my case it also involves a quarter inch hole left in my knee.

As unpleasant as it is though the subsequent packing of the hole with sterile gauze is less entertaining. The whole process was rather twisted. First comes pushing and squeezing and pulling to get a big chunk of pus out of my knee. Having done all this bloody and painful work to make the hole she just filled it back up with gauze.

On the bright side though I’m on the road to recovery hopefully and I’ll be able to walk semi-normally in a week.


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We’ve been putting together a directory of all the different staff members, trainers and volunteers so that our fresh mea… um, stagiaiers will have some hope of learning the hundred plus new people they’re about to meet.

I’m in this morning because I’ve been asked to add a little bit of information to the entries for the training staff: marital status and number of children.

Last year there was some confusion on the topic for some people. I’m pretty sure it arose for a significant number of the trainers telling the stagiaiers that they weren’t married. =) It’s an odd phenomenon and it seemed especially to happen to the women.


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Harry Potter

I laid around the house yesterday reading Harry Potter. Some 270 pages in about five hours. I consider this an accomplishment. Why? Because Harry and his friends were all speaking French. =)

Steph sent two books over that she had purchased long ago and had no use for. I was really glad that she did it since I’d been waiting a year to read _Confessions of a Taoist on Wall Street_. (Which I finished before I even left Paris.)

I figured Harry Potter would be tougher, being in French and all. What I think really helped was that the version of the book I had followed the movie really closely, so I had to understand even less than normal to follow along. Amazingly though, every so often I’d realize that I’d just been reading and not thinking at all about it being in French.

I bought a couple comics in France and I know that my reading level is still definitely pretty low, but it was encouraging nonetheless.

There were a couple of extenuating circumstances that helped. One, my knee is in bad enough shape I can hardly walk. Two, the only thing readily edible in my house was instant coffee and I drank about half a liter of it. So, the usual soporific effects of French were offset a bit. =)


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I’m back to home sweet sandy home. No more dirt or deciduous trees for a while. =)

How I came to be here is something of a story though. This whole trip was fraught with times that I was saved from my inexperience only through a series of good breaks fortuitous enough to border on divine intervention. My departure shows this all too well.

The day begins with me in Tanger. I had a pleasant time the day before wandering the streets with J?rgen and slept soundly. About 8:00 I sort of drowsed up and lay about reading a book of adventure stories my aunt, Sharon, gave to me in Paris. “No problem,” I was thinking, “there is a 9:00 train, but I don’t need to catch it since it only takes five and a half hours to get to the airport station; Casa Voyageurs.”

So I work my way out of bed at a leisurely pace, noting a little stiffness and pinkness in my left knee. Not especially concerned I stuff my copious quantities of clothes, medicines and reading materials back into my bags and get ready to go.

I’m generally a pretty light traveler, but I wasn’t home for Christmas and my family was kind enough to hold it off for me until we met in Paris. I got pretty much a complete wardrobe, a goodly portion of a pharmacy and a few sweets. In the interests of saving weight I disposed of the jellybeans in the first two days. The remaining non-consumable parts though probably weighed in at about 80-90 pounds. Thanks to a solid suspension system on the backpack I could carry it all pretty well at a quick waddle.

Walking is after all the only exercise I get here. It though I get in spades with it taking about 15 minutes to get to work and about an hour to get to the Peace Crops bureau.

So I head out of the pension around 9:15. About half an hour later I’ve decided I’m not lost and that I’m close to the train station. I find a cyber cafe and send out a little update to the effect of not being dead and en route to Nouakchott, inshallah.

I make it to the train station at 10:45 with plenty of time to spare. I’m a bit sweaty since the temperatures had started to climb to the 90’s, but none the worse for wear other than the lingering stiffness in my knee.

All is looking good. My first bit of worry comes as I examine my journal. Coming up from Casablanca I notice the trip took six and a half hours. “Hmm,” I think, “my plane leaves at 18:20. They told me to be there at 17:00. 11 + 6.5 = 17.5. 17:30. Half an hour late. That’s not good. I wonder how strict they are here on boarding?”

Then as the ticket fellow came around to punch my ticket he told me I had to change trains in about an hour.

“The fellow at the ticket counter told me it took five and a half hours. Right? Could he have said ‘sept’ and not ‘cinq’ maybe? Is it seven and a half hours and not five and half? I know he didn’t say ‘six.'” My insecurity about my French combined with my fear of getting stranded in Casablanca and played in my mind.

Once I was at the stop I saw the next train didn’t leave for another half an hour and though this did nothing to calm me it did leave me time to go into the station and ask about what time the train arrived at Casa Voyageurs. Much to my relief the fellow told me we would pull in at 17:15. Perfect.

Back out at the station, I was munching on a chicken sandwich when another of the passengers waiting on the platform asked me, “do you have the time?” “Yeah, it’s 3:20, so they train’ll be here in about fifteen minutes,” I said taking note of her perfectly accented American English.

Never able to pass up an opportunity to chat in English I ask her where she’s from and she reveals that she is an ex-Fulbright scholar en route to New York before heading home to Washington D.C. Samantha is her name and as I look at her I see how her angular features and dark hair decidedly give her the look of someone from the Middle East. She tells me that with her fluent French and passable Arabic she doesn’t have any trouble getting along here.

I mention my worries about and resolution of my scheduling problems with our arrival in Casa Voyageurs. “But,” she questions, “what about the half hour to get out to the airport?” “The what?” I respond in a vain attempt at postponing the revelation through incomprehension. “Casa Voyageurs is not the station at the airport. The airport is another train that takes half an hour.” “Oh,” I say still hoping that perhaps this is some sort of cruel joke on her part.

She seems convinced and it explains a discrepancy in my notes of 30 durham between what I paid to get to Tanger and what I paid to get back.

I ask her to watch my stuff and jog back into the station to ask about the train to the airport. Every hour at five after. Trip time takes 33 minutes. I’d arrive at 18:38, to late to even watch my plane departing.

“I appear to be screwed,” I think to myself.

Back out at the platform, Samantha and I talk for a while longer and I notice that it’s 14:40. This is not comforting since the train theoretically arrived ten minutes ago. We have been sitting on the platform the whole time and this clearly has not happened.

Another five minutes pass and the sign flashes “train 15 minutes en retard” as the train pulls up. “Goodie,” I bemuse, “if I wasn’t screwed I’m going to be 15 minutes late.”

As it turns out we arrived 20 minutes late.

Samantha has thankfully decided to forgo her first class compartment and rough it with me and about five other people in a second class compartment. I’m really thankful for it because in addition to being an entertaining conversationalist she has the clue that I lack. She’s already given me several good possibilities with the best being throwing myself on the mercy of the Peace Corps in Rabat.

This is something of a gamble since country directors have pretty wide control and I could get anything from a nice place to stay to a kind smile and nothing else. I figure I’ll just lie down in the street outside the bureau and they’ll have to do something with me since me getting murdered and beaten on the bureau doorstep would be decidedly bad press. If there is one thing I think I can count on worldwide from the Peace Corps it is an avoidance of bad press.

She inquires of one of our fellow passengers where one might find cheap lodging in Casablanca along the lines of the 40 durham pension I was at in Tanger. I learn at this point that “louche” means “ladle” when used as a noun and “seedy/shady” when used as an adjective.

In the process though she explains my plight and it becomes the talk of the car; everyone has an idea and a suggestion. They are mostly in Arabic though and so not especially useful to me.

The fellow of whom she inquired initially is of the opinion that I can buy out all the seats in a “grand taxi” for 200dh and make it to the airport on time. This was Samantha’s original suggestion, but our being 20 minutes behind schedule caused her to retract it. He is emphatic though and tells me he will help me when we arrive.

Betting on his certainty I decide to give it a try.

I am betting pretty heavily too. This taxi will cost me 200 of my remaining 300dh. I could maybe manage to survive until the next flight on the 300dh, but on 100dh I’m pretty much up the creek.

I bid Samantha and my Moroccan benefactor a quick good-bye and we are off. It is, of course, 17:35 (5:35pm). We are, of course, in a town of four million. The traffic is, of course, a horrendous snarl. My driver keeps the pedal to the metal and I keep my eyes pretty much affixed to my watch, especially for the last ten minutes of our 35 minute car ride.

So, 18:10 we arrive. I hit the ground at my best impression of a run (again, carrying 90lbs.) I arrive at the ticket counter and in my best help me for the love of God voice I ask about the flight. She starts to glower at me and then apparently is taken by a bit of pity and instead picks up the phone with an exasperated look and calls someone.

I’m panting and trying to get my bags ready as she tells me, al-hamdallah, that I can still get on, but I can’t check my bags or they’ll refuse. This seems odd to me since my bags are huge, but she’s for it, so I am too. She gives me a boarding pass and tells me to hurry.

I take off at a run again and make it to the rotund guardian of the gates. “You can’t take that bag,” he declares. “It’s too big.” “Please, please, please, I say. My plane is leaving and I have to catch it.” “No,” he says, but I think I see a glimmer of hesitation. “I don’t have any money. If I miss this flight I have to sleep in the airport. I’ll carry the bad on my lap. I’ll find something to do.” He glowers a bit. “Please, please let me go.” I ask on the point of begging. Had I been female it would have been the perfect time to start crying, but it was a move I didn’t figure I could pull off.

He sort of grumbles and looks aside allowing me to run past and nearly into a police officer three steps later. “Green card?” he asks. “You mean for Mauritania?” I respond in a rapidly degenerating melange of French and English. He looks at me, seems to realize that communication is next to impossible and waves me on handing me a card (green) to fill out with my passport information.

I scrawl some stuff on it and jog up to an empty window. I look up onto the wall and note with a sinking sensation that it is now 18:20 and my plane may well be on its way to my home. I head around the window and a shocked and authoritative voice tells me to get back around the window. It sounds serious enough and belongs to a large enough police officer that I dart back out of instinct as much as anything.

I’m sort of bouncing around with my suddenly stifled energy calling through the window that my plane is leaving and I’d really like to go.

Of note, I was under the impression “je vous en prie” was along the lines of “I beg of you,” and I I was sprinkling it in liberally between my “s’il vous plaits.” Turns out it means “thank you” in general. So they police may well have been ignoring me because I appeared a sweat soaked gibbering idiot and they were forming plans as to how to subdue me.

After a could minutes one of them wanders over, glances at my passport, and stamps it; waving me through. I take off again at my quick waddle to the gate. I breathe a happy sigh to see a waiting room full of mulafas and bou-bous.

After I made it through one more metal detector I drop my bags and stand for a moment in triumph. Most of the room stops to examine and discern my dysfunction, but I don’t care. I am arrived. I don’t have to sleep in the airport. I don’t have to go begging at the Peace Corps office. I get to go home.

The plane takes another 20 minutes to get ready and we leave almost 40 minutes late. I don’t care though. I’m going home.

I make it home and fall pretty quickly asleep noting the increasing pain in my knee. Apparently it was holding off til I finished my trip to give up the ghost because I awoke this morning with it looking more a grapefruit than a knee. I can walk, it’s just anything that requires bending that doesn’t work so well. I’ll head to the bureau Sunday and get an opinion on it.

It feels good to be home.


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Tanger encore

Not dead still, mashallah. Took the boat back from S?te and sumehow managed to get a less comfortable but more expensive cabin than going up.

Yesterday I hung out with a Swede I ran into at the train station, J?ren. He lives in London though and I thought he was British for the longest time. I went on at length having been a bit pent up on my 36 hour boat ride with no English speakers.

I got to play tour guide since my half a clue was more than he had. That’s always fun.

I’m off to catch a train and, inshallah, a flight back to Nouakchott tonight.

Lunch yesterday was a half kilo of cherries, a half kilo of peaches and a kilo of bread. Total cost? (A kilo is 2.2lbs, remember.) $2 I love this country. So much fruit and delicious breads and pastries and so little time.

Well, the train leave soon, so I ought to be on my way.


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Well, all worked out well. Some hunting on the internet and subsequent phone calls led me to the Hotel des Arts right in the middle of town. The shower and toilet are down the hall, which is what I guess qualifies it for one star, but the room was clean, spacious and 22?50 with a double bed, so it’s A-OK in my book.

I took a little nap and wandered the city for a few hours. For dinner I went to the Monoprix which is a pretty good sized department store with a grocery. I was following up on a rumor that there was cheddar cheese to be found in the Monoprix, but it turned out not to be true. I picked up some off brand goat cheese and a loaf of bread. On the way out some random girl was doing samples of a new Danon jouice with milk drink. I bought some just because it was the first person I’d talked to and it made me feel good.

The guys here are apparently pretty aggressive in approaching girls and they are fairly gun shy because of it. Smiling isn’t something you do to strangers. It has a definite connotation as a come-on. Kittie said she liked it because she thought it was more honest. Me, I sort of like having a clear signal for attraction, but I miss smiling at random people on the street. It just widens the gap between everyone losing that little point of contact.

As for the Monoprix I didn’t really like buying stuff there. Paris and Toulouse both still have lots of little shops and vendors scattered along the streets. Much more so than back home. This is something that big discount stores will eventually do away with. I wanted to use my credit card though since I’m nearly out of cash and so I shopped there since it was safe.

It is really nice just wandering through a big grocery store and seeing all the many choices. Especially here in France where there are tons of cheeses and breads and sausages. Everything is really expensive, so I can’t really buy anything, but it is nice to see nonetheless.

One interesting thing is yogurt. It is a much bigger part of the diet here and so instead of a yogurt section there’s a wall of yogurt. Thirty or forty brands with more flavors than you can count. I couldn’t help but smile. I was careful though not to point it at anyone lest they think I was coming on the them.

For the night I went to a big Mexican music festival that happens to be going on now; the Rio Loco.

It is held along the Garonne river which is only about a five minute walk from my hotel. There was some good jazz with a Spanish feel. The vendors selling ethnic products from around the world were as entertaining as anything. Tonight is the big night for the festival, so I’m gonna head back.

This morning I got moved to a more expensive room. For 2? more I’ve now got a window over looking the street and a bidet. I like the window, don’t know what the hell to do with the bidet.

This would be cool with another person too because the room is 4? more to share it and that’d be 14? apiece. Mannkhi mouskila; no problem.

Anyhow, I’ve decided my treat for the afternoon will either be Mexican food (the Mexican family left Mauritanina and closed their restaurant before I came) or a movie if I can’t find a Mexican restaurant. I’ve just recently learned what tapas are, so maybe I’ll try them.


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Well, plans changed again. Marc decided to stay another day, so I decided to stay and do the boat. If I’d have stayed and gone to Madrid I wouldn’t have even stayed the night because the bus is a night bus leaving at 11:30pm and arriving at 10:30am.

So, this morning I left Marc’s grandparents and have been wandering the streets for the last four hours searching for a place to sleep. It is raining and I am carrying about 60lbs of stuff, so this is less entertaining than it could be. On the bright side I’m learning I really like my new backpack.

Option #1 was the youth hostel. It is now out of buisness. Option #2 was a hotel we passed yesterday with 21? rooms. It is full. So I’m here now trying to figure out option #3. Sleeping in a park is not an especially attractive option. Paying 50? for a room isn’t though either.

I figure if worst comes to worst I’ll do one night in an expensive place and take the rain to S?te and sleep in the boat station. The internet is providing some promising prospects.

Marc made a distinction between a trip, which is focused mainly on seeing things, and a vacation, which is largely about relaxing. I think I am going to need a vacation after this trip.


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on the road again

Wow, so much has happened that there is no hope whatsoever that I can capture any appreciable amount. In particular not in the twenty minutes I have to pack before heading out to Toulouse.

Hopefully my little brother, Brett, will be working with his girlfriend, Jen, and getting some pictures and narrative up of our France tour. I was doing pretty good about writing in my little paper journal while coming up through Morocco. Given though that I had no one to talk to and nothing to do it wasn’t that hard. Seeing my family and our subsequent whirlwind tour saw an end to that.

I’ve been hanging out at Robert’s for the last four days. I’ve been getting to see a bit of the city. Paris is a really beautiful place. Everywhere I turn there’s a monument or a church or some other bit of history dating back to before my country existed. The layout of the city is really nice too. The streets are nice and wide and people getting out to picnic or sunbathe in the parks or anlong the Seine is pretty common. My desire to live here for a bit has decidedly been strengthened by my visit.

Interesting things in the last couple days:

Louvre. Monday afternoons are free for people under 26, so I took advantage of that and got lost (literally) in the Louvre for a few hours. Saw the obligatory Venu de Milo and Mona Lisa. The museum is huge. More than twelve miles of galleries supposedly. Different parts are open at different times, so I only saw about a third, but it was more than enough to occupy me for the three hours I had.

Robert has taken me to a couple of expat parties. One of them was “Jim’s Party” which has been held weekly for the last 25 years with over 100,000 visitors to date. Things were pretty light the night we were there with maybe 60 people in attendance. I did though meet Kittie from Oak Ridge, Tennessee of all places.

Kittie and I went to see Sacre Coeur Bastilica and Montmartre. I’d seen alot of impressive churches in the last couple days, but this one was spectacular. Most gothic cathedrals have a uniform style. Even Notre Dame is the high arches arranged in a cross pattern. Stunning, but not especially originial. Sacre Coeur is a huge dome.

There is also a really nice view of Paris from on Montmartre. We sat around chatting for a bit before heading to a cemetary to wander through the ancient mosoleums. There is just so much stone used in construction here. That they have enough left for the ground is surprising. I’m betting this city is surrounded by giant holes.

It was nice just sitting around talking to a cute girl in English. She’s got a long term boyfriend back home, so no romance, but a nice day in any case. We tried to go find some night life, but it being Tuesday precluded that.

This city really would be a great one to have a romance in though. There’s just something in the air.

Anyhow, my train leaves in an hour and I’ve got to pack. Hopefully I’ll get to use a computer before getting home in a week. I was planning on staying with Marc and taking the boat back between Sete and Tangier, but Marc is leaving tomorrow, so I’m headed down to Madrid for a couple days.

I’m feeling pretty good about it though. I’m getting the hang of this travel thing.


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the beaches of Normandy

So, all is well and good. I managed to catch up with everyone and we have been happily exploring the French countryside for the last couple days.

Today we went to Bayoux and saw the tapestry as well as a beautiful cathdreal. These gothic cathedrals have impressed me the most of all so far. They are just so enormous and ornate that I feel like I sould be looking for mirrors or some slieght of hand. That they went up almost 1000 years ago boggles the mind.

We started off in Paris and saw the Eiffel tower at night which lived up to every expectation of picturesqueness. At night they have thousands of little storbe lights all over the tower that twinkle and are absolutely beautiful.

Just seeing my family has been the best part of all. We have had lots of time riding around on the bus for talking and I’ve really just enjoyed cathing up and spending time with them. My mom is trying to convince me to come back straight away after my service. As much of a difference as I have seen between having travelling companions and not I’m being tempted.

We saw the American cemetary at Nromandy this morning with 9336 marble crosses. Very sombering. Tomorrow we storm Mont Saint-Michel which we are staying near tonight.

This really is just great. I have so much to say, but the internet is 5euro a half-hour, so I’m cutting it short.


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