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My Photography Show!

July 13, 2009

Photography Show Flyer

Opening July 18th, next Saturday! @ Afrikando Afrikando, in Seattle.

I moved

July 12, 2009

here.

This will be my [blog]home from now on.  No promises on how often it will be updated, but I’m making a rejuvenated effort to make regular contributions, in conjunction with some other things I’m doing.  More to follow.  Best to add it to your RSS feed… so you’ll know when there are updates. 

happy writing!

It’s a White Christmas in Portland, Oregon

December 24, 2008

It’s snowing in Portland, Oregon. Has been for days. Besides watching my crazy neighbor out the window behind my computer screen do things like build an ice sculpture, set up a feeding station for squirrels, and come outside to survey her accomplishments every five minutes, and between desperately checking email, facebook, and online news for some sort of occupation, I am snowed in and stir crazy – and so realized how great an opportunity to get a long overdue post up to bring things up to date, since I am very far away from where I left off.

I left Mauritania back on August 8th. I remember not being sure whether or not the Nouakchott airport was going to be functioning after the military coup two days before (the junta just freed President Sidi on Dec. 21st, although they confiscated his passport, some freedom…). The few of us in the capital at the time were at a restaurant frequented by other ex-pats and kept exchanging the latest information back and forth, receiving news reports and updates from embassies and program directors. In the evening before I was scheduled to leave (at 2am the following morning) we heard that at least one airline was operating – it happened to be ours – and for the first time I felt confident that I would get out of Mauritania on my scheduled date, and not be left counting days and hours like I had spent so much of the past week, and the past two years. I rushed back to the hotel to finish packing, which really just meant choosing what I was going to throw out of my bag because it was already far too full for the 10 day trip through Europe ahead of me, on my way back home to the US. I sent an email to my friend I was scheduled to meet, saying I would in fact be leaving that night – but with a sketchy airport, a transfer across Paris, and a London tube and train adventure ahead of me, I could only hope for the best. Best to just leave it to be decided at a pay phone in London. Good enough. In writing this, I am remembering for the first time that in my long wait at the Nouakchott airport, it began to rain. This was the first time it had rained that year in the capital city that rarely sees the seasonal storms of the south of the country reach its barren region. I thought it fitting, for some reason. The delayed plane finally did arrive – its lights blazing through the waiting room windows. And, even more fittingly, we were delayed further in order to let the rain stop. It wasn’t the kind of rain that might bog down an airport hub in the Midwest United States in the heart of winter. It was just enough rain that people did not want to walk out in it order to get to the plane. And so we waited. I got up and went to the window to have a better look at the puddles accumulating outside. I looked back at the now filled waiting room. People seemed unconcerned, the guards at the open doorway leaned against the doorframe, occasionally looking over their shoulder to gauge the rainfall. I was too, but only because I knew I had six hours to get from Charles de Gaulle to Orly and a million flights to transfer to in Casablanca should I miss mine. I wondered if they all had as much confidence in their waiting connections. Anyway, it seemed ok to me to have to wait. Maybe that’s what made the situation seem fitting, it was familiar: waiting due to bizarre, unexplainable, and irrevocable circumstances. I left Mauritania in the dark. The same way I always had entered or exited by plane. I never once got an aerial view of the Sahara and its mutable borders. This thought made me sad. And again, I remember thinking, looking out the window at the vastness of the black, knowing that it wasn’t ocean underneath, that one never does get that perspective in Mauritania. Life consists of the limits of your immediate surroundings, perhaps the length of time you can travel under the sun in a day before running out of water. Those are the limits. Cars broaden horizons, but even they don’t cover too much ground in a day, slowed by the myriad of police stops, flat tires, animal crossings, prayer times, sand storms, and road detours.

A few hours later I was in Europe. This is a funny story that doesn’t include much sleep, but does include: loads of ferries, tubes, and trains, some chosen carelessly, an English manor, surprisingly, regretfully running through stations and airports, an unknowingly (by me) stolen, but delicious, pizza pie, an unexpected traverse of Italy by train, medieval Sicily by night, most serendipitously, a painful jellyfish attack, and a lunar eclipse over homegrown spaghetti.

Then Jadyn, my four year old niece who did so good not giving away the secret, met me at the airport, didn’t take a breath the entire ride home in order to catch me up on current events, opened the front door, ran inside, and yelled, “Nana Nana, guess who’s here!?!” And I surprised my Mama.

It has taken a long long time to disconnect from Mauritania, never fully, but enough to reflect. “Reintegration,” as the Peace Corps likes to call it, is a constant process. It changes every day I guess, but not in a linear fashion. I don’t think I could have predicted I would feel the way I do now two months ago. That is to say, it hasn’t gone as planned. I spent a lot of time in Mauritania thinking about this current time, this epoch of my life. I listed in my head all the things I wanted to do when I got home, the people I missed so much, the foods I wanted to eat and cook, the activities I wanted to participate in, and all the beautiful places where I wanted to get reacquainted. My Oregon. I mystified it in my mind. The Peace Corps nobly tries to prepare us for the let down. The inability to connect with people and place upon our return. The loneliness of disinterest in our experience. The feeling of foreignness in a place that is supposed to be so comfortable. But, the great thing about living in Oregon, is that is doesn’t ever let you down. Oregon didn’t change. For the first few months however, I was surprised and afraid of my own inability to relate to it. I had this same impediment while I was in Europe, but those were 10 surreal days. I had confidence that Oregon would be different. I figured it would be weird with people at first, and that my stomach would probably need a while to adjust to the food, but I assumed that my first breath of beautiful clear Oregon air would bring me right back home. It didn’t. And it scared me. It became apparent that Mauritania did something to me. And I feared it was permanent. Place holds great value to me, and I mean in its loosest definition. One can be transient, and value their extant place and nowhere more, and place respect in the ground they walk in an almost pious manner. One can hold on to their hometown like it defines their very existence, and place nothing above its comfort of familiarity. I am somewhere in between. Because I am from Oregon, I tout it as one of the most beautiful places in the world (which I think is substantive). I consider Oregon my place because it fulfills all aspects of the term. It reciprocates. I gain peace from its green forests mountains river lakes ocean canyons plateaus. But I move around as well, and place respect in the ground under my feet with almost equal appreciation. It is someone’s place, even if I don’t think it comes close to my feelings about Oregon. And sharing in that humanity places equal value in different somewheres. One can feel home away from home, or at peace in unknown surroundings. Place is an idea as much as a physical location. So, I came back to a place I considered to be my home, and my place. But this time, instead of a beautiful reciprocal feeling of homeness, Oregon was in front of me, and I felt nothing. It was like I was seeing things but not absorbing them. And then I blamed Mauritania. I blamed it because I thought it took away my ability to feel connected to the place I am, in more ways than locale, to share its nature. I felt like it crushed a bit of my soul, and I feared I would never get that back, that I would never experience Oregon, or anywhere, the same. Obviously, this scenario demonstrates that my idea of Mauritania is much more than just a place on a map, thus defeating my panicked theory. Mauritania is a force, a struggle, an oppressive climate. But I stuck it out for two years, so clearly, it was engaging, and colorful, and valuable – a place I was able to assign value. It was much more than just a place. It was a place. And it slowly became my place. The truth is that the world is full of places, countless places. Some of them are visually beautiful, aesthetically pleasing, reciprocating everything that they embody. And lots of other places are like Mauritania. They are just as much a place as those others, but they are defined differently. Natural beauty was mostly taken out of the equation in Mauritania. I didn’t find my physical surroundings pleasing. I found them to be oppressive. Because my place was a place where the physical aspects were inspiring, and beautiful, and life sustaining. This is why my Mauritanian host-mother could look at the river and say to me, “isn’t it so beautiful?!” and I would think, “uh, no.” But to her it was. This was her place. We are adaptable.

After a few months of traveling around visiting people, I got a bit more settled at home, and I found myself at the coast on a very stormy day. Loving storms, I went down to the bay by our house to see and feel its extent. There was no shore left underneath the combination of high tide and storm surge, so I stood there on newly shored driftwood logs as the wind whipped waves up over the end of the road beside me, where a red and white barricade prevents indignant people from driving out onto this pristine and low trafficked corner of Tillamook Bay. I was soaked in minutes. But I couldn’t drag myself away. Pelicans and Gulls flew overhead, disorderly battling gusts of wind that fought their efforts to search out more sheltered coves. [This is going to sounds cheesy, but I’m ok with that.] At this moment, I felt like the wind threatening to push me off the log, the rain pelting my face, and the waves spraying my feet, were infusing me with feeling, which I hadn’t felt in years. Now, I felt home.

Now, I spend a lot of time (unemployment is great for time) thinking about what Im gonna do now. You might wonder why I hadn’t thought about this while sitting awake at night locked in my room, sweating out a sand storm in Mauritania. Well, I did. But more prominent on my mind were thoughts like, “ohmygoditissof’inghot.holycrapwasthatascorpion.ohnomyroofisgoingtoblowaway.” And others like that. It’s hard, nay impossible, to think clearly when so much of your brain is just trying to maintain. But, now that my world is expanded again – it seems I have too many options to come up with any decisions, and have strangely lost my ability to focus on more than a few thoughts at once. Mostly, I find somebody whom I admire, or want to be like, or want their job, and then I find out how they got to be there, and I end up with even more options. And in between I watch TED videos online to see what the smartest people in the world are thinking and doing and try to come up with ideas that have learned from all of them. And then I’m back at the beginning of figuring out how to do it.

So, Christmas is here. And, being that the current economic, political, and now meteorological situation around these parts seems to be less than soothing, it provides a good opportunity to reflect on why exactly we do the things we do in more tranquil times – like buy TONS of stuff that people were doing just fine without, and take for granted an easy 45 minute drive to gather with extended friends and family in one place at one time, or forget the things we really do want to be essential and intrinsic in our lives, that are now more prominent in view, as it’s become apparent that the struggle for those things is in fact constant, and not to be forgotten by those we desire to lead us.

I am glad to say that I think I learned some things through my Peace Corps experience, and since. They are a rambling assemblage of thoughts, as follows: places like Mauritania don’t matter to the world as a whole; we can’t fall into the trap of thinking of “the world” as “a whole” (in the sense that we are all individuals, and can all effect change, irregardless of language, geographical, and cultural barriers – not in the sense that we should be separatists, or isolationists, or shouldn’t think globally. We should absolutely think globally); it’s not fair to call 52 countries, “Africa”; aid, as it works now, is fatally flawed. We are just treading water; Peace Corps needs a lot of help not to fail, despite the things that it does right; we should help each other, by investing in each other; there is no place for racism, ignorance, unequal distribution of rights and respect, but we violate our shared humanity every day; lastly, we are here to enjoy it. Not to suffer. Not to feel guilty for not suffering. To live it, consciously and responsibly. That’s my Christmas wish, my letter to Santa, my new year’s resolution: that I may continue this blessed life making conscious decisions and responsibly filling my role, and that others do the same.

I hope you and yours have a wonderful holiday, and that the snow keeps melting so that we can all get together safely! I’ve always dreamed of a white Christmas, but now its clear that it is in fact a disaster when it happens!

If you have a little left over this year and/or are still thinking of donating to a charity or fund, but haven’t decided which, please consider making a donation to the Peace Corps Mauritania Country Fund. This is the only avenue through which the majority of volunteers are able to acquire funding for projects, 100% of which are then turned around and applied directly to helping a Mauritanian community, connecting you directly to a project on the ground and making a difference. This was also the funding source that made my Community Center & Market project go from a remote wish of the village community to an actual successful project. Here is more information about the fund and how you can donate:

A few quick facts about donations to the Mauritania Country Fund:

* 100% of funds donated go directly to supporting a project benefiting a community in Mauritania (zero $$ go to overhead or any other administrative fees);
* Projects are funded based on strict criteria which include a 25% contribution from the local beneficiary community;
* Each project is overseen by a Peace Corps Volunteer on the ground and monitored and evaluated by Peace Corps staff;
* Donations are tax deductible (for U.S. taxpayers) and you will receive a written confirmation of your donation from Peace Corps Washington;
* With so few NGOs operating in Mauritania, the PC Partnership Program is the primary source of funding for Peace Corps Volunteer projects in country.

Here is the direct link:

https://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=resources.donors.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=682-CFD

Or, go to the main Peace Corps website (www.peacecorps.gov) and follow these steps:

Step 1, click the “Donate Now” link on the left side of the screen.
Step 2, click the “Donate to Country Funds” link located both on the left hand side of the screen or in the middle section.

Step 3, in the middle of the screen under “Search by Country of Service” click the dropdown box and select “Mauritania.”

Step 4, click “Donate to Country Funds” located in the middle of the page.
Step 5, In the search results click the “Mauritania Country Fund” link. A donation box will be located on the right hand side of the screen.

Long hellos and short goodbyes

August 7, 2008

My time in Mauritania is counting down in hours – less than ten left.

Things have been so rushed and chaotic that I haven’t had much of an opportunity to reflect. Goodbyes were brief, and blessings were abundant. Walking away from something so significant is a strange thing to do, unintuitive and painful. But, in the end, feet must keep moving. And so I left my village, over a week ago , and am just now achieving a sense of disconnect that allows a generalized perspective of the everyday dirt and struggle, the constant challenge and growth, of the past two years.

Then there was a coup.

It is calm here in Nouakchott. Yesterday was panicky, today it’s simply sad. The repurcutions of this latest upheavel (the third in five years) will be great. No one expects it to stay as it is right now. The outcome, however, will determine the immediate fate of the coutnry. This could not have come at a worse time, in the midst of a food crisis, when Mauritania is nearly entirely dependent upon foreign aid. The international community has condemned the coup and is not acknowledging the new military junta. For now, we wait and see what will become of the situation. Major development organizations were just begining to establish programs here after the positive results of last year’s democratic elections, however, without a stable government that is all bound to be suspended, if not canceled. It is horrible timing, but perhaps not without reason. The lack of transparency in the government prevents the public from ever knowing what is actually going on, and outside of the capital, there is virtually no interest. But, judging from the events of last week, when the majority of the legislature calling for the president’s resignation, and his firing of the top military leaders, people were not happy with him.

I guess it’s a good time to go.

I’ll be in Portland on August 21st, inshallah, and I cannot wait for the green!

Crossing the Island

March 4, 2008
Riding in the back of a truck across the island between the three branches of the Senegal River that separates Senegal and Mauritania, I sat next to Aminata, a severely malnourished infant (it’s difficult to distinguish age with Marasmus). An old woman, who may have been her grandmother was caring for her, taking her to her home in a tiny village on the island. Aminata’s mother was severely ill, unable to care for her daughter and so gave her away to be cared for. The old woman was traveling with another mother, who was breast-feeding her own child, a round-cheeked child around the same age presumably, but almost twice the size of Aminata (although likely suffering from Kwasiorkor’s, another common form of malnutrition). At one of the river crossings when we had all exited the truck, another volunteer suggested the nursing mother also feed Aminata. The women refused, saying that they did not want to contaminate the mother. They believed whatever had caused the sickness in Aminata’s mother was passed from Aminata. It’s impossible to say what both mother and child were suffering from, maybe Tb, maybe AIDS, maybe another STD, or something non-congenital and simply circumstantial; however, this weariness of western medical advice is a plague in these small isolated villages, where myth still dictates health practices. The old woman, a jolly traditional Pulaar with giant red-threaded gold earrings hanging from her ears, joked with me about giving me Aminata, who I had become friends with along the ride. I jokingly turned her down, but her offer later got more serious, as she explained to me that the mother is gone, and she herself is too old to care for an infant. This practice is quite common here, where children are passed around between family members, usually to alleviate poorer living situations or to facilitate a child’s opportunity at an education, or simply because the family needs an indentured worker. I stared at Aminata’s elderly looking face, she stared back at her reflection in my sunglasses, and we bounced along the rough road before waving goodbye where we left them at their village.

A middle aged Pulaar man was also riding in the back of the truck with us. Him and another man, a white Moor, were glancing at the book of another volunteer’s with us, on the last page my friend had written out a few words in Arabic to explain the alphabet to another volunteer. The men saw this and asked if he knew what the words meant. My friend replied knowingly, one of the words was, “Bismillah,” meaning “in the name of God.” The men then interrogated him, with the arrogance of entitlement, asking what is the meaning of God? I butted in, frustrasted, “what are you saying?!” but lacked the energy to go further, put my headphones back in and my head down . He continued on, asking about the US, speaking from his vast experience that it’s kind of similar to Mauritania, but that, “America is painful,” meaning, people work hard and never rest. Its not like here, he went on, “I don’t want to go to America, we like to rest, not work…”

Before getting on the truck, we discussed prices for the ride. The young men, familiar with the Peace Corps, gave us an honest and good price. The exchange was surprisingly pleasant and we were ready to go in a matter of minutes (a rare chain of events). While loading our baggage and the goats and things of the other passengers, two white Moor men starting yelling and shouting – in Pulaar, strangely – about the price of our pass. I went over and asked the driver who I had spoken to why they were yelling. They were upset about the price we had been given. He came over and pointed and shouted, “I’m better than that woman! We’re better than Americans! And all white people!” The Pulaar driver whispered to me to keep our money until the end of the ride, that there is no problem, and that we are their family.

We arrived in good time at the final river crossing across from Boghé, and went to the small guard station, in compliance with the warnings of gen d’arms after pervious non-official crossings. He greeted us and asked us where we were coming from. We went through the pleasantries and he then demanded we each pay 2000 CFA to cross the border. We immediately refused, saying there is no fee to cross, that we are Peace Corps Volunteers and have all the proper documentation. He argued, but we, knowing the game of corruption well, remained defiant. He tossed back our passports and told us that we will then be going back the way we came. Exhausted, we argued with him to let us pass. He threatened to call his commissioner, “whatever he says, we will do” he told us. “Great, call him,” we replied. On the phone, he explained the situation in French, getting the proper response we were hoping for, but then switched to Wolof, also expected, so we could no longer follow their conversation. He hung up, and said, “You all must have VISAs!” “We do…” “And… you must pay 200 CFA for the canoe crossing!” “Of course…” We paid 50, the proper fee, and found our friend, the Mauritanian Gen d’Arm at the police station on the other side, he greeted us, asked us about our trip, welcomed us back and threw his makeshift line into the river to continue fishing.

-

This was over the course of a few hours between Senegal and Mauritania. It dawned on me afterwards, how these two hours displayed so much of what makes up this place – or, at least, my experience in this place – two hours of racism, starving children, government corruption, gender inequality, sandy, bumpy roads, religious pretension, and unique expereinces.

-

Last weekend we were in Dakar, Senegal for the annual WAIST softball tournament, where we spend almost the entire four days in a weird state of first-world confusion between the American Club that hosts the event (with a pool, lounge chairs and canopies, a bar, moved grass baseball fields, and a duty free shop), and our home stays with embassy staff and other ex-pats that volunteer to host visiting PCVs in their state-department mansions with DSL and cabinets full of breakfast cereals (mine even made us waffles, which we gladly ate at the table with their 4 and 8 year old sons). We took second, lost by one run in the championship game, but had a ridiculous time. One game, against another PC team from Senegal, included a west side story-like dance off on home plate between the two teams. Similar nonsense took place day and night, resulting in very little sleep, lots of sun burn and Ibuprofen, and hangover curing bloody-mary’s. We managed to save our reputation by the end, after nearly losing it completely in the beginning, and ended with a creepy-eyed hand-carved trophy to add to the collection in Nouakchott. This event is so non-congruent with this experience, yet so much a part of the RIM Peace Corps experience, that it leaves you feeling blessed to participate, refreshed from home-like feeling of little America, wierded-out by the isolationism of that lifestyle, but so grateful for the opportunity to witness such dichotomy in life, and return to the extreme opposite of our day to day lives in-country.

Too Many Innocents Abroad (NYT Op-Ed)

February 2, 2008

Recently the New York Times published an Op-Ed from Robert Strauss, a former Peace Corps volunteer and Country Director in Cameroon. The article’s link is below:

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/09/opinion/09strauss.html?ex=1200546000&en=27e8a0cdb475e365&ei=5070&emc=eta1

His words are harsh, but I can’t say that I disagree. However, I think people in this field tend to get a skewed idea of the American population as a whole. Whereas, young PCVs might be inexperienced, we might also be the least of the naive and “innocents” making up our worldwide demographic. There are a lot of things wrong with the Peace Corps, but there is no denying the quality and quantity of individuals who have taken their experience and produced careers and lifetimes of public service and leadership, himself included.

Sunday is the New Monday

January 23, 2008

You can do that in Mauritania… after a number of years of compromising adherence to the occidental calendar system (for consistency’s sake) the final straw broke the proverbial camel’s back (or maybe it was an actual camel, that would give the story some legitimacy)…and so they changed it. Thursday is Friday, the weekend resigns on Saturday, and Wednesday no longer has the undesirable connotation with the mid-way hump, now that’s unlucky Tuesday, which I never liked all that much to begin with, and now like even less.

…wait, its 2008?

There was a beautiful moment, when while being bounced between jumping bodies at an illogically named bar, The Tavern, in St. Luis, Senegal, my head pounding with non-linear drum beats and chaotic rhythms (think, Afro-Jazz, minus the horns), and finally resting hug-ful arms, just moments after we counted down the arbitrary “last seconds” of the passing year (because nobody has an accurate watch…), my friend Neda stopped me and asked, “ You know what 2008 is!?!” “…uhh, the New Year?” I guessed, unable to get around the obvious, “It’s the year we go home!” She yelled. “AHHH! We’re goin’ home!” …we recommenced jumping, yelling, hugging, not rationalizing to ourselves that our actual departure is not for another seven months.

We arrived in St. Luis after a long taxi-brousse ride from Nouakchott, and the conundrum (I may have used other words at the time…) that is the frontier and river crossing between Mauritania and Senegal, haggling with garage-chiefs and un-compromising drivers, to find that the hotel where I had made reservations a month earlier had given away our room. The creepy man at the door made it my fault that I had made the reservation so far in advance. Son of a… We gave them hell, but eventually had to walk around to multiple establishments in order to find remaining space at an auberge occupied by many other PCVs… a joy that was shoved in our face when we opened the door to our “shared room.” All was not lost however, because a hot shower and Vietnamese food awaited, followed by a stop at the firehouse/bar (the actual city firehouse – somehow this doesn’t strike anyone with official stature as a conflict of priorities…) on our way to the club (called The Iguana, with Che Guevara posters and communist stars on the walls). Oh, St. Luis.

New Years Eve started with Moroccan food, a firmly held tradition carried over from last year, and ended with the morning prayer call. In between was a bit of everything: after a dessert of mint tea, and an encounter with a really fat cat (later named Sassy-Pants, for unforeseen reasons and a Spanish football player), there were drums at midnight, and packs of scoundrel kids throwing fire-crackers at our feet to watch the tubabs scream and then get angry, a few incidents of petty theft (thankfully not me), drunken wandering in herds (not a good idea being that there are gangs of kids with firecrackers and petty thieves circling around), subsequent street fighting in our self-defense, then, life saving shots of Nescafe (there’s a timely guy with a small cart equipped with a thermos), with nowhere else to go where we wouldn’t be obscenely charged we commandeered a “classy” jazz bar, where we later fought social injustice by confronting prostitutes, their pimp, and patrons; finally we convinced the owner of the club not to charge us cover (the power was with the people!) and so entered cordially and danced till god knows when, after which we went for chwarmas, and had a jam session with one guitar that brought me back to Matt and Eric’s front porch in Eugene; back at our hostel, our chatting was interrupted by the morning prayer call, which convinced us of our irrationality and sent us to bed.

—-

It struck me this year on the holidays, a conspicuous absence of novelty – not just in my surroundings, but also in mind. It came quickly, and then was over. It seemed odd that I had done this before. There was nothing significant, or holiday-like about the date itself. Except that I made hot buttered rum (my grams’ recipe), and otherwise was enabled a grand holiday feast by our generous Country Director, Obie. But, for all the things that this holiday season wasn’t, it still was quite nice. I just like to point out the contrasts between a world dominated by holiday fever, and a world absent from it. I don’t mean to loathe in the lost glory of childhood holiday-lore; in fact, I kind of relish the opportunity to be plucked out of such a crazed society and placed down in one of the few places on earth that has nothing to do with it. I just mean to point out the oddity of it all – inside the walls of Obie’s house were palm trees strung with lights, the smells of Christmas dinner, even a Christmas tree (plastic – those things don’t grow here), but to take a step outside and close the door behind you, you were struggling to step in the deep sand, shielding your face from the sun and wind, and likewise dodging the harassment of passing drivers…

Aiding in the disconnect, on Christmas Eve day we received news that an incident occurred just outside of a town called Aleg (about an hour north of my site in the South), where a car of French tourists was attacked by three men, shot, and four of the five killed. The holiday mood was quickly lost despite the haste to finish cooking. We gradually learned of developments, serving as a sort of undertone to otherwise jovial discourse. Increased security was brought to the house for the night and things continued as planned, which was good because there was a lot of ice cream to eat. [Many individuals have since been detained in Mauritania and Senegal for their involvement, and the three shooters were finally found and arrested last week in Guinea.] Shortly following, there was a second incident involving an attack on a Mauritanian military base in the north of the country – about 150 km from the nearest town in the middle of the desert. It is known that the men responsible for the killings, and possibly as well as the second attack, are affiliated with Al’Qaeda. I should say however that there have been no threats directed towards us or anything of American interest to this point, our safety and security staff is very capable and has been keeping us informed of what to do as far as these incidents concern us. Mauritanians as a whole are extremely upset with these events – they consider their country to be peaceful and safe, and are as outraged at these “terrorists” as are foreign interests. A large part of this country’s hope for a future and development rests in foreign investment, and incidents like these move its reputation in the wrong direction, forcing investors to look elsewhere. Thus, it is not condoned by government either. I realize that even the passing mention of the word Al’Qaeda is incendiary in today’s western culture, however, I hope that by providing the entire story, and searching out the facts on your own you come to the conclusion that Mauritania is not teeming with terrorist hiding in the hills, nor is your backyard, and that the title of Islam Republic does not run a parallel with Al’Qaeda, nor does Islam as a religion or culture.

Returning to Mauritania is difficult (after any exit, holiday, or otherwise) – both physically crossing the border and mentally surrendering to that fact. We bumbled up the river road on the Senegal side for five hours in a mini-bus that couldn’t go above a painstaking 80km/h. In the morning cold, we climbed into the bed of a truck to take us across the island and over the two branches of the Senegal River before reaching a small village at the third and final crossing that is the international border (involving self-pulled rope-ferries, constant prayers that the half-ton of rice above our heads wouldn’t collapse the poorly made and badly cracked rack along the rough road, and a final wobbly canoe that nearly put me and my backpack in the river, arms flailing). Paying obscenely for an unscheduled ride the rest of the 20Km into Boghe, I rode atop the “prison-van” bus, trying to disconnect myself in the wind from the day-long trip we had just endured to travel 50km.

Back in the village, I’ve tried to bring a new perspective to my presence. With about seven months left there are definitive goals I wish to achieve, but with 19 months behind me there is considerable fatigue, disillusionment, and dwindling motivation. At this moment, each day teeters on a scale between the two extremes, usually reaching both ends throughout each 24 hour course, depending on the quality of my experiences with goats, children, food, other people, and my degree of health/cleanliness. With time winding down it is also a reasonable point to begin thinking and planning for when I leave – a train of thought that typically occupies a large portion of my cognizant hours of the day (and sometimes visits my slumbering moments as well). Self-motivation and inspiration, not one in the same, are difficult things to understand. They are influenced by so much, and are constantly being re-assessed. They are a balance between the known value and perceived value of past and upcoming experiences, but those values themselves are regularly re-calculated based on a myriad of factors, not the slight of which are spiritual priorities, economic feasibility, and hypothetical benefits. Will I really benefit if I accomplish one thing, or will I regret the other? How long can I bear with those questions, awash in a sea of theory and elusiveness without producing a tangible result. These questions have stayed with me since a conversation with a friend back home. Does tangibility weigh on me because of my own standards? Are actions bigger than words, or is it the intangible that proves value? When it feels like its time to go, what benefit is in staying put? The Peace Corps intentionally hesitates to put concrete objectives and project requirements on its volunteers, but the burden of theoretical purpose is crushing and debilitating on its own. I recently read a book offering a sampling of the history of our current knowledge of ourselves, our world, “nearly everything,” as the title implies, reviewing the major scientific theories and abstractions that have led to huge tangible understandings of our existence (and envied the brilliance of such individuals able to just come up with one day, that there are multiple alternate dimensions through which our concept of space and time are shaped, and altered). If all these theories are of utmost importance and shape everything we know, I thought, then why does is matter that my existence be of such pursued value. We already know what we know, and its value, so stop placing such pressure to come up my own result! Then, I read Kerouac’s, Into the Wild, (for the first time, oddly), and was startled at my own identification with this crazy McCandless kid who sought to inject his life with experience of the purest value and meaning. Then I thought, maybe I am a little crazy, at the similarities, my reactions of “hmp, that’s nice” to the underlined quotations from Chris, out of the likes of Muir, Tolstoy, Thoreau, defending the author’s portrayal of his madness (or perhaps just obsessive infatuation based on intrinsic need), but then thought, well, I don’t think I’m that crazy, so maybe I’m not losing it after all. And I do still want to call my parents, although Alaska does sound pretty wonderful about now… But, I’ve gone far too long without a blue cheese stuffed portabello mushroom, salmon, and really good Phad-Se-Ew to give it up and go chasing edible wild plants. So, no, I wont be going into the wild for anything longer than a short backpacking trip, but a return to nature, getting lost in a dripping temperate rain forest and diving into turquoise creeks of mountain runoff is perhaps one of my most frequent dreams (day or night). And a trip to Bryce Creek will be one of the first things I do when I get back to my beautiful Oregon.

…Ugh, I’ve lost my train of thought, and probably long sense lost your interest. And now I’ve lost my own. I’ve too much time spent thinking. Need more doing. Maybe I’m just too conditioned to western capitalistic ideas of the end-product, and I’ve finally reached the breaking point in this elastic, undefined role in which it stops being refreshing and expanding, and starts being stagnating. Maybe I need to get back into academia and get a grip on all this… But that’s just more theory. Maybe I just need a new hobby that doesn’t involve reading. My friend, in discussing these ambiguities, stopped me, “you haven’t turned to drinking have you?” “Ha. No, this is a dry country…” “Oh…shit.” “Yea…”

The new school term has begun, which brings hopes of a renewed initiation and recovery from last term’s woes. By last November, the primary school in my village had all but stopped functioning. The Ministry of Education (sometimes described as idiots, corrupt, lazy, uneducated (which brings a point of irony)) decided that mid-term was better timing than any throughout the four month summer break, to make widespread changes to the structure of schools at all levels, moving teachers around at will, with no logic in place for their re-assignments, many left to their new post only to be returned to where they were originally assigned the next week. Apparently, the Ministry did an assessment of its staff during the summer, using outdated registration information and with no intent of contacting its teachers. Then, with the incorrect data, waited until half-way through the school term to make any changes, saying that they needed to equalize the state of despair throughout the country’s education system, and instead of keeping some schools functioning and leaving those forced to close-down until further resources could be found, they moved a few teachers here, and there, until all schools were inadequately staffed. The teachers, of course, complained profusely, but really, the students are suffering from this charade of bureaucratic responsibility, and are receiving no education. At my school, specifically, the situation confounded, when, among our six teachers (for six grades, although not for both languages of instruction), one was re-assigned, another deemed unfit to teach (a.k.a crazy) after many years, another left indefinitely on maternity leave, before also being reassigned, and finally, the other female teacher was absent for an extended period of time after she was attacked following World AIDS Day events.

Around this same time, the economic situation throughout the country worsened (imagine!), until the instability gave way to crisis. This actually can’t all be blamed on poor government, but Mauritania did seem suffer more than its surrounding neighbors… The summer rains came late this year. We eventually did receive almost record rain (that’s assuming someone keeps those records besides the really old man in my village who remembers the big rains from time immemorial), but it was too late to recover the country’s cereal crop, which didn’t mean a whole lot since Mauritania imports nearly all of its cereals, but the shortage only made localized situations worse – the crisis was actually felt worldwide, especially throughout the drought-prone African Sahel. In Mauritania however, government seemed unable to predict these outcomes and the economy inflated, almost 500% in areas, in a matter of two weeks. The inflation reflected the price of flour, but likewise affected everything else. (Although, many boutique owners thought this a great opportunity to con the tubabs into paying even higher prices for items that couldn’t possibly be related to flour, “…it’s the, uh, inflation, you know…” – it’s like the six degrees of separation game, if you can get from flour to Fanta imported from Europe… then I will pay accordingly.)

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