31 December 2008

Ou est le gaz?

Whew, just under the wire with this one: PROM #3 - gas, le gaz, l'essence, the fossil fuel of choice for kitchens throughout Mauritania. (refill one large tank: 2000 UM/$8-9)

Let me preface this story with a little geneology. We Yunghans' sometimes tend to exaggerate. It's a funny little hereditary quirk of the family line. My whole family knows it, my friends know it. My second secret wife and family know it. For example, my dad's stories always get better with time.

Typical parent: "I walked 3 miles to and from school every day. And it was uphill both ways! (Insert crotchety old laugh)"

My dad: "I once threw a dog 20 feet over a telephone wire to make it stop digging."

Now, before you call PETA, I'm sure the 20 feet started out as 1 or 2. Actually, maybe that one is true. I'm not sure. That's the beauty of exaggerating.

Mine is often mixed with a healthy dose of sarcasm (thanks Steve) and some of my stories over the years have reached epic proportions. I'm in talks with Warner Brothers about a film version of our trips to Vegas. Why am I telling you all of this? Because I must stress that the story you are about to read is absolutely, 100% true. Besides, it happened yesterday and I need at least a couple months before I can properly exaggerate. It's an art.

We spent 2 days in the capitol, Nouakchott, for Christmas. We stayed in a nice hotel, saw a bunch of friends and ate a lot of good food. On Friday, the 26th, we left on a bus for the 5-6 hr. trip back to Nouadhibou. Katie and I were accompanied by some of our friends who were staying with us for the new year. We hadn't travelled by bus yet and the trip took well over 7 hours because of many passportless passengers bribing police stops on the way. But that's another story.

Over the past several days, we have combined our culinary efforts to create some truly excellent meals: lentel soup, mafe (RIM dish-peanut sauce over rice), pizza and hamburgers to name a few. Three days ago, we noticed the gas tank that runs the stove was really low. We managed to get through pizza and some homemade cookies but the consensus was we needed more gas before attempting another meal. That night I walked to the market where we originally bought our tank. No gas. I went to several boutiques with gas cannisters for sale. No gas. Each time I made it clear to the proprietor what I wanted and each time I received an odd response: they simply laughed at me and said, "silly Nasrani, there's no gas here."
"Of course not! The multitude of gas tanks here are just for decoration," I thought. These are exactly the kinds of sarcastic phrases I wish I could convey in another language, but I just had to stupidly grin and thank them for laughing at me.

Finally, one store owner explained of a gas shortage of which I was completely unaware. Apparently, RIM demanded a certain price for gas and when they couldn't get it they refused to pay and the country was without gas. It is now just coming back and to stop massive riots for gas they only sell it at one location outside of town: the society of gas.

Two days ago, I took a taxi to said society only to find it closed for the Islamic New Year. So we made it through another day with the vapors still clinging to the inside of the tank and whatever was left in the hose. Yesterday, I vowed to get up very early to make it to this power plant first thing. So, at around 11:00 am I arrived once again with empty tank in tow and a friend, Sean, to help once the tank was filled. Just one little problem, well one big problem, thousands of small problems. Apparently this gas shortage has affected everyone in town! Incredible huh?
We asked our taxi if he wanted to wait for us so he would have a fare back to town and he just chuckled. He considered it and said something about having to wait all day. It didn't sound encouraging. After pacing around for a while we fnally noticed what seemed to be two lines. This is so amazing because lines in Mauritania are unheard of. People just kind of go wherever, behind counters, barge into offices, interrupt meetings and classes...so there were two lines. One extended 100s of yards along the road with twice as many tanks as men and another was considerably shorter and close to a gate into the power plant. Which line should we stand in? Hmmm...so we opt for the shorter and we're feeling pretty good.
Then came the snickering, the laughing, the pointing. One man casually told us that we were in the women's line. I looked closer at the line and sure enough, mulafa after mulafa (the veil typically worn by many RIM women). But peppered in were some men, the older sons helping their mothers. So I responded, there's a man, there's a man. We're just gonna stay here. Some men seemed upset, some continued to laugh and some even tried to move their tanks to the women's line. After all, we're white, we must know what we're doing. But no...
The gate to the gas remained closed and considering some people came to wait directly after morning prayer call (5:30 am) they stayed pretty calm for a while. Then people started climbing the walls, literally. Moments later a truck full of police showed up in full riot gear. The men who crowded around the gate were beaten back and their empty tanks flung in the air after them. Sean and I just kind of looked at each other with an expression that conveyed the uncertainty of the moment. Should we leave? But things calmed down. After waiting for another hour a couple people started walking away, perhaps with full tanks! We decided to try and approach other people to see if we could buy their tank for 3000 UM in exchange for our empty one. Sean left to try this obviously fool-proof plan while I kept our place in the women's line.
During this time, the police took posts every 100 feet or so in the lines and one just happened to stand right by me. After looking me up and down trying to figure out why I just hadn't sent one of my many servants to wait in line for me, the policeman asked me what I was doing in the women's line. Pretending not to understand phrases like "you are not a woman" in Arabic I just shrugged my shoulders and stood there. He left and returned with his C.O., who spoke French. I was grasping at straws trying to think of anything I could say to stay in line, finally I said, "My wife left to find a bathroom, she will return immediately." The officer said, "oh okay," and just left. The junior officer remained with a skeptical look on his face and I'm sure some of the other onlookers were wondering (after Sean's earlier exit), "that other guy is this guy's wife?"
After this, I immediately called Katie and asked her as politely as possible to get down here fast before I end up in RIM prison. Instead, our friend Katie J. arrived shortly thereafter. "You are now my wife if anyone asks," I tell her. Sean has also returned at this point with a bottle of bissap (a common RIM juice made from hibiscus flowers). That's right, many vendors have now taken posts in the lines as well, selling bread, eggs, drinks, etc. Soon after this, the men's line breaks in two with many heading for a gate behind us. Sean leaves to investigate and returns to tell us one police man was forced to use his billy club. So we avoid that line.
Instead, we break away from the women's line (since very few women were getting through to get gas) and join the other severed half of the men's line. During this next period of waiting, Katie strikes up a conversation with someone close by and discovers the boat is late with the gas. Although, this is probably a story concocted by this man so he doesn't have to say, "I don't know" - a phrase never uttered in RIM. One would lie before admitting ignorance on a subject - it is still interesting to hear his point of view. Moments later, Sean notices motion at a third gate. But it is not a near-riot, as we have seen in the past, but possibly people actually getting gas. So he takes the empty tank and Katie and I remain to keep place in line. I ask Katie if he has the money for the gas and Katie doesn't know. So I call his phone and who answers? Katie (my wife). Sean left his phone at our house. So I casually give 2000 UM to Katie J. and she runs after Sean. So now I'm in line by myself with no tank.
Several minutes of worrying later, Katie comes to find me with a big grin and a motion to come forward...we got gas. When Sean arrived at the 3rd gate he met one of the very men who was heckling us for originally standing in the women's line. So, we used his position in line and forward personality and he used our whiteness and we both ended up with gas. None of us are quite sure what this man told the police and power plant workers who we were but whatever it was, it worked. Minutes later Sean emerged from the opposite end of the plant lugging a full tank, we hopped in a taxi and made our way back home.
Just another day in Mauritania. Thanks Katie J. Thanks Sean. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone.

07 December 2008

Two Worlds

Peace Corps Volunteers often find themselves torn between two worlds. Recently, Mike and I have experienced this on a number of different fronts. Economically, we are stuck somewhere between the first world and the third. We are not as rich as many Mauritanians think we are nor as poor as many Americans think we are. Culturally, we are living in a place where almost 100% of the population follows a different religion and yet, especially during December, we embrace many of our traditions from home. Linguistically, we speak broken French for accomplishing daily tasks, a few phrases of Hassaniya or Pulaar to greet and thank our friends, and English for communicating with other volunteers, each other, and those back home. Personally, we are building many new and exciting friendships as we also try to maintain relationships with friends and family in the U.S.

I'd have to say that, although difficult, having this perspective of living "somewhere in between" is part of the reason I joined the Peace Corps. It's one thing to say, "I can see your point of view" but until you understand your own point of view, how can you truly see it from anyone else's? Research on crossing cultures tells us that the most important task one can accomplish in living within another culture is to aknowledge one's own cultural biases. I definitely believe this to be true, and have already identified many assumptions I held that are not necessarily accurate.

One of the goals of Peace Corps is cultural exchange, both the sharing of our culture with Mauritanians, and the sharing of Mauritanian culture with Americans. I personally feel this goal is incredibly important, perhaps equally (if not more) important than the work and projects we do. I hope that my daily interactions with Mauritanians are challenging their current assumptions about Americans. I also would like to take this opportunity to encourage my friends and family back home to think about Mauritanians. As you sit down (on chairs) for Christmas dinner or finish up your holiday shopping, please take a moment to reflect on the differences in our economies, our cultures, our religions, and our languages. And despite all these differences, know that Mike and I have found loving and caring people who have befriended us and challenged us to see things in a different way. Alhamdulillah!

Happy Holidays!