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John Osterman
An arid landscape with flat sand dotted with green bushes and small trees in the foreground. In the distance and on the horizon are brown and rust-colored rock plateaus and formations, some extending thousand of feet high. The sky is a pale blue.

Sand in the Couscous

Thanksgiving 2001

Posted

Peace corp volunteer frying potatoes over a wood fire.
G____ frying up potatoes for the appetizer course.

Thanksgiving 2001 fell on November 22. I was in the midst of what might have been my hardest stretch in Mauritania. My first year teaching had just started. I hadn’t yet figured out how to have any independence from my host family. I was sleep deprived from guests hanging out, loudly, until the middle of the night. It was Ramadan. Many volunteers were leaving the country, accepting the early termination offered in the wake of September 11. All these things each deserve paragraphs of their own but for now let’s just say my moods were all over the place. My second journal actually opens on November 18 with this admonishment to myself: “avoid cataloging mood swings—your last journal is not very flattering.”

Kinda harsh. That’s the journal that went missing somehow—tragically, inexplicably—so I’ll never know again just how bad it was.

It’s clear, though, that I did not take my own advice. Within days the second journal ping-pongs from timid optimism to despair and back again in the four days between its first entry and Thanksgiving. It captures a thoughtful description of a graveyard along the path to school, a lukewarm description of my first class (“It went pretty well”), an angry rant about being kept up at night, and a near celebration after meeting and hanging out with two other teachers. One Pulaar and the other Wolof, they were Mauritanian but not from around Tintane. What I understood at the time was that new teachers would be sent to teach far away from their homes as some sort of anticorruption measure. True or not, they felt like outsiders and we connected on that basis.

A hangar, or semipermanent tent, with a wooden sleeping platform underneath.
Where I slept during my first months in Tintane. It was not a restful place, especially during Ramadan.

It was in fact because of them—fast friends that we were—that I was able to leave Tintane to celebrate Thanksgiving with some other volunteers in Aioun. A___ offered to take my class the next day, which gave me time to travel to Aioun for Thanksgiving. And so it was I spent my first Thanksgiving in Mauritania improvising strange dishes with few ingredients and fewer kitchen appliances and getting acquainted with our newfound low level of alcohol tolerance:

November 25, 2001

We had a veritable feast and party afterwards. Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, squash, seafood chowder, and dessert. Oh, and the rounds and rounds of french fry appetizers that G____ and I fried over a wood fire.

The food was incredible. I actually had the post-Thanksgiving fullness by the end, and it was clearer to me this year more than any other what really is important, what to be thankful for.

D___ passed out early, around six, right of the cement of the porch. He was out cold for hours before reviving and going at it some more. He passes out all the time.

[…]

Yesterday of course was my birthday. Except for saying goodbye to An____, it too was really good. My friends (God bless them) made me a Mexican lunch. The volunteers here really look out for each other, and it’s a great feeling to be part of that. . . .

After such a festive weekend, I dreaded coming back to Tintane, but so far so good. Walking into my compound felt like coming home. So far my outlook is good, but I don’t want to speak too soon. If I’ve learned anything lately, it’s that my moods are endlessly changeable and not necessarily understandable. I will try to hold onto this feeling.

“Endlessly changeable and not necessarily understandable”—that about sums it up.