It is impossible to describe an entire hemisphere in short snapshots of writing, but I’ll try to cover one aspect, which is true. I went to Mauretania to visit my son who was in the Peace Corps there. (His last year of college, he confided that he didn’t “know what he was going to do,” so I suggested joining the Peace Corps.) After two years, he’d have money saved (they took a huge chunk of each monthly salary and put it into savings for when his two-year obligation would be over), have excellent recommendations, and would be two years older—and hopefully, wiser.
So, while Africa was not my destination of choice, I landed in Senegal, where I had to take a smaller plane to where my son was. The first unusual thing was that airplane personnel came by and moved us around; I decided it was to even the load?? I sat next to a UN representative, which was great since I could ask lots of questions. (One also needs lots of “shots” to go to Africa; check with your doctor.)
We landed, me wearing a two-piece pant suit in the 130+ degree heat. We were to stay in the UN housing, which, dear taxpayers, was very modest….think Motel 6 suffering starvation…which was okay with me. Since I was to meet Mark’s friends and colleagues, he gave me some advice. Most of it typical, except the hand bit.
In many countries where a particular religion is dominant, a person uses one hand with which to cleanse oneself after using the bathroom; the other hand with which to shake hands upon meeting and eating. Sounds simple, except in the nervousness of meeting strangers, one suddenly forgets which hand to shake with. If you pick the wrong hand, it’s seen as an insult.
One of the personnel, I never really knew his job, asked if I wanted to go watch the fishing vessels come in at the end of a day’s fishing. I said, sure, but that I needed to take a package given to me by a woman at home for her daughter, also a Peace Corps volunteer. He said, “fish first, then delivery,” and drove on—a bit fast I thought—on a road marked with a sign that indicated some country had donated highway materials to this area. (These signs were everywhere, but the funniest was one which indicated to “watch for the train crossing” when there was no track, nor would there ever be a train. (Signs like this, for a wide variety of “gifts”—mostly not needed—to this poor nation, were frequent.)
When we got to the fishing village, my friend gestured to leave the package for the volunteer in the rackety pickup, without locks on doors. I said, “No.” He said, “Not a problem. No one steals in Mauretania.” I couldn’t believe that, then he told me this: “If someone is caught stealing here, one hand is cut off, so everyone meeting him or her knows they are dealing with a thief.” Right away, I wondered if the hand that was used for cleansing was cut off; if the “good hand” was, that person could never shake hands again. (Use your imagination, please.)
I wasn’t convinced, but it was his country, not mine, so I left the package on the front seat of the pickup (remember, no windows, no locks, open air!) and walked to the beach to watch the largest fish I’d ever seen being towed to land. It was a great picture—sun, surf, tide, fish. But I kept thinking about that package. When we returned to the pickup, it was still there, exactly as I’d left it. (Try that on some street in the U.S.)
This is what I like about traveling; one learns so much. I’ve written six novels featuring countries I’ve been in—and am in the process of “editing” them. Argentine Assignment will be available shortly.