02 December 2010
We'll need ADP, LTP, ESA and DPM to approve the RAP, including an inventory of PAPs, to meet the CP.
+It's a question of whether the abbreviations are French or English. The reason I flagged this one is that I got it backwards - I used the French abbreviation in the title where all the others are English, so in this update I put the English abbreviation in where all the others are French. This demonstrates pretty clearly how confusing this can be. Also worth noting is that even when speaking English, I pronounce the string DPM as the French letters.
That's my world these days. Never mind what it means, though in fact in MCC/MCA-speak it's a perfectly cromulent sentence.
For the last two weeks, I've been neck deep in the contract that controls 9/10 of our entire diversified agriculture project. No, scratch neck deep. I've been in way over my head. But, with the necessary parties finally mostly signing off, it looks like I can stop having nightmares* soon. Until the next fire that needs putting out, anyway.
Other than that...well, there isn't much other than that. I've worked every day since Tabaski, though on Thanksgiving I was able to get off a couple hours early. It's been pretty intense. Hopefully, in 4 years we'll look back on the project and see that yes, it was all worth it. Not that I'm currently in the habit of looking four years ahead. It's a good morning when I have an idea of what meetings I'll have after lunch that day.
But things are going well for all that. On the nights I don't have to work late, there's usually a Volunteer friend or two in town I can spend time with. I've gained weight thanks to the much better variety of food in Ouaga, which should thrill my mom no end. Though I need to get a gym membership so I don't gain any more - enough's enough! Finding time to actually use such a membership will be its own challenge, but ça va aller.
Anyway, the short version of all this is that I don't have much to say, I've been too busy working to do much that would spark a reader's interest. Just wanted to update so everyone knows I'm still here.
*Literally. I had a dream in which a friend asked me to join her for lunch. I explained to her that the four-page document she'd submitted to me describing said lunch really needed a lot of work on its timelines and deliverables before I could accept.
29 October 2010
I don't think I ever really talked about Seb here. I mostly talked about my fieldwork. Oh heck, let's be honest: I mostly talked about myself. But let me tell you about my boss, Seb, who was one of the greatest bosses I've ever had - and I've been fortunate enough in my career to work for some pretty amazing people.
Seb had been a teacher here in Burkina himself before working with the Peace Corps. He then worked with the Peace Corps for several years, first as a technical coordinator for stagiares for both Secondary Education and Girls' Education and Empowerment, and finally as the APCD for Secondary Education. But that's just his resumé. It tells you that he had the knowledge, but it doesn't begin to convey how he used it, how devoted he was to his colleagues, how ardent he was about helping people.
I chose that last adjective with care; I'd originally written "...how serious he was about helping people." Not that he didn't take his work seriously, but it's hard to use the word "serious" to describe someone whose smile and whose laugh were so infectious. And who did both so very, very often. You couldn't stay in a bad mood when Seb was in the room.
Peace Corps is a tough job, and how much a Volunteer enjoys it, and how successful she or he is, depends in no small part on the support he or she receives from the main office. The Peace Corps Burkina office is an incredibly supportive group of people. Everyone there goes out of his or her way to help the Volunteers, often working long hours and well outside of their written job descriptions to do whatever it takes. And even among such a group of supportive, wonderful people, Seb stood out.
Goodbye, Seb. The world's a better place for your having been in it.
18 October 2010
Ce weekend passé, moi et ma co-locataire, K, nous sommes allés à Kaya pour rendre visite des amis. Plus précisement, des anciens voisins. Il y a je ne sais quoi de ce province-là qui m'inspire à trop boire...
Quand même, le voyage s'est passé très bien. Nous avions programmé d'aller à la piscine, mais malheureusement ceci était trop sale puisque l'appareil de filtrer était tombé en panne. Et alors, contre le chaleur il n'y restait qu'une seule option : la bière. Dont nous buvions beaucoup. Et puis du vin. Et vu que nous ayons apporté notre narguilé, il nous semblait très ridicule de le laisser inutilisé!
Au travail, ça va. Comme on dit en Mooré, bilf-bilfu, qui veut dire petit à petit. Il y a toujours des petits problèmes informatiques, et on pourrait bien dire qu'il y a toujours des crises de toutes sortes, mais rien d'impossible à maîtriser. Au moins, ce n'est jamais ennuyeux...
Et en parlant du travail, il faut que j'y aille. À tout à l'heure, chers amis.
08 October 2010
I won't be paid for September until mid-October. This would be much less frustrating (which is not to say it would be ENTIRELY without frustration) if I'd had some advanced warning. It has to do with the end of the fiscal year, and the way my contract works...and the fact that I live 4 timezones away from my employer's headquarters. Which is, incidentally, another reason why no one else could use this computer if I weren't - the embassy closes at 1230, so my MCC (remember, that's the American side of the organization) coworkers have left. But MCA (the Burkina side) doesn't shut down, and there's a weekly phone call with the Washington folks at noon their time. 1600 our time...but then, I should save my complaining until early November, when you clever folks in the US (most of you, anyway) go on Daylight Savings and I don't. By the way, did you know, dear reader, that while both the US and most European countries use Daylight Savings, we don't switch on the same day? There will be a couple weeks in late October when I'm only an hour off from Paris time (instead of the two I have been), but am still at the same time difference with respect to home. Sheesh.
The inspiration of the title of this post is the phone call I just had with the lending institution to which I owe rather more money than is prudent thanks to a desire whilst in grad school to be able to pay for things like gas and groceries. Ah yes, our higher education and student loan system is a clever one. Anyway, they called me (actually, my parents) a couple weeks after I closed my Peace Corps service to let me know that my loans would go back into repayment. By the way, kudos to you Citibank for giving me a grace month. It's not enough for many freshly returning PCVs, but it's frankly one month more than I expected. Since, upon answering, my parents very modestly admitted to not being me, the loan officer gave them a rather cryptic message for me (have him call this number, then use this code. Very cloak and dagger sounding, no?). I called the number and gave them the code (which was just a string of letters and numbers; I don't see any fundamental reason why it couldn't be something like, "The raven calls at midnight when the full moon is in view," but then I guess romantics make lousy loan officers. At least from the point of view of the bank), and during the conversation mentioned to them that to avoid such back-and-forth in the future, they should just call my phone here (I might have also made this suggestion because since I'm already paying them so much, I feel no need to pay fifty cents a minute to call them when they have a message for me). They agreed. Hooray, problem solved, pack it in, let's go home.
I've been trying for two days to log onto their site and pay. The above-mentioned internet problem reared its head - their site is clearly not optimized for speed - so today I brought my personal computer to work. Because, you know, it's nice having a computer that I can adjust basic things on, like how long my browser will try to load a site before timing out. Or adding printers. (**Side rant. Look, USG, I appreciate good security. I'd even go so far as to say I'm more aware of it than many of your employees. Make me change my password because you know I won't otherwise, that's fine. Restrict my access, that's fine I guess, as long as we're both on the same page that it's a little bit insulting to my intelligence, because if you honestly believe I have evil intent then you know that physical access is everything and after spending 20 minutes of googling I could own this machine even though I know nothing about hacking currently, so you have to either be worried that I'm susceptible to social engineering hacks, or worse, you simply think I'm too dumb to be allowed full access because I'd break something. Whoops, that was a side rant to the side rant. Backing up, what I'm getting at is that it's just silly to run an overseas post where EXACTLY ZERO PEOPLE have administrative access to my computer. I'm not irritated [much] that I can't add the office printer to my laptop myself. I'm THOROUGHLY frustrated that NO ONE here can do it and I have to call someone in Washington so they can remotely access my machine to do something so trivial.**) So I finally manage to load up the page...and I can't see my account info because, it says, I need to update my phone number. Whisky Tango et cetera. I call (more money being spent just so I can be allowed to pay them), and find out - after many, many minutes on hold (yet more money I'm spending just to convince Citibank to let me pay them...hm, do they own stock in my cell phone provider?) - that the problem is my new phone number. It's not in the US. Their system can't handle that.
So, long story short, sorry Mom and Dad, you're going to continue to get phone calls about my loans, because otherwise I wouldn't be able to pay them. Which would leave me getting the phone calls, not you, but they'd be much less pleasant ones.
26 September 2010
with wireless internet, I have a computer with me, and yet I'm still
updating from my phone. The computer, you see, is work-issued, and
blocks most social networking sites.
Where to begin? Though I have held real jobs before, my new one is
like nothing I've done in the past. I've been in jobs where meetings
were a success if they stimulated discussion and new trains of
thought. I've been in jobs where meetings were a success if necessary
administrative information was delivered. I'm not sure I've ever been
in a job where a meeting is a success if the sole result is the plan
to have another meeting.
Which is not to say I don't enjoy my job. It's fascinating. And
sometimes surreal, especially for someone a month out of Peace Corps.
Imagine this: two months ago, to get anywhere for work I would either
bike or take a 15-year-old van with the original shocks, crammed with
twenty people, going down a dirt road to get to the next slightly
bigger village. Now if I need to get somewhere for work, I only take
my moto if for some reason the embassy driver is busy. Surreal.
And high pressure. When you've got 5 years to turn half a BILLION
American dollars into structures and systems that will still be
helping an economy develop 15 years in the future, deadlines are
tight. Hence why I have a work computer at my Sunday lunch.
To be fair, said lunch is grilled carp with a savory Senegalese sauce.
Not just rice cooked with beans and oil. Having a paycheck and not
just a volunteer stipend has its advantages.
27 August 2010
I was both excited and nervous about this job already. My orientation has intensified both of those feelings. The MCC does REALLY cool stuff! That's the excitement part. The nervous part is wondering how well I'll do - because the learning curve is steep, the responsibilities many, the time short. But at least I'll never be bored.
Walk a mile in my shoe
When I arrived in Largo (which is a nice area, but very far from DC center), I asked at the front desk about a shuttle to a nearby shopping center. For whatever reason, their every-half-hour shuttle wasn't running that half hour, and since I like walking anyway I decided not to wait to start the mile-and-a-half walk to the area. After about a half mile, the sole of my right shoe peeled away from the leather of the shoe. Fun! Of course, I could have turned around and halved my time walking half-shoeless, but that's just not my style. I eventually made it to a grocery store where I found Krazy glue and fixed my shoe. After putting it back on, I shopped a bit in the area. As I was checking out at a nearby pharmacy, an older lady tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Excuse me, weren't you walking around with one shoe earlier?" I responded in the affirmative and explained the situation. She said, "Oh, I'm glad I ran into you, because I saw you on the street and I wondered what on earth that crazy guy was doing!"
Fair enough. My blisters wonder the same thing - apparently a month back in the US is enough to lose some of the hard-earned callouses I built up in BF.
On being old
Picture me in a suit and tie, sitting at a Starbucks sipping a soy latté and reading government contracts to prepare for a meeting. I felt so urban and professional! I felt like a real, for true adult!
Then a young woman walked in. She was dressed much as you'd expect a young professional to be. But she looked about 13! I thought to myself, "Surely I'm not so old that someone in her early 20s looks that young. How depressing." A few minutes later I overheard her telling her coffee companion about how 7th grade was going. Whew! I'm NOT so old!
I hate running
Did it in grad school. I lost weight and quit smoking. Running is good for you. But I don't enjoy it. Not at all. That said, there's a really large number of good-looking women in DC who jog. So, if I ever find I just have to take it up for some reason, I'll have to consider moving here to increase my motivation.
Don't jaywalk in DC
Not because you'll get a ticket. Just because you're likely to get hit. Traffic here is merciless. Don't worry, I neither got a ticket nor hit. But I almost got hit by a turning vehicle...a Segway, to be precise. Which made me wonder: since the Segway is supposed to replace walking, which of us had the right-of-way? As always, of course, the answer is the one that would have better survived the collision. Win: Segway.
My favorite tie and my favorite...
It's bright orange. It's kind of shiny. And it always gets compliments. I wore it to my first day of meetings. My favorite comment I got that day was that I displayed "sartorial derring-do." Sartorial is such a fun word!
16 August 2010
Anyway, this post is administrative in nature, which is to say that it's not about my life, it's about this blog. I've updated the "About Me" sidebar to reflect my new employment, and as said sidebar links to an old post including contact info, I've updated that post appropriately.
Du courage a tout le monde, vous qui je ne peux pas retrouver lorsque je suis lá, vous me manquez quand même.
18 July 2010
In September, I'll start my new job with the Millennium Challenge Corporation in Ouagadougou. This is development work at the other end of the spectrum - big money, large projects, high-level government involvement. It's really exciting work, and a jumping-off point for a real career in international development. My focus will be on agriculture development (mostly with irrigation), though I'll almost certainly interact with the other projects as well: land management laws, road paving, and primary school construction.
Note that while the Peace Corps actively encourages volunteers to blog about their work, as a contractor for the MCC it will be somewhat inappropriate for me to discuss the details of my job. That's not to say they're secretive about what they do; quite the opposite, the way you're money is being spent and how the decisions are made is a reasonably transparent process, as you'll see if you go to their website. But since I'll be working at the interface of two governments, discussing any particulars would just be a bad idea. This is all a long-winded way of saying that if you're interested in what the MCC does, read their website. If you're interested in my personal life outside of work, continue reading this blog. Stalker.
As for my impending COS, what to say? My last two agriculture projects fizzled, due to a bout with dengue fever followed by a schedule of meetings that forced me to miss prime planting time. So I have no projects to wrap up; all that's left for me to do is go home, pack what I want and give away what I don't, and come back to the capital to finish up my paperwork. The sting of leaving is considerably less, since I'll still be in country and able to visit - and able to visit much more easily to boot, since my second order of business (first will be getting an apartment) will be to get a moto.
Of course, I'm excited to get the chance to visit home, though the trip isn't nearly long enough. Still, I should get to visit with a large number of friends and family before coming back. We'll just have to squeeze in as much fun as possible. Part of that fun will be shopping for a couple suits to bring back with me - the dress code for a government job is a far cry from that for a volunteer!
19 June 2010
a village 7km away. I'm irritated. But then, wednesday, there IS
something - African Children's Day, a fête that most regions here
don't recognize, but in our province the NGO PLAN International is
very active in children's education, and they host a celebration. This
year, in my village. Great...except that almost noone knew it was
happening. Rumor has it they donated 1.5 million CFA for the event, of
which about 300,000 was actually spent (none on publicity,
apparently); the rest was skimmed. Even that number seems high
considering what materials were used - two speakers, two tents, and
some milk cans* - but for all that, at least some masks did come back
out for it, so I got some better pictures. Also worth mentioning is
the traditional music they played on those two speakers, which at one
point aired a local stringed instrument playing the unmistakable tones
of "If You're Happy and You Know It."
*Carny games again. Milk can ball toss described previously, though
this one wasn't rigged. Other games: kick a soccer ball through a
tire, grab bags (black sachets, naturally), and walk a wavy line using
a mirror to look at your feet. The kids had fun, I concede that.
I haven't been idle. As I said, these parties interrupted (not a
complaint!) my work. I'm planting my own little field of sorghum and
peanuts, using a soil-preparation technique called "half-moons". I
haven't led any formal classes on it, but seeing the white guy hard at
work is enough to make most passers-by stop and stare, so I take the
opportunity to explain it. So if it works, several farmers will know
how to do it. If it doesn't, well, only the rich white guy wasted his
time and money. Plus this has given me the opportunity to appreciate
just how hard people work here - I'm working a tiny plot, a tenth of a
hectare, and it's exhausting. Mais ça va aller, en tout cas!
my projects last summer were in other cities and villages. Combined
with the vacation I took, I spent around three weeks total in village
between May and October, usually only a few days at a time.
This summer, with so little time left, I'm spending as much of it as
possible without leaving. I begrudge the fact that I'll have to spend
a few days in Ouaga for paperwork and language tests even. Long story
short, this is the first time I've really gotten to hang out and do
projects without the specter of school constantly over my head. And
while I've said for two years that I'm best suited to be an education
volunteer, having a day-to-day job rather than unprogrammed, hazy
ideas of what to do like other volunteers, I'm loving this freedom.
This week, I was working my demo field and 3 times someone came by and
told me about a celebration somewhere. And I did what I could never do
with classes - I dropped what I was doing and went and celebrated with
The first was a Catholic baptism. Several dozen, actually, of many
ages. The next, two days later, was a Muslim "baptism" - I doubt
that's really the proper word, but that's what people call it. These
happen 7 days after birth (or some other multiple of 7 if the family
can't scrape the money together the first week), in this case a
Tuesday. I wore my boubou, with a muslim cap even. And just to
underline the enviable religious tolerance here, the (Catholic) girl
who presented the infant to the imam was wearing her Sunday best - a
complet with "Christ Is Risen" all over it. The third was ... but
first, a flashback.
Saturday, I commented to a friend how sorry I was not to have gotten
good pictures of the masks at the recent fête. He said not to worry,
the mayor had just announced a second, smaller fête. It would be in 4
days, and some masks would be back. Monday, I mention to another
friend that I'm excited about the fête on Wednesday. Tbc...
17 June 2010
mask, you bow to it three times, putting your hand on the part over
the head in what is nominally a gesture of respect but I suspect has
more to do with helping them not fall when they bow back, then allow
it to hit you), is all part of the fun. Usually.
But this year they were in a bad mood. They hit hard. They spent more
time chasing people than they did dancing, and they chased more
earnestly than usual, too. Some carried knives. It was a bad vibe.
They even hit a couple people hard enough to send them to the local
We still had fun, don't get me wrong. We went out the morning after
the masks arrived. There were a dozen or so, the number growing all
morning to about thirty by the time we left. Fun, but it was a lot
more intense than usual, and we were pretty much constantly on our
toes to avoid getting hit (with 67% success), not just from the ones
in the dancing circle but from the others arriving from all
directions. So I didn't get any good photos - I tried to take some on
the sly, but only from a healthy distance; I also arranged with one
guy to have one mask he knew meet us for a photo, but my friends were
tired of the heat and the tension at that point and didn't want to
wait. The guy was pretty mad when he found me later.
After my friends left, I went back out in the evening, not even
bothering to bring my camera this time (night shots are harder even
under good conditions; dust being kicked up from dancing and running
and constantly worrying when you'll have to run yourself are not good
conditions). By this time there were 40 or 50 out, and one chased me
hard enough that I lost a flip flop. (That would normally slow me down
on our rocky terrain, but not with that thing coming after me!)
Despite knowing there would be even more before the night ended, after
finding my shoe, I decided I'd had enough fun; by now it was full
night and visibility was low. I'd gotten both my adrenaline fix and my
exercise. What else do you need?
discussed this tradition before, but just in case...
When a person puts on the mask (and it's not JUST a mask, it's a whole
outfit), they are no longer that person, they ARE the mask. These
beings are neither ancestors nor gods, nor do they have specific
magical powers. All the same, they are supernatural entities, and as
such are sacrosanct. They can do anything and get away with it. No one
will question a mask. And the person inside can't be held responsible,
remember - they aren't in control. In fact, the kids are even led to
believe that there IS no person inside. You can't talk about that
aspect in front of them; it's a lot like Santa Claus. Even most adults
believe the masks are real entities - they refer to them as "living"
in a nearby sacred hill - but they are aware that there are people
inside. And though that person may not be in control, you'll find that
the person's friends never seem to get hurt by his mask. As to who can
be a mask, I've heard two stories - one, that it suffices to know the
person currently inside and offer to take their place (the outfit is
hot and heavy, and when I expressed an interest in trying it out
everyone said I'd just fall over - the point is, wearing it is hard
work, and doing it in shifts is believable, especially since they
often stay out for 24 hours or longer); the second, that it's a role
handed down within a family. Since family ties and close friendships
so often go hand in hand here, these two are not so mutually exclusive
as it might appear at first blush.
So, however it's decided who wears one, the masks come out of their
hill for certain occasions. Whatever the occasion, their actions are
invariably the same: they dance, they greet people, and they hit
people. Everyone will gather around to watch them dance, but they're
always ready to scatter when the masks start running after them,
usually with a stick or knotted rope.
and pooping all over my porch. Nice thought, but two years ago - or
better, four, for the volunteer before me - would have made more
The mistiming gets better. They build the whole wall before installing
the gate. That doesn't seem like a problem, does it? Except that the
gate is a wood and tin affair affixed to the walls with mud. Which
means that in order to have any chance at all for it to hang true, it
needs to be well supported and HELD SHUT WHILE THE MUD DRIES. I spent
a whole day having to jump the (brand-new!) wall in order to get to my
own house. By the way, the gate still doesn't hang properly.
But wait, there's more! A week after my forced gymnastics, my hangar
finally gave in to years of dry rot and termites. My porch no longer
has a roof. So it no longer offers shelter to goats when it rains.
LOTS AND LOTS AND LOTS OF MASKS
Finally we get to the vizards, and just so you know, I scanned through
the "V" section of my American Heritage just to find a word to make my
alliteration work. The masks are definitely "lively" (though in truth
the word vivacious to me calls up more the image of teenager going on
her first date than of scary masked men looking for people to hit.
Still and all, they are "full of animation and spirit," that last
quite literally if you believe the tradition), and they do come out
"in the evening," though since they stay out all the next day,
vespertine was a bit of a stretch.
Anyway. I've seen them before, of course. I've talked about them here,
and a long time ago even posted pictures. But this fête is a big one.
I didn't get to go last year because of a meeting, so I was really
enthusiastic about getting to go this year. In fact, I was so enthused
I inspired a couple friends to make the trek to join me.
The two things that stood out at this fête as opposed to the other
times I've seen masks come out (for smaller festivals and funerals):
1-there were a LOT of them, 50 or more; and 2-they were MEAN.(tbc)
A few times while in Europe, I caught myself feeling suprised by how
young kids acted. For instance, at that last mall I remember thinking,
"Wow, if my six year old were still sucking his thumb, I'd be a little
worried." Before that, on the Paris metro I remember thinking a mom
was being awfully indulgent to let her 4 year old use baby talk. It's
not until I get back that I realize how silly I was being (leaving
aside that it's silly of me to be that judgmental anyway) - that
little boy wasn't 6, that little girl wasn't 4. They were probably 3
and 2 respectively - they grew up eating well and thus were twice as
big as what I'm accustomed to seeing here!
While still in Ouaga, a friend asks me to go with her to an artisan's
shop, which it turns out is run by Jeanne, our CD's housekeeper, thus
the woman who took care of Pat the mornings we were in Ouaga. She asks
how he is, then tells me a funny story from his last day, when I was
in Paris. After he got up, she tried to tell him that the RPCV wife of
one of our APCD's had stopped by, but he was still asleep, so she'd be
back soon. But Pat doesn't speak French, nor Jeanne English, so all
she can do is watch helplessly as he leaves.
As an aside, I owe Jeanne a really nice present. As if it wasn't
enough how hard she worked to make Pat's stay a pleasant one, when I
visited her shop she gave me a scarf - her specialty is high quality
traditional fabrics. It's a beautiful pattern, named in Mooré after
the Guinea fowl, as it looks a bit like their feathers.
RETURN TO VILLAGE
Finally! I got back on the 2nd, and don't want to have to leave again
until my COS. But I will - ending Peace Corps service involves a lot
of paperwork, so I'll need to go to Ouaga soon to work on that.
For the last two years, my courtyard has only had a wall around half
of it. Animals have been free to roam through, which is sometimes
obnoxious. Now, with two months left and no new volunteer coming in,
my landlord decides to finish the wall and install a gate, (to be
13 June 2010
and make it at least a LESS painful experience to try to navigate the
station and the trains.
We get to the bus station. Our bus is late, and when it does arrive
the ticket guy can't be bothered to announce it, so we almost miss it.
We don't though, which means we get to experience sitting for an hour
at the Paris peage while the police search a few peoples' luggage
quite thoroughly. Whoever they're looking for, it's not Americans -
mine and Pat's passports get only the most cursory of glances. Lucky,
since I'm travelling on my peace corps passport, which features me
sporting no hair and 50 more pounds than I currently carry (even
taking into account the hair I've allowed to grow back).
The combination of delays puts us back in Paris too late to do
anything other than check into our hotel, catch a cheap (but still
yummy!) dinner at a kebab place, feel sorry for ourselves to see
posters for Les Mis, because how cool would it be to see it IN
Paris?!?, and hit the sack.
I will now be moving away from the day-by-day format, as the rest of
the story has some gaps of uninteresting time spent on a flight, then
in Ouaga, then in village. But I haven't forgotten that I still owe
you the vizards. And then I can finally drop this silly title.
So...since while in country I keep my journal notes on this same phone
that I'm using to update that same journal, you'll have to put up with
another "to be continued" while I transfer them to paper...
For the second time, I make a bad bus choice. I'd booked us tickets to
leave to go back to Paris around 3, having misunderstood Pat's
expressed wish to ARRIVE around 3. But I chose not to change the time,
telling Pat that the 5 hours at the Louvre he planned that evening
would only make me angry. We agree instead to have a relaxed morning
in Brussels, walk by and maybe through the botanical gardens on our
way to the bus, then when we get back to Paris catch the boat tour
we'd missed the other night.
Silly me, I'd forgotten we were no longer in a country where the rain
is completely predictable, and when it does rain you've no need to go
anywhere because everything shuts down anyway. The morning of day 6 is
cold and wet, and I have nothing to wear against the rain.
To slightly change a bad quote from an unmemorable movie, "I'm a Peace
Corps Volunteer. We don't plan, we improvise." Pat has the suit he
bought in Ouaga. That means he has a suit bag. A couple quick slits of
a knife for armholes, and voila, not only do I have rainwear, but it's
Armani. The most stylish piece of plastic I've ever worn.
While I'm no longer getting wet, our bags still are, so the rain blows
the botanical garden plan. Instead, we step into a mall, meaning both
the things I set out to do on day 1 without Pat I also ended up doing
with him (the other was McDonald's, remember?). We browse an
electronics store looking for a tip to a car charger he'd given me. No
We take a train again, figuring going one station over shouldn't be
that hard. It's not, though we've probably done it illegally: there
are no turnstyles there, so we just hang onto the undated tickets we'd
bought two days ago. I guess it works on an honors system? There are
machines to destroy used tickets, reinforcing that theory, but not too
many people seem to use them. Generally I'm an honest guy, and I
considered paying for another ticket, but in the end I decide that if
they want my money they're going to have to meet me halfway (to be
12 June 2010
From there we go on to St. Katherine's. You'd think we'd be tired of
cathedrals by now but first, you'd be wrong anyway, and second, this
one has a feature we just have to see for ourselves - a urinal on one
side. Not a Port-a-Potty, this is just two half walls and water
running down the walk of the cathedral itself to allow people to
relieve themselves and show exactly what they think of Mother Church
in the same go. Or perhaps a kinder interpretation would be that they
can get physical relief outside and spiritual relief inside. In either
case, neither Pat nor I use the facilities, on my part less out of a
sense of propriety for the church and more of one for myself - those
walls aren't that high, and it's right next to a high traffic road.
From there, we go get the first two things people associate with
Belgium - chocolate and beer. This time we go for the much more widely
famed trappist ales. We see the Mannekin Pis, which is exactly as
interesting as you'd expect it to be, but since it's on pretty much
every postcard I got for my Burkinabé friends, I figured I ought to
see it. Research the stories about why it's there, though, reading
them is much more fun than actually being on a street corner looking
at a sight I see on a daily basis in Burkina. Though to be fair, in BF
the streets usually aren't paved.
We find another local tradition, fries. I mean, I knew Europeans take
their fries with mayo - I love it myself - but if the tradition wasn't
started here, don't tell the Belgians. Toward the close of the day we
find the hat Pat's been looking for, pick up a couple of Cuban cigars,
and head back to the hostel. Tonight we find our room being shared
with an animated, opinionated Nigerian who lived for a few months in
Nashville and is now based in England. We chit chat about what's
ailing West Africa and I find myself for the most part in agreement.
Pat and I hit a nearby outdoor pub to enjoy our last on-site Belgian
beers and smoke our cigars - mine a Romeo y Julieta, his an H. Upmann.
The hostel we're staying at has a map/guide to the city which mentions
a type of beer I'd never heard of - gueze, apparently only found
locally. We head to a place that has it on tap. The menu refers to
this type of beer as "self-fermenting." I don't know what that's
supposed to mean, but the beer is yummy - though it doesn't taste like
any beer I've had before. It's so sour, it tastes more like lemonade.
They do a cherry kind that is even better.
DAY 5 -COFFEE, CATHEDRALS, PALACES AND PARKING
We start the morning finally getting that coffee we've been talking
about all trip. It's instant, a freebie in our hostel's lobby. Then we
go and get the third thing everyone thinks of when they think of
Belgium - waffles! This would not even have occured to me were it not
for the frozen waffles they sell at the front desk to shut up the
wise-asses. We go to a place in the galleries that does them up right
- I get mine with ice cream and chocolate sauce, Pat gets a cherry
concoction. We head out and hit the highlights - the flea market, the
palace of justice (which does not disappoint. Seems like the sort of
place that would be impressive, right? Here it is. Paris, not so
much.), the museum area (though the only one we're ardently interested
in going in, which has underground 15th century ruins, is closed), the
royal palace and gardens (pretty enough, but no Jardin du Luxembourg),
and St. Michael's Cathedral. Along our walk I notice that the city
planners have used the perverse strategy I hated so much in Atlanta of
giving one street many names, depending on which block you happen to
be on. We go down four different streets without once turning to get
to our next destination - a parking garage. Its view from 11 stories
up is recommended as one of the nicest in town, and it's free. We see
much of town, including in the distance the Atomium, which we didn't
visit (it's touted as Brussel's Eiffel Tower, and like the Tower it's
expensive to go up and not particularly close to anything else we were
09 June 2010
surrounded by a prism of fluorescent lights on it, and we figure
that'd be worth seeing at night. But we'll never know, as the lights,
which had been on all day, turned off as the sun went down. We head
back to the hotel.
As we're sitting in the lobby, with it's two chairs, we make the
acquaintance of two very attractive young American women, one of whom
had actually been to Burkina the year before planting Jatropha. She
was in a village not far from my own and doing work very similar to
what I've done with Peace Corps, so in other circumstances I'm sure we
could have had a lot to talk about, but the hotel lobby was simply not
conducive to socializing, nor was it in a part of town where we could
easily go out and find a place to hang out. Oh well, she was too young
for me anyway.
DAY 4 - BUS TO BRUSSELS
And the return of alliteration...
We stop at the front desk on our way out to see about reserving a room
on our return trip, but weirdly, it costs MORE to reserve the room
while there than it would to do it online through a hostel aggregator
website. We tell them nevermind - as you can tell from yesterday's
entry, we weren't particularly enamored with the hotel; it just would
have been easier to be able to leave Pat's big bag there.
We have surprisingly good hotdogs and surprisingly bad doughnuts at
the bus station, then head out to Brussels. We mostly ignore Get Smart
along the way. Anne Hathaway is quite pretty, but so is the European
countryside, with its sparkling new windfarms next to ancient
We get there and find the Brussels metro to be extraordinarily
user-unfriendly. Hostile, even. A typical sign at an info booth: NO
TOURIST INFORMATION HERE. And for whatever reason, while all of the
pamphlets on the buses are available in 5 or 6 languages (Russian,
even!), the one on the trains is only in Dutch. After one train ride
we decide to walk. We find our hostel, which is right downtown. No
metro needed - we can finally stay out late!
And the mural in the cupola is breathtaking. Before I left my CD had
told me she found the latter more beautiful; I entirely agree.
We head out, making our way back downhil through le Square St
Louise-Michel, a pleasant little park that looks more like a cliff
from a distance. We decide now is a good time to plan the next days of
our trip, if we can find an internet connection. We walk to a cafe
district in hopes of finding one with wifi. Many do, but Pat's iPod
can't connect to them. We need internet to get internet! Because if we
had a connection, we could pull up a map of all the hotspots in Paris.
Finally we find a shop that offers a free 20 minutes that P can
actually connect to, enough time to pull up a map...and find that the
nearest McDonald's, where we know we can get a connection, isn't near
at all. Still, there are worse fates than to be forced to walk around
the prettiest city I've ever been in. On our walk, I realize that it's
not only the architecture that's beautiful. Of course, in a city of
millions, there's bound to be a large number of beautiful
people...still and all, the number in Paris seems disproportionately
In the evening, we wander the art district near the Louvre, and it's
just as well that the galleries are mostly closed, as judging by what
they have in the windows we couldn't even afford to walk through the
doors. We head back to Pont Neuf, near Notre Dame, where we'd planned
on catching a boat down the Seine, but we're a bit late. There's
another in a half hour, but we worry that we'd get back too late to
catch the last train to our hotel at 11, and the night buses don't
start running until 1. So instead we decide to watch the sunset from
the bridge. When I go back someday, I'd like to walk all of the
bridges in the city. If it's a long trip, maybe even watch sunset from
each. (to be continued)
We start out the morning by going to check out where the Bastille
stood. Tours of the opera house that now stands there don't interest
us, but P was born on Bastille Day, so we're kind of obligated. We
luck out - turns out on the weekends there's a big open air market. If
Pat hadn't just picked up souvenirs in Burkina, he could have
believably faked it shopping here. He stops at a hat stand. And I
encourage him to buy a Panama Jack - EVERYONE looks good in a Panama
Jack - but he's in the market (no pun intended) for a black felt
fedora. To try to state things the right way around this time, I
observe that in retrospect I can see the influence of this market
tradition on NOLA, and even more so Charleston, SC. Not to mention
chez moi, of course, though even in Ouaga the fish never looked this
We mosey up the Blvd Magenta, where I kick myself for having just
bought a suit in Ouaga (they have them here for 35€!) to our next
stop, the one place every single person I talked to recommended we
visit: Montmartre and Sacré Coeur. It turns out to be a steep walk,
but well worth it - our direction of approach has allowed us to bypass
the majority of tourists and end up smack in the neighborhood itself.
Which is beautiful and wonderful and I completely understand why
everyone told us to go there. We stop at a small cafe and have
tartines and wine. Mine has bacon, plum, and one of the dizzying array
of cheeses available in France. Since we're on Rue Lamarck, I spend
all of lunch humming one of Enjolras's solos from Les Mis.
Afterward, we make our way around the backside of Sacré Coeur, where
we find all the tourists we'd temporarily shaken. We also find ice
cream! When I go back someday, I'll want to try the popcorn flavor,
but for now I stay a bit more conservative and get peanut butter. We
walk past what I am convinced is the single water fountain in the
whole city (silly me, I didn't think to pack a Nalgene to go to
Paris!) and finally arrive in front of the cathedral and enter. (to be
08 June 2010
the room to see the bells just before it closed to tourists because it
was about to start tolling. Which meant we were right on top of them
when the evening carillion started. The view up there is one of the
best we had the whole trip, and FEELING the bells as much as hearing
them only added to the experience. I joked with Patrick that it was
too bad we didn't get the chance to climb the Washington Monument
during our vacation to DC in 08, but this was an ok 2nd best.
Before calling it an evening, we hung out in the literary district. I
had fun window shopping at the bookstores, though I don't suppose it
meant much to Pat. Again I was struck by the influence of Paris on New
Orleans; we could have been walking through the Quarter.
We took the opportunity to have a nice beer with dinner, chuckled over
the fact that while Pat did get carded every time when we got him
reduced prices on tickets for being under 26, no one once questioned
his right to enjoy a drink.
Despite our observation on the way back that the subway brakes screech
like a thousand condemned souls, after a day of walking the city we
have no trouble falling asleep.(to be continued)
or train I'll never find my way back. We manage to find each other and
get the metro to our hotel. We leave our bags, make it back to the
metro...and realize we've left our malaria medicine behind and have to
go back to get it. This will also turn out to be a theme of the trip:
every evening we'll plan to get out early and have some coffee, then
when the morning arrives we'll forget something, or end up somewhere
other than we planned, or find we need a wifi hotspot, and by the time
we're ready for coffee it's practically lunchtime!
First stop - the catacombs. Which it turns out are flooded. Since
we're nearby, we walk over to Montparnasse cemetery, where several
famous people are buried. The tombs are neat. I mention to Pat that it
reminds me of New Orleans; he very reasonably points out that it's
really the other way 'round: New Orleans is reminiscent of Paris. We
The garden in front to Luxembourg Palace is possibly the prettiest
green space I've ever seen. When I live in Paris, I'll go there every
weekend. You know, with my supermodel Nobel-Prize-in-Physics-winning
wife, right after we hit the biggest lotto jackpot in history.
We wander over to the Pantheon, an impressive structure from the
outside, which is all we see since you can do that withOUT paying 9€.
From there we head up to Notre Dame, stopping along the way in a
smaller but also impressive church whose name I've forgotten. The
inside of Notre Dame is...certainly impressive, but to me all the
statuary has a vibe of High Church at its worst - lauding the Church
rather than the Faith. I'd bet money that many of those statues of
"saints" look an awful lot like whichever archbishop commissioned
them. But still, it's an experience not to be missed. After touring
inside and being possibly the only two people to respect the no flash
photography rule, we wait a really long time and pay a not small
amount of euro for the privilege of climbing way too many stairs (to
Discovery number 1: despite being on almost the same longitude as
where I live, Paris is TWO hours ahead. Good to know - never mind the
nap I had planned! This means I need to get used to sunset after 9pm.
Since I have this day to myself, plus since I'm staying near the
airport rather than in town, it seems to make sense to do all of those
things that a Peace Corps volunteer would do after 2 years in Africa,
rather than the things a typical American tourist would do in Paris -
I'll rate those to do with Pat. I walk around the Roissy area, which
is basically in industrial park, but a much nicer one than you'd find
in, say, Atlanta. Certainly nicer than Ouaga. I walk. I enjoy the
cold. I buy a jacket, and wish I had more money for clothes - even the
discount stuff is really nice. I stroll through an Ikea, then a
shopping mall, stopping for lunch at McDonald's. I have dinner at what
I take to be the French version of Appleby's (the name translates to
Shortstraw). None of it stuff Pat would have been interested in, but
every PCV reading this is jealous. On a side note, in what will prove
to gold true throughout the trip, I notice that people do NOT switch
to English with me, despite the Parisians' reputation. Not that they
can't tell my French is not theirs...but I suspect that my African
accent is so strong that it masks any American accent, and they're
just not sure where the hell I'm from.
DAY 2 - TEAM DUCK REUNITED
It's weird to see a sunrise with no dust. Equally weird to see birds I
recognize from Africa in trees I recognize from the US.
Poor Pat will never agree to meet me at an airport again. I'm a bit
late getting there; while the 20 minutes I was told it would take to
get to the airport was not wrong, it was misleading - CDG is BIG. To
actually get to the terminal I want takes another 15 minutes, and when
I get there I find that his arrival gate has changed. The lady at the
info desk is very apologetic when telling me that the only way to get
to the new gate is to walk, but (to be continued)
07 June 2010
given the frequency of the word "nasara" in the preceding argument)
that they'd been talking about us. The kickee had been insulting us.
The kicker decided to defend our honor. More than any other time in my
service, I wish now that I'd focused more on Mooré so I could have
defused that situation. Anyway, as I said, that was unlike anything
I've ever seen here, and I hope it's not what Pat walks away
A WEEK IN...WHOOPS!
On Wednesday we discover Pat is leaving as planned on Friday, but MY
ticket is for Thursday! Uh-oh! We spend the evening frantically
calling Air France, Delta, and Orbitz, and eventually find that to
change one of the flights will cost about $700. The cheaped solution:
find me a hotel room online and thank the lord I've got good friends
in Ouaga who can take care of my brother for the soon-to-pass weird
situation of 24 hours in which *I*'m in Europe and my brother is in
LAST DAY IN OUAGA...FOR ME, ANYWAY
We run around being tourists, with a side trip to the embassy, which
was holding BOTH my passports. Can I describe how much stress I was
under knowing I was flying out that week and having no passport to do
it with? Not adequately. You see, I'd submitted my PC passport with my
application for a personal one. No big deal, except for a string of
events which prevented me from getting there to pick them up until the
day of my flight, several weeks after receiving a phone call telling
me my PERSONAL passport had arrived, but the photo wasn't quite right,
and in response to my query, oh yes, my PC passport "should" be there
too. Finally, the day I'm leaving, I get there and all is well - the
photo's contrast is not great, but it's passable, and my PC passport
is indeed there (though I spent an ugly couple of minutes before they
figured out that a friend of a friend had put it in the safe for me to
ensure it wasn't lost). With a much lighter heart, I accompany my
brother on a souvenir-hunting trip before leaving.
We get to Bani late and tired, but Pat gets to meet my best friend
here, and dinner is grilled chicken with ranch dressing and sweet
potato fries, so all's well that ends well.
DAY 3 - MOSQUES AND METAL
I hope you appreciate how hard I'm working on this alliteration. It
probably won't continue.
We spend the morning exploring the Bani mosques, which belong to a
cult whose story I'm fairly certain I've recounted elsewhere on this
The plan is for 6 of us to mount 4 camels that afternoon to visit a
gold mine. Thanks to a heavy dust storm and light rain, it ends up
being twilight before we can start. We name our four camels to an
Aladdin theme: Jafar, Abu, Jasmine, and Raja. Though we did this early
on, it turns out we got their personalities pretty well - Jafar is
mean as a snake, Abu really overexcitable, Jasmine nice, Raja
implacable (except when it came to anything on two wheels...whenever
Emma and I saw a bike coming, we knew our shared mount was about to
leave the road). 7km takes two and a half hours. We're sore and tired,
and our guide is dying to tell jokes and riddles. The jokes were
terrible, but the riddles clever.
DAY 4 - WE HAVE TO RIDE *BACK* ON THOSE THINGS?!
We check out the gold mine, which was bigger and more interesting than
I expected (the last time someone offered to show me mines, in Fada,
it turned out just to be deep holes in the ground). We chat with
people in the mining camp about the process, then head back into town
to catch a bus then a bush taxi to get to my place. Transport is
typical (read here "unpleasant") and uneventful.
DAYS 5 AND 6 - HOME SWEET HOVEL
I exaggerate, my place isn't that bad. Anyway, Pat gets to see what
life for me here is like. He even helps me calculate grades for my
class! Since for me this was just everyday stuff, you'd do better to
ask him what was the standout moment of this part of the trip. Not
counting the old guy kicking the other old guy in the jaw, (to be
he's come and gone, and I hope he had as much fun as I did. Which was
a lot! Though the trip wasn't without its bumps...
DAY 1 - ARRIVAL
I get to the airport right around the same time Pat's flight did. So
I'm expecting a wait. What I'm not expecting is to spend 2 hours
watching ALL the other passengers leave with no sight of my brother.
Finally, I ask permission to enter the (restricted) arrivals gate,
where I finally find him at wit's end because his luggage isn't there,
and he can't leave to find me because he's afraid they won't let him
back in! English may be the international language of aviation, but
that's a pretty loose standard at the Ouaga airport, so it's not 'til
I find him that he learns his luggage has been left in Niamey (where
the flight stops for an hour. Get that? It's not a transfer, just a
stop. They had absolutely no business taking his luggage off the plane
there), but it will come in on the next flight tomorrow evening. Too
bad tomorrow evening we'll be exploring the Sahel.
After arranging for another volunteer to come get the luggage, our
Country Director, who has already graciously allowed Pat to stay at
her place (he had nicer accomodations than I did!), invites us to
dinner, assuring that Pat's initial African repast is a lovely one.
DAY 2 - BUREAU AND BANI
Today we begin exploring the damage a daily regimen of French has done
to my English. I refer all morning to taking my brother to the
"bureau" rather than the office. By either name, we get there, I
introduce him to my better-paid colleagues, and we head to the bus
station (which I insist on calling the "gare") to get to the start of
the real adventure - camel riding in the Sahel! After assuring Pat
that I've chosen the most reliable bus company on our route, naturally
our bus is 2 hrs late leaving. Which is only to be expected when you
load lead pipes too long to put anywhere other than the main aisle of
the bus, then load the passengers, then (to be continued)
03 May 2010
brother at the airport! And from there, we'll...well, I don't rightly
know. Not entirely. It would be handy to know when our mask festival
will be. But then, getting advanced notice of events is a luxury my
colleagues & neighbors have been training me to do without for 2
My good old friend John of God hooked me up with an outfit to go with
the sandals he gave me a couple months ago. It is so money. Literally:
the design is based on the picture that appears on the West African
CFA. As if my skin color alone wasn't enough to convince everyone here
I'm rich. I kid because I love - it's my favorite outfit, and not in a
BIKES ON A BUS
Not as scary as snakes on a plane, maybe, but when parts of the bike
are thrown willy-nilly on top of the looming pile of crap behind your
seat, by the time you get off the bus you have a serious crick in your
neck from turning after every bump to see if the Tire Rim of Damocles
is coming your way.
MORE MOORE STUDIES
Our Mooré manual includes cultural tips in each chapter. I feel
compelled to quote my most recent knowledge acquisition: "...cooking
utensils are not used for other purposes like taking showers or to
physically attack someone." Unfortunately, I haven't yet found out
which utensils ARE culturally appropriate for beating someone
senseless. Inquiring minds want to know!
FRENCH LESSON OF THE WEEK
distraire = distract
extraire = extract
soustraire = subtract
traire = ... to milk a cow, naturally.
Some students were showing off their knowledge of world history. They
were doing pretty well until we started talking about 1929. They went
on about the measures taken by President ... I wasn't sure what they
were saying, but it wasn't Roosevelt. I had them write it. It turns
out President Krach Wallstreet was really on the ball. Bien entendu, I
could easily make a similar mistake in Mooré, so my amusement is
tinged with empathy.
24 April 2010
our last conseil de classe, which was a month ago!
CONSEIL DE CLASSE
That's the meeting we have every trimester to discuss what went & what
didn't (mostly the latter). Highlights of the last one: a 15 minute
argument about whether the word "refusal" is appropriate when a
request is denied due to lack of funds; an exposition on one
professor's lack of need for a doctor, EVER, because he once spent 3
months caring for his sick uncle and therefore has learned all that
need be learned in the field of medicine; and a 3 hour wait for
chicken because our organizer didn't think to let the grill guy know
we wanted any until the meeting was over, even though it had been
scheduled for two weeks (and keep in mind that while in the states,
when a restaurant takes a long time with an order, we joke that they
had to go catch the chicken first, here that is exactly the case!).
FÊTE DE DAGARA
Last weekend I and some neighbors headed south to spend time at a good
friend's site and see the annual festival for the main ethnic group in
her region, the Dagara. Unfortunately, I don't have a lot of pictures,
because in a clever subconscious scheme to keep my bag light, I
neglected to pack batteries for my camera. But the dances were fun to
watch. No masks. Fingers crossed that the masks in my site come out
while my brother is here!
09 April 2010
overwhelming. Basically, they sit you down on Tuesday and say, "We
know you've been out of the loop. We know you only have vague notions
of what you might plan to do after Peace Corps. We know that, since
you're miles from internet access most of the time, you have no way of
knowing yet what employers may be interested in you. But you need to
start thinking about it. Because we need to nail down what day you
will no longer be a volunteer. We need to know by Thursday."
The upshot is I more or less arbitrarily chose August 5th. Where I'll
be on August 6th I haven't a clue...
IS IT A BOY OR A GIRL?
This is a question I ask from time to time when I'm not sure about the
gender of a noun in French. On the other hand, it's a question I've
always avoided asking when referring to names, for fear of offending
someone (would YOU know that Pamoussa is a boy but Lamoussa is a
girl?) But I guess it must not be TOO insulting...when my volunteer
neighbors, a married couple, came to visit last, the husband came with
me to pump water; while there, the old ladies asked me if he was a man
or a woman. Really, I'd have thought the full beard a dead giveaway,
but then maybe that's why so few men grow facial hair here...
A TEACHER STRICTER THAN ME?!?
A disciplinary measure I heard a teacher claim to use after having
caught a cheater: first, they get a -5 to their class score because
they cheated. Then I take their paper and throw it away, because I
won't grade a cheater's paper. So then they get a zero, because they
didn't turn in the assignment.
I bow to that teacher's superior vengefulness!
17 March 2010
about American culture, if I'd been clever I could probably have
hosted a party and claimed it as a secondary project. However, that
was not an option because...
I AM A BIG FAT LIAR
I didn't give up alcohol for Lent. Recalcitrant recidivist that I am,
I didn't give up ANYTHING for Lent. But, you see, Lent overlaps with
funeral season. And funeral season means drinking. Lots of drinking,
at all hours. About the only way I can function throughout the day
without repeatedly insulting my neighbors' "hospitality" is by coming
up with a much better reason not to drink than things like "I have to
go to work," or "I try not to drink before breakfast." These are
simply not acceptable reasons here. Lent is. So no drinking at site
until Easter. And by then the funerals will mostly be over as people
get ready to start the planting season.
SPEAKING OF PARTIES
For reasons noone bothered to share with me, the Catholics hosted a
carnival last Sunday. Carnie games are the same here in their most
important aspect - they're rigged - but it was fun to see the
variations. We didn't throw softballs at milk bottles; we threw
rag-stuffed plastic bags at condensed milk cans. The ring toss offered
prizes such as soap and packages of spaghetti.
HAIL MARY, FULL OF GRACE, THE LORD SAYS WRITE 24 COPIES OF THIS
MESSAGE AND PASS IT ON
I got a chain letter from a student today. I think the last time I got
a non-electronic one I was 10, and that one didn't resort to threats
(it was supposedly some academic project, and while at 10 I was too
naive to ask "What possible gap in human knowledge could be filled via
chain letter?", I was also much too lazy to copy any letter 7 times,
or whatever it was). This one claims to be a missive from the Virgin
Mary and come from Bosnia-Herzogevenya, 1894. Aside from spreading the
Good News of the chain letter, you must also pray to get your good
luck...and prevent your family from dying, of course. That Holy
Virgin, she's feisty!
14 March 2010
used to the sounds. Well, I've been here awhile. I'm used to the
animal noises - the pig squeals, the guinea fowl cluck, the bat
squeak. But a couple nights ago, I heard something that sounded like
nothing other than a zombie groaning straight out of a movie. I still
don't know what the hell it was, but it's not a sound that is easy to
fall asleep to - especially when the dog-barking sound emanating from
the same general area suddenly gets cut short. Happily, the dog
started barking again just as I was starting to consider sleeping
inside, and heat be damned. That sound was spooky.
INSULT TO INJURY
Folks here had a SECOND party yesterday (13 March) to celebrate
International Women's Day (8 March), and AGAIN no one thought to let
me know. Although the hilarious argument I was lucky enough to catch
today about whether women should be "allowed" a 2nd day almost made up
for it. One side maintained that the 13th is not the 8th, 1 + 3 is
only 4. To which I responded fine, 4 is half of 8 so give them half
the day - noon to midnight. But my friend Christophe had an even
better observation: put a 1 next to a 3 and you close the two loops.
It's an 8 again!
I had ice today in village, and no matter how sick that unfiltered
water makes me, it was worth it. I asked Christophe why he doesn't
always have it, and he said it doesn't sell. Well, demanded our friend
(having lost the 8 March argument and happy to join another) do people
know you have it? Do you advertise? No, said C, I just sell it if they
ask. I told C that if he promised to carry some every day, I'd
personally make him a poster so it would sell. So my new project: find
out how to say "Ice for sale here" in every language spoken here. I
want that ice!
13 March 2010
I won't still throw in crazy subject lines in emails, actually. I just
no longer have as good of an excuse.
The 8th of March is International Woman's Day. Last year my village
did nothing special that day except close school - no surprise, that's
generally how things work on any non-religious holiday outside of the
cities. So last weekend I went to my provincial capital (see next
section). Monday morning, as I'm waiting for transport back to site,
people start telling me that I'm missing the party there! Apparently
our provincial celebration was being held in my village this year.
Now, this must have taken MONTHS of planning - there were women's
groups from all over, representatives from the UN office in Ouaga,
chiefs of all the villages, the freakin' Minister of Agriculture, they
even made tshirts with my village's name...and through all of that
planning, it never occured to one single person that hey, maybe this
is something our Peace Corps volunteer might like to know about!
I didn't end up missing that much, but if I'd had some warning I'd
have done something to participate. As it was, the only contribution I
made was during lunch, when I made it a point to take over the serving
job from the women, who had naturally assumed that role because that's
how things are done here. Which speaks much louder than imported
orators as to how seriously people take women's empowerment here.
WE DON'T NEED NO WATER, LET THE MILLET STALKS BURN
Other than grocery shopping and relaxing with friends who happen to
have things like ice and fans, I got to help said friends experiment
with a project they've set up to make charcoal from millet stalks. I
don't know if I've ever said it directly here, but you've probably
picked up on the fact that the theme of my service, outside of
teaching, has been fighting desertification. This charcoal project is
a cheap, clever way to discourage tree-cutting. Lesson one - wear old
10 March 2010
composing a new missive or replying to an existing conversation, the
subject line is filled by whatever the subject was of the last message
I sent in Facebook! I've tried sending Facebook messages with blank
subjects, but it just retains the older subject in that case. Nor does
clearing the cache work. So I've taken to filling the line with quotes
from favorite movies, since I'll be forced to read it so often.
Grits aren't the only thing I miss here. I miss potatoes! They are
grown in this country, but for reasons that escape me the people in my
particular village have no interest in them. So I occasionally crave
fries. Since one thing I can get in Ouaga is instant mashed potatoes,
I brought some back to site, prepared some, let it cool, then formed
it into balls and fried it. I got something that tasted almost, but
not quite, completely unlike french fries. But it killed the craving
Whoever put together our Mooré manual chose to translate "to shit."
Not in some scatological section. They just thought it was a verb we
might need. I couldn't agree more.
I have finally, after a year and a half, convinced a small number of
students that if they don't understand something in their classes,
it's worth their time to stop by my house and ask for help. Recently,
I noticed one student writing his numbers right to left. I can't help
but wonder if that's a signal of a fundamentally different way of
thinking about our decimal system. Without question there's a
disconnect between how I think, and therefore teach, and how my
students think, and therefore learn. But I've yet to bridge that gap.
I tried to use bleach to make a fun tie-dye pattern on some pants that
already had a faded spot. Against all expectations, there is fabric
here of high enough quality to resist bleach! All I managed to do was
make the pants look old and sun-faded, subtly enough that it doesn't
look at all intentional. FAIL.
02 March 2010
real, the first couple months in a new tongue are just painful. At
least I'm finally, after 21 months, trying.
Special thanks to brad, who made the brilliant discovery that Nutella
+ coffee = hazelnut mocha. For those mornings when regular just isn't
HISTORY/GEOGRAPHY TEST QUESTION
"Name 3 characteristics of the North American population." I'd really
like to see some of those answers. I bet "rich" made the list on
several students' papers.
RESPECT THE WRITTEN WORD
I've taken to laying books gently on the floor, rather than just
tossing them down as I once did. Not because I'm worried about hurting
them. It's because seeing the plume of dust rise when I they hit the
floor is just a depressing reminder that it's been 24 hours since I
IN THE NEWS
-Somali pirates involved in "land attack"
My more serious thought: anyone who hijacks food aid deserves to burn
in the 9th circle of hell. My more flippant thought: if it's on land,
are they still pirates?
-GM sales rise due to Toyota recalls
But wait. 2 headlines down...
-GM recalls 1.3 million cars
Ironic enough? NO! In this one, we find that the supplier of faulty
parts is "partially owned by Toyota." Sounds like the fix is in!
-Ice found in lunar north pole
How freakin' cool is that?!? Can we revisit that NASA budget decision Mr. Prez?
In short, I deeply appreciate being in touch with the wider world
again. Thanks, BBC News!
28 February 2010
scroll down to read them in order!
There are 10 kinds of people in the world: those who understand binary
& those who don't. Of course, there are limitless ways to divide
people into two opposing groups - unless you're a destructivist of the
Kronecker school. One of relevance to my current station: those who
feel it NEVER hurts to ask for something, & those who won't ask unless
they're reasonably sure the answer will be yes. Without ever making a
conscious decision, I've always been firmly in the latter group-it's
embarrassing to make someone refuse a request! Everyone here is in the
other camp. Which means I'm constantly being asked for gifts, money,
quoi que ce soit. It gets really old. For instance, a guy recently
harassed me to give him a shirt since I had a new one. The one I was
wearing WASN'T new, in fact, but I don't wear it often because I want
it to last. I explained this...then the next time I ran into him he
harassed me again as if we hadn't had that conversation. Which to be
fair (if such the following may be called) may have been true d'après
lui-I've never seen him sober. Even more frustrating are the people
who tell me that "now I know what it's like here" so when I get back
will I set up an association to send them money? To them, it's just a
philosophy of ask, because the answer might be yes. Though I recognize
that intellectually, it still feels more like "hey, you haven't helped
enough. What else have you got?"
No matter how strict I was with myself, I knew you couldn't last
forever. The day I dreaded has finally come, and you are gone. You
picked me up when I was down. You satisfied a craving both physical
and emotional. Grits, you will be missed!
ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE CHALLENGES OF DEVELOPMENT WORK
Mossi proverb: Better underwear today than pants tomorrow.
I need to slap some fresh cement on my door, and it'll be good as new.
Literally. Exactly as good as when first built!
that,as I've mentioned, the reason I'm using email to update is that
Blogger loads very slowly on my phone. So if you comment here, I won't
see it for a while. I'm not discouraging comments, I'm just saying
talk amongst yourselves. If you want to talk to ME, email is the way
MEN OF MATHEMATICS
That's the name of a book by E.T. Bell in 1936 I just finished, and I
highly recommend it to anyone teaching a math curriculum based on the
French model. It highlights the major advances in math from Zeno up to
Cantor, and it's fascinating to find how strong a historical (if not
pedagogical) basis our curriculum has.
I AM A NERD
Not just because I've read the book. Not even because it makes me want
to study advanced math. I'm a nerd because I've spent several
delightful mornings trying to independently prove Fermat's Theorem*,
as well as solve one or two geometric puzzlers.
*Not Fermat's LAST Theorem (x^n + y^n = z^n has no integer solutions
for n>2), which I suspect requires something akin to algebraic
numbers, well beyond my capabilities. Fermat's Theorem** is for any
whole number n and any prime p, the result of (n^p - n) is divisible
**Please don't tell me the solution, I'm wholly aware that Leibniz
solved it centuries ago. The point is that it requires no advanced
mathematical knowledge, and I want to see if I can do it.
Character limit again. Obviously I need to either update even more
frequently or learn to be more concise. That's not true. I CAN be more
concise-if college teaches you how to turn a one page concept into a
10 page essay, grad school teaches the much more difficult skill of
reducing 10 pages of work into a 1 page summary. But that's not really
the point of a journal, is it?
To be continued...again...
27 February 2010
might, I couldn't contact your 3rd grade teacher, and she was frankly
the lynchpin of the whole piece. Without her, our producers just
couldn't find sponsors.
LORD OF THE RINGS
While standing in front of my class whilst administering a test, it
seemed like I could almost see a wave of heads ducking as my gaze
swept over the room. I felt like the Eye of Sauron in a room full of
I NEVER THOUGHT I'D BE GRATEFUL TO MICHAEL BAY
But while he may have prostituted my beloved Transformers to
big-budget Hollywood, he at least pulled them into the mainstream.
Which means many more of you will appreciate what I'm about to tell
you: I met the guy who killed Optimus Prime! A gentleman from this
really cool NGO called Trees For The Future came to chat with our Food
Security Committee about partnership opportunities. He later revealed
that his uncle was the creator of the Transformers comic in the early
eighties, and he decided to name the main human character after his
favorite nephew. Ethan Zachary was the Autobots' programmer, who
eventually introduced an experimental program into OP that killed him.
And I met the real Ethan Zachary!
SOMETIMES I THINK BAD THOUGHTS
There is a group of kids who come by daily asking for chalk. I gave it
out freely a first, but they've become really rude now; for instance,
when they see me napping they will yell to wake me, just so they can
ask for chalk. So for about two weeks I've refused to give any. They
still come every day. And now the bad thought: I really want an
I'M NOT THE ONLY NAUGHTY ONE
Let's face it. If you've ever studied a foreign language, chances are
that even though they were never taught in class, you went out of your
way to learn how to curse in it. I can still swear in Russian 10 years
after I last spoke it. It's sometimes fun to see the little ways
people are the same everywhere. Seen on a blackboard at my school:
"You want to fok your mother?"
To be continued tomorrow...
treated as singles. So i'll test another couple ideas before posting.
Blogger takes entirely too long to load for me to consider posting
directly. First, a TRIPLE line break:
ok, check. Two empty lines in this email...we'll see how that looks.
Next, html? How about my favorite, the horizontal rule, for this one
no line breaks.<hr>if it works it will be between this sentence and
the preceding. I vaguely remember testing all this two years ago, but
don't remember what worked. Real post to follow, hopefully prettier
than the last. Though i don't know what i'm telling you for, reader,
you're still in bed!
20 February 2010
a while will be coming via email. Directly from my site!
You see, I recently realized that I won't be here forever (even if
some days it feels that way). The time of my "return" fast approaches.
Why the quotes? Because while I most certainly WILL be returning, it's
completely unclear at this point whether such a thing will be
permanent. Which brings me back to the topic of how it comes to be
that I can email from my village: the job hunt.
I have started nosing around looking for jobs, and i quickly decided
that only being able to correspond once a month, and that on weekends,
was simply not very useful. This would be less of a problem if I were
not mainly looking for teaching positions. But I am, and waiting until
my close of service (which has not yet been scheduled, but will with
90% certainty happen around the end of July) is a recipe for being
unemployed - or worse, a SUBSTITUTE teacher - for an entire year.
So, I decided to invest some of my vacation money into a phone capable
of basic internet usage. Along with hopefully helping me to find work,
I figure I can use it to update my blog in a more timely fashion. My
current plan is to update once a week. Naturally, the updates will be
much shorter, both because I'll generate less to say in a week versus
a month as well as because typing long updates on a phone number pad
isn't really my idea of a good time.
So that pretty much IS this week's update; I haven't much else to
report. My new challenge will be keeping my phone charged, what with
accessing the internet and our new cell plan that allows us to call
other volunteers for free.
Ah, that reminds me. In order both to get this internet and to
participate in the aforementioned plan, I had to change numbers. Get
rid of the old one, it's no good. The new number is
Use it sometime!
07 January 2010
Christmas in Togo, the New Year in Benin. Here will end my vacationing in coastal West African countries (until the end of my service, at least) - I want to check out the other Sahelian countries with my remaining vacation time. Though Niger is looking a bit dicey at the moment...maybe a trip up the Niger river to Timbuktu? (Actually, I hear that Timbuktu isn't that fun, and the only reason to go would be to send postcards to people so they have the word Timbuktu in their address of origin). I had hoped at one point to climb Mt. Cameroon with a friend, but that doesn't look viable at this point. I AM still hoping to spend a week in Paris with Pat; you know, right after he buys that winning lottery ticket (message to Pat: please stop procrastinating on that).
Speaking of Pats, this post's shoutout goes to another, my Uncle Pat, who sent me a backpack and shirts that have accompanied me in a short period of time through very different climates and terrains - from the kind-of desert to the kind-of mountains to the (not-kind-of) beach and back!
A New York second
We've all heard the idiom So-and-so would do such-and-such in a New York second! to indicate eagerness. It was once explained to me that a "New York second" is that incredibly small amount of time between when a light turns green in New York City and when the car behind you honks believing you to be unaware of the fact. There's a similar tendency in Ouaga to prove your reaction time is better than those ahead of you by honking before the nerve impulse to change from the brake pedal to the gas can even reach their foot. At least, that's what I used to think, and it drove me nuts. But I recently realized that here, at least, that obnoxious honking has a non-obnoxious purpose: moto drivers routinely pull into the intersection far enough that they can no longer see the light! So the honking is downright civic-minded. Just a little reminder that just because I see people doing things I feel are irritating and irrational doesn't mean they actually are.
The stress of travel
Border crossings in West Africa are in my experience very user unfriendly. There will be a stop for customs somewhere near-ish the border, which will be entirely unmarked but everyone but you will know that they have to get off the bus, which will drive empty an unspecified distance before allowing you to re-board. The process is similar at the border itself, though usually it's more clear how far you will have to walk before being allowed back on the bus; the problem here will be figuring out which of the dozens of poorly marked buildings contains the one person who can stamp your passport and allow you to leave the first country; this fun game will be repeated on the other side of the border to find the one person who can let you INTO the second country. Depending on where you are, there may be another customs stop on that side.
It's confusing and time-consuming, but usually only that - you get through it in the end. Well, this trip we got an extra nasty surprise: at the very first customs stop we got back on the bus and the bus driver left FIVE PEOPLE BEHIND!!! We yelled at him to stop, but he didn't give a damn. They caught up with us at the border (50 km later) because a second bus driver for the same company had some modicum of compassion, but it made every stop an excruciating experience, thinking to ourselves Do I have time to pee? Can I buy dinner? Crap, was that the bus's horn? Maybe I should just be hungry and suffer bladder discomfort for the next 12 hours...
At least now I know one reason that traditional women's outfits invariably include a third pagne (a bolt of cloth) folded and draped over the shoulder. Because when we stopped, they whipped that sucker out and had their own personal enclosed urinals. Handy when you can't afford to take the time to find a bathroom for fear your bus will leave you stuck in the middle of nowhere...
Après avoir arrivé: Mountain #1
In what I hope will solidify into a holiday tradition, I spent much of this vacation with my friend C, the same C from last year's trip to Bobo and Banfora (she's doing a third year in Togo). K (same K as from Ghana) and I got in late, knew we were going to get up early to hike up a mountain - and still stayed up until 4 catching up with C. Which was totally worth it. The next day we set our sights on the highest mountain in Togo: Mount Agou. We're not talking about alpine-like climbing here, to be clear; our more modest goal was to hike up the paved road that wends its way to the top. We didn't even manage that (we started too late in the day), but the scenery was beautiful, and it was pretty amazing to be in a place where, if you were hungry, pretty much all you had to do was reach into the nearest tree. The hike up was occasionally interrupted by dodging nearly entirely silent moto drivers who cleverly save gas money by coasting down the mountain, but very un-cleverly do not honk when rounding corners to let people know they're coming. We had a lunch of boiled corn and peanuts with coconut, then grabbed some star fruit from the nearest tree for dessert (for some inexplicable reason, the French name of star fruit translates as "fruit with 4 sides," even though it very clearly has 5 lobes).
The next day, we chose a smaller mountain, Mount Kouma-Konda, because based on its sharing a name with a coffee brand, K hoped to find freshly made coffee (coffee grows all over the mountain region, but for the most part the locals don't sell it in a way useful to us: they prepare some for themselves, then export the rest raw to be prepared, packaged and sold in Côte d'Ivoire. No joy there, but it was an even prettier ascent than the first mountain, and this time we found a guide and climbed up and down on village trails, seeing more fruit trees (avocado, pineapple, banana, plantain, lemon, and others) plus other crops of interest (bushes and trees cultivated to make dyes and the like). We also found a guy who does batik on bazin, a lovely combination. We all 3 bought some.
Tired of climbing, we took a car to the top of Mount Daï (appropriately pronounced "die," given the terror of the hairpin turns with overloaded truck sincerely expressing their desire to use the whole road no matter which part of it you may happen to occupy) where the members of a Benedictine monastery do, in fact, prepare, package and sell their locally grown coffee. We didn't make it quite as far as the monastery, so we didn't get to SEE the process, but the nuns at the associated convent sell the end result, so I've been drinking intensely good coffee for the last several days. We also bought some avocado wine (I recommended this course not because I'd ever had avocado wine, but because if there's one thing I know about Benedictines it's that they know how to make alcohol worth drinking. We weren't disappointed.)
After our mountain climbing, we relaxed in C's lovely abode, joined by a group of 5 other Togo volunteers who share the following traits with C and K: they are women, they are beautiful, they are fun, and they kick ass and take names. I really should have taken more pictures to show off how much of a player I looked hanging out with this crowd. We ate wonderful food, a mélange of American and local fare. We had some suspect mushrooms, which we debated about - and then regretted that we didn't have a recording of what we'd said (things like "Should they be this hairy?" "Does that smell right to you?" and "Were they that color two days ago") in case they turned out to be our last uttered words. They weren't, and the mushroom sauce may have been the winner in a competition that included fondue, roasted chicken, and a salad with BACON.
The next day we did pretty much the same thing again. What a great two days. The debatable food that second day was the chicken from the first day. This time, we decided NOT to use it, and had our suspicions confirmed when even the neighbor's dog refused to eat it.
Two other Burkina volunteers who spent Christmas on the Togo beach stumbled on a place that even the Togo volunteers didn't know about (because it's not in any of the American travel guides). It's really popular with Europeans, particularly Germans (no shock given Togo's colonial history), so for the first time ever the first thing one kid said to me wasn't some form of "Hey whitey" or "Are you French?" or "Are you American?" It was wie gehts!
The resort was a cluster of buildings made from strips of palm tree bark. It was cheap, fun, had a great atmosphere and a friendly staff, and if you EVER want to vacation in Togo, give me a call. Or check the next edition of Lonely Planet's West Africa guide - all of us who stayed there (K, myself, and 2 of the Togo volunteers who either greatly enjoyed our company or were at least willing to tolerate it for a chance at a decent beach - I hope it was the former, because we certainly enjoyed THEIR company immensely) decided that the omission of this place must not be allowed to continue. We played in the surf for the day (there was a nearby area with a rock shelf about 40 meters offshore, so we didn't have to fight too many waves - the Togo beach is a steep one, so wading isn't much of an option, it's sink or swim, except for this area) and slept to the sound of waves crashing on the shore at night. Lovely. So lovely that we changed our plans and went back again a couple days later!
The second time we stayed there, we decided to eat a bit cheaper and had one of the staff lead us to a street-side food vendor. We had spaghetti with scrambled egg on top, which sounds weird to you but I bet every Africa RPCV reading this (if any) is having a mouth-watering problem right now. At the end we witnessed a rather intense confrontation between the staff member (whom we treated to dinner for walking us out) and the counter lady, who had overcharged us. The proprieter eventually showed up and fixed the price. We had actually told our staff friend to just let it slide, it was only about 100CFA each (maybe 25 cents) and we just wanted to go, but he wasn't having any of it. He explained to us on the way back why he was so upset, and if this isn't the EXACT (translated) quote, it's close enough: "It's not that she overcharged YOU, you're white, that's normal. It's that she overcharged you when you were with ME! She knows me!"
Voodoo and devil worshippers
As you may or may not know, the Togo and Benin area is credited as the birthplace of voodoo, and I was excited to explore the markets devoted to this, having grown up next to Cajun country. In the end, we weren't able to work that into the trip, but instead we got to see something more local and not at all influenced by the tourist trade. One of the volunteers we'd spent Christmas with invited us to her village, where her neighbors were self-described "devil worshippers." Nothing so straightforward of course, but the guy who'd started the religion had been converted by missionaries when he was young and so I suppose when he turned away from that he kept some of the vocabulary. Unfortunately, he wasn't there to discuss the matter - he had gone to some mystic spot to transfer the contents of a liquor bottle into a new container. The contents being a locally produced distillation of palm wine called sodabi mixed with snakes. It's purpose is to prevent snake bites, and I'm sincerely sorry I didn't get the chance to taste it (having tasted unadulterated sodabi, I can assure you the alcohol content is high enough that there would be no fear of the snake bodies causing disease). But his assistant allowed us to take plenty of pictures of the idols and explain to us all of the different magical objects found in the "devils'" room. Only after making sure we'd partaken in several shots of (non-snake) sodabi, of course. So it was still interesting, and as I observed above there was no question of authenticity - this was NOT a tourist village, just a guy doing his thing in the middle of the jungle.
Mountain #4. Er, 1.
Rejoined by C (who had left our company briefly to gather her friend flying in from the states), we returned to Mount Agou, this time to stay in a couple of villages, one at the bottom, the other at the top, thanks to their connection with another volunteer, who unfortunately was not there, but in Africa that hardly matters. This time we drove up to the very peak (remember, we hadn't made it on our first attempt), slept with a family at the village on top of the mountain, then hiked down on back trails. More beauty, more fruit, more sore legs. It was great!
Technically, I've been now. But really, I can't say I EXPERIENCED Benin the way I did Togo. We just hopped across the border - so close my Togo cell phone never even stopped working - and hit a popular beach resort there. Popular with French families, that is - it was overrun with kids. The upshot of this is that we got to participate in releasing baby sea turtles into the ocean. How FREAKIN' COOL is that?? At this point, we'd also hooked up with another group of Burkina volunteers, so we ended up having the roof of a chateau to ourselves (more or less) overlooking the beach. So we partied, ate well (comme toujours dans cette récitation), drank, and swam. Oh, poor choice of order with those verbs. Swam, THEN drank. Honest. Oh, and played in a drum circle. That definitely DID come after the drinking. Well, during.
Our rooms ended up being free because we didn't have running water for part of our stay. A pretty nice cadeau for a group of people who ROUTINELY live without running water!
On our way back we passed through the Togo capital, Lomé, where we found BUMPER CARS!!! Best 500CFA I ever spent. Ramming into friends and kids to 80s dance music. The kids at first seemed upset - having observed them before we got in, we got the impression that they didn't really get the "bump" part of bumper cars. We taught them, and by the end everyone was having much more fun than they'd had before. Especially the worker, who absolutely LOVED slamming his car into this white guy's just as hard as possible.
The bus ride back was less stressful - no stragglers - though waiting at the border for 5 hours so the driver could catch up on his sleep was annoying (not that we would have minded sleeping, just that no one bothered to give us ANY indication of the length of the stop, so we couldn't go wandering nor fall asleep outside the bus for fear of ... well, by now you know of what). Our mood wasn't helped when the fellows at the border decided to check our bags, but only AFTER said 5 hours when the driver awoke and we were ready to go! On the plus side, we got to see guys standing in donkey carts led by two donkeys at a full gallop - African chariot races!
And now, if all goes according to plan, you won't hear from me for at least a month. I'm going back to site, I'm going to work, I'm going to visit with my friends there whom I haven't seen in entirely too long - and I'm going to catch up on my sleep! I plan to stay there until mid-February, when obligations will call me back to Ouaga. Until then, gentle reader, be well, and remember when crossing the street to keep an eye out for silent motos and racing donkeys!