Sunday, November 15, 2009

Ich bin hier, I think.

Hello All!

After a 3 month absence, I'm back! This post can only be attributed to one thing: insomnia. So let's finish this up before I actually get sleepy.

Right then, after Senegal, I enjoyed a relaxed summer, which included lazy days at museums, a quick trip to DC, seeing my family, and cheese. Lots of cheese. It also unfortunately included getting my debit card stuck in an ATM the day I got back, cleaning an apartment that had been left as a bio-hazard by the subletters, and an unnecessarily confusing trip to the Library of Congress. But no matter, it certainly made up for the lack of social contact I endured in Matam.

Exactly three weeks after I landed in JFK from Senegal, I found myself standing in the despot of society: Newark, New Jersey. Most Americans find themselves in Newark for two reasons: They were actually in Hoboken and thought it was Newark, or they had to go to the airport. I was the latter. Why you ask? Oh, you didn't ask? Well, pretend you asked. So why you ask? I went to Germany to visit Anne! Yay. I'm poor, I flew Air India! Big boo.

There are two international Indian airlines. Jet Airways, the privately owned company, is fantastic. Big comfortable seats, great food, excellent service, and actually entertaining on-board entertainment. Air India is the government run airline. For those of you who don't know, Air India is also the worst airline on the planet. It sits on par with Crocs in the "attractive shoe department," and Heroine for the "least harmful substance department." Really, it's that terrible. Let me explain...

First of all, despite India running the world with software export and design, Air India has not mastered the art of online check in. And by that, I mean it doesn't exist. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, screaming kids, and senile grandparents. In order to board an Air India flight, one must stand in line behind a dazzling selection of awkward Indian families en route home in order to obtain a boarding pass. In Newark, Air India's check in is located (I kid you not) next to baggage claim carousel number 4, in the basement of the airport. After at least a hundred stifled laughs and ten text messages to various appreciative friends and family, I got my boarding pass and headed further in the lairs of the Newark Airport basement to Air India's security check-in.

My dad always says that "old school" India held its assets in three forms: land, cash, and GOLD. Indians who use Air India are the very definition of "old school" and usually hold every piece of the third form of said assets on their person. In other words, every damn Indian who walks through the Air India security check point has at MINIMUM, 40 pieces of gold jewelry on. Times that by 200 passengers to the power of 3 screaming children, compounding a rate of f-ing tiny hallway, and you get a four hour endeavor through security.

Needless to say, after getting through that nonsense, I headed straight for the bar and had a drink or five. Soon after, I was herded onto the plane, and proceeded to wait the next 1.5 hours sitting on the damn runway. I'm about 85% positive that Air India took kickbacks to have our takeoff kicked back a few times over. After another rousing 8 hours, I shuffled my way off the plane, and proceeded to explain to the Air India staff that I, an Indian, indeed wanted to get down in Frankfurt and not continue on to Calcutta. Fortunately, customs in Frankfurt consisted of one burly man with 8 jagged teeth and a stamp, and I had no trouble getting through to baggage claim. Finally, on my last ounce of iPod battery, dear Anne ran up and gave me a big hug, and a cartoon picture she drew of me. After recovering from the shock that she had drawn almost exactly what I was wearing, we went to the train station to get the hell out of Frankfurt.

The next few hours were a total blur. I remember a pastry of some sort, and a lot of German. Thanks to Anne's Deutsche Bahn negotiating, we made it to her apartment in Göttingen, almost exactly 24 hours after I left my apartment in Manhattan. After dealing with my wine soaked clothes and shoes (a bottle exploded in my suitcase, brilliant), we spent the next two days wandering around the town and hanging out with her friends, which included Sarah, resident traveler, and Fabulous. Oh Fabulous, better known as Fabian to his friends and family, but given his flamboyant awesomeness, will forever be fabulous in my head.

Highlights of the two days were largely provided by Fabulous, who, among his many talents, knows every damn detail of Göttingen, including the origins of its older-than-the-USA library. Since Fabulous is more comfortable speaking in French than English, he gave me, Anne, and Sarah a fabulous French tour of the place. While there, I managed to set the elevator alarm off, cover my jeans in dust, be informed that all of the library's collection of anything in the English language was entirely British, and use the bathroom twice. Ah, the perils of good literature!

Fabulous also joined Anne's Göttingen crew for drinks the second night we were there. Somehow, the conversation turned to fashion, and at one point, the three girls were stumped trying to figure out the English word for a German expression. I recognized "Schuhe," which, duh, means shoe, but had no idea what they were trying to say. Thankfully, Fabulous, in all his fabulous fabulousness, stared dreamily into the sky, and in a very emasculating (yet deep) voice, screamed, "HIGH HEELS!" Willkommen nach Göttingen.

Apparently, my sense of German geography is terrible, because I positively thought my entire week would be spent in the central part of the country. When Anne started talking about the ports of our next destination, Hamburg, I became rather confused until I used her computer to Google the city, and found out that Hamburg is about as freaking north as you can get in Germany. Oops. Whatever.

So after a 4 hour trip on the train, we found our way to a hostel in the city, and out on the streets of Hamburg soon after. We ate a nice lunch, and met up with Anne's friend Simon. Simon's fortes include playing guitar, buying ice cream, and smiling in lieu of speaking English. While Simon and Anne caught up about friends from school, the moon, HIGH HEELS, and marshmallows (I don't speak German, I have no freaking idea what they were talking about), I fell asleep on a park bench for a quick nap.

That night, we met up with Anne's friend Johanna, who had lived in Hamburg for 5 years. Our tour included the red light district, the best worst bar ever, a bar composed of couches and gold paint, and a small dance spot. In the midst of the wannabe EMO DJ's hip-hop mix, we met two guys from the Netherlands who bucked a fundamental stereotype of North Europeans. As it turns out, some of them suck at speaking English. Two hours of unsuccessful attempts at conversation, a few beers, and some decent dancing, we caught a cab back to the hostel, and got back up a few hours later to hit destination three: Wolfenbuttel.

For those of you not in the know, and I imagine that's 99% of living human beings, Wolfenbuttel is where the original Jägermeister is manufactured. Though this obvious draw is great, we ended up there because Anne's parent's live in a small suburb of the city. In addition to the tour of the town, we also celebrated Lena, Anne's younger sister's birthday the day after we arrived. We ended up doing most of the celebrating, as she drove us to Anne's friend's house for a few drinks before going out.

Upon entering the the house, I noticed one of the girl's German's accent was quite different than the others. It wasn't until she said the word "basketball," though that this resident Sherlock Holmes figured out the girl is American. Balancing the proportion of native English speakers to German speakers, we soon got a fine mix of Deutglish going until we finally headed out to the bar. Bar one was a permutation of the latest great genius German innovation: a fake beach bar. Mind you, it was about 45 degrees Fahrenheit, so the "beach" came complete with heat lamps, hot tea, and thick jackets. But, I played in, and ordered the biggest long island iced tea in the history of the world. Thankfully, Senegal has turned me off of any real desire to drink, so I stayed perfectly sober as we headed to destination two: the most oddly placed euro club in the world.

If you talk to any 20 year-old in the States, especially ones who have studied abroad, you'll inevitably be forced to talk about the stupidity of American drinking laws. I wholeheartedly backed this argument. Then I turned 21. It turns out that American drinking laws have a great side effect: it keeps incredibly young people out of the bars and clubs I want to go. Ergo, when we pulled up this this randomly placed euro club in Wolfenbuttel, I immediately smelled the stench of teenagers. They have a strong odor, you see. Regardless, we all had a nice time dancing to fine songs such as "Sexy Bitch," and headed back to Anne's parent's house at a decent hour for any night.

On to destination 4: Frankfurt. Yes, dear friends, Frankfurt is indeed more than an airport. It is also a small city. Granted, I caught the city on a good weekend, as there was a giant museum fair going on all weekend. My personal highlight was recognizing Senegalese music at one of the stands, and talking to a woman who turned out to be from the Gambia. But I must say that as a brown person, being in Frankfurt was a breathe of fresh air as there are more than three shades of people (white, really white, Scandinavian white).

Anne's boyfriend, Martin, has lived in Frankfurt for the past year, so we stayed at his apartment. Due to an air mattress debacle, my first night of sleep was less than perfect, but he was cool enough to get me a bike for the two days, so the three of us spent the time biking around the city. I hadn't been on a bike since my days in Lyon, which showed at first, but my bike was affectionately named "Beast," and as we got to know each other, Beast became more flexible. During the three days, we (not including Beast) had a fine selection of Frankfurt's food, all of which was more or less tasteless. We also walked around an oddly placed Chinese garden, of which I took a few pictures to confuse friends. ("Bet you can't name where this is!") 40 hours after getting to Frankfurt, it was time to come home to New York.

Of course, Air India still wouldn't let me check in online, so I got up around 5:30 AM to get ready to go to the airport. Anne came with me to the metro station, and we walked up to the platform to say our goodbyes. A nice hug, hint of a tear, saw the train coming, train stopped, train door closed, I was not on the train. Shit. So we waited for the next train, another nice hug, this time with one foot on the train, and I boarded and waved to my friend running along side on the platform. Aw, sweet. Sappy moment, sorry.

Anyway, long story a little shorter, 6 hours after I landed in New York, I had my first class of the semester. I walked into the American building, to see the American professor...speaking German. WTF. Warp trip. Turns out the American professor speaks German, simple explanation to a well rested mind. To me, slight panic. Especially since that professor is one of the three shades of white. Two hours after slight panic, I walked out the classroom door, saw friends I hadn't seen since May, and had a fabulous (I love that word) Mexican dinner. Life is gut.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

This One time in the Desert of Senegal, part DONE

Ahoy kind ladies, gents, and undecided (that joke is totally ripped off of “Will and Grace,” but for the sake of my internet ego, pretend it was all me),

I apologize for failing to keep you all au courant (up to date) these past two weeks, but as I made it out of nothing cubed back to Dakar and back to New York, my internet has been of variable reliability. Ironically, my steady internet connection in Matam was met with somewhat consistency in Dakar, and probably no access in New York since my lovely subletters apparently dropped the ball on bill payments. To that I say: Grrr!

Aaaanyway, I believe I last left you before my grand adventure to nothing cubed, so here we go…

After approximately 40 hours of discussion, it was concluded the best day for our departure to nothing cubed would be on Sunday, so of course, we left on Monday. The target area of nothing cubed is about 84 kilometers away from Matam, but since the roads consist of a fine selection of dirt and rock, it took us about 3 hours of steady bumping to reach the tin shack that would serve as “home” for the next three days.

That night, I decided to forgo eating dinner, partially because Ngone also decided to not go, and the thought of eating with our assemblage of 5 less than well-table-mannered Senegalese men + 3ish strangers seemed like something between purgatory and hell, so Ngone and I spent the night getting to know each other better through life talk and cereal. Enter trouble.

Somehow, I have managed to keep relatively healthy my entire time in Senegal, only throwing up once due to some overzealous Motrin taking (my back reaaaally hurt), but nothing cubed made sure to do a good job of kicking my ass. I don’t know whether it was the milk, the muesli, or the combination, and honestly, thinking about it is enough to make me nauseous all over again, but suffice to say that night was spent by the toilet and in bed clutching various parts of my stomach and praying the pain would go away, inshallah. The next three days proceeded with various states of consciousness, interspersed with work and explaining to people that the cure for my sickness was not eating strange looking fish covered in thick sauces and peppers; that Sprite might be a better alternative.

But despite all my suffering, nothing cubed turned out to be incredibly valuable for our research and probably saved the state of our (until that point) non-existent conclusions and paper. Thankfully I pulled myself together well-enough to make it back to Matam on Thursday through the maze of bumps and our entourage of Senegalese people shouting at each other via my ear. I even survived a rather long break when our car discovered the high-tech Orange (phone company) fleet who was going to nothing cubed to install landlines. After snapping a picture of the fleet as they parked by a donkey-drawn carriage carrying 18th century style farmers in hand-made clothes, our car successfully bought out all the mobile phones on the Orange truck, and we continued our bumpy journey back to Matam.

The final days in Matam was marked with a few notable mentions:

1. Ngone decided to accompany Latsouk and Andrea to the neighboring town to buy another phone, but first made them wait 40 minutes outside of our place. Then she had them drive to the post office 30 feet away and had them wait for another 40 minutes. Then they drove to the next town and waited for a few days outside of the phone store. Thankfully I decided go to the office in lieu of trip, and in the time the three of them waited on each other, I wrote a dissertation, drew a picture, and took a short trip to Paris. Au revoir Matam.

2. I spent the entire week in and out of normal health, and thus forewent having another soccer practice that week; however, my girls came in a few groups throughout the course of our last day, and the final batch arrived with the Minister of Sports. He’s a sweet old man, and made me a little certificate of awesomeness, which was presented to me on our stoop complete with handshake and picture. Cute ceremony, you should have come.

3. Athia, our cook, was by far the most valuable person to me in Matam, as her cooking kept me moderately well-nourished and totally not sick, so as a thank you, Andrea gave her a shirt and some money, and I gave more money. Not wanting to be uncouth/not wanting to do actual work, I used a Zappos shoes box, duct tape, paper and marker to make a…box. Yes, I made a box out of a box, but it was kind of cool and served its function of present holder well enough, and I’m pretty sure the box made Athia’s day; that, or the fact that its contents contained the equivalent of a month of her salary, and a shirt that she will totally rock out.

4. Andrea decided to cook the last night we were in town, and tried making Adobo, only with mutton. The dish was a huge hit, largely because the soy mostly burned out, leaving a dish that looked remarkably like what we ate for dinner 90% of the time. Yay for change.

Finally, the morning of our departure came, and after figuring out how to place all of Ngone’s luggage in the two cars, she bunkered in with Pap Sakho, and Latsouk, Andrea and I climbed in the other car with Pap’s normal driver, who turned out to be clinically insane. Andrea tried very hard to explain in French to Latsouk the term with which Pap’s crazy driver was afflicted: F-ING INSANE ROAD RAGE. The very sight of an animal, person, car, insect, or large particles of dust drove the man crazy, and we spent the first two hours on the road going about rocket speed until we pulled over to check out a small market. A fleet of kids immediately spotted us foreigners sitting in the back, and after 10 minutes had somehow concluded that I’m Italian. Out of boredom and an insatiable desire to practice my 100 retained words of the language, I went along with the charade and told the kids my name and that I’m from Rome, when one little girl looked up at me and then Andrea and informed us that we had a flat tire. Quelle suprise, Monsieur Road Rage flew over potholes the size of boats with no mercy, so after thanking the girl in a mix of French and Italian, Andrea told Latsouk, and we drove off to find a place that fixes tires.

In any Western country, the normal protocol for fixing a flat is pulling over to a gas station and having the interior slimed. The normal procedure in Senegal is oddly similar, and we soon found ourselves waiting by a small shack with what appeared to me to be a set of rusted tools entirely unuseful for fixing the tires; however, after a few minutes of watching the guys work, I realized I know absolutely nothing about car tires and decided to trust their judgment in the matter. Latsouk was in a National Geographic mood and pulled out his camera and started taking pictures of the area in an “artistic” fashion, and Andrea and I were soon half-ass posing. As my car skills extend to calling AAA, we thought it would be funny to take one of me pretending to change the tire, but given the color of the sand and my clothes, and the picture came out looking more like an advertisement attempt for Diesel shoes than anything else.

Finally the tire was fixed, and we headed out on the road once more, stopping for lunch in St. Louis. Being a little too giddy about eating in a restaurant, we ate more at lunch than we had in the past week combined, and packed back up to finish our ride back to Dakar.

Mr. Road Rage driver had an annoying habit of giving his opinion on everything from the color of the sky, to the virtues of small bananas, to idiot kids trying to cross the street, to anything and everything he had ever heard in his life. Fortunately for Andrea and I, we were happily seated in the back with iPods on at full blast and little to no comprehension of the Wolof language, so poor Latsouk endured the great brunt of trying to appear interested while resisting the urge to punch the man in the face. After he said the equivalent of “uh huh” in Wolof about 40,000 times, we finally found ourselves outside of the city limits of Dakar, which is marked by choking pollution and traffic backed up to Mali. I guess Matam has some advantages.

Thankfully we maneuvered our way though the city, dropped off Ngone’s luggage, and after a slight panic in not knowing where the hell we were staying for the next week, finally managed to get our stuff up to the dorm rooms we’d be crashing in until it’s time to go HOME. Half an hour later, a tin bus came rumbling up, and out poured the other 4 (plus 1 husband) New School kids and their Senegalese counterparts. Being that the bus was supposed to have arrived 5 hours ago, I got the general sense that no one who had been riding in the plastic and tin contraption was at all happy, but we all managed somewhat warm hellos and after half carrying/half throwing the 15 bags (12 of which were Veena’s) up the stairs, we gathered enough energy to make it out to dinner to an Ethiopian restaurant.

It was universally agreed upon by us Americans, the Senegalese students, UNFPA, and everyone at the university that recapping what we did the past 8 weeks would be a waste of time given the alternative of sitting on the beach/getting lives back in order, but despite this agreement, we found ourselves in a classroom with no internet for the better part of the week working on PowerPoint presentations that no one really cared to see nor talk about. Ngoné had things to do in her own order, so I (admittingly happily) spent the better part of the week getting my stuff together for the final paper and presentation, and on Thursday morning, we showed up to present first to a room full of 5 people. No matter, we presented, hi-fived, and at precisely the moment I thought we were done, everyone from the UNFPA office decided to show up. Crap. So, we presented again, hi-fived again, answered a few legitimate questions, smirked at a few asinine comments, and 2.5 hours after we started on our 30 minute presentation, finished for all its glory. Hallelujah, Inshallah, whatever you want to call it, that presentation was over!

On Saturday, my last full day in Senegal, Ngoné had me over for lunch. She was supposed to pick me up around 11 AM, so right on time, around 1:35 PM, she showed up and took Andrea and me over to her place. I had somehow imagined Ngoné living in a palace, but upon entering, found the house oddly comfortable and modest. I did get one image correct though. In my head, I imagined her sitting with her little glasses behind her giant computer at a table the length of Manhattan; indeed, a few minutes later, she was perched behind her giant computer with her little glasses at a table of a length twice my height.

As a present for all her help, I decided to give Ngoné my exercise ball so she could finally start her planned exercise regime. I should have known that bringing a giant rubber ball into a house with three kids would cause pandemonium, and sure enough, an hour after I got it inflated, everyone in the house except Ngoné had started their own version of an exercise routine. Ngoné’s son’s method was slamming the ball against the side of the house and headbutting his sisters when they attempted to do to the same. Somehow, an hour later, we managed to sit down and enjoy a fabulously cooked lunch while Andrea (yet again) dodged the subject of why she is not yet married with 4 children. I mentioned I wanted to go to the park, so Andrea, Ngoné, Ngoné’s kids, a random sampling of relatives and I piled into two cars and bumped our way down.

A few minutes after our soft landing, a friend of a friend of this guy Ngoné met once 15 years ago offered to let us into the animal park for free, so being the cheap ass profiteer I am, we went in despite the fact that I knew the animals would be in less than humane conditions and it would probably smell like a latrine. But damn is it good to profiteer! After getting over the initial shock that animals I have never seen outside of cartoon form were sitting feet away from me, I started snapping pictures of everything imaginable: ostriches, boars, hyenas, crocodiles, bunnies (they were cute, shut up), pythons, lions, crazy lakes, jungle gyms in an actual jungle, the list goes on. Actually, that was about it. Regardless, after spending 7 weeks in monochromatic Matam, the stimulation of the park was little overwhelming, but “Doesn’t take enough pictures Mala” walked out with 50+ pictures of the experience to document the drama.

Being that it was my last day in country, I had a modest list of things I wanted to do that day, but for all of our sanity, Ngoné and I have become friends, and I decided to go with the flow and instead went with her to her sister’s house, and then back to her house for dinner. Thankfully, my most important task of the day (buying chocolate croissants) was fulfilled by an oddly placed “La Brioche Dorée,” and I satisfied my fat kid tendencies, and bought Ngoné’s kids a little something as well.

Latsouk came over a little later, and after I animatedly told him of the various adventures of the week, we had lunch leftovers for dinner and tried our best to eat yet another batch of sticky-ish rice, compliments of Andrea. Finally, l’heure of goodbyes came, and for the first time, I felt a genuine sadness in leaving the country. (Here comes a serious part, so skip ahead if you can’t stomach the mush)

I think by most standards, I have done a good job of expanding my horizons through travel and putting myself outside of my comfort zone to grow as a person. Yet, in all honestly, through 5 trips to India and one trip to Togo, I have never worked nor lived so closely with the local population of a developing country. Latsouk and Ngone are amazing, well-educated people by any standard, but they are still very Senegalese in many ways, for whatever its worth, for better or for worse. Getting to know them on a more personal level, and sharing the experience of working in and living amongst some of the poorest of the poor in the world in Matam is something I will never forget. It’s easy to say life goes on in the fast-paced world of New York, but life also goes on in Matam; the latter is much harder to grasp. Hopefully I contributed something of worth with my soccer team, and will contribute something of worth with my research, but as much as it pains me to say, it’s possible I didn’t. Regardless of the fruitfulness of my work, I sincerely thank Ngoné, Latsouk, and Andrea for putting up with me and helping me better understand the phenomenon of poverty that I have witnessed, but have never had to endure.

Needless to say, it was the perfect last day in Senegal, and my goodbyes were heartfelt but happy, because as Ngoné has said many times, it is written I will be back to Senegal at some point in my life, and I will always try my best to keep l’Equipe Matam in my life if they wish to be a part.

I now write to you from my apartment in New York (picking up a free wifi signal!). Coming home has been shocking and amazing, and seeing people about whom I care very much will be a buzzed effect for the next few weeks. The duration of my stay this time around was not significant in the grand scheme of things, but the worlds I have seen in the past two weeks certainly are.

So, before I get too sentimental for my own good, I leave you with a jolly goodbye and genuine thank you for reading my various banterings. As a reward for your persistence, I’m getting a massage and every freaking possible kind of cheese out there. You’re welcome to come over if you’d like.

Good day, good night, loveundliebe, kys og kram, bisous, much love to you all,


Sunday, July 19, 2009

Senegal part 8 - 3 = 5

Hola! Guten Tag! Ciao Bella! Namaste! Perestroika! This is me stalling for time because I don’t know how to start this email! More “!!!”
Ahem, well, I suppose that can count as a lameass opening, so let’s just jump right into the midst of things…

On Wednesday, Ngoné reappeared out of thin air from Dakar. The actual trajectory from Dakar to Matam entailed about four buses, three donkeys, two coughing drivers, and a chicken in a coop/partridge in a pear tree (if you were keeping up with the tempo) spaced out over the course of 15-20 hours, but because I walked in to get breakfast not expecting to see her, to me, it appeared she materialized out of thin air. Needless to say, it was a rough night of nonexistent sleep for her, but after 3 cups of Nescafe and an entire can of condensed milk, she rallied enough strength to make it to the office to go to work.

Honestly, the thought of her journey and the bags under her eyes were sufficient to make me want to go to sleep, but we managed a fine morning of checking email, and exchanging chuckle-inducing stories interspersed with mild discussions about our project. Somehow after staying awake all morning and early afternoon (minus a few minutes during lunch when Ngoné fell asleep), we slammed our two shots of lunchtime tea (I kid you not, we’re served tea in glass thimbles that acutely resemble shot glasses), Ngoné was on fire. Let me explain…

Perhaps it’s the nose ring, perhaps it’s the helping hand around the kitchen, perhaps it’s the smile, but it is very clear that when Andrea leaves here uncommitted to any Senegalese man, many hearts à la Matam will be broken. Ngoné has picked up on this fact, and in her sleepless state, decided to teach Andrea a new word: Diongué. It is important to know one’s audience, and I know there is only one person copied to this email list who speaks Wolof fluently, so Jojo, this is your cue to start laughing. “What is Diongué?” the rest of you are probably asking. This is exactly the same question I asked myself, and by the graces of our internet connection, found the answer to be this, “Diongué: The Woman’s Art of Seduction.” Yes, my friends, somehow, with the very purposely loose-fitting clothes and sticky-ish rice, Andrea can be equivocated to having “seductress” powers in Ngoné’s mind. For many reasons, I found this absolutely hilarious, and spent the next few minutes doubled-over with laughter and tears coming out of my eyes…in fact, here comes another fit…

::10 minutes later:: Ok, back. That night, I had another “practice” with my girls soccer team/hodgepodge, and showed up promptly at 6 as agreed the previous Saturday. 40 minutes later, the other coach and the girls decided to make an appearance. Given my renewed tiredness, this didn’t bode well with me at first, but I held my tongue and we finished 1.5 hours later with limited success. After a confusing conversation of agreement disguised as disagreement, we agreed (I guess) to meet on Friday at 5, and after dodging hoards of 10-year-old boys demanding I give them my new soccer balls, I made it back to our room tired but moderately content, though much of the contentness stemmed from actually using my duffel bag as a duffel bag instead of as a clothes holder. The oddness of day cannot be properly captured in this email, but let’s just say we were all off, and I went to bed fairly positive someone laced the Matam air with some kind of “Make Me Crazy” solution.

The following morning, we got dropped off one street before our office, so I charged out of the car expecting this to be part of Ngoné’s new exercise routine, but we instead meandered into the office of the community radio station. After demonstrating that I know absolutely no Pulaar (the local language), the head of the radio station launched into an hour-long explanation of his various programming activities, including lamenting the one mid-wife Andrea and Latsouk specifically warned us was absolutely unhelpful. In the midst of my fly swatting, the head found out my name is not “Kuemr,” but “Mala,” to which he took great joy in explaining that if you take out the second “a” and add an “l and e”, you have his name. I tried to look interested, but instead made a slight notion that I had his name written down throughout the course of the interview, and my being American does not preclude the ability to spell. Fortunately, another man came in a few minutes later, the Regional Coordinating Assistant Director Head of Chief Bureau Administrator (or a title equally as long), and steered the conversation back to something of warrant, and actually interjected a few points that were quite useful to our research. Wanting to go out with a bang, Ngoné and I left and finally made it to the office.

That night at our regional director’s house, I asked Latsouk if his program director would be coming to Matam soon. Latsouk replied that he was supposed to come today, but no one has heard from him since yesterday. Right on cue, the program director rolled up in his truck, which in apparent decoration for Bastille Day (week?) was decked out with flashing red, white, and blue lights, and stumbled out of the car with nothing but the clothes on his person and a confused expression on his face. He is hilarious in his own rite, but one of the slowest moving people I have ever met. After a ten-minute journey through the front door, he walked up the stairs to meet us, and speaking at approximately 2 words per minute, told us that he just rode in the car for 12 hours. I must hand it to the man, because after a 12-hour journey, I would probably run straight for the nearest bed, but he joined us for dinner and lumbered off to sleep at a decent hour that night.

Friday brought a slew of interesting events, not being limited to being informed that I would be carted off to nothing cubed for sure on Sunday with a truckload of Senegalese UNFPA workers. We also enjoyed a second batch of sticky-ish rice, and I committed to cooking an Indian meal for the following day with the spices Ngoné brought back for me from Dakar. Enter yogurt chicken…

For those of you who know anything about Indian cooking, you probably know that one of the easiest ways to make a “curry” sauce is adding whatever spices to plain yogurt and mixing in any proteins, potatoes, vegetables you desire. Stick it in the oven, boil some rice, pitter around for an hour, and presto!, you have the perfect meal for a family, an awkward third date, your friend visiting from Germany, or whatever else. Apparently, the concept of cooking anything not sweet with a dairy product was highly bizarre and prompted grave fits of nervous laughter, so for one whole day, I had 4 (5?) Senegalese people questioning, doubting, pondering, visibly showing their fear for this concoction of a dish, which, not very affectionately, garnered the name “Yogurt Chicken.” Ngoné, in her constant silent quest for competition, told me to “shove it in their faces” and make the best damn dish possible.

Saturday proceeded with average hilarity: coordinating my coming to the kitchen to make my dish with the cook with whom I share no common languages was highly time-consuming, as were buying the ingredients (which entailed a special opening of our preferred store). Once in the store, we found out that the only type of yogurt was sweetened vanilla, which presented a problem for two reasons:

1. Ew
2. Our regional director is diabetic

But very much wanting to cook the best damn dish possible, or at that point, any dish possible, I went with the sweetened vanilla and prayed whatever the hell is in “Madras Curry Powder” would be potent enough to mask the taste. As for the regional director, he can’t be THAT diabetic, right?

I walked into the kitchen, which is really a room with a bunch of utensils and two propane gas tanks on the floor, and spent the next hour mimicking motions and sounds for “tasting,” “smelling,” “looking,” “chopping,” “scooping,” “cooking,” and “ow! I stabbed myself trying to do my fancy chopping thing with this tin knife!” Our cook knows what she’s doing though, and within in an hour, we managed to finish all the prep work and left everything to cook for the next few hours. We even found unsweetened yogurt in the fridge, so all turned out well and I returned back to our place to finish exercising; an hour and a half later, I sat in the car with Andrea and 4 (5?) Senegalese skeptics by my side.

Upon reentering the kitchen, I made the slightly alarming discovery that the cook forgot to cook (I know, awkward sentence) the regional director’s meal, but since the chicken had been pre-cooked and any French/French derived yogurt lasts longer than your diamond ring will, we turned up the gas tank to the “burn a house down in 60 seconds or your money back guaranteed” mode and got everything out toute de suite.

Latsouk had already tasted a potato piece from yogurt chicken dish, and knew it was safe/appealing to eat, so he dove in first, and an alarmed crowd of Senegalese followed suit and, TA DA! Enjoyed the meal! Or at least they ate enough and gave me enough compliments to make me feel like they enjoyed the meal. So long as no one gets sick, I’m happy to take in the praise, even if it’s even slightly false. We finished off with the rest of the sticky-ish rice, so between Indian food and Thai d-e-s-s-e-r-t, I was in Matam heaven.

Alas, I will be going into the field to finally chase nomads today, so wish me luck, but don’t even try asking me where we’re going, because save geographic coordinates, this places barely exists on a map. I find it entertaining that in exactly two weeks, I will be on a plane heading back to my apartment in lower Manhattan, so in the span of 15 days, I will have covered the very extremes of the earth in nearly any way definable. One of those moments that makes you stop and ask how your life (in a very good way) got to this point? Fortunately for you, my natural writing style manifests in more humorous ways, so you do not have to read about this musing; however, if you’d like to circumvent this very “study abroad” conversation altogether, I suggest you avoid my physical presence like the plague for at least the next few months. I’m feeling a big spout of deepness coming on.

Anyway, depending in which country you’re reading this from, good day or good night, and I will talk to you next week in inevitably hilarious renditions of chasing some of the most removed people on the planet.



Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Senegal part 1 + 2 + 1

Don't even start on me, no, it's not an original blog composition. And no, this does not mean you can have your money back.
Lou Bess Everyone?,

That means “What’s up” in Wolof, and serves as the one phrase in said language I can say with full confidence. Well, that’s not entirely correct, but for the sake of the general theme of not ever knowing what the hell is going on, pretend it’s true.

To start off the week of not knowing what is going on, Ngoné, my Senegalese student counterpart, had to go back to Dakar again to take another exam, and as a parting gift, Matam turned off the power for the previous 12 hours. Normally, Ngoné would spend any free time we have (which, mind you, is a lot) studying in the comfort of her own room, but as our hollowed out cinder blocks tend to accumulate the heat of the day with the upmost fervor imaginable, within 2 hours of the power going out, our rooms were stifling hot, so when I went to go talk to her about my “bring me back crap from Dakar” list, I found her in the common area instead of her room. If there was any doubt we were destined to work together, it was the scene in which I found her that confirmed this destiny. I pride myself in having, using, testing, and unintentionally smelling every Sharpie known to man as I use them often for my artwork; when I found Ngoné, she had spread in front of her, quite possibly every hi-lighter known to man.

After recovering from the initial shock that hi-lighter comes in 2,000 colors, we started in on a conversation about soccer balls when I was abruptly interrupted by the loudest squawk I’ve ever heard. I was fairly positive that someone had died, but Ngoné told me to stop being dramatic, there was merely a frog inside of the wall. And by “in the wall,” she meant in the room, but regardless, the frog was bothering Ngoné because it “Won’t stop chatting, and I really don’t have the time to chat right now,” so Ngoné did what any adult would do: she starting throwing toothpicks at the frog. Frogs are thick skinned, figuratively and literally, because after a series of rather hurtful comments and a handful of toothpicks, Ngoné had only managed to drive the frog to the other side of the table. Naturally, her next weapon of choice was a can of air freshener, but the only effect the air freshener had on the frog was leave it with a subtle scent of lemon and “summer breeze.” Finally, after using the air freshener as a bat rather than as an odor remover, Ngoné got chatty, nice-smelling frog out of the room, and we went back to discussing the virtues of Indian spices and quality soccer balls. I somehow got the time of her departure mixed up, and missed seeing her off, but we continued our soccer ball conversation over the phone the next day, so I know she made it back to Dakar safe and frog-free.

Call me romantic, call me inspired, call me a lazy American, but my favorite thing to do in Matam is ride around in our air-conditioned car and watch the scenery outside. God must have heard my laziness/romanticism, for we spent the better part of the workweek riding around finding small villages and hamlets for my project. That was interesting. Let me explain…

Day 1: We stopped by the office and picked up a sheet listing 30 villages, one of which (as pointed out by Andrea’s Senegalese counterpart, Latsouk) was named “Peru.” Despite my lame pleas, we did not end up in Peru, but instead went to another village whose name I cannot remember nor did I copy down. I know, great investigation skills.
After some navigating around cows and asking half a dozen confused people where our mysterious village was, we stumbled upon our desired hamlet and spent the next hour and a half talking to various people of the hamlet to gather quantitative data. Being two foreigners and two Senegalese, we managed a fine audience of dumbfounded adults who masked their interest as best as possible, and dumbfounded kids who made no effort whatsoever to mask their interest. But no matter, we got the data needed out of the short interviews, and proceeded to do what’s contractually obligated by any Westerner visiting a small African village – get pictures with kids to post to Facebook. Check and check, a successful day.

Day 2: Japan’s philanthropy runs in mysterious ways, not limited to agriculture development in the middle of nothing cubed Senegal. I have no profound comments to make of this endeavor; the reason I mention this is because in our first hour of driving around on day two, we went by pasture land that was restored by the Japanese, and at one point, I saw a sign that said, “Japon Techno.” Har har. That was funny.
Aaaanyway, day two consisted of asking more people along the street for directions to a hamlet exactly 15 people in the world have heard of. Fortunately for us, we found number 13 (he was wearing a shirt that said “13”) and pointed us in the right direction. Said hamlet had a current population of two: one adult and one kid. The kid of course wearing a “New York” t-shirt, but suffice to say that “We’re American” is all the information most people need, and we didn’t get to have a laugh about the coincidence of the shirt locality.

The luck of the week continued, because the one adult was able to direct us to the village center, where we found a few people capable of translating directly from the local language to French, so all of us could understand, but the results of the survey where less than encouraging. When asked what happens when someone who is migrating by foot falls very sick, our guy more or less answered, “Well you know…whoever dies, dies; whoever lives, lives.” The rest of the interview followed in similar fashion, so my genius conclusion on improving the health system from this interview is: “Uh?...”

Day 3: MC Hammer parachute pants day! We were told we’d be going to an even more remote location than the previous two, so I decided the occasion called for full-length pants. Unfortunately, the only location that got to see my pants was the car. Mysterious hamlet was so mysterious that it took us a full 2.5 hours to determine that it was currently uninhabited and only accessible by foot. Damn. We did manage to get some pictures of the neon grass up close, and convince our driver that his services should remained unpaid on our part. Andrea also got a marriage proposal by a 15-year-old boy. Last I heard, that’s a no go.

So on to the weekend! On Friday night, we were informed that we’d be attending a conference for World Population Day. The conference was planned to start at 9 AM, but in African time, this translated to anytime between 9 AM – Sunday, but being the good Americans and Senegalese we are, we woke up to be on time for the 9 AM start time. At 11:20 AM, the conference officially started, and the next few hours proceeded with a blur of two local languages interspersed with French words and some snoring on the part of the audience.

At some point in the conference, Andrea noticed that there was one office swivel chair that was nicer and rose above the rest of the chairs, and was surrounded by two smaller office chairs, which were surrounded by pink plastic chairs. One director sat in the biggest chair, our regional director sat in one of the smaller office chairs, and the local population sat in the pink plastic chairs. After drawing a depiction of said situation, Andrea lightly proposed getting up and asking the following question, “Dear Audience, I’ve noticed that the assemblage of chairs clearly manifests power constructs in this conference. What is your take on this issue?” I spent the better part of the conference prodding her to ask the question, and even offered $100 as an incentive. Perhaps it was the awkwardness of the subject, perhaps it was that the $100 was clearly a lie, but the question was not posed, and we are still left with the predicament of power play through pink plastic chairs and fake leather. An issue to be dealt with next year, I suppose.

On Sunday, I was feeling slightly ill, and was greeted with a torrential downpour of rain as my saving grace. I opened the door, looked to my left, and saw Andrea thoroughly drenched and smiling. Obviously, the solution pick-me-upper was getting soaked, so I stormed outside in full force, fully clothed, and ran as fast as possible to the edge of the pavement before I realized I couldn't see anything and was experiencing a sensation that is utterly foreign at this point: being cold. So after trying to strike a "Singing in the Rain" pose, I met defeat and instead settled for a Tim Robbins "Shawshank Redemption" pose instead. (The picture has since been deleted because I looked fat.) Sure enough, I feel a million times better after the brief run, and that night, fully enjoyed comfortably wearing JEANS in 77 degree F (23 degree C) weather. Hallelujah!

I now leave you with a few highlights of conversation from the past 10 days:

- Fallou: “I know I didn’t correctly predict the hour of rainfall, because you see, I’m not God.”
- Me: “Will I end up in the fetal position after reading the article?”
- Andrea: “Meghan told me she has a goat named after her. I told her I have a cow.”
- Latsouk: “Crap! I made a catastrophe. A mustard catastrophe!”

Cheers All,


Friday, July 10, 2009

Senegal, part deux plus one

(Again, copied from the email I sent out. I know you're feeling disappointed and betrayed that this is not an original composition, but the important thing is that you're being ridiculous.)
Hi All,

Well, here I am again, writing in the midst of the desert. Progress has been made on many fronts, the first of which being I can now clearly delineate between the words ‘dessert’ and ‘desert,’ among others. Here goes…

Last Sunday, Peace Corps Nick invited Andrea and I over for lunch in Mauritania, which we gladly accepted (ooh, big trip!). Being the genius I am, I failed to pack a single skirt, so after bugging Nick and another Peace Corps volunteer with 15+ text messages, I finally got the answer I was looking for: you’ll be fine in pants. After putting on my MC Hammer parachute linen pants (I got them on sale for $30 at Uniqlo, which in retrospect, was $25 too much), Andrea, Ngoné (my Senegalese student counterpart), and I made our way over to the boats we see crossing the river everyday. Fallou, our trusty driver told us to meet him by the “dock” so he could talk to the police on our behalf. So we waited for 15 minutes only to determine…we were at the wrong place! Fantastic start. Fallou came and fetched us and walked us over to a dirt path, which apparently doubles as the “dock.”

Neither Fallou nor Ngoné had any particular desire to come with us to Mauritania, but despite being able to clearly see over to the Mauritanian side, were slightly perturbed by the thought of the two of us going at it alone, so as we waited for the boat to come back to pick us up, they made a slightly dramatic charade of looking for Nick on the other side. A very dark African in a red shirt came up to the river, and out of paranoia and denial, Ngoné and Fallou determined that guy had to be Nick because “of the light pants he’s wearing, no one in Mauritania would dare wear pants like that,” despite the fact that Nick is very white, a point stressed to both Ngoné and Fallou. Alas, I couldn’t pick out an actual foreigner from where we were standing, so I went along with their charade and agreed Western pants guy was indeed Nick.

After 15 minutes of sweating in the shade (yes, it was that hot, and yes, I am overusing parenthesis in this email), the boat finally came back to pick us up, and in a very mom and dad fashion, Ngoné and Fallou wished us well and told us to call as soon as we got there. The passengers from the Mauritanian side included four tired looking women, a few kids, and a goat. After the slowpoke goat debarked, Andrea and I settled into the boat, which was covered in a fine layer of brackish water and used thin wood planks as benches. The motor had obviously been ripped off another boat half the size, so instead of making a straight line across the river, we crossed in a perfect diagonal fashion, as the motor wasn’t strong enough to counter the invisible current. Fortunately, the one-meter tall person steering the boat was not a child as Ngoné thought, but indeed a very small adult, so we made to the other side…well, almost. Since the Mauritanian side is a beach, we stopped in the water and trekked the last 15 feet by foot. At first I thought I was paranoid in thinking about the millions of different parasites that probably live in the nearly stagnant pool of water, but I was later informed by Nick that the only real dangerous parasite are tiny snails that lodge themselves in your skin and inject some sort of poison. Good thing he told me that after we waded through the river to come back, or I might have asked childman to take me straight back to the Senegalese side.

Anyway, after shaking the parasitic water off, we were elated to fact that we finally made it to Mauritania! Of course, it being our luck, a police officer was standing with Nick (who was wearing black pants, in case you were curious), and promptly informed us that we weren’t allowed in the country. Damn. But after a few words of exchange, the police officer went to the local station and got permission for us to stay in the area for the afternoon, but “only because we know Nick.” I have a sinking suspicion that our obvious inability to properly handle the weather for more than a few hours lent us credibility that we would not run off past the village to take contraband pictures of the country, and that we were in fact, just having lunch. Regardless, the officer finally allowed us in to the village.

In my first email, I stressed that I am living in the middle of nothing, but will perchance have the opportunity to see nothing nothing (nothing squared). The Mauritanian village is perhaps, somewhere between nothing and nothing squared. Granted, Nick’s host father was incredibly friendly and welcoming, and spoke perfect French, so our lunch went very well. We spent the time in between lunch and tea reading statistic guides from 9 years ago, so in case you were wondering what the population of Mali was in 2000, I know just who call.

On the way back, we stopped at a Moorish owned shop to buy something authentic, but instead settled on Chinese tea. At least it was packaged in Mauritania. The grand total cost of our purchase of 10 small tea boxes was about $2, so we splurged after getting back to Senegal, and bought ourselves each a Fanta Orange. As we were walking with our drinks, Nick took us by the one church in Matam, not uniquely called “Notre Dame de Matam.” Apparently “Christian” is code for “We Drink,” and upon spotting us three foreigners, a young guy of about 28 invited us in for a beer.

I surveyed the group of people sitting, and nearly had a heart attack. Among the sea of Senegalese were two French girls, one of whom looked eerily like one of my roommates in France. Mind you, this is the roommate who threw me out of the apartment with two days notice, but being entirely positive it couldn’t possibly be the same person, I held back my urge to punch her in the face and instead found out that she was a volunteer in the area for a year and was leaving next month. Since the girl was from Paris (so was my former roommate), I emailed Anne, my German friend who also lived in the apartment, to ask if this roommate has a sister or cousin or someone who might be that girl. The French girls we lived with are quite possibly two of the most socially inept people you could meet, and at one point, the other roommate told Anne she has “a German head,” so Anne suggested that maybe our former roommate and this French girl in Matam have “French heads,” because it’s entirely unlikely our former roommate has any relatives in the middle of nowhere Senegal. I emailed Anne back and said she’s probably right, because come to think of it, the other French girl at the church looked like the roommate who told Anne she has a German head. In conclusion, there is some serious inbreeding going on in France.

Anyway, needless to say, it was an interesting day. On to the girl’s sports team. Fallou, the driver, knows everyone in Matam, so when I told him I wanted to start some kind of team, he had the Minister of Sports for Matam come by the office the same day to talk to me. The Minister and I agreed to meet the following Wednesday, so after work, I trekked over to his office to see what we could do. I had in mind leading a few exercises for young girls once or twice a week, but before I knew it, I had committed to designing a pedagogical (a word the French absolutely adore, but I’m not entirely sure of its meaning) lesson plan for practices, setting up a full out team, leading practices in the stadium, and buying soccer balls. To add to comedic irony, the Sports Minister had a cigarette in his mouth nearly the entire duration of the meeting, but at least he was excited and supportive, perhaps overly so.

The next night was a highlight, because Andrea had gotten Ngoné to bring coconut milk back from Dakar so Andrea could make sticky rice (but due to not having the right kind of grain, was more like sticky-ish rice). I walked into the house in great anticipation for sticky-ish rice, and was informed that 5 girls had stopped by asking for Isatou (my unofficial Sengalese name) to discuss the soccer team. How they knew about the team, my unofficial name, and where I eat my meals is beyond me, but without fail, the girls came back later that night and to find out details of our first practice, which I told them would be the next day around 5:30 PM in the stadium.

The next day I showed up to the stadium (a giant, abandoned dirt pit) promptly at 5:25 PM and was greeted by a guy I had never met, but who apparently was put in charge of welcoming me and leaving shortly thereafter. After 35 minutes of waiting, no one showed, so I dragged myself back to my room, and was greeted with a knock on the door a few minutes later. One of the girls who mysteriously knew where I eat my meals also figured out exactly where I live, and informed me that 7 girls were waiting for me at the stadium. Great. So I picked up my stuff and lumbered back to the stadium, where we held our first “practice.”

All of the girls save one do not speak French fluently, and in my masterful language skills, I haven’t picked up any of local language except “What’s up?” Despite this rather large communication gap, I held another practice for the same set of girls plus another set the next day, and we agreed to continue every Wednesday and Saturday before I leave at the end of the month; all in all, a success, if I don’t say so myself. So long as I can avoid being completely fried from the sun, and so long as I manage to keep the soccer balls I buy away from overly aggressive 10-year boys, I think the whole endeavor will prove quite fruitful. And if not, there’s always sticky-ish rice.

Oh! A quick paragraph about work: There are 84 financed development organizations in Matam, 40% of which are in the actual city (not the district). Apparently, Ngoné decided to hit every single one of them up, as we did 12 or so interviews with various presidents, assistants, experts, etc. in one week. Thankfully the interviews were all in French, so I understood nearly everything that went on in theory, but how to put everything together in a coherent fashion is beyond me, especially since we’ve gotten so much conflicting information: the transhumants are here, no, they’re there. No, they’ll be back in October. Yes, they’re easy to find, no, they’re impossible to locate. Each group has striking similarities, except for the ones that have nothing in common with every other group. Oy. I trust Ngoné knows what to take seriously and what to discard, otherwise, I’m expecting a few weeks in the car chasing transhumants that may or may not exist.

That’s about it. Congratulations if you made it to the end of this email. As reward for your reading persistence, I’ll bring you back a souvenir – do you like Fanta?



Saturday, June 27, 2009

Pretend I wrote this specifically for the blog...again.

Et le deuxieme:

Hello All,

As you may recall, I have trouble deciphering the difference in spelling between the words “desert” and “dessert.” Normally, this minimal impact on my life, alas, as you may remember, I am currently in the d-e-s-e-r-t. I rarely garner enough motivation to write more than one email about any given event in my life, but ironically, a lack of things to do here warrants multiple emails, as I have successfully memorized all the words to all the “Will and Grace” episodes I brought with me, and am “going green” by replaying them in my head rather than wasting electricity by replaying them on my laptop.

So, on to my random life au Senegal…

By far, the most fruitful thing in my life right now are mangos. Well, quite literally they’re the most fruitful thing. The most utilitarian fruitful thing in my life is still consistently exercising despite overly monochromatic scenery, 100+ degree temperatures, and two paved roads. So for those of you who say you don’t have the ability to exercise, ha! There is always a way. Unless there isn’t. I believe Confucius said that.
Anyway, I think the initial shock of “Oh my God, there’s an Indian girl running around in shorts” has worn off of the greater Matam population, and I am now instead met with a universal sense of confusion. I honestly have little to no idea how to go about getting a bunch of girls to join in my quest to sweat (my girls exercise club), which has happened for three reasons:

1. I have yet to see a single girl other than myself exercising
2. None of the girls I have met speak enough French for me to communicate in any capacity other than grunting and pointing
3. I have made a sadly abysmal effort at actually trying to get anything together.

Ignore the last reason, and you see this problem is entirely not my fault. However, as two other people in my group have asked me, I might try to approach some people tomorrow and see if there is interest. I even have translator…

Which brings me to Malik. Tuesday afternoon, which I may very well be confusing with Monday, Wednesday, last Friday, or a dream, I walked outside to find Andrea talking to a guy about my age. I marched straight up in French speaking mode only to hear: English! Of course. Apparently Malik went to the public university in St. Louis and has taken a lifelong vow to teach English until he dies. At least that’s the way he came across. During our broken conversation in the language of the Queen, Malik proceeded to tell me how culturally similar he is to America, and how the USA has always been his motherland, his dream, his place of understanding. (Keep in mind he has never been.) How learning British English in a former French colony capital is connected to America is beyond my prerogative, but when he flashed me the peace sign and pumped his chest, I didn’t have in my heart to point out this blaring discrepancy. Malik then invited us to his parents’ house and gave us an unnecessary long description of his certification in the sport of volleyball (who knew playing a sport needed certification?), when it dawned on me that I could ask this guy about getting a group of girls together to exercise. I tried asking in English, but was met with another spiel about volleyball, so I tried asking in French, which was also met with another spiel about volleyball. Andrea even tried asking again later, which was met with another tangent comment…ok, so maybe Malik isn’t a great source to get this volleyball, wait no, girls exercise group together. Whatever, the point is that there is one random guy in Matam, Senegal who sort of speaks English and plays a lot of volleyball. Next subject.

I’m fairly positive 99% of all the people I have ever met claim they are really bad at keeping in touch. I am not. I’m actually really good at keeping in touch, as proven by the fact that you got this email. One of the benefits of keeping in touch is connecting with the randoms who live where you are going. Mark (kind of) being one of those examples, who at this very moment is wandering somewhere around Arlington, but is currently a Peace Corps volunteer in Mauritania. Mark has a friend Nick, and friend Nick is also a Peace Corps volunteer on the other side of the river where my hostel is, so friend Nick, Andrea, and I went to the social scene of Matam a few days ago – aka, a tin structure that has electricity, which powers a fridge, in which some Flag beers are kept, two of which I drank. In the midst of these refreshing bits, I was approached by what appeared to be the town drunk, which is ironic for many reasons as the overwhelming majority of the population is very Muslim and doesn’t drink to any extent. Town drunk walked straight up to me and presented me with a gin bottle filled 1/5 of the way, and a bag of water, which I was supposed to pour into the gin bottle so he could drink (even the town drunk has a relatively low tolerance to Americans). Between contact issues and bad lighting, I couldn’t figure out where the opening in the bag was, so I held the bottle while he diluted his drink. Needless to say, I didn’t engage in conversation after the pouring incident, and also needless to say, I would never go into that place alone, but it’s nice to know it exists, mostly so I know how to avoid it.

Despite the obvious plethora of exciting and interesting activities in this corner of nowhere, I am indeed here for work. Work, as anyone who has been to a developing country may know, is a relative term. I do admit that in the days prior to this week when the electricity was consistently turned on, no one in our group was on the brink of death, and everyone in our group was physically present, we worked at a very respectable pace by even Japanese or German standards; however, things slowed down considerably last week, to the point where I was almost sure we were going backwards.

My Senegalese student is in the middle of completing about 79824528 other degrees at the same time as this one, so she had to go back to Dakar last weekend to take an exam, and since she could, she stayed for the entire week. As we were waiting for feedback on our work thus far, and as my knowledge of the Senegalese health system in Matam can be comfortably summed up in 2 sentences, I was left a little helpless (worthless?) for the duration of her absence.

In the coming weeks; however, we’ll probably be going to more remote areas (yes, it’s possible to get more remote than here), and conducting surveys and focus groups to get an idea of the response to our question (why is there both weak use of and weak offerings of reproductive health services for transhumant populations?). So for all of you who imagine me running with the wild boars while my hair ripples in the wind “Dancing with the Wolves” style, brace yourselves, it may come true. If nothing else, I’ll stand in front of a fan and strike a dramatic pose.

What else? I have a few other observations that aren’t making it into paragraph form. Here goes:

1. I packed 500 Q-tips but no (functioning) flashlights.
2. Other than two people with office jobs, I am the only person in Matam who wears socks.
3. There are approximately 7 different types of packaged chocolate cookies in Matam. The Croatian ones are winning on taste, cost, and satisfaction factors.
4. My natural computer literacy is not sufficient enough to compensate for my total lack of musical talent in learning how to use GarageBand on my MacBook.
5. The French media compared the magnitude of Michael Jackson’s death to François Mitterand. Sadly, I think more people in the world know who Michael Jackson is than Mitterand. So go ahead, look him up if you don’t know, I won’t judge.
6. I still want a puppy.

That’s all for now!


Pretend I wrote this specifically for the blog...

Instead of trying to come up with twice as many funny stories about my time in Senegal, I'm posting emails I've sent out en masse. Voici le premier:

Hello All,

Please forgive me for leaving out whomever on this here; it has been awhile since I’ve been compelled to send out a mass email. In fact, this might be a fleeting moment, so relish the message, I say!

Soooo, as you should probably know, I am currently writing from the desert of northeastern Senegal. And by “desert,” I mean lots of sand. I hope I didn’t accidentally type the word for sugary finish to a meal. At 24, I still get those two confused. ::sigh:: Anyway, after 10ish days in intense but fabulous Dakar, we got shipped to…the middle of nowhere!

Our first accommodations were a royal piece of crap. Thankfully there was electricity and running water, but the only furniture we were allotted were 4 pieces of foam misleadingly referred to as “mattresses” and 4 plastic chairs whose weight capacity is 4 flies and a can of Fanta. Not surprisingly, Andrea, the other American with me got ridiculously sick, so on Wednesday, I spent the better part of the day running around the region with her to go to the medical center, the “hospital,” and finally to our new accommodations. I never would have thought A/C is necessary, but with the 122 F degree (49-50 Celsius) highs, and buildings that allow absolutely no air circulation, it is. I probably could have handled the accommodations we were given at first, but barely, and not certainly not happily.

Now that we’re nicely shacked up in the equivalent of a 1-star hotel sort of complex, everyone in our group is in decent health, thank God. On to the perils of our town, Matam. There is absolutely nothing in this town save a few venders that sell “The Laughing Cow” cheese, and one permutation of a bar ironically titled “Oasis.” Our links to the modern world are a 4 by 4 truck UNFPA uses to cart us around, and the saving grace of our dessert city: UNFPA’s wireless connection I’m using to send this email.

Despite the abysmal selection of things to do in the town, I’ve managed to occupy my time enough to compose a few funny tidbits in this email. First off, everyone in our group is paired with Senegalese students, and mine is by far one of the funniest people I have ever met. I should have seen it coming when she fell asleep during our first presentation in Dakar. This woman has been all over the world, including Mexico. While there, she went on a tour and learned about the Aztecs who (according to her 300-year-old tour guide), used human hearts as a sacrifice to the Gods. When asked what they did with the rest of the body, the guide replied that the townsmen ate it, from which my student partner deduced that Mexicans are fans of human buffets. Ridiculous, I know, but to her credit, she’s an incredibly hard worker, and completely vital to my project. Andrea’s student pair is extremely nice and helpful as well; a great rapport with our student pairs is definitely more essential than a few meager forms of entertainment.

I decided that I don’t stand out enough in the area, and have taken up running in shorts to alleviate this concern. Running may be too generous of a term; with the 100+ degree weather, trotting is probably more accurate. During one of my trots this past weekend, I was stopped by at 16-year-old (or so) girl and asked if I was coming back tomorrow. I said yes, and she told me she wanted to come with me the next time. I was two hours late the next day due to ridiculous heat, but her little encounter gave me the brilliant idea of perhaps starting some sort of exercise club for girls in the area. A friend of mine who did the Peace Corps in Jordan tried doing something similar, which came with mixed results, but since I have an obvious abundance of time, I might as well try, right? On verra.

I spend the rest of time my rationing the episodes of “30 Rock” I burned, reading, and trying to teach myself German from one textbook I have from a class I took 5 summers ago. I also drew a few pictures and have been solicited to paint a mural on the wall of our hotel. If it doesn’t melt, I might actually go for it.

That’s about the extent of my life for right now. In the next few weeks, we’ll probably be going to the regions outside of Matam to find our nomads/transhumants and collect the data necessary to bring our paper beyond a concept. I’ve been warned a thousand times over there’s nothing there compared to here, and since there’s practically nothing here, I’m curious to see what nothing squared looks like. I’m also curious to see how I fare in nothing squared. I’m expecting nothing.

Pictures to follow eventually.

Write back and tell me what’s going on with you!

Love, liebe, amour, kys og kram, and cheers,


Sunday, May 3, 2009

Dear Mr. President, How Do We Get Out!?

Overall, my first winter break of grad school was spectacularly horrible. It was in this mindset I had all but convinced myself that my being physically present at inauguration would somehow spread the bad luck to Mr. Obama himself, but in a fit of selfishness, I decided the armies of soldiers protecting him would somehow ward off the evil spirits Winter Break 08-09 de Mala.
My parents and I determined that the bus I would be taking would have throes of people kicking and fighting to get a seat up to DC – almost in suit with the Richmond queers on opening day of the new Banana Republic – so we all went to sleep annoying early and woke up in time to get me to the bus stop half an hour ahead of schedule, at 6:30 AM. Somehow, partially-subsidized, never-runs-on-time, never-labeled, we-don’t-care-if-you’re-a-customer, sit-down-and-shut-up Amtrak sold out all of their tickets up to DC for Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, yet when we got to the bus stop, there were 3 other people there. Well, whatever, I said goodbye to my parents, climbed into the bus, and settled into my wing.
I had somehow imagined miles and miles of cars waiting to get into DC that morning, like rush hour on any given morning, but the city was eerily quiet when my bus pulled up. Being that I told Pat to expect me around 2 or 3 PM, and it was 9:30 AM, I figured a slight detour to his place was in order. Unfortunately, I forget about the detour, and soon found myself in the metro. My mother told me that the city was expecting to run out of metro tickets, so I found the one metro card I had left over from last time, and realized it had 5 cents left on it. Crap. So, I trotted over to the metro card machine half expecting it to laugh at me and spit out my money, but happily, it instead spit out a metro card with Obama’s face on it! “Oooh, pretty! I should get more!” I said.
After digging through every pocket, shoe, coat and cranny I had on me, I found 80 cents in change. “Perfect,” I thought, “I’ll just put ten cents on each card. One for every relative we have in this country.”

Me: “Hello machine, here’s ten cents.”
Machine: ::blink:: :no reaction:
Me: “Twenty cents?”
Machine: :still nothing:
Me: “30? 40? Oh my god, do something!”
Metro Attendant: “Uh, Ma’am, you need to put the minimum fare on the card to get it back.”
Me: ::sigh:: “I guess only mom and dad are getting a card.”

So after successfully denying a poor visitor a much-needed metro card by harboring an extra in my pocket, I caught the metro to Pat’s place, briefly got lost (of course), and knocked on the door only to find…not Pat. He apparently had a typical club night and passed out late the night before, but by some stroke of luck, his roommate heard me knocking on the door and let me in. Pat eventually heard the commotion and came out, but seeing he was still fully dressed in skin-tight jeans and bed-jostled hair, I told him to go back asleep after he gave me the network key for the internet so I could pretend to do scholarship work until he got back up. I had the network key in hand, but wasn’t sure which network to try; after 4 unsuccessful attempts at hacking into unknown accounts, I finally determined the right one to be “JERSEY,” (duh, they’re both from Hillsborough), and proceeded to waste the next three hours browsing through Facebook, PostSecret, BBC News; and eating cereal.
It was previously determined that the best time to get to the inaugural concert was around 11 AM, so of course, we left around 2 PM with another VT Alum, Serena. Two seconds outside, and we decided it was time for a food break. The waiter spent the better portion of the meal trying to figure out how to hit on Serena while we “lightly encouraged” her to play in to get us free shots to add an alcoholic barrier to the cold and put that special buzzed warmy feeling to the festivities. To no avail, we each bought our own shot and finally made our way to the concert an hour later.
As a marketing major in college, I spent the better part of 4 years analyzing how effective toothpaste and potato chip packaging and advertisements are, but even I must admit that the fine marketing job of the bottle of water Serena bought was enough to make me giggle in fits. “Obama Water: Makes You More Articulate.” And it worked! After posing for a few too many pictures with the Obama Water salesman, I noticed a vast improvement in diction, clarity, and accuracy in our speech.

**Obama Water, on sale for $1.99 in any fine retail store near you.**

After spending a few hours standing outside half-singing to songs we kind of knew, the three of us left the concert and got an all-American meal in honor of the occasion. And by “all-American,” I mean we ended up smoking hookah and eating baba ganoush. Whatever. Having met at ideal activity to food ratio for the day, I was ready to pass out until the moment it was time to get up and wave the incarnation of evil (Bush) off the podium as president; alas, DC was in a festive mood, so I instead decided to spend at least a few hours awake on Monday.
There are two things 99% of people from my high school decide to do post college graduation: move to DC or teach English abroad for a year. In fact, many teach English abroad for a year and then move to DC. So I decided to see a few people from my high school that moved to DC on Monday evening. After misdirecting several tourists to the metro (most of them unintentionally), I went to Whole Foods in lieu of actually making anything. A few hours of high school updates later, I came back into the city to meet Pat at a “fabulous” gay DC birthday party.
Apparently DC queers are descendents of Amazons. The first thing I noticed when entering the party was that I was a good foot shorter than everyone else. The second thing I noticed was that I knew exactly two people at the party. Great. In avoidance of awkward conversation, I did what I would have done any way – I starting pigging out on the free food. These Amazons all have corporate jobs; they could afford to feed me.
Somehow being a freakishly short stranger worked out, and I passed a nice evening filled with semi-meaningful conversation, a few drinks, and informing an obnoxious Bangalore Indian that there does exist an area called “Gandhi Bazaar” in the city. A**hole. In the midst of the party, I determined that another college friend, Larissa, would be joining us in the morning to go to Inauguration, but she was currently too busy dancing alone at a Western bar to join us at the party, so we agreed to meet at the apartment.
Somehow Larissa got too disoriented to walk the three blocks to Pat’s, and instead jumped into a cab and was waiting outside by the time Pat and I got back. I walked up to the door, expecting her to get out, but was instead surprised to see a drunken Larissa deeply engrossed in conversation with the cab driver, who had magically convinced her that she should come visit his family in Lahore. Larissa, who is one of the few people in the world more neurotic about traveling than I am, had all but booked her flight by the time I got to there. Thank god she didn’t have an iPhone or Lahore would have a very confused white girl at its doors. After 15 minutes of standing outside her cab door, I got frustrated with the 10-degree weather, forced open the door, grabbed Larissa by the purse, and dragged her to Pat’s door. Sorry Mr. driver, we’ll come next time.
To add to the awkwardness of the night, Pat and Larissa had never actually met, so after a brief, inebriated greeting, she climbed over the two people sleeping on the floor, and settled on the couch. Pat and I finally got back to his room, and fell asleep around 2:30 in the morning. A whole three hours of sleep later, Pat’s alarm went off, and I slumbered out of his room to find 5 people ready and waiting to go to Inauguration. Giving him every possible moment of extra sleep, we finally got Pat up and dressed, and our group of 7 made it to…Starbucks. And then we went to Inauguration.
For anyone who read the inauguration website, you’d know that the writers made it seem as though thousands of AK-47-armed guards would be waiting to strip search every person coming within 5 miles of Obama. When we got to the National Mall, we were astounded to see the security –or lack thereof. Instead, hundreds of volunteers equipped with red beanies and buttons ushered us through the makeshift fences to our waiting spot we would call home for the next 8.5 hours.
Although this day is one of the most important days in American history, the overwhelming majority of our waiting time passed by in a relatively uneventful fashion. But here are some highlights:

1. Larissa gave me a heat pad and saved my foot from turning gangrene.
2. Our red beanie volunteer did a spectacularly horrible job of keeping random idiots off of the fence in front of us, but did do a spectacular job of getting in our way.
3. Pat was able to get our entire section to sing, “Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, GOODBYE!” as Bush grinned stupidly as president for the last time.
4. Pat’s roommate’s boyfriend cursed over 500 times in 7 hours.
5. The port-o-potty to people ratio was about 1:1000.
6. I had a craving for an egg, cheese, and bacon roll for at least 5 hours. I instead ate dirt.
7. The people standing next to us were from Miami, but were still shivering beneath their polar bear jackets for most of the time.

Ok…on to the actual inauguration. The ceremony mercifully started two hours earlier than we were expecting. For some reason, I had a strong urge to listen to a good orchestral number. God must have heard that request, for three seconds later, Yo Yo Ma appeared on the screen and played a piece that makes you feel like you’ve died and this is the soundtrack to your life. His ensemble was followed by an incredibly moving and powerful speech delivered by a woman, whose name nor position I cannot remember, both of which will surely end up on Trivial Pursuit card in a few years. Needless to say, emotions started building by the time they finished.
The next 15 minutes were spent booing Dick Cheney, booing Bush, booing Dick Cheney standing next to Bush, and booing Republicans in Congress. After an enthralled Joe Biden swore in as VP, the 1.8 million of us standing on the National Mall became dead silent as Obama took the stand and Roberts, in splendid fashion, botched the swearing in oath. Coughing awkwardly, Roberts delivered the oath, and Mr. Barack Obama became President Barack Obama, and the crowd burst into a electrifying mix of tears and screams – a moment in my life I will never ever forget. Pat, Larissa, and I decided to stay for the entirely of Obama’s speech, and by the end, we were half sobbing, half bouncing out of excitement. Then, we tried to leave. Trouble ensued.
DC decided the best place to have the parade was right beside the National Mall, and thus blocked off 4 out of 5 of the exits out of the general area. Following the other 1.8 million people, we were herded like cattle for TWO HOURS inside the mall area before finally making it out onto the street, which, of course, had 400,000 trying to follow the same route. We made it 4 blocks before ducking into a Walgreens to power up on overpriced water and cheap chocolate.
At one point, for extra anxiety, ambulances started blazing down the one street that served to funnel everyone trying to get out. As they went by, hoards of people would dive behind the ambulance to follow its diversion of people power to get ahead of the crowd. We were some of those people. Two ambulances were enough to get us to an area with nicely kept shrubs. We managed to trample those shrubs to get over to another street to find the one thing that would keep us all sane – Five Guys.
DC was obviously not equipped to handle the rush, as most of the restaurants were not open; however, we did eventually find a Five Guys, and finished eating two hours later. Mind you, 1 hr 55 minutes was spent ordering and waiting, 5 minutes on eating, but all in all, mission accomplished in life and food. Once the food part settled, Larissa went home, and Pat and I went to his apartment, showered, changed, and drifted off into blissful sleep knowing the Axis of Ridiculous would not be in charge ever again. Now that, Mr. President, makes me proud to be an American. As long as there is baba ganoush.