Monday, September 9, 2013

Heart Attacks in Trinidad

As a kid growing up in the middle of Virginia, I told myself I would one day see the world. Now in my late 20s, I am happy to report that I am doing a decent job of fulfilling that kid’s dream, though I had envisioned more glamour in the travel and less cramming my shoulders in a coach seat for 12 hours at a time and trying not to fall asleep at my morning meeting in the middle of Africa or Europe or wherever. When the opportunity to take an actual vacation abroad instead of going for work or school came along, I went for it. I’ve always been one to make random decisions, and randomly decided the random country of Trinidad would be my random destination. I booked the ticket and painted the decision as a brilliant move few people would understand.

And indeed it was a brilliant decision few people understood! My career may not be good for things like obtaining health care benefits or, you know, progressing in life, but my God, it is really good for assessing the vacation quality of a country in under 20 minutes! Not only is Trinidad not bombarded with the average, annoying selection of Caribbean tourists – including the mid-life crisis population of Canada, Americans who can’t bring themselves to leave North America, and every law student ever – it has a brilliant landscape, a rich history, a number of cultural and architectural monuments, and solid public transportation, all of which I knew about before going.

Thanks to the auspices of Couchsurfers and friends of friends, I am happy to say I took advantage of a number of these things. But. Let’s be honest. As intellectually curious as I can be, at some point my trip to Trinidad really was a summer vacation, and all I wanted to do was fall asleep in the sand of a pretty beach while listening to the same mediocre song on repeat because I am too lazy to make a playlist on my iPod. So I decided to go to Tobago.

Even though taking the bus to the airport instead of a taxi required waking up 3 hours earlier, walking 2.5 miles in the blazing hot sun, enduring a bumpy ride along some beaten paths, and…riding the bus (I hate buses), I decided paying 1/30th of the price was well worth the effort. Those of you who know me have probably realized that I assume it takes 30 minutes to get anywhere, regardless of the distance, time of day, traffic patterns, whatever. Ergo, in predictable fashion, I left myself 30 minutes to walk to the bus station even though I had done the same thing the two previous days and knew it would definitely take 40 minutes.

So I missed the bus. To kill time before the next one came, I decided to go to the Trinidadian equivalent of Starbucks and get a donut the size of my head. Nothing like loading up on sugar right before you take pictures of yourself in a swimsuit. Of course whereas the first bus I tried to catch left precisely on time, the second bus came 15 minutes late, putting me 45 minutes behind the arbitrary schedule I had calculated in my head. But no matter, after successfully appropriating an entire row of seats to myself, I determined I still had 30 minutes of leeway.

Riding the subway in New York is an Olympic sport. Between hauling all of your things up and down staircases meant to accommodate a fraction of the people underground, nauseating performers demanding money for their ridiculous songs, and tourists who fail to understand why the city does not stop because they think they’re going the wrong direction, riding the train requires a good amount of physical agility. That’s why old people rarely ride the subway; they take the bus. New York City buses are certainly more forgiving than the subway, but buses in this fair concrete jungle still require a lot of flexibility. Are you handicapped? Too bad, you still might have to stand. Forgot your metro card? Too bad, you have to go buy another one and wait for the next bus. Missed your stop? Too bad, get down and ride the return bus back. There are simply too many people in New York for anyone to make special accommodations because you or the driver screwed up

Apparently this is not the case in Trinidad. Not 20 minutes after I settled into my row of seats with my head-sized donut did I hear a woman start screaming for bloody mercy.

            “You missed my stop! You didn’t STOP!! YOU HAVE TO GO BACK!!!”

But the driver kept going, arguing that the stop she so vehemently demanded was only an actual stop going in the other direction. So the screaming continued for another five minutes, with each second finding a new bus passenger echoing the concern. My happy little picture of Trinidadians as a peaceful people was abruptly spoiled with a full out screaming match between the other passengers and the driver. I, on the other hand, was a happy New Yorker with a giant donut, and could care less if this woman missed her stop. It happens all the damn time in New York – take the next bus back! Missing a stop is so not a big deal. Besides, I thought, I now only had 25 minutes of leeway and that driver continuing on was saving me time. Right? Ha.

A few hundred feet from the next stop, the screaming woman began walking down the aisle to jump straight off as the bus doors opened. As I was about to go in for the next bite of donut, I heard a loud thud right next to me. Looking down, I saw the woman was not in her mid-30s as I had guessed from her voice, but was much older – like 60. She was also face down in the aisle. I know by now that my first reaction to these situations is to freeze, so as I sat there stupidly with sugar crumbs all over my face, I heard a set of panicked passengers crowd around her and begin to pull her tight grip from the row of seats I had appropriated for myself.

From my cardiologist father, I know all of the heart buzzwords; it wasn’t until someone plopped the woman down in a seat and she muttered “nitroglycerin” that I realized what had happened – this woman had had a f**king heart attack! Suddenly my donut was not so delicious.[1] By then, one other passenger in particular had made tormenting the bus driver her personal vendetta. Somewhere in the middle of her threatening to pull out a knife and cut off his testicles, the driver fortunately had the clarity to call an ambulance.

I have to hand it to Trinidad – though the ambulance and all of its equipment were positively filthy, the EMTs made it to the bus in under 15 minutes. Sadly, they worked as fast as a blind monkey. After ten minutes to finally get the gross oxygen tank out and operating, it was clear that the woman who had the heart attack would be fine. She was breathing almost normally, was talking and moving, and I knew she could easily make it to a hospital to rest. Unfortunately, the second woman had returned to her “batshit crazy” mode and had resumed making death threats against the driver. I did my best to curl up into a ball and stare out the window, but could not completely avoid the scary moments of eye contact this woman made with me. On the third of such occasion, she looked straight at me said,

“This bus driver should die! This bus is for the people, it is not his bus! Yes!?”

Of course in my head, I was thinking something like,

“Why me?! I’m going to miss my flight! Sand! iPod! Beeeeaaaaach!”

But all I said was a garbled, 


Thankfully, Trinidadian Indians have some common characteristics with us American Indians, namely – work before all else. After the other EMTs had finished fumbling with the oxygen tank, the Indian origin EMT took one look at the other passengers and forced the heart attack woman off the bus, explaining,

            “These people need to get to work.”

Normally I would have been in full echo of the EMT’s concerns, though I could really only think about one thing:


Very happily, crazy woman decided to go with heart attack woman to the hospital, leaving the bus driver with his testicles intact to take us to the rest of the stops, and finally, the airport! I had planned to save half of my head donut for the plane, but the unnecessary drama of the incident forced me to eat the rest. That is not a logical statement. But shut up. Beeeeaaaaaaaaaaaccccccccccchhhhhh!

As we pulled into the airport terminal, it was my turn to shove my way to the front of the bus, though I managed to avoid having a heart attack in the process. It turns out the flights to Tobago from Trinidad have their own little dingy security area, so showing up a full two minutes before check-in was scheduled to close was 30 minutes earlier than absolutely necessary. The (Indian origin) airline employee even gave me a slight pat on the shoulder of reassurance before handing me a napkin to wipe off the sugar crumbs. So sweet, literally.

In case you’re curious about whether I had an amazing time that day once I got to Tobago – the answer is no. Five minutes after I got to the beeeeeaaaaccch, it started raining like crazy, like batshit crazy. But the next day was amazing! Look at the picture I got below!

[1] Who am I kidding? It totally was.

Mala(droite) is Mala(ly) Dressed in Trinidad

When I was 20, there was one place I always wanted to go to: Europe. As you may recall, this unhealthy obsession with the continent resulted in many episodes, a particularly traumatizing one of which resulted in a maniacal bubble bath incident. Now that I am older (no comments on the wiser), my tastes have become less geographically dependent. In other words, if I have to see another European church, I will throw up. Then perhaps I will take a bubble bath.

These days, my only criteria in traveling are to see something I haven’t seen before, or see friends and eat junk food.  So when I finally knew for sure a move to South Africa would not be happening for work, I decided to use 9 days of the inevitable downtime brought on by a lackluster New York international development community summer to go to a new country. That box must be ticked every year; it’s imperative.

Even though my understanding of the world has dramatically changed over the years, my decision making process for most things still consists of the same three steps:

1.     Choose something random
2.     Justify said random thing in my head through mind tricks and self-conditioning
3.     Bombard friends, family, or unsuspecting interns with unanswerable questions to reinforce my justification of said random thing.

After spending an hour zooming in and out of the world on Google Earth, I finally landed on a small country I’d once heard has a ton of my brethren – Trinidad. A little scared off by the prospect of once again assuming my position as the awkward Indian, I decided that the cost to get there trumped all other factors. After all, the plane ticket price difference between Trinidad and EUROPE could buy at least 10 hours of therapy. I figured that should be enough to work through any identity crises.

In the midst of my mind tricks and self-conditioning to justify my decision, I took the occasion to demonstrate to the world the degree of my nerdiness by looking up the following:

·      Weather data to see if rainfall patterns will make it an enjoyable experience during the specific period I am there
·      The GINI coefficient, GDP per capita, infrastructure, and transparency indexes
·      The 3G and WIFI coverage across the country

Satisfied with the information I found, I then moved to step three of my decision making process in the form of interrogating our office interns. Like most people in America, they both knew of people who were from, had been to, or had heard of Trinidad. Based on the combined twelve seconds of conversation this country had taken in their lives, I asked a series of questions pertaining to specific cultural phenomenon, the transitioning economic status, and the logistics of getting around the country. Though their answers mostly consisted of blank stares and a few hints that end of my tenure in the office could not come soon enough, I felt I successfully fulfilled step three, and booked a ticket.

For those of you international development/affairs/anthropology people reading this post, I know you can relate to the very complicated and delicate process of packing for a trip like this. Though I was going on a vacation, assembling my outfits required a semi-sacred ceremony that comes with fieldwork: the Ceremony of Clothes Separation.

The Ceremony of Clothes Separation is especially important for the female sex, and involves the painstaking process of organizing clothes by both appropriateness and crappiness. Ceremonies generally result in four categories of clothes, as follows:

-       Category 1, Bumf**k Developing Country: These are clothes that have once doubled as rags, your dog’s chew toy, or clothes you wore while painting your apartment. The ONLY appropriate location to wear clothes that fall into Category 1 is in bumf**k Africa, Asia, South America or the like. No matter what dirt surface you must use as a bed, no matter what insect, animal, or child attacks you, no matter how blazing hot the sun may be, no matter how much you sweat, poop, or urinate yourself, it does not matter; there are no standards to be met in Category 1 clothes.

-       Category 2, Big City Developing Country: One solid step above Category 1, Category 2 clothes are appropriate to be seen in big African, Asian, South American, or the like cities, but are still meant to be sweated through in poorly ventilated markets, public health facilities, or government offices. These clothes provide moderate comfort while ensuring those around you that you are neither a prostitute nor trying to be blatantly disrespectful of the prevailing culture or religion.

-       Category 3, Middle America: These are clothes appropriate in the company of middle, suburban Americans (and Canadians), and are generally found in Kohl’s, American Eagle, or other blah stores.

-       Category 4, Normal Life: Normal life clothes are those you wear in your day-to-day existence at home in New York, San Francisco, Europe, Dubai, Tokyo, Montreal, or the like. One or two Category 4 outfits must be included in your suitcase regardless of the final developing country destination, as completely leaving these outfits out will inevitably be met with your long lost friend inviting you to dinner during your layover in Paris, forcing you to roam the streets in smelly, sweat-stained Category 1 or 2 clothes, and resulting in immediate entry denial at the door of your favorite restaurant. No crêpes for you, Mademoiselle, no crêpes for you.

Being a woman traveling alone, assembling the clothes I would take could make or break my experience in Trinidad, for how to not draw attention to myself while also not passing out from heatstroke while also being allowed in public places in proper cities is a delicate balance. Somehow, some way, after all of my trips to Africa and Asia, I made a cardinal mistake – nearly all of the clothes I packed fell in Category 2. After all, there would be no major European or Middle Eastern city layovers on this trip. Made sense to me. Unfortunately it did not make sense to Trinidad.

From my nerd research, I knew Trinidad is solidly a middle income/medium economically developed country. What I forgot is that countries that fall in this area of the economic development spectrum often take on a strange phenomenon – a lot of people in major cities have enough money to buy nice things, including nice clothes, nice shoes, good jewelry, etc. BUT, the idea that economically developed countries have of appropriateness still has not taken root.

Put another way, people are always overdressed. Go to a casual dinner, and the majority of the people in the restaurant look like they’re about to go to prom. Go to an informal meeting at a temple or church, and everyone has on a suit. Sure, many people, especially those who have lived abroad in Europe, Canada or the States understand the importance of jeans and shoes that don’t kill your feet, but the majority of the wealthy people on any given outing in a major city in a middle income country will be wearing something I would consider appropriate for a wedding.

Then there was me. In Category 2 clothes. Sweating. A lot. Don’t get me wrong; the people I met in Trinidad were by and large very kind, though they all asked me the same question: “Why are you dressed like a homeless person?”

And compared to everyone else in the country, it was a valid question. Some examples:

Location One: Zip-lining
What I am wearing: Shorts, stained t-shirt, 3-year old tennis shoes
What they are wearing: Tightly fitted jeans, halter-top, new Pumas, jewelry

Location Two: Hiking in the middle of the mountains
What I am wearing: Same shorts, a different stained t-shirt, 3-year old tennis shoes
What they are wearing: $100 tights, $100 sport shorts, new Pumas, $100 basketball jersey. And a similar outfit to change into after hiking

Location Three: Temple in the Sea
What I am wearing: Linen pants, t-shirt (no stain), Converse shoes with holes in them, $20 kameez I bought in Queens to take one picture before ripping it off out of fear of passing out
What they are wearing: Tightly fitted jeans, tightly fitted kameez out of every Bollywood movie ever, 4-inch stilettos, ton of jewelry, full make-up, incredulous look at what I have on

As evidenced by the Ceremony of Clothes Separation, one of the most stressful parts about traveling abroad for work is trying to look at all professional after pulling your shoulders out of that terrible 12-hour coach flight seat AND trying to feel safe AND not trying to ruin your clothes at the same  time. Hopefully you can thus understand why completely misjudging where Trinidad sits on the Ceremony of Clothes Separation, drawing attention to myself for no other reason than looking like a hobo, and not having to care about my appearances was AWESOME.

Normally I have a heightened paranoia about someone stealing my stuff. In Trinidad, I that paranoia was not to be seen. When I found out I’d need to pay the guesthouse in cash, I marched straight up to the closest ATM, withdrew 2600 Trinidadian dollars (about US $420), stuck the cash in my linen pants pocket and slowly sauntered back. Usually withdrawing that kind of cash would result in at least four plastic bags, 5 rubber bands, three pockets, a lock, a bat, and the fastest non-suspicious walk possible. In Trinidad, I accidentally dropped the giant wad of cash on the ground and barely blinked in response.

Normally when I buy any expensive article of clothing, I take hours to get on and off the subway in New York. The painstaking process of making sure no one scuffs my new shoes on my commute home is exhausting. In Trinidad, I didn’t care what the hell I stepped in, who the hell stepped on me, the amount of rain that soaked my clothes, or what stains I amassed running around the island. It made for much more efficient travel, I must say.

All in all, I had a great time in Trinidad, because I could give a crap about how I looked. Of course within 2 hours of returning home, I was back to doing my expensive shoes, new glasses, "Do you like my pants?" dance, but I will always relish admiring those beautiful Trinidadian landmarks while looking like a slob. If you ever get the chance to go to a random country and not care about appearances, I highly recommend taking full advantage. Just make sure there are no Normal Life layovers in the process. Crêpes are important.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Senegal: Part - I'm baaaack!

This one time in Senegal: Part I’m baaaack!

For those of you know me, you know I am good at many things, like exaggerating how many things I’m good at. You probably also know that my nearly non-existent sense of direction has gotten into trouble with burly German bus drivers and almost got me kicked out of Switzerland from a heinous bubble bath incident. Despite this fact, when I found out I would be returning to Senegal for the first time since my hilarious banterings of running around in blue shorts, I took it upon myself to subtly announce to the world how well I know the city of Dakar. Among my announcement methods were:

-       Shouting through a megaphone on Third Avenue
-       Posting flyers on the lockers in the gym
-       Texting random combinations of numbers on my phone

Needless to say, by the time we got to Dakar, every last one of my colleagues had a detailed run-down Mala exposure au Sénégal.

Because this trip involved two countries back-to-back and leaving the day after a full work week, the first day we had in Senegal was the only day in three weeks that did not involve travel and/or work for most of us. To revel in the limited freedom, we bargained down from the original asking price of the taxi drivers (five bazillion francs per person) to a more reasonable rate (500 francs per person), loaded up, and made our way over to a nice resort for lunch.

Two seconds after walking into the resort, I made the harrowing discovery that this was the exact same ex-pat-y venue I and my fellow classmates summarily told to go to hell four years ago. Two seconds after that, I made the even more harrowing discovery that I no longer give a sh*t about how ex-pat-y the place was – they serve lobster and éclairs! After selling my soul in the form of 1500+ calories, my colleagues I and went for a stroll by the beach to get pictures and make comments about how the Dutch members of our team are like four feet taller than the rest of us. Not wanting to squander any part of our one free day, we again loaded up and made our way to the western most tip of the city.

Two mostly unwanted beers later (add 400 calories), and we decided to head back to the hotel for the night. I plus the two others in my cab all speak French with a very solid command. Trust me, I can tell you all about basic insurance terms and drought models in said language – I’m really good at it. So after bargaining our price from seven-hundred bajallion francs per person down to 400 francs per person, the three of us settled in the car for our quick ride back to the hotel.

These are some characteristics that I knew about the ride between where we were and our hotel:

-       It is about 15 minutes
-       There is no giant statue of a family along the way
-       We do not pass the delicious evil resort where we had lunch

Yet at some point in the taxi, I noticed the following about our ride:

-       I've been in the taxi for 35 minutes
-       We passed a giant statue of a family along the way…twice
-       Hey! That’s where we had lunch! That place is delicious evil!

I suppose someone with any logical reasoning skills would tell their brain to make the connection, but if I had logical reasoning skills, there is no way the UN would hire me. (Kidding! Sort of.) Fortunately, one of my Amazonian-statured Dutch colleagues only works part time for the UN, and thus pointed out that we were in fact no where close to where we were supposed to go. The driver didn't take too kindly to this little revelation given that he had been expecting approximately 4000 times more than what we agreed to pay in cab fare. He was even less pleased when I and my two colleagues decided to pick up a fourth person we had never met, hand her the cab, and leave the car without paying anything at all. After all, the driver had just squandered 20 minutes of our precious non-working time au Senegal.

If there is one thing I cannot criticize about the UN, it's the diversity, especially in thought. While some of think that éclairs are only mildly delicious, some of think that éclairs are very delicious. It's this diversity that brings relevance to the often criticized set of institutions. Oh, also, we all reacted very differently to the situation. Here's a basic breakdown:

The Italian: Deny we ever got lost. If someone does find out we got lost, blame it Berlusconi, because in a way, it probably is his fault. Also, Berlusconi is just generally despicable. Then go watch the rest of your country vote for Berlusconi.

The Dutchwoman: Be very straightforward in what happened, this is a learning process that requires thorough evaluation to avoid any repeats in the future. Then complain about how low the roofs are of Senegalese taxis.

Me (the American): Aggrandize the entire adventure, make sure I was the hero of the story while vehemently denying any associated fault with the entire situation. Then get another evil éclair or two. Eating doesn't cause obesity, obesity causes obesity. That's what the NRA told me.

Needless to say, the story got out...because I told everyone. I prefer to look my unabashed announcements as a nice chuckle of a break between the following deep discussions about drought, rain, saving Africa, and how terrible Berlusconi is for the world. I'd also like to make a deep connection to the many life lessons this fine land of Senegal provided to me all of those years (like 4) back. Unfortunately, this trip au Sénégal really was just about work and a brief catch up session with Ngoné (her father died the week I was there, we saw each other at the funeral. Seriously.). Normally this lack of conclusion would be upsetting, but as Ngoné reminded me during my first round, "There is always another trip to Senegal waiting to happen." Indeed there must be. Those éclairs were really delicious. I should know how hard it is to find good éclairs. I'm really good at it.