Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Travel System

I recently had an unexpected and undesired trip to Sudan. On Saturday, I had just told people I wasn’t going when Sunday morning I was told that I had to go anyway. So I went on Monday. I was not super-excited about the trip, and I was uncharacteristically cranky. I got over it a few days later with the help of some Flaming Hot Cheetos and gummy dinosaurs.  I’m easily placated.

What you get when you order off the menu--
za3tar and cheese fatayer.
I really do like Sudan, actually. It was fun to hang with the IAS Sudan ladies and to go out to eat Syrian food with Leif. Of course, I was accused of being a princess when I ordered off the menu, but the Syrian owner was very happy to oblige. He then told me I looked like Hillary Clinton, which probably means that I need to stay out of the sun. When I mentioned that she is a few decades older than me, he then decided I look like Amber Heard, which just goes to show how important entertainment news is to people all over the world. Anyway, he makes good fatayer.

I also got to go to the movies with Selma. We were supposed to go to the theatre the previous day, and she hadn’t been able to take me with her, and so she decided to make up for it by bringing me with her to watch the new Egyptian comedy with Ahmed Helmy—the classic tale of a man whose meddling female relatives decide that he shouldn’t marry that hot young Italian girl and jet off to Rome, leaving them without a man to drive them to the beach and eat all of their excellent cooking. Instead he should marry the cute and sassy Egyptian girl.  It was actually pretty funny, and when Selma answered her phone twice during the movie and had several slightly whispered conversations with someone, no one yelled at her. The other girl in our group did get annoyed by the three girls in front of us who took a selfie in the middle of the movie and blinded us with their flash. But all in all, it was a very relaxing movie experience and air-conditioned! And with a possibly unintentional intermission in the middle of one of Sassy Girl’s speeches when the movie stopped for about 5 minutes.

Feeding potato chips to the cat.
He also LOVES peanuts.
He's weird. It's not my fault.
So I do love Sudan, but I am happy to be done with it for the moment. The rest of the year promises to be a whirlwind of travel in other countries and finishing 2016 work in Chad and moving to a new house, which I have yet to find and probably furnish. The bat-eating cat will miss me, and I will occasionally miss him too, but the cat-sitting experience has proven to me that I should not have any pets until I find a way to stabilize my life. If you have any advice on how to do that, please share. I will probably ignore your advice and continue to live my crazy life, but I really want a puppy so there is a possibility that I might pay attention to any sage wisdom you send my way.

Anyway, since this trip involved travel, it comes with a story because I have also not learned how to travel uneventfully. I’m pretty sure it’s mostly impossible.

The stress of knowing all the work I needed to do in Chad made me push for the departure date closest to receiving my final exit visa. Leif, my favorite travel agent who never worries about buying last minute tickets, found me a relatively cheap ticket via Egypt Air, leaving the next morning at 4am. At 4pm, he bought the ticket and received payment confirmation but no booking information. “It will probably come later,” he said, “Airlines work 24-7.” Which proves that he is a wonderful optimist with a positive view of humanity. I am an optimist with a negative view of humanity. My optimism allowed me to pack up all my stuff, my negative view of humanity and chronic insomnia gave me a short intermittent 3 hour sleep. At 1:45am we received the ticket, and I left behind the dusty sand of Khartoum for Cairo.  Last minute travels like this one are always a good bonding time for Leif and me. He was the one who convinced me that my last minute life is OK. Since I am surrounded by Type A planners in Neverthirst and my own family, people who worry deeply about my laissez faire attitude towards planning in advance, it is so refreshing to be with Leif. For his part, he told me, “Amanda, I’m glad to work with you who can handle last minute stuff. A normal Swede would have been so stressed going to bed not knowing he/she would have a ticket for a flight at 4am.” So we can see that Leif has it worse than me being from a nation of Type A planners who give him a hard time about his last minute life.  Since my goal is to BE Leif when I grow up, it’s nice to know that I’m half-way there. Now I just need to learn how to fix a drilling rig and hot wire a car and go moose hunting and answer all the emails that come into my inbox instead of accidentally deleting them in an attempt to purge possibly incriminating emails before traveling to certain countries.
Gurasa with the ladies.

The optimism of Leif and Amanda got me on the plane. Then Amanda travel systems took over. (See—I can do systems too!)

Amanda travel systems:
1)   Check everything you can because lugging crap around the airport is not fun.
Exception to this rule: if you have to pay money to check your bags, then Amanda Rules of Not Unnecessarily Spending Money trump this rule. Carry everything with you.
2)   No roller bags unless you are in a Rules of Not Spending Money situation. Roller bags are for lazy people. Pick up your bag and carry it. Don’t drag it over the feet of fellow travelers or trip them up when you wander across the path over to the screen to find your gate.
3)   Always take the stairs and never go on moving sidewalks unless you are looking for entertainment. You’ve been sitting for hours—move when you can.
4)   If you want to buy candy in the airport, do it. Travel is for comfort food. But if you are going to be in Addis, they have crap candy. Save the bread and cheese from the airplane food and eat that—this meets the Rules of Not Spending Money standards as well.
5)   Watch the dumbest movies on the plane that you secretly wanted to watch but were embarrassed to admit. Because then if you ever have to own up that you watched that really dumb movie about the ballet dancer and the somehow Irish street violinist just trying to make it in NYC, you can say, “Oh yeah, I saw it on a plane. There wasn’t anything else to do.” Don’t mention that you could have watched an incredibly depressing Oscar-contender instead.
6)   Don’t watch incredibly depressing movies on planes. I sat next to a girl who cried through the entire flight watching one of those, and it was awkward.
7)   Avoid eye contact with seat-mates to avoid unnecessary travel-talking. Travel-talking interferes with watching the horrible movies and/or playing mindless games on your phone. You will never see these people again (probably) and if there is a large man next to you, he will probably get drunk and eye contact only makes him think you love him. And then you have to spend the rest of the flight pretending to sleep, unless you can really sleep, which I can’t do even lying in a bed in a dark, quiet room.
8)   Aisle seat. Always. Is it annoying when the person in the middle wants to get out? No. It’s not. Get up and let them out. Moving is good for you. See Rule #3.

Because I follow these rules, I’ve become adept at getting out of the plane quickly. If there were an official Olympic race to get off an airplane before almost everyone else, I would medal for sure. I would then feel bad about it because there are some sports that traditionally are won by nations that don’t win all the other events like swimming, running, shooting things. Getting off an airplane first should be won by an Asian nation like India or Indonesia. Or China, but China, like America, has enough medals—let someone else win some! But it does not seem fair that an American would win an Olympic Event with skills she picked up from years of living in Asia’s (and the world’s) most populous nations.  But my insatiable need to win everything is all my own—well, it’s genetic anyway, thanks Grandmom.
Movie selfie.

Usually, the plane’s wheels hit the ground, and I unbuckle my seatbelt and turn on my phone. I grab the bag from under the seat. When we have mostly come to a complete stop, I gauge the power-hungry level of the flight attendants. American ones will yell at you for jumping up before the seat belt light is off, but usually in Asia and Africa, they are more relaxed. If anyone else jumps up first, I have to pop up right behind them because—competitiveness. Then I inevitably get annoyed at all the people who pop up and push back and forth in the crowds to get their millions of bags they have stashed all over the plane (another reason to respect Rule # 1).

When I arrived in Cairo, a lovely elderly Syrian woman jumped up behind me with an urgency to get off that plane. She pushed at my knees and told me to hurry up, just push around everyone else, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go! In the manner, we reached the front of the plane before the first class passengers disembarked. We were unceremoniously required to move back to our seats and wait. Unfortunately for the good intentions of the Egypt Air crew, everyone else had followed us and it was mostly impossible to do that. We moved a few steps back to make them feel good about themselves, but that was it. We all got off right after the two first class passengers pushed their way through the crowd of plebeians in their aisle.

That wasn’t the story. That was just the first part, leading up to me abandoning the system and then being caught up in the ensuing chaos. Let this be a warning to you all!

Boarding the plane in Cairo, everything seemed normal. My seatmates came on almost the very last. That is always hard on me because there is that brief moment when you think that everyone has boarded and you might have free seats next to you, but that hope was dashed. Then I saw it was a woman in a lifai/thobe carrying a baby with a little girl in tow as well. They shoved into the seats, stuffing an awkward baby carrier in by the little girl. I called the flight attendant over and asked her to take the baby carrier and put it in the bin. She graciously complied and the little girl smiled tentatively at me.  Then I went back to making no eye contact.

Around the time when the meal was served, I broke the rule again. I started passing things over to the mom who was nursing the baby while the girl slept on her arm. The mom was also grimacing with pain. So we began to talk.

“Are you ok?” I asked in Arabic.

“Yes, just my leg is hurting.”

“Let me take the baby for a bit to help you,” I said. (Generous and cunning. That baby was cute and I really wanted him.)

“Well, you can take him, but he isn’t the reason why my leg is hurting. I fell in the airport and my foot bent over my ankle, and I think it might be broken. It hurts so much.”

“Do you have any pain medicine?” I asked, helpfully taking the baby out of her hands.

“No. I don’t have anything.”

From past experience, I know that flight attendants have some kind of basic pain killer on hand, so I called over our nice lady and asked if she could bring some panadol or something to my new friend. (Sometimes I like to pretend like I’m a doctor.) She did, and a few minutes later the lady thanked me and said she was feeling a bit better.

Arby's Restaurant and Cafeteria in Khartoum
We started talking more, and I found out that her name is Zaynab, her daughter is Aisha, and her baby son is called Issa. Zaynab had left with Aisha to Sudan about 7 months ago, looking for treatment for Aisha’s eye, which had a tumor in it. In Sudan, she found out it was cancer (leukemia? I don’t really know—blood cancer, she called it) and an organization there sent her to Egypt for chemotherapy. They were in Egypt for months, staying at the hospital. There she gave birth to Issa, her ninth child. She whipped out her phone and scrolled through all the photos she had taken there—multiple selfies, photos of food (classics no matter where you are), and photos of Aisha and her treatment. There were some pretty gruesome photos, as well as dozens of photos of various IV bag treatments that had gone into that tiny girl (about 8 or 9 years old).

The hospital room where Aisha was staying had a few balloons taped up on the wall, and I kept thinking about this documentary I’d watched where the Make a Wish foundation helped this kid with cancer who had wanted to be Batman take over San Francisco (I think it was) in a little batman suit to fulfill his biggest dream.  It was an interesting contrast in levels of comfort provided to suffering children.  Zaynab probably didn’t know about cancer hospitals in America or the Make a Wish Foundation, but like any other loving mom, she did whatever it took to get the treatment her daughter needed, even moving to another country and having a baby in an unfamiliar setting where she knew no one. The love of a mother is powerful. It makes for strong and brave women.

Apparently, the chemotherapy worked, so Aisha can go back to Chad, but she has to have follow up visits at local hospitals here. She is blind in one eye, but Zaynab was told that she can’t get her an operation on that until she is 15. Zaynab says they have used all their money getting this treatment, but she has a card from the organization that helped her and if the cancer comes back, she might be sent to a hospital in the US. She was a bit excited about that, but not hoping for the cancer to return. If she does go, I gave her my card and told her to call me first so I can make sure that there is a friendly face around to help her.  I know people in places.

When it was about time to land, the pain medicine had worn off, and Zaynab was moaning again, I decided that I would abdicate my throne as “fastest off the plane” in order to help this little family. It was just like when that one girl fell on the track and the other one went back with her to help her cross the finish line. So noble. But to be honest, several times I considered just handing over the baby and rushing out. It is so hard for me not to jump up and rush off with the other athletes. Be proud, mother, that I kept it together. Credit to that adorable chubby baby.

Why yes I will hold this perfect
baby as long as possible.
We were the last ones off the plane because Zaynab could barely walk. We got into the second bus with the other stragglers (I’ve never been on the second bus!), and we headed towards the airport, about 5 meters away from us. At the airport, a security guard noticed me standing by the bus trying to help Zaynab get out while holding her baby and watching her daughter. I asked him to bring a wheelchair, but instead, he took Zaynab around directly to baggage claim and left me, Aisha, and Issa to walk upstairs to immigration. We waited up there until he came back with their passports to fill out the entry forms. Then we went to the immigration window, waiting patiently for the other passengers who had already been there.

While we were standing there, making a scene by being a white woman with two Chadian kids, I noticed three Chinese men who were struggling to communicate with an immigration officer. I watched for a while to see if they were going to figure it out—I mean, on average any given day, there are about 15 people who can make it through their lives without my help. I wanted to make sure that these guys weren’t among that 15. And then I decided to offer my unsolicited help anyway. Can I say that going between French, Arabic, and Chinese is not easy? Also, my Chinese has gotten really bad. But we mostly figured it out when one of the men started speaking in mostly comprehensible English. We found a solution to their problem, and we wished each other well. They were grateful, I was happy (and embarrassed) to speak Chinese again, and really—I love Africa but I also miss Asia. It is nice to have some fellow Asians wandering this great continent with me.

We finally made it downstairs to Zaynab, who must have been really worried that maybe the nasara she trusted was a Madonna-type who would snatch up her babies to raise them in the luxurious lifestyle of a pop queen’s offspring. But if I can’t have a puppy, I’m definitely not ready for a baby.

At any rate, Zaynab called her sister from my phone, and she was on her way to pick her up.  I reluctantly handed over the chubby baby, waved goodbye and stumbled out into the hot sun to find the wonderful Urbain, who had been waiting for me since 10:45, the time I told him to be at the airport to pick me up. It was 12:15. Being a nice person takes a lot of extra time in the airport.  And that’s why you always follow the System. Unless you need to make an exception for a cute baby and his sweet mother and sister.

 And let me leave you with a photo of a cat disturbing our dukkan guy's prayers. They really are sacrilegious animals. (I was respectfully waiting outside the gate for him to finish before going to buy phone credit.)

Friday, September 30, 2016

DIY Biosand Filters

I was thinking that I should write about something that happens in the day to day of life, and not wait for big trips to the field. I could write about having to walk with zombie arms when going upstairs to the roof to bring in my dry laundry so that I don’t get spider webs in my face. (Of course, I still get them on my hands, but that is slightly preferable.) But that just took one sentence. I could write about sitting in the office and becoming irrationally angry at flies that buzz around my head, but that story is not very exciting and it involves a lot of swearing, and my mother wants me to pretend on this blog that I never do that. Fortunately, we embarked on the great biosand filter adventure recently, and it has given me an epic saga to narrate.

Biosand filters are tall-ish cement boxes that use biological and mechanical means to filter water. They can be made from locally available materials. They do not require replacement parts and they can last for around 50 years, serving about 10 people. A water engineer friend of mine once told me that she really hated them because she thinks they are overrated and don’t work as well as foreign practitioners (i.e. me on behalf of my orgs) give the impression that they do. I finally wore her down to this important question: “Ok, are they are least better than drinking water straight out of the river?” She admitted that they are. So that’s good enough for me. Also, I’ve drunk water from biosand filters and I’m still alive. Of course, I’ve also drunk water from the tap in Cairo, Egypt and I’m still alive, so I’m probably also giving a false impression of how relevant my ability to drink biosand filter water is to its actual level of purity. However, I do always feel the need to point out the fact that I may be overselling this filter, even as I really believe that it is a good and helpful tool, preferable to nearly every other water purification method I’ve seen in the field in the 3 countries where I’ve lived in Africa. (In Asia, it’s a different story that I won’t get into here, but if you really want to know, ask in the comments or send me an email—don’t worry, I’m not holding my breath. Though I do love discussing household water treatment options...)

In light of tenuous situations in South Sudan and Sudan, and in light of the fact that I elected to live in Chad to help IAS out and give me an excuse to be in a new language and new country, I’ve been trying to get a biosand filter project started here in Chad since last year. There have been many ups and downs, but finally I thought I had found a solution to my need to have a French-speaking trainer help us out. But I should have known better than to choose a Canadian. I forgot that they are trying to ruin my life, while I was appreciating their dedication to bilingual education. At the last minute, with many polite regrets, they backed out of the deal to come and train my guys. I explored various other options, and then decided, à la “The Little Red Hen” (a classic tale you should all be familiar with), that I would do it my own damn  dang self.

I recruited Herve and Kandos, two of my colleagues from IAS, who are always up for learning something new. Herve printed out the French manual, made it into a proper book, and read it cover-to-cover. Kandos also read it in detail, peppering me with questions I made up answers to for several days. I printed out the relevant parts of the English manual for me because I’m lazy and my spelling has gotten really bad since I’ve started reading in French. I skimmed through it, eyes glazing over whenever it detailed size of various gravel particles or specific fancy tools I was pretty sure we would not have.  My level of dedication clearly did not rival that of my colleagues.

How adorable is Kandos in this photo? He will hate
that I said that. He will also hate that I have this photo of him because
he doesn't like people to take his photo, but Herve took this one.
It doesn't matter because he is not on social media anyway.
Kandos is an awesome Congolese/Swedish logistics guy who knows everything.
He is essential to the well-being of my life in Chad.
This photo is a  great representation of Herve.
He loves photos, social media, and joking around.
He is also crucial to the success of everything I do here.
Note: I do not know why he and Kandos dressed up for
going to the welders. As you can see from the photos, I certainly did not.
Also, please excuse the multiple photos of me coming up--
Herve took them all. 

Djibrine in the white robe, laughing
at something I'm saying to the welder
(who is also laughing at me).
Finally the mold was done. In order to get this mold made, I’d watched youtube videos, translating into a mix of French and Arabic for the welder to understand. I also printed out the French manual for him. The mold looked good to me, but I wanted to try to build a filter in it before building a second mold that we would need for the project.  So Herve, Kandos and I went over to the welder’s to try it out.

An important note for this story: Djibrine is our local go-to guy. He is the guy who knows how to get things done. If I need anything I call him and he produces the required object or person or vehicle. He is amazing. When Mary Françoise sawed my lock off and we couldn’t fix it for twodays, I called Djibrine. He came over with a “friend” who fixed it in 10 minutes. When I scraped Naomi’s car backing out of her driveway, he found someone who matched the paint and fixed every other little spot on the car, even the ones that weren’t my fault. Djibrine is also the guy who found the welder who made the filter. And Djibrine is the guy we gave our list of ingredients to so we could make this filter.

Very accurate shot of me with my mouth open,
saying something that no one is listening to.

Once we got to the welders, Herve and Kandos seemed at a loss about where to start. This was disappointing to me, as I had counted on their gung-ho attitude to make this happen with minimal effort on my part. But I had to put in maximal effort instead. After a few minutes of wandering around listlessly, observing the welders in their daily work, I took charge with my English manual and a shovel. I started ordering people around and opening bags of sand and gravel brought in by Djibrine. As soon as people saw the white woman digging in the dirt, their chivalry was activated and they kept trying to grab the shovel away from me. But at this point, I was already into it and didn’t want to give up the shovel. (I really love manual labor, actually.)

We sifted sand and gravel using filters that weren’t exactly the right size, but I decided would work because we were already started and it was too late to change now. Since this bit is for the body of the filter and not for the actual interior filtration, it didn’t matter that much.

We scrubbed and oiled the mold with peanut oil—must be ‘edible oil,’ specified the manual.

Good times with a cold beer and a biosand filter mold.
Kidding. The peanut oil is in the green bottle.
See how shiny it looks? But the shea oil was so much thicker.

We measured liters of cement, sand, and gravel in a piece of plastic cut off from a water bottle that we were told was equal to one liter. It’s possible that it was. It’s also possible that I burned my hand a little on the cement because if everyone else could pick it up with their bare hands, I felt I could as well. I was right only because Chadian chivalry is not dead (at least in matters of construction work) and two men ran over to snatch the measuring cup from my hands and pour water and oil all over me so that I wouldn’t burn.

You can see the very accurate plastic 1 liter measure in my hand.
And my wallet that is sticking out of my pocket in case I needed to
buy other supplies, i.e. peanut oil.

It takes water to make water, as the saying goes.

OK-that wasn't the saying. But it does take water to make cement.

I was very doubtful here as to the consistency of the cement.
The manual was very specific about it.

Then we readied the mold—screwing it together and taping the plastic tube on the top. It was not easy, as the man helping me to oil the mold did not listen when I screamed at him “Non, la, no!” and oiled it anyway. Once oil is on metal, no amount of tissues will make tape be able to stick on it.

My face telling Kandos that the reason the tape wasn't
sticking was because no one listened to me
when I yelled, "Don't oil that!"

It worked somehow.

The little boys who hang around the welders were very interested.
Red shirt boy helped me explain the "high five" to the grown-ups.

Then we shoveled in the cement mixture and tamped it down with a long metal bar.

Action shot!

Look at my muscles!

Seriously, I'm so strong, and Herve took a million of these photos.

Why do you think he took this photo, though?

I like this sunset photo of us all working hard to finish before Maghrib.

Then we waited nearly 24 hours and went back to bust it out of the mold.

Everyone posing except for Kandos.
He's so stubborn.

Then I bragged about how awesome we are on Facebook. And people ate it up. And that made me concerned about how I present myself to the social media world, and I had some deep philosophical discussions with myself about my calculated image as someone who is always doing exciting things, but really there is no point in posting photos of me sitting at my desk writing emails and or collapsed on the couch after a hard day at work sitting at my desk writing emails. Anyway, I’m not that awesome, but when I have awesome moments, I’ll share them with the world, giving the world a skewed perspective on the level of awesome in my life.

I'm so awesome!
(Once in a while)

Then I worried that we wouldn’t actually be able to get the filter out of the mold after I’d bragged about us.

Reality sets in.

And it turns out I worried for good reason. Our first filter came out looking like this:

We had to smash it off the mold, which was actually kind of fun.


In hind sight, I can see several things that we did wrong. First, me badly reading the instructions and allowing people to loosen the wrong bolts on the mold first. Second, peanut oil dries fast, and we should have used a different type of oil—we used shea oil on our second attempt (spoiler alert: it worked). Lastly, the extractor wasn’t made correctly. I discovered this while looking closely at the photo in the now-grease-covered print out. Unfortunately, when I told people that the bolt that was welded to the square on top was not supposed to be welded there, they ignored me. Everyone, including the wonderful Kandos, disagreed with my request to un-weld that bolt. They refused to believe that white woman would know anything that they didn’t know about building molds. In their defense, they were basically right. As a general rule, welding and construction (as well as crafts and creative projects) are beyond my skill set. But I can read and follow instructions. Now, usually I don’t. I almost never follow a recipe when I’m cooking. I find them restrictive and dictatorial. But when embarking on a project that I do not understand, I follow the damn dang instructions. I don’t think beyond that, trying to find better ways to make something, though I'm willing to cut corners as use 6mm gravel instead of 5mm gravel. Seriously, who is measuring? And finally, after several failed attempts, and much yelling over loud metal projects happening in the general vicinity (metal work is full of loud painful noises and I forgot to bring my ear plugs every time I went there) in French, Arabic and English (to relieve my feelings) the men agreed to listen to me. And wonder of wonders: my idea (taken from the manual) worked. But at that point, all the welding and banging and peanut oil and lose screws meant that our filter was doomed.

Five men who are all patiently ignoring me.
OK, fine-six. Let's be honest: that guy in the back who is not
doing anything was also ignoring me.

Unwelding and then re-welding.

Never fear, though, dear friends—Take 2 was a success! And not just because people suddenly started listening to me, but mostly because of that.

Yup. My way worked. Did I rub it in their faces?
Oh, absolutely.

Next phase: moving the filter to our office and putting the sand and gravel layers in it to make the actual filter part. I foresee many more good times, epic Facebook posts, and lots of multi-lingual yelling.

My level of confidence in Take 2 is reflected in my facial expression here.

It came out!

A look inside.

Timing the flow rate.

Group success photo!