Thursday, February 15, 2018

Across the Country and Back in 55 Hours: a Leif and Amanda Travel Story

Leif was here, so together we came up with a brilliant plan to fly across the country to Iriba where we are drilling some bore holes. Then we would spend the night there and then drive to Abeche (about 8 hours drive on unpaved roads) the next day. During the drive we would have meetings with the other passengers, innoncent people who we coerced into driving us around, as all our cars were in use in the field. Then upon arrival in Abeche, we would have more meetings with local staff there before getting up at 4am to take the bus back to Ndjamena. If this seems like a crazy schedule to you, note that this was over the weekend after we’d been working all week, and Leif had a flight out the night we arrived back in N’djamena to attend a conference in Ethiopia the next day. Also, yes, it was my idea, but I would never have pitched it to anyone but Leif because anyone else would have laughed in my face.  But I know Leif, and I knew he would be just crazy enough to be up for it.

A Leif and Amanda planned trip where we end up wandering
the desert on camels just in time to attend a meeting
before rushing off across the country the next day to attend
an important conference that Leif organized.
Note: I'm the one wrapped in all the blankets
because Leif is from Sweden and therefore impervious to cold.

Overall, the trip was fun. We hung out with some cool people, road in the car with a live goat given to us by a grateful community, visited our drilling team, had successful meetings that actually were productive, and made it home alive. Of course, we had to take the bus back, and that wasn’t ideal, though not as bad as it could have been, had we broken down half-way or run into a herd of cows or had to sit in the floor.

A great name for a menstrual product
A few hours into our 900km bus trip from Abeche to N’Djamena, I started thinking about how all the missionaries act like riding the bus is such a good time. “I just sleep the whole way. It’s so relaxing!” or “I can get so much work done. It’s great!” Our bus ride started before 5am with Arabic sermons blared through the speakers to help everyone think about their mortality while journeying together, probably. Being the hard-hearted heathen that I am (comparatively), I remained unmoved and tried to stick my earphones all the way into my head so I could hear my music instead. I was not very comfortable in a slippery seat with a bulge that should fit behind an average-sized adult’s head, like a pillow, but which fits just low enough so that my head couldn’t fit over or under it. I started to think that most missionaries just say they like it because either they want to see if they can convince other people that it’s great by the power of a positive attitude or maybe, once they get off, they are so happy, their happiness blurs over the pain of their recent past, so that they forget their sufferings and remember it as actually being a good time (It’s not Stockholm Syndrome, but it is some kind of official delusion, I’m pretty sure). I was happy to admit to myself that I’d prefer to go in our own little Toyota corolla, stopping anywhere there is a convenient bush if I need to pee and skipping the obligatory hour long lunch break in Mongo while everyone eats a pile of greasy roasted goat meat. Though, to be honest, we rarely skip that stop and that meat is actually pretty good, as is anything you can cover in hot pepper.

A candy dispensing toy, naturally sold in an area where
there are still refugee camps because of excessive violence in the
area. Chosen by a cool TCK living in the area. I brought her
and her sisters some candy to make them like me. It
must have worked because one of the sisters said:
"We like you because you are nice and you brought us
candy but also because you are strong."
I appreciated the feminist compliment, though I'm
not sure how I earned it. I don't remember
doing anything particularly strenuous on the trip.
I guess I just exude strength.
But the second half of the trip they started playing the customary violent Thai movies. Last time I saw a movie about Thai gymnasts who save their village from evil gangsters, using back flips and uneven bamboo bars. Many people died horrible deaths, but we all learned the importance of gymnastics in combat. This trip the movie was about a young boy raised with elephants. His best elephant friend carried him to school every morning and let him practice Thai martial arts while jumping all over her back and doing pull ups on her horns. How do I know that she is a girl elephant? Spoiler alert: She has a baby. Actually, this whole paragraph is going to be a spoiler alert so stop reading now if you don’t want to know the entire plot of this movie, whose title I can’t remember because I don’t speak Thai. Also, if you recognize this movie as one of your favorites and I’ve gotten things wrong, I’m sorry. I was still listening to my own music and not trying to hear the dialogue, though I did hear a few of the French dubbed lines including: “Où est mon éléphant?!” Because, sadly, the mother elephant is killed by poachers and then later in the movie the baby elephant that the main guy raises from childhood is stolen by these same evil poachers who take him to Australia (because they are evil Australian poachers, of course). It actually took me a while to get that it was in Australia because I stopped watching for a bit in the middle. I was wondering why there were so many white people involved in this movie, and especially intrigued that the chief of police in Thailand was white. But when he finally frees his elephant and they walk past the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, I figured it out. I would have figured it out sooner if there had been more kangaroos. That’s a tip for setting the stage next time, Thai movie makers. Anyway, the main guy DOES defeat all the evil Australian poachers, using the power of martial arts and also elephant bones. He frequently uses this move where he traps someone’s arm under his crotch, twists his hips and the crunching sound effect signals a broken appendage. Since the guy himself doesn’t make the traditional high pitched scream indicating pain to his favorite body part, I’m assuming that is what the crunching sound meant anyway. At any rate, it always vanquished the enemy.

My new toilet paper. Probably made by an Alanis Morissette fan.
While tracking down his elephant he also comes upon a Chinese establishment (in Sydney’s Chinatown) where they are selling illegal animal meat. There is a very sad part that Sarah McLaughlin should never find out about where the audience is shown many miserable endangered animals in cages. The Main Guy also thinks his baby elephant has been eaten, but of course, he is wrong. Additionally, it seems there is a sex slave trafficking ring happening out of this place too. He uncovers that, but seems less concerned. The audience is left to assume that the police guy who is with him handled the situation while he went off to go save his baby elephant. Baby Elephant, meanwhile, has been kidnapped by a Chinese witch who has a decorative skeleton of an elephant in her office/lair. Main Guy immediately recognizes it as the skeleton of his friend and calls on her elephant powers to help him beat 3 extra-large evil Australian wrestler-type guys. I’m think if you’re too big for a surf board in Australia, you probably just become a thug because what else can you do? These guys are beating him until he is thrown into the skeleton of his old friend and he remembers the power of elephant bones. He then grabs some bones and starts beating on people with the bones. They cannot withstand the power of elephant bones no matter how many steroids they have taken during the course of their Australian Wresting Careers so the Main Guy wins. He stands over them triumphantly yelling “Où est mon éléphant!!!” Anyway, he is ultimately reunited with the elephant baby, the evil Australian poachers are dead and his original elephant friend is avenged. The only loose end left for us to wonder about is why weren’t there any scenes of Australians eating endangered animals dipped in vegemite? I mean, how about a little realism, Thai movie industry, ok?

My new neighbor. Can you see him?
I am feeding him whenever I'm home.
Eventually we will be best friends.
It worked with the TCKs. I'm nice and I'm strong.

After the Thai movie, they showed a few Jackie Chan movies (he speaks great French, did you know?) And we ended up arriving before 3pm. And NOW I understand why the missionaries like the bus. Because I’ve never made that trip so fast. Corollas have to slow down for the potholes and buses don’t (or they don’t have to, but unofficial studies have shown that you still lose time changing punctured tires). So we made it in record time, and now, looking back, bathed in happiness as I’m no longer on the bus, I think it was such a great time. I didn’t sleep and I didn’t get any work done, but I watched some epic films and I got home early. That is a WIN in my book.

So Urbain and I check our mailbox after several months,
and I find this letter with my driver's license and ID badge
that were in my stolen wallet. It seems the thief who got my
wallet, crushed by guilt, and maybe also concerned for me (there
was not much in that wallet and he saw my groceries), spent 250CFA to mail me back my ID
cards, which he could do as our P.O. Box info was on my
business cards, which were also in the wallet.
I take this as a positive sign of his rehabilitation.
Also, if you were worried that I didn't black out the info
on my driver's license, don't be. It's all old or invalid information,
except for my birthday, which you should all know anyway. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Islands in the Sun

Since the beginning of this year (and it’s only February!), I’ve had lots of traveling adventures and I keep thinking about all the stories I have to tell, though I’ve not had much time or energy to write them down.  Then I was thinking if I should bother to write them down at all. If I inundate the faithful few readers with all the stories at one time, they will likely not care to read them (Yes, even you, Mom). But I don’t care. I want to remember these stories for later, and as I get older (I have a birthday soon), I am getting more forgetful. Someday I’ll be sitting in a rocking chair by the window sucking on gummy bears (because with all the sugar I eat, I’ll likely have no teeth left), and I can look back over the adventures I’ve been lucky enough to have. Or if I’m blind by then from too much computer stuff, I’ll make some poor sucker read it to me because you can’t say ‘no’ to an old lady. This was evident when I spent an hour waiting in line to cash a check and a little old lady in a thobe told everyone she needed to go first because she was sick. Sure…

Anyway, better write this quick before I lose all control over my faculties.

We recently started a new project on Lake Chad in the islands. I was pretty excited about this for two reasons: they are islands and thus only accessible by boat and they are supposedly the most dangerous place in Chad. So obviously, I had to go visit.

I took a platonic UN flight to get to the main town in the Lake area. The UN consistently does its best to make sure everything associated with them is as boring as possible. The flight was very uneventful and passengers were told not to take photos, which I would have done anyway if I’d been close to a window because it was really cool flying over the Lake and I don’t like it when people tell me what to do.

We landed, and my team showed me the new office in Bol and the flock of ducks that Herve and the crew decided they needed to buy. Herve was so excited to serve me duck egg omelet for breakfast the next day, but I prefer chocolate on bread, the other staple food of our trips to the field.

After admiring the ducks briefly, we headed off to the islands. Actually, they were going to let me “rest” at the office while everyone else went off to the islands, but I refused. So we headed to shore, picked up a couple of Army guys (for protection), argued about putting on life vests (I lost because of the UN ruining my fun, as always), and we headed out for a 2 hour trip to our island.

Maybe you haven’t noticed, but I love when we have to use unusual means of transportation to access project sites—boats, motorcycles, four-wheelers, horse cart, trudging in by foot—yes. I love it. It makes everything more exciting. Whenever you have to have armed guards with you, increasing the possibility that you will become a target because you have armed guards with you, that is also fun. And it turns out, the life vest was totally unnecessary because we never capsized, but it was a great blanket because it was cold out there. For real. We are lucky that the Lake wasn’t frozen over.

We make these life jackets look good.
It was also good that we didn’t capsize because I was one of the few on the boat that knows how to swim. I told the guards (neither of whom could swim) that they could help me if we came across any terrorists, and I would help them if our boat sank. They thought that was a good idea.

My other interaction with the guards was later after Herve started handing out our boat snack: water bottles and cardboard cookies. I yelled at everyone that whoever threw something overboard would have to get out and get it. My guys all laughed and proceeded to throw their packaging into the boat, which would likely be tossed into a pile by the Lake on our return (but as long as I don’t see them littering, it won’t be on my conscience). The guards were in front of me and didn’t hear what I’d said. They casually tossed the paper overboard and then had to listen to me yell in rage. They turned around, presumably trained to respond to agonized screaming. After hearing the reason for the fury, they apologized to me, to which I responded: “Don’t apologize to ME. Apologize to yourselves. This is your country.” They thought that was amazingly wise, but I’m doubtful they will think twice about littering later, should they happen to be in a boat without a crazy foreigner.

Observe the tiny bench.
 I won’t bore you with details of the work, but we had good meetings with the village communities, I typed out a three page report in Arabic, I trained a bunch of guys who to use tablets for reporting, diagnosed Herve with high blood pressure (was wrong about that), and survived a UNICEF meeting.

Works nicely as a cushion
While on the boat, enjoying watching herds of cows swimming from island to island, camels pacing the shores, and canoes filled with ladies going to market on other islands, I had that feeling I’ve gotten over the years, adventuring around the globe: I can’t believe I get to do this! How did I manage to pull this off? Naturally, this lucky feeling came after I’d transitioned the life jacket from “blanket” to “seat cushion,” so that I was no longer focused on the growing dent in my rear end.  But still, I get that my life is pretty cool and I don't really deserve it, but I do appreciate it. And if you think that my life sounds horrifying and you're so glad it's not yours, that's not bad either because it helps you appreciate the good things in your life like hot showers and consistent electricity and unlimited access to gummy bears. 

It was cold, so Herve bought me a nice blanket
to stay warm. It's funny if you know Herve.

He opted to sit in the floor of the boat instead of the bench.
He took a nice nap on the way back.

Sunrise on our drive back to NDJ because we didn't
want to wait for the flight.

Car loaded up with ducks in the baskets.

The ducks didn't love this arrangement.

Out of order, but I'm too lazy to re-arrange.
This is where I decided to ride in the back of
the truck on our way to the Lake.

Started making origami on the back of a horse cart,
but the owner didn't like it much and made us move.
This photo didn't download right and is making me look stretchy.

I entertained children by making paper airplanes
and origami animals while waiting for our armed escort.

Another Lake view. The other photos wouldn't download.

With my friend Amina (which is also my Arabic name)

Bringing water from the Lake.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Home Comings and Goings

 I recently got back from a much-needed break, much of which I spent in the bathtub eating Twizzlers. I don’t even really like Twizzlers that much, but someone had given them to my dad, and it usually falls to me to finish off the house candy that no one else wants—it’s a job I take seriously.

Naturally, the trip to my parents’ house involved many conversations that included the following phrases: “When are you going/coming home?” “So glad to have you home!” “Are you happy being home?” The convenient thing about those conversations, is that I had them in two countries with people who weren’t talking about the same “home.”

Unfortunately, both Air Canada and Ethiopian Airlines seemed to work hard to make sure that I didn’t get home (either one) as planned. Also, important side note: Canadians who work in the Toronto Airport are not as nice as Canadians are supposed to be. And Air Canada is the actual worst of all airlines I’ve taken for customer service, and you should remember that I’ve flown Sudan Airways and Air Asia. Once Air Canada finally got me to Nashville, they didn’t have my bag. And there was no one to report to that my bag didn’t arrive and no Air Canada personnel anywhere in the vicinity (and I searched the airport). So I had to leave the airport without my bag. I then called Air Canada’s 24 hour help line and no one answered. Probably in Canada, 24 hour help lines only apply to daylight hours, and in the dead of winter, this probably means that there is one half hour of customer service access per day, if it isn't  snowing. I tried to call their lost baggage department the next day during office hours (even Canadian office hours) and no one answered. I finally got a hold of someone in ticketing who referred me to someone who referred me to a link on a web page. After I spent an hour filling out an ambiguous repetitive report, I got an email back telling me that I would hear from a representative in the next “35 business days.” I laughed out loud and then I screamed. Then my dad and I drove back to the airport and found my bag sitting in the Air Canada office and an Air Canada employee all huffy about not having any information about it. Hey people reading my blog who travel: DON’T fly Air Canada if you can possibly avoid it. And if you are reading my blog, Air Canada, please be advised that I would like 5 free tickets and a million dollars to compensate for my pain and suffering and also because I had to help translate for a French-only woman in your country and French is one of the official languages there. WHY IS AIR CANADA SO TERRIBLE?

But I still had fun times on the North American continent, hanging with the nieces and nephews, buying them nerf guns and dolls and lots of candy and having a gummy bear fight, requested in advance by one of the nephews, which involved us freezing on the back porch flinging candy at each other. Good times, though very cold. I decided if my life were a storybook, the title would be “10,000 Cups of Tea, One Woman’s Quest to Survive the Frozen Depths of Her Parent’s Ice Cave.” I’m not sure how much hot tea I consumed over the course of my visit but it was on par with my candy consumption, and remember: I ate a Family Sized bag of Twizzlers in the bathtub.
The one who requested the
gummy bear fight is in the front.

The one who let the other one have a gummy bear fight
as long as it didn't happen in her kitchen.
Also, Marian-we don't have any photos together?!

Teaching the kids how to make traditional New Years Eve bala-bala

He helped make them, but could not be enticed to taste one.

I told Marian I bought these for her kids.
She didn't believe me, but I might actually do it someday.
I'm really susceptible to those big brown eyes.

I did buy and help assemble the t-rex

Marian calls this a fail, but I kind of like the honesty.
I'm dropping the baby to kiss the dog, the oldest responsible child
is following directions, but no one else really is and it's too dark
to see the one obedient child anyway. Good times.

Hardest part of the trip is always saying goodbye to the one who cries.
The other ones are fine, and I can say goodbye with normal fleeting sadness,
but the tears! The tears hurt Auntie's heart.

Back in Chad, I jumped back into important life stuff after a brief, unplanned layover in Togo. I used that time to reconnect with an old university friend from there who was not in country, but hooked me up with his driver who showed me around town until I realized that it was getting increasingly difficult to keep my eyes open.

Already hard to keep the eyes open.

My tour guide in front of the beach you can't see.
I took a lot of other terrible photos in Togo.
Don't worry: I won't share them here.

The important life stuff in Chad involved being back with Joe, whom I missed dearly, and giving him and many other people the presents I bought for them. Everyone loved the presents except for Joe, who prefers a couple of goat horns he dug out of the fire pit to the processed dog treats and bacon-flavored plastic chew toy I lovingly selected for him.

Joe's new collar thanks to the Frizz Fam

So happy to be back together

I want this goat horn. Keep your fake bacon!

I’ve also spent hours in the office reading through emails and also staring at emails and not reading them because there were so many and most of them were really boring.

And I was tasked with taking care of two ladies who came out here to do some research on the Chad life. I mean, I was sort of tasked with it. It was assumed that I would plan a trip for them, and I planned many things, one of which was to visit our biosand filter project just outside of town. When we got out there, we stopped and talked to some of the villagers, and they asked some questions. We were going to go wander around the village, when one of the men that I’ve known for a while told me that there were hippos out. I suddenly forgot that I was there for a reason and told the guy that we would go out and see the hippos—let’s get a boat and go! They told me that boats aren’t really traveling right now while the river is low (dry season), but we could wade across to the island and get a closer look.

In hind sight, I probably should have asked the visitors if they wanted to go see the hippos instead of wandering around town. I should have informed them that there would be wading involved and proximity to dangerous animals. But none of that really seemed important at the time. Fortunately, I think they also enjoyed it, so it was fine. Yes. They enjoyed it. I mean, they didn’t complain to my face, so it’s a win!

Hippo footprints!

They look fine, right?

Hippo family! Four big fat ones.

This guy, named Joe (prob not spelled that way though),
was our hippo tour guide.

Hippo selfie-very important.

Dorcas pointing out the hippos and telling me that she doesn't approve
because they will destroy her garden (you saw what their footprints do).
Hippos are cool but mean.

Anyway, it’s good to be back. Join us next time for when I tell the story of “Island and Desert Travel Times.” Unless I tell the story of “Sending the Puppy to America” first. Barely February and I’ve already got so many stories. This is the life. Don’t be too jealous though: I still have to heat up water on the stove if I don’t want to take a cold shower in the frigid Chadian winter.

Survival skills

Oh yeah-we also went to a Joss Stone concert.
She came to Chad for unknown reasons and it cost 4$. 

She came into the audience, and I tried to hide, but Annie
made me get this photo first for the sisters.
Upon further reflection, I've decided I don't really like concerts much.
I don't appreciate forced audience participation because aren't we paying YOU to sing?
And the only thing more terrifying than a performer coming into the audience to make people dance
is someone dressed up in one of those giant costumes at an amusement part because WHAT IS IN THAT THING?
But it was fun to hear Joss sing about marijuana and watch Steve play some pretty amazing guitar.