Thursday, September 8, 2016

Summertime at the Lake

This lake is not in Alabama
Once when I was in Alabama visiting the Neverthirst head office, I went with my boss and his family to visit the lake where they like to vacation occasionally. This was an interesting cultural experience for me involving RVs, fancy boats, and colloquial overuse of the past participle. I had fun swimming with my boss’s cool kids, though I felt a bit out of place since I’d forgotten to wear my American flag bikini with cowboy boots. For this most recent trip to Lake Chad, I again forgot my American flag bikini and cowboy boots, but I brought my hijab. Before leaving I was warned of the surrounding dangers by security people, who I’ve mentioned before often overestimate the dangers of certain places in an attempt to make their jobs seem especially relevant. I mean - but in fairness to them, it IS important to think about job security. As for me, I pay attention to warnings sometimes…when they don’t interfere with what I want to do. At any rate, I was encouraged to wear extra clothing, so I packed a long-sleeved shirt and my lifai/thobe (See, Mom—I can take advice!), but being the shameless exhibitionist that I am, I didn’t put the head-covering on until just before we drove into town. Once there, I noticed plenty of other women without head coverings and almost no one with long-sleeves. I took my cues from the natives and opted for shorter sleeves, helpful in the sticky muggy Lake side weather. I would have really appreciated an American flag bikini and a jet ski, but when I convinced some new friends to drive us down to the Lake shore we got in trouble with a local soldier. “This is a military area! Don’t you know?” (We did.) “You have to tell us when you are coming. We could have shot you!” (They didn’t.) Most of this conversation happened while we “yes-yes”ed him and continued to take lots of selfies. It’s important to use soothing words to people who carry guns.

Lake Chad--full of islands, at least on this side.
Herve's chosen pose with our driver, Ali Adam, photo-bombing.

The Assessment Team!

Lake Chad from behind where we were staying. You're not
supposed to be out after dark, so don't worry: we were just behind our
back yard.

The point of this trip was to assess the situation around Lake Chad, where there has been a large influx of displaced people, fleeing the islands of the Lake because of Boko Haram violence in the area. People are living in makeshift houses with some small support from various NGOs. Many of them are also suffering from recent rainy season flooding, which has destroyed some of the crops in the area. IAS would like to do some projects there (and possibly Neverthirst too), so Herve and I went up to check it out. (Now, when you’re reading this, I’m worried that you’re pronouncing his name like ‘Hurve,’ rhyming with ‘curve.’ But it’s actually pronounced ‘Er-vay’. It’s French, guys. Come on. And no, I’m not going to put that accent on the last letter because it takes too long, and I don’t feel like it.)

Sometimes camels ride in cars.
So bright and early Tuesday morning (“Definitely, I’ll be there before 7am,” said the driver who came almost an hour after that), we headed out. I love road trips and getting out of the office and visiting new places and large bodies of water, so I was in high spirits. The first part of the trip bumps over potholes and involves much dodging of livestock. I wasn’t driving this time, so I could just admire the fuzzy animals, but my most recent experience with donkeys has made me distrust them for life. I gasped once, à la my mother when my father is driving, after a particularly close shave with an unconcerned ass (literal use of the word, don't freak out, Mom), but after that, I just put on my seatbelt and stopped paying attention to the cattle, unless they were camels because camels are super cool.

Some photos from the various travels:

Riding camels makes people happy!
Or maybe being photographed by drive-by foreigners...

Run, run little donkey and you can catch up!

Love this father and son outing. :)

Camel butts.

Mirror selfie!
I also had a revelation: I should probably make it a point to wear extra sunscreen even when I’m anticipating a day in the car. Because often I will convince people to open the windows so I can stick my arm out and wave at the camels. Because of white girl privilege and Chadian chivalry, I’m usually forced into the front seat. I don’t mind this because I can see better where we are going and sometimes get good pictures. I usually end up with one arm slightly pinker than the other, though. This recent trip, I could have gotten really sunburnt if I hadn’t grown up on the equator, building up a resistance to prolonged exposure to UV rays. But even I can burn if I’m standing for hours in a pile of sand trying to dig out the car. Because since the second part of the trip involves off-roading it through deep piles of sand, that definitely happened.

I'd like to thank Herve for this photo of me taking a photo of the car.

Had to let some of the air out of the tires in an attempt to
wiggle free, but it didn't work and he let out too much, so we
had to change a tire when we finally got out.

Villagers and kind passerby stop to help push.

Posing for Herve.

While digging under the car with both hands, reminiscent of a dog in a flower garden, I managed to burn the top of my arm on the “something” part of the car that apparently gets really hot when stuck in the sand. Don’t worry: I’m not going to include any gross photos of bubbling skin, but here is a photo of my arm covered in toothpaste. “Why?” you ask. Because Herve says that’s what you do for a burn. He grabbed his from the top of his bag and squirted it all over my arm before I could protest. Not sure it made much of a difference, but the last scab just fell off yesterday and now I have only a shiny pink patch of new skin.

After I took this photo, I started helping.

Toothpaste heals everything.

Somehow, after dodging camels and potholes and scraping through the sand, we made it to Bol. We spent the next two days in meetings and searching for fish to eat (Herve’s request—he ate it for breakfast one morning too).  We popped over to Bagasola for a bit too and saw gazelles and monkeys on the way. I was hoping for elephants (Herve saw some back in February in the area), but I knew it was a long shot, as rainy season means animals don’t have to go near humans to find water.

Lake fish. This one was my favorite.
I think that is because of the chili powder.
Anything is good with that stuff.

I have eaten more fish in this desert country that I have in
my entire life, and twice I lived by the beach.
But these Chadians love their river fish--
or in this case, their lake fish.

I uploaded the wrong photo where you can't really see
the gazelle antlers, but it took me several hours to get these photos up,
so just look up gazelle antlers on the internet, lazy person.

We had some good meetings with other NGOs and UN agencies in the area. We also made sure to take some time to talk to the local population, including government officials and health practioners. My favorite time was speaking with local IDP (internally displaced people) communities. I took notes in three languages and learned a couple of words in local tribal languages. People love when you make the effort to learn something in their language. There was screaming and laughter, so good
times are possible even without a bikini and a jet ski.

Talking to IDPs, mostly in Arabic. Translating the numbers
into French for Herve, who speaks decent Arabic,
but gets confused with the chiffres.

Some of my notes. If you can't tell which is
Arabic and which is English or French,
that's normal. My writing is always terrible in every language.

The health center worker plus me. Thankfully the hijab is
hiding most of the car hair.

Herve and I spent our evenings being eaten alive by mosquitos and watching French dubbed movies on his computer until his battery died. We occasionally had moments of electricity during the day, but nothing during the night. We watched a movie entitled “Le Prince de New York,” which is the one where Eddie Murphy is an African prince looking for a bride. I have never seen it in English, though I know it is a famous movie. And I can’t remember the English title.  I do remember that Herve and I had a long conversation about how the female lead in the movie had a pretty face, but was way too skinny to be truly beautiful. “Amanda,” he said to me, “if you gain some weight, you could marry a Chadian man. We like to know that we are holding a woman when we have our wife in our arms.” So…I guess I better eat all of these gummy “sedans” that Leif brought me—Sveriges mest köpta bil! (Go find a Swede to translate.)

One of the evil spiders lurking in my room.
Fortunately, we had no electricity so I wasn't trying
to turn on the light. Herve killed him. Perks of traveling
with a man.

In conclusion, I was writing this in between writing the Needs Assessment and editing the proposal and discussing various aspects of the trip with Herve. Everything is done now but the question remains: will the internet be strong enough to post this?

Please enjoy the following photos that prove to you that occasionally my life is pretty entertaining:

Camel parking lot in Bol.

Flooding in village. Malaria is a huge problem right now.

Cool kid who rode up and insisted I take his photo.
I think it should be published.

Fortunately, Herve captured this whole moment on camera too.

Chad and America--international community.
People mostly like us here.

Selfie with the driller's daughter and niece.

My new friend, Paluma, a Kanembu IDP from the islands.

Firewood for sale.

This migrant village was moving to a new location.
We passed by them on the road and Herve bought some of the mats
they have rolled up on their heads.

I wish I could pull off this nose ring look, but the last time
I pierced my cartilage,  my ear swelled up and I had to get the earring chopped
out by a doctor. I really don't want to risk that happening
to my nose, which is already big enough.
Anyway, I like this Kanembu style.

Testing the water quality from some locally drilled bore holes,
no need for IAS machines, the terrain here is much easier to drill.
Sometimes the water is salty if not drilled well.
This water tasted fine to me--not salty at all.

Again, Herve photographing me photographing others.
But I like these little girls' smiles. :)

A funky new kind of hand pump, designed by an American man
who lived here for years, but caught some disease
and went back to America and died.
Legacy still strong in Chad, though!

I'm going to make this photo large because I love it.
I love how excited all these serious-looking men are to see their photo.
And I love that guy sleeping in the background.

Yeah. That's about right-Amanda talking to a bunch of men.

Herve to capture this important moment.

The final really important moment captured by Herve:
me picking the burrs out of my skirt after a bathroom break.
In the desert, if the only tree around has burrs, you still
squat behind it to pee because desperate times...

J'ai fini! Enfin!

Monday, August 22, 2016

Women Drivers

Teaching after giving up on the headscarf
My life isn’t made up entirely of traveling. Sometimes I do other things too. Recently I helped train 50 women in central Chad on community organizations and management of money. Fortunately, I did not have to make the powerpoint, though I did make sure to insert photos and pictures on each slide because these are illiterate women and powerpoint words aren’t quite as exciting to them as they are to the rest of us who can read. Or maybe they are just the same level of horrible…

It was my first training in French, though I had a translator speaking Chadian Arabic. The thing about Chadian Arabic is that I understand it fine, but people who aren’t familiar with the Sudanese or Levantine or Yemeni mixed-accent that I now have, don’t always understand me. This is especially true for village women who don’t speak Arabic as a first language anyway. I had wanted to do the training in their local languages, but then we would have to have about 5 translators, so we decided to stick to French and Arabic. But the poor Arabic translator on the second day was really terrible. He stared off into the distance and spoke in a monotone, and he did not translate the way I wanted him to. Just a head’s up: if you translate for me from a language I know into another language that I know, I will make sure you use the right words or I will stop the training and show you on my phone dictionary the exact vocabulary I want you to use. I also get annoyed when you don’t translate my jokes. I am funny, dang it. The women will laugh even if you have no sense of humor. Anyway, after the first tea break, I waited until he left the room and then changed to another guy who is a very charismatic translator who finds me hilarious. He also approved the activity I made up for the training involving candy. Is there a point in having a training if there isn’t an activity involving candy?  I don’t think so.

The candy part of the training
So the training was successful, but my brilliant money-saving brain decided that we would drive to the town and in order to save even more cash, I would drive instead of hiring a driver. Partly why I wanted to do this is because I did not want to take the bus. I don’t love loud music and violent Thai movies that are the accepted form of bus entertainment here, and also I feel like I have a whole lot of living left to do. Though you might not have known it from the way I was driving.

In the days leading up to the trip, I kept telling people that I would drive slowly.

“I’m a good driver,” I said, making sure to stand in an area where lightning strikes are rare. “I will just take it slow and let others pass me, if they want.” (If I were Catholic, here is where the priest would assign me 75,000 Hail Marys to atone for my lying ways.)

Pre-trip selfie with Antani's beautiful niece who came
along for the ride to their home town, which was on
the way.
I also had to prove to Emelie that I know how to change a tire because she doesn’t read this blog and she didn’t know about the last timeI changed a tire by the side of the road in South Sudan. “What if we get a puncture?” she asked. “Would you even know what to do? We probably need a man with us.” This did not sit well with me, as you can imagine, and I was even more determined to drive and not bring ANY men with us.

Since the road is mostly tarmac all the way to Mongo, I really wasn’t worried. And really, I did think that I would just drive along slowly like a big haired old lady in a Cadillac on the way to church. I had forgotten about my debilitating strain of competitiveness, and I was not prepared for the exhilaration of hitting 160kmph and beating Leif’s record of 150kmph and the glee I derived from the looks on the faces of the drivers I left in my dust.

Post-trip to Mongo car
Keep in mind, I was driving a little Toyota corolla—a short-tired car with automatic transmission.  While it is nice to be able to put my left foot up on the dashboard and slouch back in the seat, I actually prefer a bulky, manual Land Cruiser for traveling in Africa because even though the road was tarmac, the first third or so of the trip was filled with jagged potholes. This type of pothole can usually only be withstood by tall fat tires such as I did not have. But let me just say: never under-estimate the strength of the Toyota corolla tires. While I got good at dodging potholes, sometimes you had to go through them—for example, when a large truck is already driving on the smooth side of the road or when a camel train decides to commandeer part of the road or when you HAVE to pass that fairy princess driver mincing along at a paltry 120kmph. Our car banged through plenty of road shrapnel with NO PUNCTURES. Maybe because every time we crashed down, I patted the dashboard and apologized sincerely. I was also fortunate to be driving with a non-English speaker, though when she tried to practice the new words she heard me repeat many times, I had to sincerely apologize again and ask her to please never say that word again in front of nice, Christian English speakers. But her pronunciation was spot on.

It was also nice to be traveling with another girl because we could keep a lookout for places with convenient tree coverage to serve as bathroom breaks. It is not always easy out here in the desert. But it was Emelie who had the brilliant idea to bring a couple of chickens with her back to N’Djamena as egg producers since Cameroonian chickens are currently suffering from some chicken virus that is making eggs very expensive here. “Will they die if we put them in the trunk?” she asked. “Probably,” I said confidently, having no idea. And that’s how we ended up with two chickens in the back seat. I don’t actually know if they were noisy, though. About a quarter of the way into the trip back, the car started making a horrifying noise that we discovered we could not hear if we put the windows down. So we could also not hear the chickens if they were protesting their transport.

Teaching while holding a participant's baby.
Good times.
I’m not exactly sure how the car acquired the noise. Maybe from the time I was calmly driving at 135kmph and a donkey appeared in the middle of the road refusing to budge. You know that children’s clapping game “Going on a bear hunt…” At some point the song says, “Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, gonna have to go around it.” Or something like that. In this case, we couldn’t do any of those things. I leaned on the horn and slammed the breaks. Screaming and squealing, the tires burned to a stop. I know they were burning because I happened to look in my rearview mirror and plumes of black smoke were rising from the ground.

Or maybe the sound came from when I tried to drive into Job’s driveway and instead sank down into a hole. The car came to a crunching halt. I was wondering what to do about this because the last time I got a car hopelessly stuck, I had to wait for the mailman to come dig me out. But this time I was able to drive forward and backward and inch by inch work my way out of the trench. It WAS impressive. But it also dislodged a piece of the front of the car, which was graciously replaced the next day.

Chickens getting all cozy.

Camel train crossing

Bitkine--one of my favorite places here.
I love these interesting lumps of rock masquerading as mountains.

I think it was that latter incident, but between the noise and the racing incident on the way to Mongo, I decided that I should drive more carefully on the way home. On the way to Mongo, I passed someone who then passed me and slowed down (I HATE THOSE PEOPLE) so I passed him again, and he kept catching up and slowing down and I let him pass once (I’m so magnanimous!) and he slowed down again, and that was it. I passed him and he ate my dust. Unfortunately, he caught up when I had to stop at a police checkpoint. If the police had just said, “Show me your travel papers” and let me go (like they do with everyone else), then he would never have caught up. Instead they wanted to see the travel papers and my driving license. Note: whenever I’ve been on this trip with Leif or Khaled driving they have NEVER, not once, been asked to show their license. It was just assumed that they knew how to drive. But get a woman behind the wheel and suddenly we are in Saudi Arabia and I need a male guardian to assist me. After convincing them of my driving ability (and--unlike Leif--my ability to stop at police check points), they decided to have a leisurely conversation that you can’t turn down because they have guns.

Must have notebooks at training, even if the majority
of the participants are illiterate.
“So,” he said, leaning into the open window, “You from France?”

“No,” I said briefly. I never volunteer information. It must be directly solicited.

He solicited. “Where are you from?”

“The US,” I said.

“Oh ok. So you come from America,” patting the window. “Well, ok, you can go, I guess.”

Naturally, the evil driver caught up and flew past us. I let him go because this part of the road was dirt and I had a short-tired car (he did not). But I did see him at the same gas station in Mongo where I had met a group of American militarians heading out for a safari in Zakouma (they have a look and it’s not a subtle one). I had been planning to go to that station (because it is the most reliable for petrol), but I decided it would not be a great idea to meet him outside of the car due to some of the hand gestures that I made when he slowed down in front of me.  And, in the interest of full disclosure, in spite of my very best intentions, I also raced people on the way back to N’Djamena. I kept telling myself to slow down and enjoy the ride, but I rarely listen to what anybody says, so of course, I ignored this sage advice.

But I think that the real problem is that I look like a very suspicious person to most Chadian security people. I didn’t realize this until after a day of airport trips in N’Djamena. With drilling stopping for the rainy season, we were saying goodbye to our drilling chiefs who were going home to Kenya to visit their families for a month or two, depending on rains. In order to get out of a particularly boring set of UNICEF meetings, I volunteered to be errand-girl for the day. I thought that would involve an airport run or two, but it ended up getting more complicated because we don’t believe in simplicity here in Chad.

'Do not wear the lifai when you teach
with your whole body.' ~ advice from Amanda
But on the other hand, you have no idea
I'm not African when you look at this picture.
Everything started off fine—I had excused myself from the UNICEF meetings, where I had been the only foreigner the day before (though I don’t think anyone noticed, as I was wearing my African clothes). I picked up the men from the office and headed towards the airport. The last day of Ramadan, security was extra-tight. Driving into the airport we were not just stopped and asked to show ID, but they also did the under-the-car mirror check. It was thorough. Finally we got into the airport, said our goodbyes, handed off luggage, and I left to go to the store to buy gummy Smurfs.

While at the store, I realized that I had not gotten my office key back from Jackson, who had used it while they were staying the previous night there. I called to see if by some happy chance he had left it on my desk. No such luck, but he agreed to meet me outside of the airport with my keys. I drove back in, ready for long security lines again. The soldier recognized me, “What are you doing back?” he said.

Baby Jafar--how cute is he? He loved me.
“One of my passengers has my keys,” I said, “and I need them back.”

“Fine. Just go on through.” And he waved me in without bothering to mirror my car again.

I drove in, Jackson was waiting for me with the keys, which he handed to me through the window. I wished him a happy vacation again, and I went back to the office.

I’d been at the office about 20 minutes when I get another call from Jackson. Apparently, even though he has a ticket with Ethiopian Airlines and the plane was not full and he was at the airport and had been for about 1.5 hours, they decided his ticket wasn’t valid because Leif had bought it from another website. To be fair, sometimes these Swedish itineraries are a bit confusing. When trying to change a flight in Khartoum, the lady had to confirm that my first name wasn’t “Hej,” the Swedish word for “Hi” (the email said “Hej Amanda Stillman, so you can see how difficult that is). But even though they could have told him this issue with the flight an hour before, they did not choose to do that for reasons unknown. But don’t worry—if you go to the Ethiopian Airlines office in town, you can get the ticket redone and he can still make the flight.

I got in the car and rushed back to the airport, having planned to spend the next day (a holiday) in the pool at the Hilton and not wanting that interrupted by another airport run. At the airport, I was once again remembered by the short-tempered security guard who was not fasting (I saw him take a swig out of the hose) but definitely suffering in the heat.

Baby Jafar's  half- sister.
“Why are you back AGAIN?” he demanded. “This is too many times.”

“I know,” I said, “I agree. But my colleague is having an issue with his ticket.”

“Open the car. This is suspicious behavior. You can’t come so many times to the airport in one day.”

“Well what am I supposed to do? I have to get this ticket issue fixed.”

“And you are wearing tapettes (flip flops) ! This is a serious infraction. A serious infraction. You cannot drive in tapettes.”

“OK,” I said. “I’m sorry, but I’m here now and this is an emergency and I have no other shoes. I am not trying to be suspicious, but I have to do this today. Are you telling me that I’m not allowed to go to the airport?”

“Fine. Just go,” he waived me through, glaring.

I picked up Jackson and we zipped over to the Ethiopian Airlines office, while I said horrible things about Chadian airport security officers and he tried to calm me down. At the office, I let him go in because of course there was no parking. I stayed in the car and drove up and down the street waiting for him as he, in true Jackson fashion, slowly and methodically strolled into the office, while I revved the car engine outside and responded shortly to people trying to sell me cell phone chargers I can’t use. To kill time, I called various people and ranted and raved, which made me feel a little better.

Jackson finally came out. “They are wanting 134,500CFA to change the ticket,” he said.

In spite of the fact that we were seriously limited on time, I took a moment to rail at Ethiopian Airlines customer service before giving him all the money I had with me (127,000CFA). “Just make it work, “ I said. “Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. This is their fault.”

About 15 minutes later, Jackson came out, ticket in hand. “I had to pay an extra 100USD,” he said.

“Did you get a receipt?” I asked.

“No, I forgot,” he said.

There was no time to go back and get it, so we zoomed to the airport, and I just now remembered that I was supposed to go back later when I calmed down to get that receipt, but I didn’t because I forgot about it the next day while I was getting really sunburnt at the Hilton. Sorry, Finance Department.

First selfie ever (for the ladies, not for me)
Finally, luck was with me. Cranky security guy was not at the airport. The other guys recognized me but were less angry with me. Also, I had driven there barefoot just so I could have an answer for them if they asked me about driving in tapettes, but they didn’t. They just said, “OK, this is the last time you are coming, right?”

“Right, “ I said. “I promise I will not come again today.” And I told Jackson that he could expect Urbain to pick him up if there was another issue, but fortunately there was not. Still, I have avoided driving to the airport again, and I will be avoiding it for a while. I’m trying to build back my credibility with Chadian security officers. As long as none of them saw me zipping around pot holes and zinging past princess drivers, I think I’m good. I made it back from Mongo in about 5 hours (500km trip), and Emelie was impressed anyway. And the chickens are still alive, so there’s that.

Photos of Em and me getting ready to go home to N'Djamena:

Packing up the chickens.

Ready to go! 
Serious selfie

Laughing at something--the chickens? Amanda's driving?