Wednesday, March 29, 2017

New Travels, Same River

Niger River
The other night I had a dream that I was going through airport security and yelling at people. I was also not working for an NGO. I was a teacher at an international school. I’m glad this was not reality, as my dream students must have suffered greatly under my tutelage and my temper. Anyway, I woke myself up from the dream and thought, “This is the kind of dream one has when one is always traveling.” At least I get to yell at people in my dreams, as I don’t generally yell much in airports.

I just like that FAA is translated:
Autorité Américaine de l'Aviation on this sign in
Niamey Airport. Those dang Americans and their authorities.
At any rate, travels mean stories, and stories means blogging so that I don’t have to write lots of emails and whatsapp messages to each family member repeating myself. Also because I’m documenting my life for posterity. At the rate I’m going, by the time I have children from my frozen eggs, I’ll probably be near senility and it will be good to have this blog to fall back on to bolster my failing memory.

So even though Asky Airlines did their best to ruin my somewhat carefully laid plans that I made 3 days in advance, I made it to Mali and Niger, two new countries to add to my list.  And of course I do have a list. But it is private and personal information that I can’t publish online. Like my bank password and social security number. Anyway, I can think of almost nothing I would not do to add countries to my list, be it humiliating myself or someone else or crawling under razor wire while being chased by a pack of rabid dogs and angry armed soldiers or what have you. It’s an obsession.

Paul is kind of tolerating us
Unfortunately, my trips were a bit short, but they still count. Mali trip was with Daniel Z, IAS CEO and all-around cool guy-Viking-raised-in-Africa living in Morocco and Sweden, and Paul H, calm, collected, very unsure of what to make of me and my constant effort to shock him into a sense of humor, Kiwi-living-in Niger.  And me—Americanish, raised in Asia, currently adventuring in Africa, living in Chad. We were a veritable United Nations of country investigators, without all the scandal and bloated budgets, oversized salaries and excellent vacation packages. Though we did get to see how the other side lives, as we spent some time in Embassy housing with DZ’s cool sister-in-law who has been working with the Swedish Embassy there, though she is leaving now. And this is the place to note how I started thinking how great it would be to be from a sweet little country like Sweden. You only have to walk through one (!) metal detector to get into their embassy. There are no pat-downs from guards. No one takes your phone. No one makes you wear a visitor’s badge on a grimy, germy string around your neck. And hopefully the terrorists who read my blog won’t decide to attack the Swedish Embassy because of this helpful information I’ve provided them. I mean, they could have found that out themselves long before this, if they were really wanting to.

Proof of meetings

You see this hallway to no-where with nothing in it?
This was right by my door in the hotel where we
stayed in Bamako. These detailed statues
scared the crap out of me every time I went in or out,
thinking there was someone just lurking there.
Still haven't guessed the purpose of these decorations--
no one really sees them because no one needs to go down that weird hall.
Terrifying your guests is fun, though.

The good life. Sometimes I think I want to be a
trophy wife for the Swedish Ambassador to Mali...

Mali was full of meetings mostly, but I also really enjoyed the nights we went out with DZ’s SIL. One night we went to a live music show and dinner at the French Cultural Center and that was really great. The food was good and the music was better. And because the SIL’s boyfriend is Kenyan, we spoke English instead of Swedish. Another night we went out for pizza by the river. Unfortunately, their cooling mist system was a little more like a “wet-n-wild” ride at an amusement part, and instead of getting lightly misted every once in a while to cool down, we seemed to be continually drenched every 5-10 minutes. But it was nice to be out by the river. And I was reminded about why it’s a good thing I’m not one of those girls that wears make-up or puts a lot of effort into my hair style. I mean, maybe I would be if I actually knew how to do that, but ignorance has its perks, clearly. I did find my eyeshadow, which I thought I’d lost, stuck into one of the pockets in my backpack where I put irrelevant objects. It was good to have it because some of our meetings were fancy and if I put on eyeshadow, it made it look more like I was trying. And I mean, I WAS. Eyeshadow (the way I use it), adds about 1 minute to my preparative toilet.

Music night

The performer

In Bamako I kept thinking, why don’t we have stuff like this in N’Djamena? We have a river. We have musicians. We have a large foreign population made up of diplomats and militarians looking for entertainment to distract from their sad lives. But it IS true that our river is the border with Cameroon and maybe that is a security issue. But Herve says he will take me to see live music some day.

Niger was an add-on to this trip, but in terms of my work goals, it was the more important stop. I stayed at Paul’s house along with another visitor, a lovely Kiwi girl with YWAM and Paul’s family. It was fun to hang with the girls. We played Dutch Blitz, which I am super good at, and they braided my hair, which they are good at. I tried to warn them about how awesome I am at Dutch Blitz, but they didn’t believe me. They won the first game while I warmed up, but then after that, no one had a chance. And then they decided we would play other games. It’s ok. I understand that mentality. I also don’t like playing games I can’t win.

Paul's daughters getting ready to make me beautiful

Braiding hair...sometimes pulling it... 

Here I’ll take a brief moment to talk about work. You may remember how we made biosand filters in Chad? In Niger another organization is also making them, and they are making them out of clay. This project is one that I really like because I love projects that can be completely run and maintained by locals without needing large inputs from outside the country. Ideally, they start doing this without my involvement, and I let them keep at it, making their own profit, and I go somewhere else. And someday, when the world can finally function without me, I’ll go find my deserted island and live the hermit life by the beach. I estimate this to be possible in about 1.5 years.  Once we get this clay biosand filter project started in Chad. Donate now because I really want to go live on that island.

A clay biosand filter

Water source for the area

Anyway, in Niger I met Fatih, a lovely widow from Niger who is the one who figured out how to make the first clay filter on her own. She is now making them and training other women to do it. She is an amazing spunky woman who immediately offered to come to Chad and teach the ladies here. Unlike most women in this part of the world, she is totally up for an international adventure in a country where she only knows a bit of the language. She showed me how to make the tube where the water comes out while I made a little elephant out of clay. She was impressed. It was beautiful, of course. I’m the offspring of an artist after all.

My beautiful creation

Selfie with Fatih

After the clay time, we drove around town with the driver, seeing the sites and getting a feel for Niamey. It’s very similar to N’djamena. I can’t decide if it is more or less developed, so probably it’s about the same. I went on another tour with Denis and James, the Ugandans who had been with me in Chad the previous week, so I could see it again. Also because I like them. They laugh at my jokes, unlike more serious colleagues I’d been spending time with.

We went first to the Niger Museum, which is basically a weird zoo. Denis and James were very excited by the dinosaur skeleton. I mean, I was too—I love me some dinosaurs, but they had thought that dinos were not real, just something made up for awesome movies. So finding out that they really do exist would be like me finding out that I have latent super powers that are finally manifesting in my 30’s.  Those powers are, of course, the ability to fly and teleport and move things with the power of my mind. I especially need the ability to teleport in light of the new airplane travel rules, which are super inconvenient and will inevitably result in the theft of my computer.

Denis, James and me at the Dino exhibit

Name: Dinosaur.
Simple. To the point.
None of this "Velociraptor" or "Triceratops" hard to spell crap.

 The Museum also offered me the chance to pet a hippo. While observing our group observing the hippo, a kindly employee decided to lure him out of the pit with some grass-type food. The hippo obliged, moving right up to the fence for some great photo ops, conveniently close enough for me to touch. “I’m going to touch it!” I said. “No, don’t do it,” said everyone else. What do you think happened?

Of course I did.

After that we made our way around to other sad-looking caged animals. I had serious discussions with them to let them know I was informing PETA of their situation. I will do that by tagging them in this blog, and I hope that they will take the necessary measures to free these abused animals instead of picketing at KFC. Chickens are stupid, tasty animals that deserve to be eaten. I myself almost freed the pair of lions when another employee sidled up to me and asked if I wanted to buy them.

“How much are they?” I asked, curious.

“10 million francs for both. So you’ll buy them.”

“Sure,” I said, because why not?

“I’ll go get the account books, “ he said.

Then I grabbed the guys and made them leave so that I didn’t actually buy the lions because I was afraid I wouldn’t stand up to temptation, and 10 million francs is a bargain!

Save him, PETA!!!

My almost-pet...we would have had such a good time together in my little apartment

I also had to touch this snake skin the shoemaker was washing.
I entertained him while he was working by asking lots of questions like:
Did you kill this snake? Do you sometimes hunt for snakes to make shoes?

After the museum, I convinced them all that we wanted to go for a nice boat ride on the river to hunt for hippos. The boat ride was fun for everyone except for Denis, who took it upon himself to bail out the water that kept seeping into the boat. I was happy that we at least got to see one hippo out in the distance.

I washed my feet off in the water, but the tan lines stayed.

Photo enlarged to shoe hippo head.
The driver bought me ice cream. He liked me. He laughed at my jokes.
I liked the ice cream and also he was cool.

All in all, it was a pretty fun trip, but I was happy to get back home to my sweet home in N’Djamena, with a newly-fixed toilet, thanks to my wonderful coworker who stayed in my house while I was gone and noticed that it needed help. He was basically the opposite of Goldilocks, that terrorizer of innocent porridge-eating Bear families.

Bonus story:  while sitting in the airport in Lome, waiting for my consistently delayed flight, I decided to plug in my computer and do some work, aka watch movies on my computer. While searching for a plug, a fellow passenger motioned me over to where he had a functioning outlet I could share. Grateful for his help, yet not wanting to strike up a friendship with a potentially eligible young man (clearly this is why I’m still not married), I gave monosyllabic answers to his questions. He took the hint, but one question bothered me. “You’re going to N’Djamena too, right?” He’d said. He was, of course, right, but how did he know? We were not sitting in a designated gate area and our flight went through Douala anyway. I always keep my passport and ticket covered because I play a game where I try to see everyone else’s information without them seeing mine, and I’m pretty good at it (lots of practice).  I knew he couldn’t have seen my information.  I didn’t question him there, as I was still uninterested in developing this relationship. Once our flight was finally announced, I went to the bathroom while everyone else got in line. Coming out of the bathroom, my new in-spite-of-myself friend,  motioned me over to cut in line with him. And far be it from me, Raised-in-Asia girl that I am, not to cut in line whenever it is socially (or not) acceptable. Since we were in line and moving, I decided to ask him how he knew I was going to N’Djamena.

“Oh, I recognized you,” he said.

“We’ve met?” I asked, a bit worried that I’d somehow offended a dear old friend by my silence.

“No, I see you running in the mornings. In Sabangali right?”

“Oh…yeah…that’s me…”

So basically, I’m famous. Also, all those seminars I’ve been forced to attend about How Not To Be Taken Hostage have not sunk in at all because I definitely don’t change up my route enough. It’s OK though. Sometimes I do Jillian Michaels kick-boxing work-outs, so I’m totally prepared for any attacks.

My souvenir from Niger. I ate it for breakfast in the airport.

Monday, March 13, 2017

As Usual

Goats make me laugh-
laughing is better than crying
As usual, the topic of this blog is “the joy of traveling on this blue planet.” (It feels unfair to assign all the blame to “Africa,” as these things have happened to me in Asia too.)

The other day I went to pick up our auditor flying in from Khartoum. The scanned ticket he had sent me listed “11:00am” as the arrival time. I arrived just a little bit after that time because—immigration, baggage claim, getting on and off a stupid bus to go 3 meters across the runway to the airport—these things take time.

We had just slid into a parking place near the crack in the fence (my favorite place to park to avoid pushing through a barrage of wanna-be porters and people selling various types of juice) when James, the auditor, pops up at the car window.

“You’re already out here!” I said, surprised (because usually I’m the only one who can navigate the turbid waters of immigration that fast using skills honed in over-populated Asian countries and years of airport experience, plus sharp elbows).

“Yes,” he said. “I’ve been here for two hours. I realized when I got there that they wrote the arrival time in Sudanese time and not Chadian time.”

Some photos from my last trip
 Because of course they did. Naturally, though it is not the traditionally accepted way to note arrival time in the time zone of the departure city, Sudan doesn’t bow to convention. Sudanese time is the only time that matters, b*tches! (I’m going to try to remember to take that last asterixed word out before I publish this, but if I forget, I’m sorry, Mom.) I said to James, “Well, I did not expect that from what I read on the ticket, but I can’t say that I’m surprised that this happened.” And then I apologized profusely for the wait because somehow it felt like my fault—I should have anticipated something like this would happen. Then I recklessly drove him to the office, casually swearing at all the other stupid drivers. Denis (finance manager who is also currently helping us out in Chad and has been spending a lot of time with James) told me that James has gotten the idea that I am naturally very short-tempered. “She gets angry very quickly, doesn’t she?” he said. Denis laughed and said that I really don’t, but when the only time you’ve spent with me is in the car while I’m driving, I can see how you would get that idea. I took James and Denis out to lunch later, making sure to be extra-charming to try to atone for my bad reputation. And I toned down the language to PG (not super easy after spending a few days in proximity to some militarians), but I managed to keep it together until after I dropped them at the office. The trip back to my house was when the “stupid” drivers went back to being “!@#$%$^#!@#$” drivers, because apparently I can be nice only under the judgmental gaze of my passengers (and that’s no guarantee either).

Now, I know I was just blaming Sudan for their travel habits, but I have another complaint that I’m probably going to blame on Chad, though Togo is still in the running. This month is a month of traveling. A month when I’m glad I don’t have to worry about the well-being of a small, evil cat who resents being left behind while others go on adventures to the outer-world. A month where I leave my fridge mostly empty except for water bottles and essentials like chocolate and hot pepper sauce so that I don’t have to worry about food going bad while I’m gone. I hate wasting food. Good thing gummies and chips last for a long time.

So I get up at 4 to work out in anticipation of a long day on an airplane on my way to Mali, which I’m excited about because it is a new country for me. I’m already missing one day of meetings because I couldn’t get a good flight out of N’Djamena to arrive in the morning in Bamako, though Chad and Mali aren’t exactly on opposite ends of the continent. I get to the airport and wander through, not paying attention until I’m asking the guy at the desk for an aisle seat and he tells me he is actually trying to see if he can re-book my ticket. Awesome. I go out and try to find a way to re-book my ticket myself, but it is impossible. I have to trust Asky Airlines, the airline that screwed up this flight in the first place (which I believe is based in Togo, thus giving them some responsibility for upsetting my plans) to rebook, earliest tomorrow. Now I’m down to 2 days out of a 4 day trip. 

 Finally, I decided to take a taxi to the office, as it’s close to the airport. The little old taxi driver insisted on taking the full 5000CFA, as that is airport policy, though sometimes I can convince them to go cheaper, as our office is really 5 minutes away.

He creaked the door open, and I slid into the car and waited while he cranked and cranked the engine and nothing happened. “Oh, the battery!” he said, “it’s tired.” He elicits help from 10 of the afore-mentioned juice sellers and the car begins to move. I wonder if it will still move once they stop pushing.  

“I’m not going to pay if we break down and I have to walk.” I said (but laughing and he laughed too). Actually, I should have walked, but I have a backpack and a computer bag and I didn’t feel like fending off all of the comments. Some days I prefer to be a bit more inconspicuous. And it felt like a sign of defeat to trudge off down the street, backpack bouncing sadly behind me.

Since this conversation was in Arabic, he was excited to note that I speak his language, and we started on a conversation.

Goats climbing things makes me laugh
“Where are you from? What is your country?”

“I’m from America,” I said.

“America-America or Canada?”


“What city?”

“Nashville,” I answered.


“Sure.” I said.

As usual, this conversation makes me feel a bit dishonest because it leaves out some many details and inserts ones that aren’t 100% true for all they are so simple. Still, it is a conversation that is socially acceptable and slightly preferable to the “how-many-children-do-you-have-wait-no-you’re-not-married-how-about-being-my-second-wife” conversation that is the other frequent ice-breaker discussion.

Anyway, he decided to tell me about his sister who married an American and lives in Hawaii. During this conversation, I noted that I probably could have walked to the office faster than we were driving. But who cares about that? I have earned an extra, unnecessary day in N’Djamena. It's like the opposite of Day Light Savings, plus a day, or something like that, I'm still a bit hazy on that America-American tradition. Then we drove past our street because I overestimating the amount of time it would take our decrepit vehicle to putter past the road, while I was searching for money to pay the guy.

Buying ice in the desert
Arriving in front of our door, I tried to find a way out of the car, which had a metal piece in place of the handle that wouldn’t move.

“It’s automatic!” he said, as he reached over his seat, braced his full body weight against my door while clutching at the metal handle. The door fell open.

So here I am…writing blog posts about why this is funny to me so that I don’t get mad about missing Mali Tourism Day, which is what everyone else will be doing today.  As I told Leif, it doesn’t matter that much because they refused to let me go to Timbuktu, which is where I really wanted to go anyway. Of course, he’s afraid he is going to get in trouble with Mark, who is slightly sensitive about me going places where I’m going to be shot at, otherwise we all know Leif would be right there with me.

In conclusion, Asky Airlines called and said they will book me on the same flight tomorrow. And what are the odds that this happens again? Well, if we’re going to be honest….but no. Let’s not be. Lightning never strikes twice in the same African airline. Impossible. Tomorrow I’m going to Mali.

Legend has it that this used to be an ocean.
I can kind of see it...if only it were culturally appropriate to sand surf in my bikini...

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Birthday and Other Types of Traveling

Already my traveling life is blurring, and I’m barely a third of the way in. I like traveling, and I like being in the field, so these are good things. I also like long road trips. But sometimes my life decisions are tiring.

On my birthday in the past, I’ve enjoyed taking time off and going on adventures. Number 30 was in Spain, 31 in Hungary, 32 just back from Nepal, making Mexican food for the office in N’Djamena (they liked it). This year I didn’t get a chance to plan an adventure, as I was informed early on that the donors were coming on that day. Naturally, I then informed them that it would be my birthday. With the generous openness natural to most Americans (really that is our reputation out here, I don’t know who thinks THEY hate us—we are much more lovable than most of the French), he offered to bring me a present. “What do you want from the US?” I asked him for a tub of that icing that you can buy in the supermarket. Simple, small, hopefully with funfetti. But I’ve noticed that men often smile and nod like they are hearing the words that are coming out of my mouth, though they have already made their own decision. He brought me Starbucks coffee and lotion. I’m sure that any other 33 year old woman would have been very happy with that, but I’ve already been open and honest about the maturity level of my taste buds, and I never drink coffee by choice. But they redeemed themselves by giving me a box of Little Debbie Valentine’s Day chocolate cakes, which fits into my nutritional system.

Gibraltar on my 30th.

Budapest on the 31st-same scarf, which was
stolen by the SPLA a few months later.

Driving face
The rest of the day was mostly uneventful, though I did drive from Massaguet to Bitkine (about 400km). I dodged potholes masterfully this time and punctured no tires. I did, however, hit one speed bump full on, and after that people kept jokingly reminding me of all the up-coming bumps. Then, after Tamadji took back the wheel, he immediately pinged a goat, and he became the brunt of everyone’s new jokes. He also never relinquished the driver’s seat to me again, but I think that was because he didn’t want to be squished in the front middle seat, straddling the shifter. It was an awkward position that I accepted because being the smallest, I was really the only one who fit there, though Tamadji managed to squeeze in and take over half the driver’s seat while I was driving. I think T didn’t love my driving style. He gave me a few pointers like, “When you’re going around the holes in the road, why don’t you slow down?” and “You can wait for the animals to go by instead of honking at them until they move faster.” Sadly, for the goat he offed, he didn’t take his own advice in this. I also got a tiny bit defensive and asked him how long he’d had his driver’s license. “Fourteen years,” he said. “I’ve had mine for 15,” I remarked casually. Of course, we won’t talk about the years living abroad when I drove at most once or twice when forced. The point is, I don’t need your middle-passenger’s-seat driving. If I don’t want to downshift to 4th to get around the potholes, hold on to your door handles, there will be swerving, but as long as there are at least 2 points of contact between the car wheels and the ground, we’re probably good. I have not yet flipped a car. And I definitely got us to Bitkine in time to see the view in my favorite Chadian town.

Remember how I can never leave Bitkine area without chickens?
This time we brought a goat (and chickens too).

 Donor trips can be exhausting because managing expectations is hard, but I successfully treated a dehydrated donor (“drink ALL the water”-I’m basically a doctor), I crashed a wedding (I danced, I ululated, I took photos and gave the bride who I’d never met before money), I lectured little children standing in the road soliciting money from passing cars about road safety, I climbed up the water tower ladder in a dress, I read the book Marian sent me on Kindle while everyone else was watching the Jesus Film, and generally, it was a good trip.

Wedding crasher!!!!

She wanted to take a serious selfie.

Little girls showing me the clay toys they made.
I almost bought the tea set for my teapot-collecting grandmother,
but I was squished in the seat and was afraid they'd break on the road.

Jean Pierre, Herve, and The Author.
I had one day at home before jumping back in the car again to visit an orphanage needing a water system in the southern part of the country. I was pretty excited about this, having never been to the south. As a general rule, I tend to like the southern parts of the countries where I’ve lived—south coast of Java=yes, southern Yemen=set them free from the evil dahabashis, southern India=masala dosa (though I didn’t actually go there while I was in India, YES to their food), and so on. I really enjoyed visiting Koumra with the wonderful Jean Pierre of whom Emelie said, “He’s so nice you would think he was American and not French.” He was born in Bitkine.

Jean Pierre showing us the moringa he is growing,
packaging, and distributing to malnourished women and children.
Look up moringa online to see how great it is.

At the maternal health center playing with a recovering malnourished baby

I also had fun traveling with Herve. Someday, if you ever have the chance to travel with Herve, here are some things that you can expect from the trip:
1.     He will bring more than enough water bottles. This is a good thing, as I’ve been on trips with others who do not bring enough. Herve jokes that he is a camel, but camels only drink about once a month. Of course, then they drink 200-500 liters, and he probably averages about that amount per month too.
2.     He will throw the water bottles out of the window. Don’t freak out about this. It isn’t littering. The water bottles will be picked up and used. Usually you can see people run to pick them up as you speed away.
3.     He will bring music. This is mostly good, except I want to take this moment to complain about francophone Africa. Everywhere else in Africa and Asia you only have to listen to some of Celine Dion’s English songs. Here you listen to those AND her French stuff. There is no escape. At least ABBA only sang in English and Herve doesn’t know who they are. DO NOT ENLIGHTEN HIM.
4.     He will stop and buy all the weird fruits and oils being sold by the side of the road. He will buy you some too, even if you tell him that you don’t want them.

Chadian sesame snack

Did you know that this is how cashews grow?
The fruit is not my favorite, and sadly, you
can't just eat the cashew right off the top like that.
You have to cook it somehow.

5.     He will talk about how the French are the root of all evil in francophone Africa.
6.     He will lecture you about getting married. Or maybe just me. We started out with a lovely conversation where he told me that I was one of the strongest women he knows. “And,” he said, “I know a lot of strong women. I have 5 older sisters and my wife is also a strong woman. But you are the strongest. And I like your simple direct leadership style. You are honest and open. That’s a good thing.” After all of these compliments, I was feeling pretty good about myself until a while later when he said, “You know why you don’t have a man? Because you are too strong. You need to be a little weaker so that the man thinks he can come in and help you.” “What if I don’t need him to come help me?” “He wants to think that he can,” he said. “You have to give him an opening.” I clearly don’t know how to do this, but he didn’t accept my protests that I am not going to change who I am to catch a man. The problem is that I haven’t accepted that my life will be meaningless if I never have any kids. And as my window of opportunity is shrinking, he is becoming more and more concerned about me. Therefore, he will spend several hours lecturing me about “openness” and “God’s plan for me to get married” and “your babies will be so cute” and “I know if you actually wanted to get married, you could get married. Why don’t you want to be married? Just find a man and get married.” And then we reminisced about the time that he told me that men are like mangos, and you just have to pick a good one that you can reach. And then we stopped and bought a lot of mangos.
7.     And he will share stories about his time as a child soldier that will haunt you for the rest of your life, even though a few of the stories will be kind of funny. But you’ll start to figure out where his deep animosity for the current regime and their European allies stems from.

At any rate, we had fun. The car suffered but kept going like the Little Engine that Could. She is an amazing car that can withstand Amanda’s and Herve’s driving (though he didn’t let me drive because he believes in traditional masculine chivalry).

I have a few more trips planned this up-coming month, but for now, I’m enjoying the comforts of home. And the giant box of gummy crocodiles and other assorted candies that my friends, who know who I really am, gave me for my birthday.

Showing off the new pants I got from Denis (though it looks kind of like a pregnancy shot)
And the mango pie I made for Djibrine's birthday.

Either I'm trying to convince him to try the pie,
or I'm trying to get him to explain to me why the car is still making that noise.