30 August 2007

escape from the compound

I know, I know. Here I am in the middle of nowhere, how can I not have time to update the blog? But internet depends on electricity, which depends on solar power, which depends on the sun actually shining. So here I am, typing frantically in the dark.

I finally got to leave the compound today (we've been mudded in) and see some beautiful swampland. I sound sarcastic because swampland? - but it really is beautiful, all green and lush and, well, watery. I attended a training that was lively and full of people willing to defend their positions. In the evening, I walked along the airstrip and was met by some Ugandans, aka the world's most hospitable people, who insisted on walking with me, to their compound where they gave me a seat and were very concerned that tea was taking so long, and then all the way back to my gate, which was where they had come from in the first place.

I have not resigned myself to the pit latrine, but it's much more tolerable when I can also see some of the beauty of the country.

Photos to come the next time I have internet... I'm being gnawed by mosquitoes and I'm starving (lentils and rice for lunch was a long time ago), so they'll have to wait. But I'm alive! So far no snakes!

28 August 2007


Lunch today was supposed to be rice and fish. Fish in sauce and fried fish, both. Unfortunately, a crime occurred.

The evidence was thus: upon entry into the mess room, the pot that was supposed to contain fish in sauce was on the floor with nothing in it but some dirt. There was dirt on the table. The door to the room was open.

Big hint: two mangy dogs that lurk about the compound have started becoming very defensive when we go near the mess room.

I ate some plain rice for lunch.


That was yesterday. Guess what I ate for lunch today? Oh! Right! PLAIN RICE. There's a theme, you see.

27 August 2007

a few things

When you switch from language to language, there are almost always sounds that get lost. Several Liberian languages have a GB sound that American English speakers can’t say – or even distinguish. I can’t tell you how annoying it is to hear US Americans say “Barpolu” instead of Gbarpolu. And they can’t hear the difference, most of them. Then try getting a North American to say the MP sound in Kinyarwanda. We sound hilarious. In Spanish, B and V are interchangeable. In Kinyarwanda and for some Swahili speakers, L and R are interchangeable, resulting in people writing (and saying) “Kigari” instead of Kigali for Rwanda’s capital city. And in Rwandese French, it’s a toss-up whether your meeting is going to be called a “reunion” or a “leunion.” (I love that one.)

Here in Southern Sudan, it’s P and F. I got very confused the first time someone asked me about the “pish” (the fish is really good here, by the way), and today I had to decipher words like “frogram” and “pinance.” Also “fersonal.” I always feel like I’ve become a very small child again when I move to a new country with a new accent, because I have to relearn how to understand the people around me. It becomes easy after a while, and I almost never (other than for my chronic deafness, which happens in every location) have to ask a Kenyan, Ugandan, Liberian, or Rwandese to repeat him- or herself. I’m still learning here in Southern Sudan, as I’m sure my coworkers are learning to understand my crazy North American accent.

The other night, as we were all sitting around after dinner, the old hands started playing the “scare the newbie” game. They told me about how long a scorpion sting hurts, where the snakes hide, how many people a black mamba can kill. All the good stuff. And I admit, it scared me for a few minutes. I didn’t want to head out into the dark.

But then I did head out, and after a minute or two I remembered how it’s done. I grew up with the vicious snakes in Liberia, after all, even if I didn’t really realize the dangers all around me.

The pit latrine at night does scare me a little, though. I just don’t want to share that little space with a snake, you know? I’m also afraid I’m going to drop my flashlight down the pit, and then where would I be? And a few minutes ago, when I went in there and heard a rustling noise that was not me, I jumped (really high) despite the daylight.

It was a scared, striped lizard, trying desperately to hide in the corner between the tin wall and the fat stick that holds it up.

26 August

We all trooped into the mess room this morning, made ourselves tea, sat down, and went, “Hm.” There was nothing to eat for breakfast. Okay, there was a box of corn flakes, but corn flakes last approximately a day in this damp, hot weather, and when they must be eaten stale with warm milk you’ve just made from warm water and milk, corn flakes sound disgusting. I tried it yesterday and made it through half the bowl before I gave up in despair. Also, we are out of the sweet cakes. We sat around debating for a while and someone asked why there was no bread, don’t they make bread in TLT? The cook informed us that the LAST person here hadn’t liked bread, so they don’t buy it.

The only person with clearance to drive the car (NOT the battered minibus; that was only temporary) headed into town It took nearly an hour for him to get back, during which time I ate some Pringles they had brought back from Slightly Bigger Town yesterday, but the car eventually came back with cool (okay, not quite cold) bottles of water and a bag of warm, puffy pita-like rounds of bread. I drank my third hot beverage of the day (Cadbury’s Drinking Chocolate, this time) with the bread and we sat around talking about how very good the bread was.

Right now it is raining deafeningly hard onto the tin roof. I had to put in my ipod for the noise-blocking effects, and then turn it up. I also unplugged my computer (thunder and lightning) and I’m very determinedly wearing my rubber sandals in case we get zapped. If you want to speak to someone, you have to go over to the person, lean over, and shout. At my first desk, I started getting wet with rain blowing in the window, so I moved first to another desk (where rain was dripping from the ceiling), then another (where rain was blowing in the window), and now to a fourth (where I only get little droplets when the wind blows particularly hard).

I managed to sleep quite well in my semi-permanent new abode (for the next two and a half months minus, oh, three weeks of traveling), into which I moved yesterday. It is a little stuffy, since the mats hanging over the windows block the rain very well, but also the breeze, but it has a rectangular mosquito net. I love rectangular mosquito nets, as of today. They actually reach the edge of the bed without falling into your face. This is because they are attached to the ceiling in FOUR locations, the corners, rather than the annoying shortcut central single attachment of the round nets. I feel so trapped in the round nets, because they press in on my face and my feet, and last night in the rectangular one, I felt so free! So open!

And… there went the power. Silly of us, no, to be using three laptops and the wireless when there is no sunshine for the solar panels? We’ll be sitting in the dark tonight. And I just lost two conversations I was having online. Blast.

25 August 2007

saturdays are long

I smell gross. This is what happens when you sweat all day long. Today has been particularly sweaty, too. I regret having thought about cool drinks, because now they are all I want. Hm, koolaid. Hm, orange juice. Hm, ice water. Or, not a drink. What about a POPSICLE? That would be bliss.

Instead, a guest who arrived today gave me a gift of something almost as good: a small green apple. I have been in TLT for only a few days (there are some LOOOONG months coming), and already it was a thrill to hold that little round fruit in my hands and bite into it. It was crisp and tart and all those wonderful apple-y things. It wasn’t cold, but fruit kept in a shady place tastes cool even if it is room temperature. After some days of bland food, it was wonderful. All the food options here are rice and sauces. And then more rice. And oh! A sauce. The sauces all seem to taste about the same, even if some contain beef (which I ate, because, hey, it’s food) and some contain fish. Some salt helps.

The water, while drinkable, tastes a little iffy. This is largely because it is drawn from a bore-hole and then boiled. Sometimes it tastes like dirt. Sometimes it tastes like soap. Sometimes it just tastes off. The filter doesn’t work, although today I had an extended hand-motion conversation with one of the cooks about how to clean the filter by scrubbing it with a brush. When I went to follow up on the scrubbing, I found her scrubbing it with laundry soap, which I think might impact the taste of the water filtered through it just a bit. The problem is that we have no language in common. Neither of us can ask questions of the other. She was doing exactly what I probably looked like I was demonstrating.

In the absence of a filter to make the water taste better, and given that I am thirsty all the time because I am sweating all the time (hey! Thus the smelling bad!), I found a bottle of some orange concentrate, made in Saudi Arabia, in the mess room. I started adding it to my water and while it’s not exactly tasty (I’m sure I’m adding the wrong amount and it’s best served cold), it renders the water much more tolerable.

So now I sit with my water bottle, drinking and drinking and never seeming to have to go to the bathroom. I think I might be a touch dehydrated. The sun is starting to descend and the grass glows golden in its light. Cows are lowing and a child just shouted beyond the patch of corn. I can see the round thatched tukul roofs in every direction except that of our little houses, which are rectangular and have tin roofs that reflect the sun. Two goats come in and try to eat the little tree, but a guard chases them off. I have a touch of a sore throat.

and now i live in a swamp

I arrived in TLT in a rundown, pimped-out minibus. There were ragged paper pineapples hanging from the rearview mirror, along with green Mardi Gras beads. The radio had two settings: off, and horrifically loud. Every few minutes the driver would reach up and adjust the radio, find a station, and settle in to sing along. Then the radio would turn itself off and it would be a few more minutes before he noticed and tried again. Eventually I mimed horrible ear pain and he laughed at me and turned it off.

After the plane dropped me off at an airstrip with apparently no population anywhere nearby, I stood in the sun next to a UN car and debated whether I should go with them to a bigger town or wait until someone showed up for me. After twenty minutes, the tops of my suitcases were almost too hot to touch. I scrambled through my bag to find a phone number and we called on the satellite phone to ask exactly WHEN the car had left to pick me up. Then suddenly I heard a rattling, clattering noise and an ancient van pulled up next to me. “Well,” I said to the UN people in their shiny new Land Cruiser, “I think that’s my ride.” And people started piling out.

We got stuck in a mud hole on the way back, with thousands of little kids running about laughing. One of them stood outside my window and, after I smiled at him, he very cautiously reached up and touched my arm, just to check that the strange pink color was real skin. After the third or fourth try at getting the minibus out, I got out and walked further up the road, looking back at the men rocking the bus back and forth, back and forth, and finally all the way back out. It accelerated forward and came slip-sliding through the muddy patch.

Another swarm of kids splashed about in a creek along the side of the road further up, shiny naked little wet bodies in the sun. One of them stopped so suddenly to look at us that he slipped on the gravel and fell – plop! – on his little behind. By the time we passed, he had already popped back up, surprised but not hurt.


I woke up early this morning because we had plans to go to the slightly bigger town two or three hours away after dropping someone off at the airstrip in the middle of nowhere, but it turns out that she is actually flying directly out of TLT. Actually, I knew this, but I forgot it until I was luxuriating in my outdoor shower this morning.

I’m skeptical of this TLT departure, because the airstrip in TLT is full of deep tire tracks from when it was recently mud, bumpy with cow prints from when the cows sunk into the mud, and has little pyramids of stones where the kids delineated their soccer fields. I hope this plane is like a hydrofoil, but for land. Otherwise they are going to have a rough landing.

It worked, somehow. The little Cessna flew over to scare the kids and goats, and then landed in a huge puff of dust.

Funny thing about TLT: it was two-feet deep in mud when I arrived and now it is mud in some places and finely powdered dust in others. While eating plain rice and fried fish last night in the dark, we were listening to the BBC discuss the “flooding across the Sahel, from Senegal to Somalia.” It doesn’t mean much until you are in the Sudd, the swampy part of Southern Sudan (I’m told Southern Sudan is the biggest swamp in the world) and praying that it won’t rain so the mud won’t get any deeper.

There are tall grasses all around, but in living areas it’s only dirt, which turns to mud when it rains. This morning, coming out of the dirt-floored dining room, I noticed one of the workers carefully digging up every tuft of grass. I went to consult with the guy in charge, who said, “I told them to cut it, not get rid of it completely!” We need those tufts in a desperate way, to keep some fraction of the dirt in its proper place when it rains.

24 August 2007

day one in tlt

I had a blog post all ready, but I’m not going to post it, because it was mostly a big whine about how I have to use a PIT LATRINE and how there are BUGS, and isn’t my life terrible? Which would lead everyone I know to ask, “Isn’t that exactly what you signed up for? How dumb are you?” And that is a very apt question, because what DID I think I was signing up for, going to a town that does not even appear on any full-country maps of Sudan, if it wasn’t a pit latrine and some lovely bugs? I don’t really have a good answer, except that somehow, if anyone had mentioned a pit latrine, I had blocked it out, and when I arrived in Tiny Little Town, I expected a real toilet.

Also, I had been informed that all there is to do out here is surf the internet and watch satellite TV. Which I was fine with, really. I haven’t watched any TV in a while and I heart smiley face ex-oh-ex-oh the internet. Except that neither the internet nor the TV are currently working.

New Plan: Dramatically Lower Expectations.

At the Africa safari exhibit at the closest zoo to my house in Michigan, there is a little “ranger camp” set up with a tent and an old Land Rover and an outdoor shower, which consists of a large barrel of water suspended above head-height. There is a chain that you can pull to make the water come down on yourself or any unsuspecting person who happens to stand under the spigot. I’ve always sort of smirked at the shower and thought, “No one really uses those, even in national parks in Africa.”

Guess who’s laughing now?

I could get used to this outdoor shower thing, though. It’s nice to see the blue sky above you as you shower in a little tin room. And it’s eternally hot enough here that the water is never actually cold. The water flow is much weaker than that outdoor shower at the zoo, though, and my other New Plan is: Wash Hair As Seldom As Possible. Ponytails are our friends.

Today for breakfast I had a sweet cake whose wrapper was completely in Arabic, so I have no idea what it contained. Or even where it was made. For lunch, I had plain rice, because the sauce was all meat. I also drank, throughout the day, three cups of tea with lots of powdered milk. I’m pretty hungry. I have a feeling that’s going to be a theme of the next few months. I brought 73 granola bars, but I can’t quite eat one per day if I want them to last until November. I’m going to have to strongly encourage the frequent cooking of the peas and sauce that I ate over rice last night. I’ll beg, if necessary, because 1. vegetarian friendly! and 2. green vegetables!

Someone just asked me if I had eaten fish for lunch, because he’d told me that the fish here were good. “Oh,” he said, “you should ask the cooks to make some.”

“I don’t know how to ask them.” I said.

He looked at me in astonishment. “You don’t speak even a few words of Arabic?”

I knew I’d forgotten something. And where IS my rusty Kiswahili? Why can I only remember the words for water and cold, when what I need is some peas? And when the fridge can’t be plugged in because the solar panels don’t give enough power? There is going to be no cold anything for the next few months. (As soon as I thought that, I started craving a cold drink in a serious way.) At least chai translates.

Other things that make me happy:

- It doesn’t seem quite as hot as it was in Juba. I’m not quite sweating all the time, just most of it. This may be because we have actual breeze here.

- This is not the season for snakes or scorpions. Also there are monitor lizards (?) in the bush behind the latrine and they keep snakes away (?). (NB: I SAW ONE! They are crazy-looking huge – like three feet long – lizards. I would be scared of them except that I will befriend anything that keeps snakes away.)

- The yard has dried up and I don’t have to wear too-small gumboots (ouch) to walk around today. And I’m getting non-child size gumboots tomorrow.

- I got to fly in a one propeller (on the nose) plane. I sat right behind the pilots and watched the altimeter. We got up to almost 10,000 ft. ALSO (the coolest part): we had to do a flyover of the airstrip, just to check that there were no obstacles, before we could land. That’s when you know you are in the bush.

- I’m pretty sure that the $100 in Sudanese pounds that I have in my pocket? Will last the entire three months I’m here.

- I have a Life Plan for when I get back. For a few years, anyway. And I like it.

22 August 2007

a whole new country

I’ve flown over Sudan a dozen times in the last few years, and every time I looked down and thought, “What’s down there?” From so far up, you see so little – some green (it’s surprising how far north it stays green), some mountains, some scrubland. At night, there are more lights than I had expected, and sometimes a wide circle of burning land, for crops, I guess. This time, flying up from Nairobi, I looked with more interest, noticing the crisscrossing dark green lines that, as we descended, resolved themselves into rivers overhung by trees. My perspective was all mixed up – I had no idea how high we were – and I couldn’t tell if the bushy things were huge trees or tiny tufts of grass. The area between them looked smooth and green, like a well-watered and trimmed lawn.

Down at ground level, that smooth green became tall grass waving about at waist height. The bushes became trees, and the houses rose round and thatch-roofed. It is hot in Juba, and I’m relieved that I learned (oh, about three months ago, finally) to appreciate sunglasses.

In the morning, before the flight, I had one last mocha milkshake at Java House in the Nairobi airport. It cost me almost $5, but some things are worth it. It’s not that I drink things like milkshakes all that often, so “last” is kind of a misnomer, and I’m not really going to be deprived; it’s just that it will be months before I once again have even the option of an espresso drink or a milkshake.

Then I got on a plane Juba-bound.

So here I am, in South Sudan. I’m still not in the Tiny Little Town (hereinafter to be known as TLT) where I’ll be working, but I’m looking forward to it. This is, after all, real Africa again. None of this Nairobi-Africa, with new shiny buildings going up. I think I had more culture shock arriving in Nairobi than at any point since, on my departure from Liberia last year, I got to the Brussels airport, where everything was TOO SHINY. I felt a bit that way about Nairobi. Nairobi has block after block of shiny new apartment buildings going up to house a middle class that is simply lacking in most African cities I’ve been in. I wanted, strangely (because I just came from the US), the whole time I was in Nairobi, to close my eyes and say, “Shiny! Make it go away!” and open them when real Africa had come back.

Don’t get me wrong – I think it’s great that there is a growing middle class and that Java House (again! I know! Will I never shut up about this place? It’s my EXAMPLE, people) is filled with Kenyans on a Sunday afternoon (way more Kenyans than wazungu, when I was there). It’s just that I had Liberia in my head, it being the last place I’d been in Africa, and I forgot how different war-battered Monrovia is from a big city in East Africa. I felt dazzled and overwhelmed driving from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport into Nairobi town last week.

Okay, enough about Nairobi. That’s over. On to South Sudan.

Except all I’ve seen so far is a road (unpaved, except for a section that I think ONCE was paved, under the potholes), and a restaurant, and one roundabout. So… more on South Sudan will have to come later.

Every few, I don’t know, SECONDS, my internet goes out and I have to reenter the key that allows me to get on it. For some reason, regardless of what wireless network I’m using and how many times I try to save the key, my computer always reverts to an old key that my apartmentmate and I were going to use for a wireless connection that we never got all the way set up. Last summer, my computer was wiped completely clean when I thought I had killed it in Liberia, and still it has saved that stupid, non-functional key. It’s making me crazy.

No, really. It’s making me COMPLETELY INSANE. I cannot, right now, even open one email before I have to reconnect. It goes like this: connect, sign into email, disconnect, enter key, reconnect, click on email, disconnect, enter key, reconnect, hit reload on the page, email opens, read email/disconnect simultaneously, enter key, reconnect, hit reply, disconnect…

It’s the fault of my law school, for requiring that I have a PC for exams. Otherwise I would have bought a Mac, and all would be well.

The house where I’m staying has all these little steps up into the hallway, the bedrooms, the bathroom. Given that the toenail that I severely damaged back in March is starting to get wigglier and wigglier and will probably soon fall off, these are quite a hazard. One little stub of the toe against one of those suckers and I’m going to rip my toenail right off and be weeping in pain for quite some time.

20 August 2007

still hanging around

Some things I am very, very over:
  1. mosquito nets. Sure, when I first used one again in Nicaragua after 9 years in the US, it was exciting. I was nostalgic for the mosquito net days of Liberia, and I had romantic visions of lantern light shining through the netting. Now they are annoying. They block the breeze, first of all, and then they get in your face when you are trying to sleep. Especially the ones that hang from a big ring on one hook rather than from the four corners. I wouldn't even use one except mosquitoes buzzing around your head while you are trying to sleep? Even more annoying than the net. Although, with the round-topped ones, they never close all the way and the mosquitoes get in anyway. Which one did last night.
  2. avoiding "Western" places. Like Java House. I love Java House. I love Java House largely because of my memories of going to it during regional meetings when I was living in Rwanda, which has coffee in abundance, but very little good coffee stays in the country. Java House was a delicious treat (with BAGELS!). Yesterday I walked to Java House (it took about half an hour) and then sat and read a book and drank passion fruit juice and an iced coffee. And ate a waffle, the way I used to when I was a kid (eating all the edges until all that's left is a sixteen-hole square in the middle, and then eating that in four bites of four holes each). And then I walked back to where I am staying. I feel sort of weird about mentioning my love of Java House, because a week or two ago, a blogger I read was complaining about the expats who go to Uganda and all they want to talk about is the new restaurant at Garden City (aka. THE MALL). And I have my own issues with such expats, because why didn't they just stay in the West, if that's what they are here for? But really, I feel no need to prove my Africa credentials, nor do I feel a need to avoid the Western-style coffee shop. Every now and again, you just need some good coffee. Trust me, Kenyans in the US are getting together for ugali every now and then.
  3. my fear of jogging in public. I used to have one, which is why I didn't start jogging until I lived in a little tiny town in Rwanda, and then only down the deserted peninsula at twilight. But yesterday I went ahead and jogged in Nairobi. I'm not going to say that I didn't get stared at, because I did. And laughed at. And commented on. But then a little three-wheeled car drove past me, and then another, and I realized that while a mzungu jogging is funny, so are other things. Why not brighten people's days? Everyone needs some amusement. Jogging is harder here than in Michigan, though, what with the altitude and the hills (we have neither in Michigan).
  4. sitting around Nairobi. With no internet, no car, no money, and no friends (I was supposed to meet someone, but she's abandoned me for Uganda, and the other two people I emailed are not in town), I passed a very boring weekend. But I got more pages put in my passport today, so I am all ready to go.
  5. jetlag.
But even though the weekend was long and I wished for something to do, it was good to sit on the patio and watch the clouds pass in the blue sky, to explore the neighborhood where I'm staying, to smile at the little girl selling roasted corn, to watch the girl at the corner duka startle when she turned and saw a weird whitey standing at her little window. Already my Big Life Change plans are starting to waiver, in favor of staying in Africa.

17 August 2007


The last two days are a blur of airports and planes and airports again, mixed with lots of exhaustion. There just is no jetlag-free way to travel from the Midwestern United States to East Africa. It was probably, though, the best trip I've had. On the Amsterdam-Nairobi leg, I had three seats to myself. Three! I was really happy about it and got far too much sleep (enough that I couldn't sleep last night) but after I thought about it for a while, I started to feel guilty about the excess fuel being consumed by flying a plane with empty seats. The guilt, the guilt! I probably should have also felt guilty about all the people who didn't have even one extra seat (the front of the plane was really crowded). But I didn't.

I met lots of interesting people on the trip.

The guy sitting behind me on the plane was coming back for his first visit to Kenya since he emigrated in 1991. He told no one that he was coming back. "But," he said, "if they try calling me right now, they won't get me." So maybe they might guess that he was coming. He had a six hour bus ride to take in Kenya, after the three flights he'd taken from the Caribbean.

The American woman sitting in front of me told me proudly that this is her 24th trip to Kenya. She very clearly wanted it to be my first trip to Kenya, so she could tell me all about the country. In the absence of such an opportunity, she told me about everything else she could think of: how her nurse from when she was 6 was flying out to London that night and she was hoping to see her before she flew; how they had built her a little house with a patio from money that her dad, who is 91, sent because he wanted it to be used for something while he was alive; and... I forget the rest, because there was no stopping her. I am normally unable to extricate myself from situations like this, but I was so tired that I actually just laid down in the middle of the conversation and put in the earplugs. I think she was asking me, "Where do you stay?" as I fell back asleep, but I didn't actually realize it until later, when things processed. Then someone else came to sit on the end of her three seats, so she talked to him instead.

Across the aisle, two Spanish families were headed to Tanzania. In the four seats across the middle of the plane, four of their six kids, boys between the ages of 7 and 10, spent the flight shouting things to each other over their headphones, hitting each other, and generally causing a rumpus. Every time the flight attendant tried to push the cart down the aisle, there was a shoe or a pillow or a sweatshirt, tossed off by one of the boys, blocking her path. Fortunately, I had earplugs, so the rumpus bothered me not at all, although one of them touched me tentatively on the shoulder at one point and asked if he could "buscar" for something under my seat.

In the visa line at JKIA, I chatted with a Sudanese nun and a Kenyan who has become a US citizen. When a woman cut to the front of the line, the man said, in despair, "Africa will never develop. People have no work ethic here." I advocated for hope and patience, and later I thought perhaps that's the way it should be - we should each be willing to criticize ourselves and slow to criticize others. Then we traded passports so I could see what the new US passports look like and he could see the old. I have to say - I prefer the old. The new photos on the visa pages (e.g. white guys herding cows in the old west? an eagle whose head is bigger than a mountain?) are a little awkward.

So, here I am. I've been relishing cup after cup of Kenyan tea (erm, three, so far today, one with my beloved ginger) and generally trying to settle in. After not sleeping much last night (I read Jane Eyre from 5-6 a.m.), I am forcing myself to stay awake all day. The problem is that right my internal clock bears no resemblance whatsoever to any time zone I've ever been in. Day? Night? Who knows?

I had chicken fried rice for lunch, which was greasy and delicious (and contained some vegetables, which seemed like a good thing). Then my stomach did its normal queasy ameoba-related thing and I went grocery shopping, at the same time. It's not normally a good thing to go shopping on an empty stomach, because you buy too much, but it turns out that it's also not a good thing to go shopping on a full, slightly queasy stomach, because you buy nothing. I almost bought yogurt for the enjoyment, which scared me. After all, I now have ameoba poison which I intend to start taking tonight. Who needs that yogurt crap?

I am appalled to note that I have resorted to (horrors, horrors) rolling the top of my trousers to keep the legs from dragging on the ground. I am not of the waistband rolling generation. I don't approve of waistband rolling. I think it looks hideous, especially when done multiple times so that the clothing is all lumpy and pulled funny. But I left my belt in Michigan and my trousers are too big, so I succumbed. I can only imagine the disaster that will ensue if I lose weight in the very small town I'm going to. I'll have to give up wearing my favorite brown trousers.

And... gotta go.

14 August 2007

and i thought i might get some sleep. ha!

I thought I was in pretty good shape for the (tomorrow!) departure. I have most of my stuff in or around two suitcases. I've gone through my list of things to do (all but change phone message). I have a list of things I absolutely must remember. I thought I was doing just fine, and I'd be in bed about now.

That was before I started in on the second to last item on my list: do some loan-repayment work. As it turns out, I need to send multitudes of papers to my school, several of which papers are not available from either 1. the things lenders have been sending me or 2. the online statements. Which means that tomorrow I get another lovely round of lender calling. Cit.iba.nk? WORST COMPANY EVER. It is irresponsible to provide so little information to their consumers. And their website is impossible, as is their phone system. There is weeping and gnashing of teeth every time I have to deal with them. (Ooooh. I hope someday I get to do a customer survey! Pick me! Pick me! At random.) And after the round of lender calling, I need to photocopy things. And mail them (if I can even get them all by tomorrow, otherwise... Mom?).

So that's a nightmare.

I am also contemplating a Big Life Change, involving a desire to actually do law for a while (instead of international jobs, which tend to consist of mostly telling other countries how to do law). Since I don't have any experience actually doing law, I have to talk to the career people at school about how one gets a job actually doing law when one has no experience actually doing law. So that's tomorrow morning, in between lender phone calls and photocopying.

And despite the fact that the stuff is all in and around the suitcases? I'm switching one of the suitcases. So that's a big remaining task. That and figuring out the weights. I think it might be a problem that I have two suitcases, and I can't get it down to one, and my last flight (not part of tomorrow's itinerary but coming up on a separate ticket a few days later) is an inter-Africa flight that isn't going to allow two suitcases. I hate that part. How is one 20-kilo bag ever enough? I can hardly fit my toothbrush in such a bag.

In news mostly unrelated to my imminent departure for East Africa, I have been religiously eating my yogurt twice a day. It doesn't seem to be helping, and after extensive googling, I am 95.6% certain that I have a parasite (hello there, little bugs and/or worms living inside me!). It explains everything, including the fact that I am hungry every second of every day. These stupid parasites are taking all my nutrients and leaving me with the leftovers, like probably the fats. But I will be in Nairobi in 48 hours and I plan to buy drugs with which to vanquish them (after consulting my friend Dr. B in Rwanda and/or a clinic in Kenya, obviously. Google and I aren't quite THAT good. There are still quite a few possibilities.).

Although the yogurt is not helping, I'm learning not to hate it. It's causing a crisis. I might have to rethink my entire identity. Hating yogurt has been a deep and abiding characteristic of mine. Remember my 12-tastes theory? I've now had yogurt nine times and I have to say... I sort of enjoyed this last cup. Blast.

12 August 2007


I managed to finagle a new camera out of my parents for my birthday, which is in seven weeks, which is exactly in the middle of the time I'm spending in the middle of nowhere, so it works. I won't be around to receive anything later. (I make them sound reluctant. They were not, of course. They are my parents! They LOVE giving me birthday presents.)

I love my old camera (a Canon Powershot G2 that I bought before Rwanda), but it is (gasP) only 4 megapixels. And it's so big that I can't fit it in my purse or pocket. I just never carry it with me and I end up with no pictures. (The great thing about it, though, is the swivel screen, which you can flip out and turn backwards to see yourself in the screen.)

So all spring, I stalked cameras and when one of the stalked models went on clearance a few weeks ago, I snapped it up. Okay, my parents snapped it up for me and I snapped up the memory card (huge) and the warranty. And I've fallen in love all over again. I carry it everywhere. It fits in my purse and it weighs barely anything, so why not?

I've gone a bit picture happy:

Yes, that is the mall. What's your point?

11 August 2007

packing, et al.

What with the six day notice for Africa departure, I have to crank up the productivity a bit. After three months of doing lovely things like swimming in lakes (okay, I did this again today - how could I resist? Everyone was going), I now have to get myself packed and out the door. Four days from now I'll be... somewhere over Ireland on my way to Amsterdam. The problem is not the actual packing. I have two suitcases on the floor of the basement, each nearly filled. I could be ready to go in an hour, albeit without the pen refills for my crippled person pen that keeps my wrists from hurting.

But the basement... oh, the basement. I want to run screaming from the house when I look at it. When I even think of it. My mom kindly offered to help me today and we worked away at it for a few hours. It looks a bit better. There is space to walk in my bedroom, for example. It's just that I haven't yet resigned myself to the inevitable, which is that I will not finish going through all the boxes of crap that I've thrown down there since I first packed to go to Rwanda in 2002. There are still, I think, about four of them, filled with things like the reusable mug that we all got in college so as not to kill the environment. The memories! How can I throw these things away?

Meanwhile, their presence in my room, clogging up the closet and overflowing into the great room, are strangling me. I just need to get over them. I would, after all, never ever notice if someone stole them in the night.

My dad is also cleaning out his office and eliminating all the books he no longer wants from his previous career. We all took a break and sat around gloomily contemplating all we have left to do and then my mom said, "What we need is another evacuation."

It took me a minute to realize that she was talking about when we evacuated from Liberia in 1990, under warning that the fighting was 30 miles from our house. My mom packed all night and we drove to Robertsfield in the morning, then flew out the next day. We took only what we could carry on or check in on the flight to Amsterdam. Everything else got left, and looted, and sold off to Ivory Coast (so we were told by friends and neighbors). Photos of my brother and I later turned up at a refugee camp in Ivory Coast and someone who knew us saw them and sent them back to us, a bit worse for the wear.

I don't want to go through that again. Not so much for what it did to me, but for the whole WAR aspect.

But it really would be nice if all my junk just disappeared.

My mom offered to stage an evacuation: anything not in boxes by Monday morning gets taken to the thrift store. It's tempting.

10 August 2007


I woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. (Is that right? I woke up? Maybe it's "I got out of the wrong side of bed this morning?") Whatever. Everyone knows what it means, anyway.

It's not so much that I'm in a bad mood as that some small things put me in a very bad mood for a few minutes (or, well, hours). Like calling the student loan companies, all three of them and getting:
  1. Someone who had no idea and then (after the worst fading in and out, scratchy hold music ever to have been imagined so that I had to hold the phone two feet from my ear and then keep checking if someone had come on the line) a consolidation person who explained that, yes, when you consolidate, you are not, in fact, locking in the current rate (as advertised), but bumping it up 1/8 of a percent. RIGHT. MAKES PERFECT SENSE. Liars.
  2. Someone who did not actually understand what I meant when I said, "So a term is a month?" (Because term also appears to be used to describe the total length of repayment.) I finally ended up saying, slowly, "Is a term equal to a month? Term equals month?"
  3. Someone who knew what was going on (after hanging up and calling back twice because I could. not. get. a real person - zero was "not a valid selection") but cheerfully informed me that the consolidations I tried to do last summer and the summer before? They have no record of them. I'm now paying interest rates 5% and 2.5% higher than necessary on about $60,000 for my first two years of law school.
I got kind of crabby after that. That and the fact that not one of these companies ever sends you a document saying, "This is how much you borrowed. This is the interest rate. This is how much you owe right now." WHICH WOULD BE NICE. But no, the information is buried somewhere.

On to more interesting topics.

Last summer, just before I left Liberia (the night before), I spent a terrible night running to the bathroom with, er, intestinal issues. And then right before I left my room to drive to the airport to get on the plane, I barfed. A lot. Initially, I assumed that I had eaten something bad (like, say, the ice cream from the street vendor? Smart move, that.). I got on the plane and felt better and all was well.

Except... it wasn't. My stomach has never really returned to normal. I feel sick after many a meal, and, not to be too graphic, but visits to the bathroom are always a surprise. (Hey, just be glad you didn't go on the service trip that I went on to Nicaragua in 1999. All 16 of us asked each other, for weeks, "You solid yet?") Every once in a while, I feel the distinct barfing urge and have to sit veeery veeery still for a while to avoid actually doing it.

I've thought of lots of possibilities, including chronic malaria, chronic typhoid, ameobas, worms... All pleasant, I know.

A few minutes ago, I had a BRAINSTORM. My brainstorm was this: when I was seven, I felt sick to my stomach for an entire year. While living in Liberia. What ended it was my mom finally making me eat some yogurt.

I hate yogurt.

But, I had a sudden thought that maybe, just maybe, yogurt might help. After all, both stomach diseases are from Liberia, and both have similar symptoms.

I hate yogurt.

But, I got some out of the fridge, added some hazelnut creamer and two teaspoons of sugar (I hate yogurt and I also hate cooked fruit, so that wasn't a flavor-disguising option).

I hate yogurt.

But, I can plug through three or four bites before the gag reflex kicks in, so I'm working on it. Hey, it worked when I was seven.

(When I was seven? I also thought I was pregnant. I was really worried about it, because I knew you were supposed to be married before you got pregnant, and I wasn't sure how, as a seven-year-old, I was going to be a mom. But I was sure I was pregnant. Needless to say, I did not, at the time, know how babies were made. A few months later, before my sister was born, I heard the whole story, which was a bit of a relief.)

09 August 2007

the journey is the destination

I've been trying really hard to enjoy this time in Michigan, spending days with my mom, doing all the normal life things that I missed in New York. This place is a part of me, after all. I didn't realize how much until I was released from the pressure and concrete of New York back into this green jungle of Michigan summer. I've been slowly recovering from law school, healing myself with sleep and conversation and Scrabble and exercise and fresh vegetables.

Example: when I drove back from New York in May, I had the road rage. Every time someone did something stupid, I started muttering, "Idiot," and worse.

Now I shrug and think, "That was stupid," and I maybe change the radio station.

On the highway a few days ago, I started thinking about the title of Dan Eldon's book, The Journey is the Destination. I like that phrase. I've used it before for various things. But I don't know that I really thought about it as I used it. I liked it. I liked the sound of it and I had a vague idea that it was probably a good thing. While driving mindlessly along I-94 last week, I started thinking about that moment: stiff, tired, bored with the passing scenery, unable to find a radio station playing the songs I wanted to hear. It was sort of tempting to think, "This? This is the destination? This moment? What if I don't like this moment all that much?"

There have been a lot of moments in the last three years that I haven't liked all that much. I often looked ahead and hoped things would be better later.

But I'm sick of that. This moment, right here, is the destination. I have carrot-ginger soup simmering on the stove and yeasty rolls rising on the back burners. My mom and I made them from scratch, to feed ourselves and my dad and my grandmas, who are coming for dinner and Scrabble.

The journey is the destination.


That said, I leave on Wednesday for East Africa.

08 August 2007


I'm stuck in a coffee shop. I came here because I wanted to update some software on my computer and I don't trust the internet connection at home to be consistent. Internet that flickers in and out is fine for emails and chatting, but not for large file downloads. So I came to a coffee shop, where my computer is going on with things interminably. It's actually now scanning my external hard drive for viruses, of which there are literally hundreds, due to the computer crises of last summer, the ones involving the belief that Liberia killed my computer (actually a cracked motherboard), followed by reinstalling everything with whatever cds were available, followed by infestation with over seven hundred viruses, followed by trying to back everything up to the external hard drive, followed by finally getting real antivirus protection for the computer, followed by forgetting to clean the external hard drive. Sigh. (One of those viruses was particularly vicious, by the way. It made my computer shut down whenever I tried to download something. Conveniently, then, I couldn't download anti-virus software. I had to get a cd.)

When I came in here, I wanted coffee, but then I saw a picture of a mint chocolate chip frozen thing, so I got that. And I drank it all immediately.

Then I felt sick. That feeling is finally going away, two hours later. But the antivirus scan is still a-running, and I'm getting all squirmy in my seat. Sitting for too long. SQUIRMY.

07 August 2007

hot summer days

On the day I moved to New York, in August of 2004, it was hot, as New York tends to be in August. (Although I wouldn't really know; I've never spent more than 8 days of August in New York. I avoided summers in New York as if this was 1615 and the plague was running rampant in the streets. If New York had streets in 1615.)

So, it was August, and it was over 100 degrees everywhere, and hotter in Manhattan because of those ground-warming subways, and I hadn't yet figured out that it's only something like $6 to take a taxi from Penn Station to the area I was to inhabit for most of the next three years. I took a train in from Newark airport, and then I took the subway to my stop.

I had two huge suitcases plus a smaller carry on suitcase, but in the airport after disembarking from my flight, I had condensed them into the two big suitcases, which had space for more weight than they were allowed, if that makes sense. So I had two huge 70-pound suitcases and I was hauling them through subway stations in 105 degree weather in New York City. Some very kind men helped me carry them up the staircases, since I could only do one at a time, and then I came out of the ground at what I knew was my stop, but didn't know which direction I was supposed to go and there were people all around and I didn't want to take out my map and inspect it. So I just started walking.

Two blocks later, nothing looking familiar (I had visited the school, after all), I put everything down, fished out the map, and discovered that I was going in the wrong direction. I was going north when I should have gone east. I stood on that corner, sweat dripping steadily off the end of my nose, and I wanted to sit down on my suitcase and cry, except that there was no shade and no respite from the heat, so I had to keep going, over and back. A woman moving in her undergrad daughter helped me with a suitcase, and eventually I found my new home.

After I dropped off my bags, I found my way to a bookstore and I sat on the floor in the children's section, reading a book, enjoying the airconditioning, and startling every time the ground shook with a passing subway train.


Every once in a while, I am tempted to very patronizingly say, "You are all so CUTE!" to the people of this, my middle and high school hometown. "So innocent! So adorable! So un-worldly!"


THEY DON'T WRITE AREA CODES BEFORE PHONE NUMBERS HERE. They just ASSUME that there is only ONE area code. Who needs anything more?

I had to tell someone my phone number today and I said, "9-1-7..." and then I stopped, because I saw her type this Michigan area code followed by 917. "No," I said, "9-1-7 IS the area code."

And everyone in the place turned to look at me strangely.

Hey, I'm always startled by the advertisements that just start out, for example, 385-0000. "Where?" I want to ask. "3-8-5, WHERE?"

That said, in Rwanda every (landline) phone number was only 6 digits long. And in my town, every number started with 5-6-8, which means that there were only 999 phone lines possible in the town. You only had to tell people your last three digits.


This morning I gave up quite a quantity of blood in the interest of discerning things like my blood type. ("Moment of truth!" I said to my mom. "Here is where we find out if I'm really your kid." As if there was any question, considering that I look, talk, sing, and sprain my joints exactly like a perfect mix of my parents.) Apparently it's good to know your blood type when you head off to little tiny towns in the middle of nowhere. Not that there is transfusable blood available.

Afterward, I went to find my Aunt Lisa, who works nearby and who, I think, does not mind her full name being used instead of "my aunt, L." (Right, Aunt Lisa?) Anyway, she shared the grapes from her lunch with me and we talked about family far and wide and how much fun it is to drive cars with dented fenders. Grapes and conversation, both, were lovely.

(Random movie quote: "There it is! There's that dented Beatle!" Anyone? T, you don't get to play because I KNOW YOU KNOW. Unless you don't, in which case, play on.)

06 August 2007


I came into the house last night and, as is my wont, threw down all the stuff I was carrying and turned on the computer. I walked back and forth a few times, getting a snack and some cds I wanted to import, and noticed that I kept stepping in some slippery clear substance that was lying in the seams of the tile floor. I didn't really pay much attention, though, until my mom came home and said, "What's this?" After some investigation, it turned out to be motor oil whose container was with the recycling in the closet. It's clear, I guess, before it runs through your car picking up all the dirt of a combustion engine. It's been cleaned up a bit, but I still feel it on my feet and keep saying, "I have motor oil on my feet!"


Last night in our Sunday night Scrabble game, I picked up a Q, a Z, and a J on the first turn. With no vowels. And no vowels were forthcoming, on my tray or on the board. What on earth am I supposed to do with letters like that?


I feel like I've been holding my breath for the last two - three - ten months. I'm still holding my breath, but now it's only for the date of departure for East Africa. The others have eased. If I were sensible, I would perhaps be holding my breath about whether I'll like this new place I'm going, but I'm calm about that part. What's not to like? It's a new place in Africa.

Ask me again in a few months - then I might have a real answer. But I expect to like it.

02 August 2007

one more day in... well.





Otherwise, things are just dandy. My mom and I went with my two grandmothers (known respectively as Grandma and Oma - the Dutch word - here to be abbreviated to G and O, because I am just that lazy) to the mall. We've already established that, for the sake of her feet, my mom rides in the little cart, which at the mall is called an AMIGO. She likes the amigo better than the grocery store cart, because it: 1. goes faster, 2. has speeds other than "stopped" and "full speed," 3. has a very tight turning radius. O also needed an amigo, so we slapped down our deposits on the only two the mall has, and raced off to tear things up. G and I walked, but at one store, when my mom and O were looking at, I don't know, pants? shirts? dresses? I sat on one of the amigos, flipped up the armrests, and made G squeeze onto it with me. I was mostly off the seat, so I had to reach around her and hang on to the amigo with my right hand. We went careening off amongst the displays, with my slightly uncoordinated left hand not quite maneuvering correctly. Also, we were hanging off the seat on both sides, so the whole contraption was a little wider than normal and I kept jabbing my hip with the corners of display tables.

Then we had lunch and capped it off by sharing four ways a mint mud.slide milkshake from the big yellow rounded M fast food place. Dee-lush-us.


On a little, clear, oblong lake in the next county, my dad dropped the anchor on the boat just short of the lily pads, and my mom in her clothes and I in my swimsuit slipped off the back end of the boat into the warm water. "It's weird to swim in a t-shirt," she said, "because it twists around you in a way you don't expect." (I would have thought it would be the jean shorts that seemed weird.) She floated and I treaded water, and when we got back to the boat launch, there was a lovely red setter trying to swim away from his owner.

01 August 2007

i can't sit still, and it's only going to get worse

I got loads of lovely information about the new East Africa thing today, and now I can't sit still. I randomly shout out things like "GAH!" out of sheer excitement. Because I'm going! Somewhere! The more I read about it, the more excited I get.

Before the receipt of all the lovely information, I was bored. Reee-ally bored. Bored to the extent that I was willingly trying to figure out what is going on with my student loans, a task I have been avoiding for weeks. Months, even. Years? The truth is that I want to forget that my student loans exist. Actually facing them is a sign that the boredom and need for forward movement has reached extreme levels.

But yesterday, in boredom, I resorted to opening all the hundreds of envelopes in the basket in my bedroom where my parents have been throwing them since 2004. Then I filed them all away in a new (thrift store) filing cabinet. I ended up with two very full grocery bags of paper for recycling, just from opening the envelopes. (We are CRAZY MAD recyclers in this family. We recycle everything possible. We also compost, which smells bad but is of course good for the earth.)

Then today, I filed some more papers I found and cleaned out a plastic bag of random stuffs, but ran out of papers (not random stuffs, there are more random stuffs in my room then one would believe possible for one person to own) and I had to succumb to the horrors of examining the student loans. Horrors. Horrors.

I finally figured out where all my money came from in law school (prior to today, I was just madly signing promissory notes with no concept of who and how much). Law school doesn't miraculously fund itself, it turns out. Now I just have to call all those lenders and figure out how to set up my loans so I'll be paying them all at the right time and in the right manner. Right now, I have three lenders and apparently about 10 separate loans. Somehow, it has to be possible to make this simpler. I'm thinking that some consolidation might be in order (of course I missed the better interest rate in June). I'm going to be in other lands, after all, and not at all paying attention to the loan statements that come in. As if I paid attention to them over the last three years, ever. Heh. I didn't even open the envelopes until yesterday.

Oh! Movie starting.