28 October 2008


In these orange-golden days of fall, I bake tray after tray of pumpkin muffins. I bring them to parties. I eat them for dinner. I take them to work. Every morning, I give one to my next-cubicle-over friend, and she eats it with her coffee. I never thought I would like pumpkin muffins, but these are full of warm spices and not too sweet and I could eat them all year long.

i am an idiot

So I have been very excited about voting. I have never gotten to actually physically vote. In 2000 I was in Honduras (registered to vote in Michigan) and the absentee ballot never came. I missed the entire Bush-Gore-Bush-Gore-Bush-Gore-Bush-Gore-Nader game. I'm still not completely sure what a hanging chad is. Michigan went Gore, though, so my vote was not missed. In 2004, I did get my absentee ballot while living in New York, and I voted. I was pumped, though, to do it in real life. Then I discovered two things:
  1. All voting here is by mail. Dur.
  2. I accidentally recycled my ballot, because I did not know it was coming in the mail. Double dur.
I had to call and request a new one and you would think that the lady taking the requests for replacement ballots would have heard everything, right? But no, she still snorted audibly with laughter when I said, "I need a new ballot because I accidentally recycled my other one."

You cannot tell me I'm the only person who did this.

And I'm never going to get to physically go to the polling station and pull a lever. How very annoying.

27 October 2008


I was afraid, from all I had heard, that there would be no real fall here, not the sort of clear crisp days that I expect from my years in Michigan. Person after person told me that the rains start in October and continue until May, and I pictured sodden clumps of brown leaves in the gutters.

Instead, these days have been all yellow-gold. The sun shines less harshly than it did a month ago, and the yellow leaves glow in its light. I sit out in the park at lunch without a jacket, soaking up what seems like the last of the sun before we all go into hibernation.

S. and I went rambling yesterday afternoon. We walked and we talked, and we giggled when two cute shirtless guys ran by. We wandered down to the river, low this time of year, and picked our way across to a former island, now stranded in a sea of mud. We sat in the setting sunlight until we got cold and worried about making it back to the car before dark.

On the way back, we clambered up a hill covered in blackberry brambles. Thorns stuck in our jeans so that we were picking them out long after the road opened before us. We walked down a two-track next to a field and I said, "This reminds me of Africa, of Tanzania, where our house was on the edge of the city and I could take walks at sunset into the fields." We walked past a little grove of young trees, and she said, "In China, that would be a forest, those little trees planted in a row. It would be the greenest thing around."

The different parts of the world are not so different. I saw Michigan in the blackberries, Rwanda in the stony paths, Tanzania in the fields.

It was just fully dark when we walked out of the woods. Headlights were flashing by on the highway, and there were just a few cars left in the parking lot. We were relieved that the park gates were still open.

25 October 2008

a year ago this month

(Tiny Little Town, Southern Sudan)

I sat in a plastic chair under a tree with three of the blue army, waiting. I’m not sure what the difference is between the blue and the green army, but these wear blue camouflage instead of green. In Rwanda, J. and E. called the variously clothed soldiers the blue army, the green army and the red army, and I fell into the habit of doing the same.

Two of the blue army wore blue berets with silver insignias. The third had Nuer scarring on his forehead and a silver filigreed costume jewelry ring with a huge green oval stone. He had a satellite phone in his pocket that periodically sat alerted. He walked out to the sunshine and answered the phone, but no one was ever on the other end.

They had propped their guns on the ground – two against the tree and one pointing at the tree on its own little kickstand.

They were no older than 20. A younger girl, 15 or 16, sat with them, talking.

We tried to communicate. We exchanged names. One name was very long, although I managed to pick out Hakim and I went with that. Communication failed us after that exchange. They went back to talking amongst themselves. I leaned back and watched the breeze in the leaves. One of them lit a cigarette, then another. The last one held an unlit cigarette in his mouth for a while, dangling in a cigarette holder, before he finally lit it.

The oldest of the three, the most muscular and adult, motioned for my sunglasses on the top of my head. I handed them over to him and he put them on and mimed driving a car, fast, around tight corners. He spun his hand on the imaginary wheel of the car. Then he laughed and handed them back to me.

21 October 2008


Random Purse Story Number 1:

One day in Buchanan, Liberia, when I was about, oh, maybe 7 (I don't think I had a baby sister yet), my mom and brother and I got in our Peugeot 504 station wagon to go into town. R. and I sat in the back seat. My mom forgot something, so she ran back into the house to get it, after firmly warning my brother and I to watch her purse lest a rogue should steal it out of the front seat. Rogues were common at the time. "Okay," we nodded, and as soon as she left, I took her purse and hid it in the back seat on the floor. "Mom!" I said when she got back, "Mom! A rogue came by and he just grabbed your purse and ran!"

Sneaky little bugger, wasn't I?


Random Purse Story Number 2:

About the same time, also in Liberia, my dad and all the missionary men he worked with went to conference up-country. At some point during this conference, they ate some poo. I mean, they ate some food that was contaminated with poo. Not the poo itself. Not straight, plain poo. One by one, they fell dramatically ill with what appeared to be Hepatitis A (but was NOT, as would become clear only this last summer when one of these same missionary men went back to Liberia, unvaccinated because he thought he had already had Hepatitis A, and came down with Hepatitis A and typhoid at the same time and almost died because what treats one poisons the liver, leading to the current hypothesis that what they all had in 1987 was Hepatitis E or Q or Something). Anyway, in 1987 they all came down with Hepatitis Something. My dad conveniently came down with Hepatitis Something while at still another conference in Nairobi, Kenya. The good news is that they have good hospitals in Nairobi. The bad news is that he was unable to go out and shop for the Kenyan purses that were all the rage amongst missionaries in Liberia at the time. He had to send someone else to do the shopping, and that person failed to buy a kid-sized version of the Kenyan purses that were all the rage amongst missionaries in Liberia at the time. I was devastated.

The funny thing is that when I went back to Kenya in 2000, I didn't even particularly like those purses. I still have yet to own one, despite numerous opportunities.


I got a flu shot today and in the silly little conversation with the nurse, I said, "I love vaccines."

"You LOVE them?" she asked, stabbing me with a needle.

"Yes," I said, "they have saved me from so very many diseases."

By her humorless laugh, I doubt she realizes just how true this is in my life. I take every vaccine they will throw my way. Meningitis? Typhoid? Hep A? Flu? Bring it on. The only ones I've been offered and don't have are cholera (my travel nurse says only effective 50% of the time against one strain; not worth it) and rabies (I wanted it, but toooo expensive and you still only have something like 72 hours to get the rest of the post-bite shots).

20 October 2008

overuse of the word "love" so that it no longer has meaning

I'm really starting to love my little life here. It surprises me to find that Gone West really is the sort of place where you get invited to spend a Sunday evening peeling apples and canning applesauce in someone's kitchen, just for fun. I had these fantasies when I moved here of dinner parties and hiking and drinks on the terrace. I wanted a social life, in a way that I didn't have the energy for in New York and didn't have the varied people for in Tiny Little Town in South Sudan. And just what part of that has not turned out to be true? None. It's my new reality, and I love it. I'm still working on making enough friends to keep me busy whenever I want to be busy (amuse me, people!), but the ones I have are pretty rocking cool. On Saturday, I went to a party that involved pouring layers of liquor into tiny glasses so that you can actually see the layers. This is surprisingly hard, and what I want to know is: how cool are the people who came up with this plan? So cool. I love them. It's like chemistry class WITHOUT A GRADE. And NO TESTS. I love all my nerdy friends.

I also love my little apartment. I have a bed and a couch and it's all so warm and cozy in red and orange. I finally have a bookshelf (courtesy of my lovely sister and a birthday I just had), and I got around to hanging my fabric map of Africa purchased on the street in Monrovia in front of Abu Jaoudi's and my geometric poop painting from eastern Rwanda. (What? You don't know the geometric poop paintings of eastern Rwanda? They are made by shaping ridges of cow manure on a sheet of plywood, setting it out in the sun to dry, and then painting over it in white and black paint. They actually started as painting on the sides of houses until crazy touristical people came along and wanted to take them home with them. I think. Unfortunately, the place where women actually make them, out on the road that runs from Umutara down to Kibungo, is extremely difficult to find; also no one speaks English. Good thing I know how to say 5000 francs in Kinyarwanda. Or did.

And no, there is no smell of manure. This is what mine looks like:

End parentheses.

And at the risk of getting even sappier, and even though I know one is never supposed to write about one's job, I love my job. Without going into too much detail, because that is always dangerous, for quite a while I had a job that required me to show up every day and go somewhere new and work with new people. It was exhilarating at times, but also sometimes boring and exhausting and I always, always had to be impressing new people. It was like a five month long interview. Now I have a work home and I work with the same people every day and they are fantastic and I am actually competent at my job and I love going to it every morning. It's actually the very same job that I was doing for the previous five months, so the exhilarating part is still there, I just don't have to be making first impressions every day. I belong somewhere.

AND, I have health insurance now. GOOD health insurance. I pay FIVE DOLLARS to go to the doctor and FIVE DOLLARS to get a prescription. Even the pharmacist when I went last week, after she helped me track down my ID number and all, said, "Wow, you have really good health insurance." (Which is exactly what I just said. Aren't you glad I just told a story that added nothing to what I said?)

So yes. Love, lovety, love. Can I use this word any more often? Are you gagging on the sickly sweetness of this post yet? Go right ahead. Gag. GAG.

18 October 2008


All that is gold does not glitter
Not all those who wander are lost
The old that is strong does not wither
Deep roots are not reached by the frost

From the ashes a fire shall be woken
A light from the shadows shall spring
Renewed shall be blade that was broken
The crownless again shall be king

~JRR Tolkien

after this, i am taking a break from politics

I really need to stop writing about politics. I read an article in the New York Times this morning that pointed out the fact that, this time around, Obama supporters genuinely believe that the country will topple off a precipice into disaster if McCain is elected, and McCain supporters genuinely believe that the country will topple off a precipice into disaster if Obama is elected. I am guilty of a bit of that myself, to be honest. I actually do think the country will topple into disaster if McCain is elected. I predict economic chaos, the rise of international terrorism, additional unnecessary wars, and fewer and fewer people able to access health care, if McCain gets elected.

I asked my friend I. in Canada if she would marry me if McCain got elected, so I could have Canadian citizenship (this is apparently something white people do - threaten to move to Canada if their candidate loses an election - but why not? it's a beautiful big country right north of us, and they aren't bothering with these silly fights about abortion and gay marriage while the country descends into nightmare).

Unfortunately, I. wants to marry a man. The good news is that I want to marry a man, too, so I was not too devastated that my first proposal ever was rejected.

Anyway, it was a joke. I would not give up my US citizenship. My grandparents and great-grandparents came too far and gave up too much for me to toss aside my citizenship like that. While there are many things I would change about this country, it is the country of my birth. It is one of my several heritages. There are few things as safe and comforting to me as a Dutch family dinner on a Sunday afternoon. At my friend S.'s parents house here in Gone West, I feel the same homecoming as when I walk on a red dirt road somewhere in Liberia, or when I fly over the glowing leaves of Michigan's remaining forest land, or when I curl up next to the fire at C. and D.'s house in the Netherlands.

This is the beautiful thing about this country: we all come from something. I come from farm country in the Netherlands and a college town in Michigan and a bustling port city in Liberia. My good friend from law school comes from a sharecropping family on the border between Texas and Arkansas. I read yesterday about a school in Wyoming that teaches kids in Arapaho.

We all come from somewhere, and it's no surprise that we disagree. I am as guilty as anyone of getting angry sometimes, but less and less as I become more confident of what I believe, politically. It is not a reaction to anyone else's politics: I simply know what I think.

And in the end, I know that it will not be such a disaster if McCain gets elected. Sure, I'll be unhappy. It may be hard to get out of bed the next morning to face a world of more of the same Bushie-ness. But we all come from somewhere and there is enough healthy disagreement to keep us all accountable, if we can listen to each other.

15 October 2008

old white men

Four years ago, during the Bushie/Kerry election, my friend K. and I joked that we wanted to make t-shirts that said, "I'm so sick of old white men," due to the fact that there we were, another election, another set of old white men as our only options. After I thought about it, I realized that this could be taken the wrong way, so it's probably a good thing that we didn't ever make them.

But it made me think.

The Christmas after that election, I got in a little, er, discussion, shall we say, with some relatives. One relative said that the country was in so much better a condition 200 years ago - more focused on God, more moral. I could only gape at him and finally I said, "Yeah, for rich white men it was better! It wasn't better for anyone black. They were slaves. And it certainly wasn't better for women."

I don't think things were better in this country 200 years ago. I think some things were better, perhaps, and some things were worse. For anyone concerned about the moral heart of the country, I point out that slavery was supremely immoral, and it was a fatal flaw in the moral heart of the nation just as surely as anything happening now. To get all Biblical on you, oppression is the one sin that God hates, as the Bible says over and over. I can't imagine he was all that happy with this country in 1804 given the slavery thing. This country was a brilliant place to live in 1804, sure, if you were white. And rich. And male. And if you didn't mind the fact that thousands of people were enslaved.

A few weeks ago, this old white men thing came up again. I was talking with a friend about issues of race and gender, and I told her this story. Why, we wondered, do white men get so defensive when the situations of women and people of color improve even a little?

I can only conclude that it seems to white men like a zero sum game. If people of color are less oppressed, white men lose power. If women gain power, white men lose it. It makes sense, in a way, because if other people are no longer under your control, you feel like you have less power. You feel like you are losing control. It's not really a tenable power, though. Keeping the power to control other people... well, I don't have that much sympathy. I'm sick of old white men, and I'm sick of them clinging to power.

14 October 2008


In my little old Michigan, we do not have a DMV. We have a Secretary of State, and we go there for licenses to drive, etc. I have had a Michigan driver's license since the day after I turned 16 (I turned 16 on a Sunday) and a driving permit for 10 months before that. Everywhere I've lived for the last 14 years, I've been a Michigan driver.

No longer. My Michigan license expired on my birthday, October 1, and it didn't quite seem right to renew it, since I no longer live there. (Don't think I didn't think about just renewing it in Michigan - there was some serious emotional attachment going on there.)

But no. I got a little driver's manual and I studied the rules of the road and I went to the DMV and I waited in a crowded waiting room for them to call number B75 and I sat at a computer answering questions with photos that seemed to involve an inordinate number of cars made in about 1983, and they took away my Michigan license, never to be seen again, and today in the mail I got a brand new New State Driver's License.

It looks like I might actually be here to stay.

08 October 2008

those highlighted words down below are a link; click on them.

Conversation ~ 1 year ago:

Person I know: You are wearing trousers! Trousers are not permitted here.

Me: [dumbfounded stare]

Person: No, the commissioner has said that trousers are not permitted. Women are not permitted to wear trousers.

Me: That is not possible. I am going to wear trousers. Even the commissioner cannot prevent me from wearing trousers.

Person: Those trousers will maybe be okay. They are not too tight.

Me: [spluttering]


Check this: South Sudanese Women Arrested for Tight Trousers.

an open letter to my no-longer-favorite airline

Dear Northwest Airlines,

I was shocked to discover, upon investigating your website, that you now charge for checked luggage. I was aware that some airlines have started to do so, but disappointed that you have joined them. Furthermore, you offer the following in the FAQs:


1. Why is Northwest changing its luggage policy and charging for each piece of checked luggage for travel in North America?

Northwest is better aligning its costs to transport luggage for each passenger.


Are you kidding me? This is the most ridiculous nonsensical sentence I've ever read. It has no meaning, other than, "we love screwing people over." (No, really, read it again. It has no meaning. I HATE it when people think that big words substitute for meaning.) I have been an increasingly frustrated customer for the last several years - I used to love you, and then I didn't love you anymore, and now I sort of despise you. Today, I am already irate, and I haven't even gotten on my flight yet. I remind myself once again that you are teetering on the edge of being an airline I swear never to fly again.

(American Airlines! Remember me? I swore off you after flights to/from Jamaica in which the bathrooms had pee dribbling out the door on ALL THREE PLANES and we had no time to make our connection in Miami and I almost died of hunger because I didn't have exact-change-only-please-$5 for a snack box? Remember how I hate you and will never fly you again? I do not miss you!)

(Kenya Airways! I miss you! I miss those delicious wheat rolls you serve for breakfast and the way the flight attendants smile at me and don't act like they hate me for existing. Also those lovely red and green blankets that I've never stolen because I want you to stay in business but I want one so. badly. Northwest could learn something from you. I have never felt like flight attendants so resented my existence - any passenger's existence - until my last few flights on Northwest.)

So, NWA, we are on shaky ground. Someday soon, I am going to get a well-paying lawyerly job and you know what? I will pay extra to avoid you. I'd rather ride the city bus belching exhaust all the way across the country than be treated like utter scum as your employees treat all customers.

Why is it that health insurance companies and airlines are the two industries that get away with treating their customers as if they hate us, as if the money we pay is not quite good enough to earn us customer service?


A (former) (unappreciated) Passenger

06 October 2008

moving up in the world

Let us shift our focus to a topic that we can all safely agree on: isn't it delicious to sleep up off the floor?

I realize that this is completely cultural. There is no real need to sleep on a sleeping surface that is raised off the floor. Here, at least; in other parts of the world there is the malaria mosquito, which lives within 18 inches of the ground, not to be confused with the cow mosquitoes in Southern Sudan that bit me through my jeans and through any gap in my raincoat and on my face, the only exposed part of my body. Those were some mammoth, vicious mosquitoes. (I call them cow mosquitoes because I was told that they could bite cows through their hide. See: mammoth, vicious, above.) Malaria mosquitoes, though, live close to the ground, so a raised bed would help.

One of the reasons why I survive well in developing countries is that I can tolerate a great deal. Discomfort, inconvenience, delay. I don't really mind them. As long as I am warm and there is prospect of some food at some point in the future, I can put up with most inconveniences. This is fantastic when I'm living in Rwanda and we are waiting for four hours on the top of a mountain for someone to come show us some possible goat stables. It's great when I'm using a pit latrine in Southern Sudan. It's perfect when that bed in Ethiopia doesn't really look or smell too clean. (I draw the line at cockroaches, though. I don't like cockroaches.)

It's not so great when I'm living in Gone West. In fact, it has gotten downright embarrassing. The other day when the topic somehow came up in a group setting, that I was sleeping on an air mattress on the floor nine months after I moved into this apartment, a male friend said, "Wow. You've been sleeping on an air mattress on the floor even longer than I did. And I thought I was bad."

This is not okay. I cannot be more of a slacker than a boy. A boy! You know how they are! Boys have two beers and a package of hot dogs in their fridge! Boys haven't cleaned their sinks since they moved in! Boys think a microwave is the only cooking implement one needs! (I just thought of some more examples, but it turns out they are all also true of my half-together apartment, like the books on the floor instead of on a shelf and the shower curtain still just the clear liner - but I did this on purpose so the bathroom would not look so crowded. It's not like I have roommates. No one here but me. A clear shower curtain is just fine.)

I am apparently living more haphazardly than boys. This is just not acceptable.

So yesterday I sighed and coughed up the money for a bed frame. I had to buy the kind with wooden slats because I have an odd aversion to box springs, especially the cheap kind, because they sound like cardboard every time you turn over and it wakes me up every time. Plus a mattress + box spring is so bulky. The rest of the world does not do this. They sleep on a mattress alone like proper human beings. It's so much more streamlined.

Then I forced a friend to spend two hours putting together this 1ke@ monstrosity. I love 1ke@ until I try to put the stuff together. The golf-elbow arm has not recovered. There is aching. There is paining.

But, whatever. I slept up off the floor on a real bed frame last night, for the first time in nine months in my apartment.

Too bad I still have an air mattress in the bed frame.

Baby steps.

(Just don't ask when I'm finally going to get around to hanging something - anything - on the walls. Sigh.)

05 October 2008


It will come as no surprise to readers here that I am a Democrat. (I know! You are shocked! I have said nothing, NOTHING about how awful I think the current administration is and how huge an Obama supporter I am! OBAMA 08!)


A better question is how I managed to become a Democrat. Or, more properly phrased, why I have never ever been a Republican. Because I grew up with the Republicans, oh yes, I did. I was surrounded by them. In seventh grade, when Mr. DK had us do a mock vote (it was Clinton v. Bushie Sr. at the time), I was one of two people in our class of 32 who voted Democrat. Mr. DK cracked, "Bush wishes this was reality." (Good news! Bushie lost that year.)

We were expected to be good little Republicans. We were expected to be against abortion and welfare and to vote against them reflexively.

It never really worked for me. I think in the beginning I was a Democrat partly because one formative person in my life (who shall remain anonymous here) was a Democrat, and partly out of sheer obstinacy. ("You want me to be a Republican? Fine, I'll be a Democrat." - I always wanted to be rebellious but I was just too much of a rule-follower, so I had to do it in quieter ways.)

When I started really thinking about it later, I just could not accept the lines that Republicans fed me. For example, I could not believe that voting against abortion was more important than voting for foreign aid (something more than the 0.03% or whatever of the national budget we give now). Even given the assumption that life begins at conception, I could never accept, having grown up in Africa, that the life of a three-day old zygote was MORE important than the life of a child whose mother had to watch him starve to death in Africa, or the life of a child who was killed by a bomb paid for by my taxes. Equally important, I could accept, but I could not accept the focus on one at the expense of the other, and I could not accept that I was supposed to ignore one of them with my vote.

I also never could accept that welfare was a bad thing. I lived in the inner city, as close as AZO gets to inner city, anyway, and I just did not see that mythical "welfare mother" abusing the system. I saw desperate people who needed some help. If I have to choose between a government that uses my tax dollars to provide a safe environment for the children of single mothers without skills or a government that uses even more of my tax dollars (and a lot of money borrowed from China) to fight untenable wars in multiple countries, I am going to choose the government with a good social welfare system every time.

Later, I learned that it was all more complicated than I was told growing up. The rates of abortions are identical in countries with legal and illegal abortion. Abortion is not cheap or simple; women don't get abortions because they are a fun thing to do. Women get abortions because they feel like they have no other choice. Even if abortion is illegal in the US, they will continue to feel like they have no other choice. The rate of abortion in this country will not change. You know what will change if abortion is outlawed? The number of women who die while they are having abortions. Making abortion illegal will result in more death, not less. What actually does help in reducing the number of abortions is having more of a safety net for women in desperate situations. Like, oh, I don't know, welfare. Universal health care. Which is exactly what Democrats favor. This is why rates of abortion are lower under Democratic administrations than under Republican ones. You want to save unborn babies? Vote for the candidate who will provide the best safety net to pregnant women who do not have money, help or health insurance.

As long as outlawing abortion is the only issue for so many voters, Republican politicians are free to do whatever they want on all the other issues. They are free to deregulate everything to the point that even the average consumer (let alone anyone vulnerable because of youth, age or poverty) is at the whim of very large, anonymous corporations concerned only with the bottom line. They are free to shift the tax burden from the rich to the middle class and use the money to fund a horrific war based on false premises like, "Iraq has weapons of mass destruction." I'm really tired of knowing that my tax dollars kill people.

Republican politicians will never get rid of abortion, because then they will lose their core constituency. People will start thinking about other issues.

As I said a few weeks ago, I have a lot of respect for conservatives who have thought through their policies and remain convinced that deregulation and free trade will help the most people in the long term. I just happen to disagree. Deregulation, as we have seen, results in huge monopolies who will do anything for money. If we don't trust our government to do a better job with health care than the current huge monopolies who spend all their time trying not to give their customers the services they paid for, then we should be improving the government, not simply turning everything over to the big companies and giving them permission to screw people over even more completely in search of even more money than they already make. This is what accountability is all about.

The fact is that you will find very few Republican US Americans overseas. It just doesn't last once you start seeing the rest of the world as real people. The world is too complicated to vote only, reflexively on the issue of abortion. We are all too interconnected. The world, and this country, needs us to hold our leaders accountable for far more than their views on one single issue.

Now is the time to expect more from our government.

Go to Obama for President website

04 October 2008


I miss Africa in my bones.

(Because of this, right now.)

(I am not doing that thing where people are like, "And the country of Africa..." - THANK YOU, GEORGE IDIOT BUSH. It's just that I miss too many countries, too many bits of too many places over too many years on that huge continent. And I don't have time to list all the swirling memories in my head. The banality of grocery shopping awaits me.)