31 December 2008


Driving in Gone West that last night was like driving on a pitted dirt road. The truck bumped and bounced over the ruts created by too many cars with chained tires on un-snowplowed roads.

I stood waiting on a street corner in the snow between an apartment building and train tracks, orange Ethiopian scarf pulled up over my head and around my shoulders, soaking up big flakes of snow, watching each car and hoping it was the truck. The train had been packed with Christmas Eve revelers, one of whom walked up to me and said, “Do you like tea?” When I nodded the affirmative, he offered me a selection of tea bags from his pocket, Stash brand. I declined as politely as I could. His friend was animatedly telling a man about his experience in Alcoholics Anonymous, so Tea Guy went over and offered that guy some tea.

I fell asleep later on the K.’s couch, warm flax seed sock against my feet, while S. placed decorations on the windowsill at her mom’s direction and N. lolled on the floor looking up at the lights. S. woke me to stumble out to the truck and into her roommate’s empty bed. In the morning, I forgot to roll up the sleeping bag she gave me, and I sent her a text from the airport, apologizing.

The airport early on Christmas morning was crowded with people tired but pleasant, until our flight attendant “overslept” and we could not board for an hour and a half after scheduled departure. Then there was muttering. The woman making the announcement had a strong accent and a terrible loudspeaker, so few people over in our corner heard a word she said. “What did she say?” they asked me, the unofficial interpreter, over and over. “What did she say?” Finally a mom with two kids running early morning circles around an empty desk said, “Are you Area 2? I’ll just watch you and when you go, we’ll go.”

A. and I went walking in the dark and wind. We lay on our backs in the cold road, staring up at the stars. I told her about Orion, how you can see him when you stand in front of our old house in Liberia, how he is visible in the tropics all year long, but here you can only see him in the southern sky in winter. He makes me feel at home.

It is the sixth day of Christmas now, and it still feels like Christmas. I am three books into the Twilight saga, and after everyone is asleep, I sit by the Christmas tree and write. I have barely used the internet in almost a week, and it’s freeing to sit and wave my hand aimlessly when A. frantically announces that the wireless isn’t working. “Oh, well,” I say, sounding exactly like my mom. “Oh, well.”

24 December 2008


I had two snow days this week, which should have left me plenty of time to clean my apartment and pack and catch up on emails and be all ready to leave for Michigan early on Christmas morning, right?

Wrong. I spent much of those two days fighting with a virus on my computer.

(picture me with an angry face smacking the heads of two little plastic soldier figures together)

I didn't exactly win the battle, but the virus is currently held at bay, enough that I can plug my computer back into the internet without constant poppings up of warning messages telling me that my computer is full to bursting with viritical files, and also deathdyingcatastrophy. It only took one virus scan program, one history-deleter program, two days without internet, two anti-spyware programs, four sets of instructions, uncountable hours of scanning the computer, and a lot of pulling out of my own hair. I am practically bald now.

In other news, I saw Slumdog Millionaire, which was surprisingly good. (Surprisingly because I don't have tv, so I don't see commercials for movies, so I don't know about them, so I don't particularly want to see any movies, so I am surprised when I do see them and actually like them.) Anyway, despite my increasingly old and miserly ways with regards to movies, that's a good one. Except sad, despite some element of melodrama. I didn't expect sad.

It was all snowy here and pretty and there was great occasion for mocking of the people from the Pacific Northwest who had chains on their tires and of snowplows that got themselves stuck in snow drifts, and I did a lot of tromping through snow, and it looked like there might be a white Christmas, and now a few hours before Christmas it has started to rain. The indignity of trying to run last minute Christmas errands in the rain is just too much. I wash my hands of this place and I shall move on to Michigan, where there is real snow. And where no one bothers with chains on their tires.

20 December 2008


When I woke up this morning, er, afternoon, and saw that it was snowing, I thought to myself, in a rather self-satisfied manner, "I have everything I need in this apartment. I have no reason to go out into that. I shall just admire it from the warm indoors."

Five minutes later, I remembered that I'm out of cinnamon. Durrrr.

Whatever. I substituted pumpkin pie spices for the cinnamon in my morning (okay, fine, afternoon) homemade coconut chai. It wasn't as good, but it sufficed. 

Then I got an email from the library letting me know that I have six books on hold ready to pick up. Durrrrrrrrrrrr. I could really use something new to read.

It's still snowing out there. 

19 December 2008

how lovely are thy (plastic) branches

When I was seven or eight, I bought a little fake Christmas tree from one of my teachers who was leaving Liberia. I paid one dollar, although I can't remember if it was one Liberian dollar or one US dollar, and whether that difference mattered at all at the time (the Liberian dollar was pegged 1 to 1 to the US dollar for a long time). I think it had one single strand of lights, with some replacement bulbs, and I became very skilled at inspecting and fixing every single bulb and every single wire in the string when the lights went out, which they did often because they were the old-fashioned kind of lights in which the failure of any one bulb results in a failure of the entire strand.

We set the tree up on a table in my bedroom, and surrounded it with presents, some bigger than the tree. It was magical.

This year, I had a vision of tromping through snow (I think there was a soundtrack of lovely carols in my vision) and cutting a tiny Christmas tree for my little apartment. More carols would play as I lovingly decorated it with family heirloom ornaments perfectly sized for the little tree.

That didn't happen. I don't have a car, first of all, nor do I have a saw, or a tree stand, or, for that matter, money. Or even ornaments. And Christmas has just jumped forward in time, it seems. It came far too quickly.

I put up some white lights in the window, and I figured that plus Handel's Messiah and the gingerbread candle were holiday cheer enough.

Then someone brought a little fake tree into work. I was not immediately won over by this tree, because it was shiny. Green, but shiny. Another childhood experience of mine involved a shiny silver tree that my school in Liberia used. Every year, we had to sort 500 million (or so) little branches and try to put them into the right slots and cover up the places where branches were missing. And did I mention that it was silver? We had a hard enough time re-creating a culturally US American-like Christmas in Liberia (tropical weather? anyone? palm trees instead of pines?) without adding silly things like unnaturally colored fake Christmas trees. I never really accepted the color of that tree.

I was intrigued, however, by the low cost of the shiny green tree, and the proximity of the store that sold it to my work. Convenience beat out aesthetics (despite the fact that W@lgreens, purveyor of normal matte forest green fake trees and pretty much everything else a person could need other than food, is something like six entire blocks from my apartment), and I came home with a shiny little green tree.

It's actually two colors: bright shiny green, and matte lime green. It all looks very odd in the harsh light of day, but in the evening, after I added colored lights (colored lights are for trees, white lights for other decorations, I think), and a set of little round shiny ornaments, it suddenly looks, well, sparkly. Festive. Not unnatural after all. I have my own little tree in my own little apartment.

No carols magically played, though. I had to start the Messiah cd myself.

17 December 2008


I am, frankly, disappointed in the weather service. They had me all geared up for ferocious weather and snow days and now the sprinkles of rain are very anti-climactic. We need to step things up here.

The good news is that the return of the drear of winter has started me thinking about Where To Go Next. Yes, it is true that the plan was to stay here indefinitely, but um, has anyone noticed how early it gets dark here in early December? Less than nine hours of daylight is just not realistic for me. Yes, the summers are brilliant, and it's fantastic that it stays light for 15 hours a day in June, but I don't think it's a fair trade. I would like to keep up a more steady dose of sunshine all year long. I am beginning to plot my escape, although the escape that I am planning may take a few years.

Not only that, but I'm all nostalgic now. You know things are bad when you spend your time longing for a place where you thought every evening, "Tomorrow I am going to have them get me a flight out of here." Yep, I'm missing Southern Sudan, palm-sized spiders and spitting cobras and smelly pit latrines and all. I rationalize this by telling myself that I actually enjoyed Tiny Little Town by the end. The last two weeks or so. Before that, I would lie in the darkness in my mosquito net every night, shrinking into the center of the bed to avoid things getting me through the mesh, and think, "Tomorrow, I am asking them to book me a flight out of here. I can't do this anymore." And then in the morning the sun would rise and I would take an outdoor shower and everything seemed great. 

And that evening, I would lie in the darkness in my mosquito net, shrinking into the center of the bed to avoid things getting me through the mesh, and think, "Tomorrow, for sure, I am asking them to book me a flight out of here. I can't do this anymore." 

There were things going on in my head other than worries about bugs and snakes - it was not Tiny Little Town's fault that I was so miserable. I would have been miserable in a great many places right then.

And to offset the fretting that my head was doing, there was strong, constant sunshine, so strong that I put sunscreen on the part of my hair even when I wasn't going anywhere. Just the 50 meter walk from the tukuls to the office was enough to burn my wimpy pale skin. I found myself missing that sun today. When I stand waiting for the bus in the 24-degree Fahrenheit cold with the wind somehow finding its way through my layers of coat and scarf and multiple sweatshirts, I miss the weight of hot sun. 

I would take hot sun over cold wind anytime. I would blame this on a childhood in Liberia, but my dad is the same way. We are creatures of the tropics misplaced in the temperate zones of the earth.

15 December 2008

not quite connected

So, it's cold outside. There is some little snow on the ground, which promptly turned to slick ice after much hand-flapping and frantic running in circles by apparently this entire city. Why, yes, I have indeed been doing some mocking of my new city and its frenzied reaction to an inch or two of snow. I was particularly amused by the chains on the tires. I lived in Michigan for 12 winters plus a lot of other winter visits, and I have never in my life seen tire chains. Even last December in the mountains in Colorado, no chains. But then I come to Gone West, with its little smattering of snow, and everyone puts chains on their tires. I laid on the couch and laughed.

The gently falling snow was a perfect backdrop to a morning of baking and frosting Christmas cookies. S. and I took over her parents' house (they are off to warmer climes) and threw tray after tray in the oven. Now I have far too many cookies in my fridge. Someone needs to come take them away from me. Even yesterday, a work day, I managed to eat eight of them. And then I felt just a little bit sick from all the sugar.


I was thinking yesterday about tapes. Do you remember tapes? Those things we used to put music on? I remember a few times, when I was little, tearing tapes apart, and I had an urge to do it again: to twirl that shiny ribbon out of the plastic casing until it curls everywhere, and to feel that satisfying snap when you stretch the tape until it breaks. And then to stomp on the plastic case. 

13 December 2008


I am the only white person at the table. The other girls are Jamaican and Ugandan and Liberian and Cambodian and African-American, and we are shouting above the music to talk about turning thirty and the pluses and minuses of various types of grad school. When we go down to the dance floor, I am, stereotypically, the worst dancer, but I happily dance anyway, until we slowly all stop dancing and stare at one another and wonder aloud, "Who thought this song was a good idea? You can't dance to it at all!"

Someone comments that she is tired of holding her purse, and I drop mine into the circle of dancers. Everyone follows, and we laugh at the way we dance around our stack of purses. "Does anyone have a camera?" someone asks, but no one does, except for phone cameras without flash. A guy pushing past laughs, "Look at that pile of purses!"

It is awkward, sometimes, to be the only white person in a group here in this country. I am much more accustomed to being the only white person in a group in Africa, but in this white city, it is less familiar. It's a good awkward, though. It is only fair, in a place where my friend often has to be the only non-white one at a party, that I should take my turn. It is not and cannot be the same, but it's fair that I should be uncomfortable sometimes, being the only one, as some people must be the only one much of the time. I'm not even bearing my share of the discomfort, not in my occasional evenings. 

12 December 2008


Every now and again, people on the internet post lists of six or seven weird things about themselves. I am not in the mood for seven, but I will list one that occurred to me in the middle of the night: I cannot sleep with a lit-up clock next to my bed. Oh, I used to have a digital clock with green digits next to my bed, with all those bright dashes letting me know exactly when 2:35 am became 2:36 am. But one day, maybe during or after college, when I started to sleep less than I should have and worrying about getting more sleep. 

I was tired of waking up in the middle of the night and thinking, "I only have two more hours to sleep and I am so tired." So I got rid of the clock with lights. Since then, I have mostly used sweep-hand clocks and, more recently, my mobile phone. The thought of having a lit-up clock next to my bed warning me that I only have this much more time to sleep, no, THIS much more time to sleep is just... well, I refuse to live that way. So no lit-up clocks for me. 

(P.S. Blogging in the morning! I'm practically an early bird now. Okay, that's a lie. I hate getting up early. I am strictly an evening person.)

11 December 2008


I think I am forgetting what the sky looks like at any time but night. One morning this week, I had to wait a while for the bus and I actually did see some sky, with two planes pulling jet trails across it. I love jet trails. They make me want to go places. In only two homes in my adult life have I looked up at jet trails and not silently called out, "Take me with you!" Those were Rwanda and Liberia - the rest of the time, I have wanted to be on a plane most days. 

Not that flying is any fun anymore, not in this country. It's still pretty fun internationally. It's always going to be fun to sit in Amsterdam with crowds of people heading home to everywhere in the world, checking monitors for flights to Islamabad and Beijing and Johannesburg. 

09 December 2008


My sister is bored with stories about Rwanda and Sudan, and wants to hear about my life right now.


I am not sure it's clear just how boring my life is right now. My days go as follows: get up, happy light, work, home, decide if I have time to go to the store/get some exercise, try to get to sleep in time to get 8 hours of sleep before the happy light must be turned on again. Repeat, interminably.

If I talk too much about the present, you will be begging for stories about more interesting places and times. 

The only interesting things happen at work, and I talk not about work. Work is off-limits, because I would like to keep a job. Oh, and occasionally I have a social life. But I am not anonymous enough here, despite having detached my name from this space, to write about such things. 

So, fine. A story about life. Present life.


At lunch today, I went to buy flowers for a friend's birthday. Google informed me that there were several places within walking distance, so I stopped first at the one whose website looked the most locally-owned. I have an odd shyness about going into new stores or restaurants, and so I lurked in the entryway, looking at the tulips in buckets outside (white only; boring). When I finally went inside and explained what I wanted - cut flowers for a birthday; this is not hard - the clerk merely told me I could go look at the flowers in the buckets outside rather than offering to, I don't know, MAKE UP A BOUQUET. So I walked out, and kept walking. It wasn't so much a lack of service that drove me away, it was a lack of the friendliness necessary to overcome my slight new-store phobia. 

The second place was in a basement. And there were even fewer flowers visibly available. I walked out before the cashier finished with the prior customer.

The third place was one I see from the bus every day, but a little further away. It was crowded with color and smelled richly of plants. The woman behind the counter beamed at me when I came in, and the man in the back made up a bouquet for exactly the amount I wanted to spend, full of the limited number of colors I wanted. 

(I do not understand the urge to make a multi-colored bouquet in the depths of winter. There is a limited time for such things, and it is May and June. For the rest of the year, I prefer to limit my color palette. In this case, I stopped him at various pinks and a few blues - "No, not three colors plus white, three colors including white." I think he was disappointed, but nice about it - and I declined the Christmas greens. People with December birthdays have to share enough with Christmas. At least the birthday flowers should be clearly representative of something other than the holiday. He gave me palm fronds instead.)

The flowers are beautiful, and that flower shop is my new floral home in Gone West. Not that I buy flowers that often. Say, twice a year. But still. I am a new loyal customer, twice a year. 

07 December 2008

random Rwanda photo

B. and C. (Budaha, Rwanda, 2004)

This momma and baby make me smile. It makes me crazy when people portray Africa as all sad and hopeless, so I love B.'s smile in this picture, and the way she looks at C, the way mommas look at their babies all over the world. (The dirty hands and clothes are because I interrupted the day's work in the garden. You would be dirty, too.)

my whole life is held together with duct tape

At church this morning, they piled greenery in the corner of the basement and a woman made bows out of wide stiff ribbon. I gathered a fistful of pine and holly and tied on a bright red bow. I stopped at the store on my way home, and bought too many groceries, and stuffed the greenery under my arm so I could carry all the bags. 

Back home, between the smell of pine and the gingerbread scented candle, Christmas seemed to have arrived. The only thing missing was the music. I have a couple of Christmas albums, but none of them seemed quite right. Since the reading in church, I had been singing, "Oh, thou that tellest good tidings to Zion... Lift it up, Be not afraid!" and suddenly I realized that what I needed to really bring Christmas into my apartment was Handel's Messiah.

There were difficulties. I do not have a functional cd player (the cd/dvd drive in my computer is broken - everything I own is broken, it seems), and buying the 53 songs of the Messiah on iTunes would cost, well, $53. Minus 53 cents. So $52.47. That seemed like a lot, considering that some of those songs are 19 seconds long. 

Determined, however, I called around until I found a store that had the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir version of the Messiah in stock (this is the version my mom has; I asked her), and I went downtown among tourists and sparkling lights and homeless people to buy it for $13.99. I am now listening to it on the tiny, old, portable dvd player (c. 2000) that my friend gave me when my dvd drive broke. It plays cds, too, apparently. The sound isn't very good, though, and my next step in bootleg-ness is to figure out some way to connect it to my iPod speaker.

I am surprised to find that I know nearly all the words to nearly all the songs in the Messiah. I expected to find come parts of it unfamiliar, but I do not. I suppose that it makes sense that I would know most all of it, since we have been listening to it every Christmas season since I was born, first on numerous tapes in Liberia, and then on cds in Michigan. 

I am singing along, "Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice greatly!"

It has been a long time since I could start Christmas this early. For the last six Christmases, I have been in Africa, in law school, or in between places. I had quarterly reports and then exams and then bar applications to worry me. Despite the feeling that I never quite will catch up and that days have fewer and fewer hours in them, I have more time to enjoy this season than I have had in many years, and I am enjoying it. 

I wonder if I have the space to roll out cookie dough.

06 December 2008

seasons come

Outside the restaurant, someone decorated the maple trees with white holiday lights. The leaves still cling to the branches, fewer than before but still golden and red and orange. We haven't had a frost, yet. It is intriguing, and oddly beautiful, these beautiful colors lit only in patches with clear white light. 

neither here nor there

The sky is clear blue, but it's not quite enough for me. It's only December, and I'm already craving warmth. I am making do with blankets and turtlenecks (turtlenecks = my new favorite thing), but what I really want is hot sun shining on my face. I have been procrastinating going out into the wind all day long. I have errands to run, but they don't seem to be getting done.

Someone asked me which country I would most like to visit again. Rwanda, I said. Definitely Rwanda. It has been over three years since I last stood among those green hills, and I miss it. If I had money, I would long ago have purchased my house in Kibuye from its absent owner (he was somewhere in India, allegedly...), and I would go there for vacations, to sit on the stone patio and sip milky tea spiced with ginger and tea masala. Maybe I would go there this Christmas. 

Five years ago, I spent Christmas in Rwanda. I had moved to the country two months before, and I knew no one because I had spent most of my time since arrival traveling. I had just gotten back from meetings in Uganda, and I drove from Kigali to Kibuye on Christmas Day. I took greenery from the pine trees around my house and I made a little Advent wreath with the greenery and five candles. I called my family as I opened the presents they had sent with me. I have never been so alone at Christmas, but there was something beautiful about it, too. I didn't feel as sad as I expected to feel. I was quite content, actually, in my little house all alone. 

I was thinking earlier about all the places I've been, and how each of them owns a little piece of me. I wonder if it would be easier, this life, if there was only one place where I belonged, if only one place owned me. I envy people who just belong, and they know it. But I know that I would not give up the places I've been, not one of them, and maybe I own a little piece of them, too.

I made tea with milk and ginger this morning, and looked out my window at the blue sky.

05 December 2008


In college one time, T.'s mom called her on a Friday night, and said, "Oh! I was expecting to get the machine! I was going to say, 'I knew you wouldn't be in your room, because it's Friday night, and only nerds are home on a Friday night.' But you are home..."

I feel this way most Friday nights: I want to be a nerd. I could go out, there are possibilities, but after a whole week of telling myself that I just have to get to Friday and then I can rest, I want to rest. I sometimes go to bed earlier on Friday than on any other day.
This is particularly easy to do now that my apartment is cozy and it's cold outside. I put white lights up around my window a few days ago, for the holidays, and now they glow. My couch has no arms, but now that I've moved it perpendicular to the wall, I can lean against the wall and stretch out my legs. I wrap myself in my gabi.
As it gets colder outside, I want to hibernate. My happy light keeps me from being sad, so I'm just perfectly contentedly cucooned in my red and orange den. The world can come to me, if it wants something. I will be the one curled up with a book.

04 December 2008

i really needed a desk

Two days ago, I went to the office supply store to buy some new pen refills. The particular office supply store I went to has two levels, and as I descended the escalator, I saw, from afar, the most perfect little desk. It sat off in a corner, alone. It had little pigeonholes above the desktop, and a cabinet underneath. It looked like this:

world's cutest desk

I fell in love immediately. I went over to it, and touched it, and admired it, and looked around for a price tag, of which there was none. 

I had no hope of being able to buy it, but I thought I'd ask anyway. As the salesman looked at the desk, searching vainly for a price tag, I said, "It must be free!" (My mom always says this when something has no tag on it.)

"I think it's close to free," said the salesman. 

The computer showed it for $110.99, which is not close enough to free for me, as I told the salesman. So he magically hit a few buttons and suddenly it was on clearance for $24.95, which is affordable even on my pathetic little budget. (I looked up my exact job in Michigan, and it pays almost $5 an hour more than I make here. With a much lower cost of living. Durrrr.)

I bought it. 

Then I had to beg my friend S. to drive downtown with her car to retrieve my lovely new desk, which she did, because she's awesome, and I took it home, only to go to bed. (Not with the desk. It is awfully bulky and heavy, otherwise I assure you I would have snuggled with it all night long. I was that excited. DESK DESK DESK!)

I tackled it last night, sitting amidst wood and screws and "hidden connectors," (can assembly of these things be any more complicated? do they do it on purpose?) and I moved my furniture around to make a place for it. I felt accomplished. I have a little living room now, off in the corner of my studio, and the pigeonholes on my new desk are already filling with three-hole punchers and envelopes. I have storage space.

The one little problem is that spending two entire nights on the desk has left me with no food in the cupboards and utter chaos in my apartment. I am likely to trip on a random left-over piece of styrofoam at any time. Or a recordable cd in a colorful case. Or a magazine. Or a paring knife. I have the desk together, but I haven't quite organized myself around it. 

(And no, I am not sitting at my desk now. Don't be silly. Desks are for storage, and for looking cute. It's couches that are for sitting with a laptop.)

01 December 2008


I’m not certain that I expressed myself clearly yesterday, because I got a comment asking, in my opinion, in which African countries it is safe to work. What I was trying to say yesterday is that I feel very safe in Africa. In general, I have felt unsafe far more often in New York and in Gone West than in any country in Africa. I, personally, would work in any country in Africa.

(In fact, if anyone has the perfect job for a new lawyer who doesn’t have a lot of experience in her own country and who does not want to be a know-it-all and who is tired of moving around every few months, send it my way. I’d like to live in Kigali or Kampala or Dar es Salaam, just as an ideal, but any reasonably sized city will do.)

When I first moved to Rwanda, some wisdom was passed on to me: if you look around and people are going about their lives, if children are carrying water home, if women are stopping to greet one another with vegetables on their heads, if boys are driving the cows home, if a man in an ancient suit is carrying his Bible and a cane, then everything is fine. I have lived by that ever since. I look around, and I greet people, and I have found, so far, that someone has always warned me if I am heading into danger.

Everyone in the world takes precautions, depending on whether they are in the city or the country, whether it is day or night, whether they are male or female. The key is not to avoid a country as a whole, but to make sure that you are aware of what is going on around you and that you avoid danger when it arises. Talk to people. Ask questions (but not offensive or sensitive questions). Be a part of your community. If you and your neighbors are friendly, they likely will stop by or call if there is trouble, to let you know what is happening. And you should do the same for them.

I would work in any country in Africa, but I would not go blindly anywhere in the world, not even here in Gone West. I read the newspaper and ask questions of people who live in my new place. I explore slowly. I follow any safety precautions mandated by the organizations I work for (within reason, of course – situations can change). I am as friendly as I can be without causing additional problems.

Every place I have gone in the world, I have found more good than bad. No place is completely safe, but few places are incurably dangerous. People have helped me, and I try to do the same in the US.

Random conversation:

Other Person: I am sick of Hawaii. I was stationed there in the Navy and there’s nothing left to see. My wife keeps wanting to go, though.

Me: Maybe you could go somewhere in the Pacific where you have never been. Then you could both be happy. How about Fiji?

OP: I would never go to Fiji. Westerners get kidnapped there all the time.

M: [Eyes narrow.] I would go to Fiji. I would go to any country in the world.

OP: Would you go to Baghdad?

M: [Thinking]

OP: You are actually thinking about it?

M: Yes, of course, I would go to Baghdad. But I can’t afford it. So someone would have to pay my way.