Saturday, May 19, 2007

Running on your shadow

Growing up north of the tropics, you get used to the sun being always to the south, never too high, and you can orient yourself by it. You always have a shadow, and it's always to the north. But here in the tropics, where you are between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer, the sun actually passes directly over head, twice a year. This happened recently, and I found myself running, at noon, with the sun perfectly above me, so that I was running right on my negligible shadow. I stopped and found that it was mostly covered by my shoes.

Now it is slightly to the north, so that your shadow falls to the south. I found that gym, which is good enough that both Jennifer and I have been going regularly, and ran there and back today. I always try, when in a hot place, to run in the middle of the day, to accustom myself to the heat the rest of the time. But when it's 118 in the shade--and there is no shade--and the sun is right overhead and feels like it's x-raying you, and the sand is so hot you feel the waves of radiant heat coming up to cook you like a pizza in a brick oven, there's no getting used to it.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Hot enough to fry a motherboard

Little lapse in the entries, due to the heat having cooked first my laptop, then Jennifer's, neither of which was quite three years old. I went to Italy for 10 days to see friends and get out of Niamey, and bought another MacBook in Rome at the brand new Apple Store, the first in continental Europe. The hottest season is theoretically over--the season of Hot, Humid and Rainy is starting now--and the highs these days are a temperate 115-118.

Our co-written parenting book, working-titled Father-baby Bonding (we're trying to think up something catchier) is done and accepted by the publishers, due out Spring 2008.

Here on the blog, I'll be catching up on our travels and travails over the coming week, and adding pictures on the Mac photo page.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Weather for Niamey today

Blowing Sand
Wind: E at 18 mph
Humidity: 7%

I went running north of town in the midday heat, looking for this gym that's supposed to be up the road, an unknown number of kilometers. However far it is, it's too far for me to find on a day like this, under the sun. After 45 minutes, when my hands started to feel like a pair of latex gloves overfilled with hot water and about to pop, I turned around and headed home--slowly. I stopped at a lonely gas station and bought a soft drink, and stood inside where it was like a brick oven, but out of the sun and with the dirty, naked blades of a fan turning the air over my running sweat. Paradise! The Zarma teenager who sold me the soda accepted my returnable bottle, and thoughtfully offered to bring me some cool water.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Fourth Kind of Hot

The hot season I have been dreading all along--as have the locals, for that matter--is finally here, though it will get much hotter still in April. It's stifling in the house, so I keep making the mistake of opening the window--which feels like opening the door of an oven, blasting you with heat.

Outside, the heat is heady and funky, like putting your face directly over a pot of boiling instant ramen noodles, except over your whole body. Or better yet, since it's dry, not steamy, like walking into a smelly old sauna that's much too hot, and turning to go back out the door and finding it locked.

We had about 20 people over for lunch today, with the kids yelling and playing, and good conversation for the adults. Rahmane, who's from here but spent much of his 20s in Dakar and most of his thirties in Florida as a grad student, hasn't even been here for the hot season since 2000, and he says he's scared. He's going to go find some lightweight, white local shirts for both of us (he only brought jeans and black t-shirts when coming home for the year), and he's going to start wearing shorts. Jennifer told me not to bring shorts, so I brought only one pair, which I've worn virtually every day since I got here. Nobody in Niger wears shorts, and even the foreigners avoid it so as not to offend the Nigeriens. But Rahmane said that when people here see you're white, they expect you to act like a foreigner, and they've seen white people in shorts plenty of times on TV. For his part, people have always assumed he was foreign anyhow, so he doesn't care, and thinks it's stupid not to wear shorts when it's so hot.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Do you go to Ouagadougou?

We drove to Ouagadougou (say 'Wa-ga-DOO-goo') for the African film festval, FESPACO, this week. It's about 6.5 hours of driving, plus numerous stops at the border and for tolls. We rented an old American 4x4 with no working speedometer--nor registration, as it turned out--put the car seats in the back, and our 6'3" friend Illiasou in the cargo space, and took off about 3 hours behind schedule. Stopping at the borders was like a bad movie, when travelers stop at a desolate checkpoint with fat, sweaty officials--except far, far more desolate. The customs officials, wearing uniforms and 9mm pistols, stopped us because the registration card is temporary (and expired, but they didn't notice that) and told us to wait for their boss to come back from lunch. We sat in the baking heat of their shed while they ate chicken and threw the bones to the vultures. After half an hour, the boss shuffles up in new leather scuffs, dressy slacks and a brightly-patterned, untucked shirt, like he was just coming back from a disco. Business at the customs house must be good. He waved us in without delay, glanced at the papers, and let us go with a smile.

The whole ride is the same dry landscape called Sahel, with sparse dry scrub over orange-beige sand, tiny villages and tracks leading off into the barren landscape toward the horizon. The most visually interesting things to see were the baobab trees and the vultures. Every kilometer there is a baobab tree, something you might know from The Little Prince--they're the massive trees he worries will overgrow his little planet (Antoine St-Exupery was a bush pilot in northwest Africa). They're only 40-60 feet tall usually, but the trunks are often 10 feet across--sometimes as much as 40--ropy and bulging with thousands of gallons of stored water, and the short branches turn down at twisted angles. They're bare in this season, except for their football-sized fruit pods, called monkeybread.

The vultures are real vultures, like on nature specials, not the little turkey buzzards we have in the States. They're the only wild animal to be seen; domestic animals, however, cross the road in front of our vehicle every few kilometers, sometimes in herds. As soon as we crossed the Burkina broder, we saw something else we hadn't seen--pigs! Niger is all Muslim, and Muslims, like Jews, don't eat swine; so, as I said when we stopped for the pig: where you see pigs, you know there are Christians. Burkina is about half-and-half, and they get along and intermarry freely, thus the Islam is much more moderate, and you see women riding bikes and mopeds, working, and not being covered from head to toe.

Ouaga is more a city than Niamey, very lively, and there are bookstores and such things that don't exist in Niamey. It was a welcome change. We stayed with the Fulbrighter there, Gina Greco, and her 9-yr-old twins. The kids were all so happy playing together, we hardlly heard from them, and we got to go to 7 movies, all refreshingly good.

Monday, March 5, 2007

The wine situation in Niger, with tasting notes

Niger is not 'cellar temperature,' and trucks with cooled cargo space are non-existant; thus temperature-sensitive goods don't fare well. The shops where you can buy wine also know nothing about wine, and their general policy anyway is to buy the cheapest European foods (which thus are usually knock-offs from China or the Middle East), and mark them up to luxury prices. Wine is no exception. I have tried dozens of reds, none of which were even palatable, with the exception of Mouton-Cadet 2002 Bordeaux, which was merely palatable and cost $22.

Tonight at dinner, Jennifer and I opened a bottle so bad that we were inspired to pull last week's abominable bottle that we couldn't drink (and which had been sitting uncorked in the fridge for a week while we've been out of town), and hold a blind taste test. Here are the results:

Last week's bottle, a Gallejon Vino de Mesa red, had initially given an overwhelming nose strongly reminiscent of the vinyl Halloween costumes I used to wear when I was a kid, complete with tantalizing hints of flame retardant. When I held the glass up to my nose, I could almost feel the Batman mask digging into my forehead, the elastic behind my ears. After breathing in the refrigerator for a week, those high notes had disappeared, replaced with the aroma of balsamic vinegar, nitre, and a whiff of kitty litter. Upon tasting, Jennifer detected sweatsock, possibly including Athlete's Foot, and the dull funk of a yeast infection.

The newer bottle, a Cave de L'Escadron 2000 Corbieres, gave an initial front-of-the-mouth draught of Kool-Aid, followed by nuances of fresh, unused Band-Aids in the back of the mouth. I also tasted stale dried apricots. The nose was simple, primarily one of mildew. The heavy tannins were reminiscent of leather naturally cured in urine.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

If I had a hammer...

When you rent a house here, a lot of things are broken. Property owners don't try to preserve their investments, and places that go unrented literally start to fall apart because the owners don't keep them up. So we have had many tradespeople here to fix things: plumbers (dozens of times--every toilet I've seen in Niger is broken, continually), carpenters, tileworkers, locksmiths, metalworkers, air-conditioning repair people. The first thing you notice is that they bring either no tools at all, or else they bring nothing but a hammer. Doesn't matter what they are supposed to do--it's reasonable for a carpenter or metalworker to show up with a hammer, but plumbers? AC repairmen? LOCKSMITHS? And they use them, too! I could hardly concentrate on my work in the office while the locksmith was shaking the house with his hammering. The plumber spent hours making banging and shattering noises, while ostensibly trying to fix a toilet.

The guy who fixed the holes in the floor where tiles had come up showed up with a little plastic baggie full of cement powder, and nothing else. Like many men in Niamey, he was wearing a polyester 2-piece suit over no shirt, nor socks, and cracked flip-flops. He mixed and spread it with his hands, got up and left empty-handed. It was almost Zen-like.

Right now a plumber is working on a clogged clean-out for the kitchen drain--a kind of broken cement cistern leading into the septic 'tank' (actually a big hole underground). He just asked me for a "sheau," which I managed to figure out meant a bucket, though he was saying something more like 'shuck-it.'

He had come with a hammer.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

I'm taking requests...

Steve's response to my blog was "That's it?" (I'm paraphrasing his actual response, which involved Bangkok.) He wants to know what we eat for breakfast, etc.; so I'm answering his questions and then some. The kids eat corn flakes we buy at the overpriced import supermarket, except Etani who eats bouille if he can get it: a hot millet porridge that our helper Nadege makes for herself. I don't like it--I don't like millet, or rice (outside of a sushi roll), or the stews poured over those grains which form the basis of west African cuisine. I wish I could find an Ethiopian to cook for us. We have a part-time cook, Leopold, who also goes to the open-air markets to shop for us, but he cooks us French food, or moussaka, or the fresh pasta we taught him how to make with a pasta machine borrowed from friends. (Having a pasta-slave is the number-one thing I'll miss about living here.) He's trying to get the food concession at the US Embassy, though; so we may lose him in a few weeks. Labor is cheap, so we have those two helping us, plus a part-time gardener/pool guy, Pierre, we split with the neighbors. We don't seem to have much more time; but at least the place is clean and we don't have to do it.

Etani also eats the rice & sauce Nadege eats for lunch, as well as the white, jello-like balls of corn flour and tapioca, also served with 'sauce.' He greets the local doormen in Zarma: "Fofo! Baani samay!" His favorite place in town is the National Museum and Zoo--which is the only kid-friendly activity in town, other than taking him to the school playground. It merits its own post.-it cannot be described briefly.

"Getting a decent pair of shoes?" Almost impossible--they're imported, expensive, and low-quality. That's the paradox, here: imports are rare, expensive, and not worth it. Things made here, though, are cheap and, in the case of leatherwork and silversmithing, excellent. The leatherworkers have a workshop around the corner where I've had belts and watchbands made from crocodile, ostrich, and lizard--all of which hides are by-products, as those animals are all eaten, here (see Jennifer's Washington Post article about what happens when giraffes get hit by cars in Niger). They also had samples of handmade shoes, of finely-woven leather that looks like crocodile, and the pair I tried on were fantastic (though not so cheap).

"Who burns our garbage?" We forbid our folks to burn it--you can hardly breathe in the city because of all the burning garbage. It's bad enough without having it inside our walled compound. (Yes, our house has a 10' wall around it, like all the lots in the neighborhood--even the ones without houses! Nigeriens love walls, and I've been in traditional houses here with only the sleeping area roofed, and the rest of the 'house' just walled, with no roof to protect you from the sun.) We pay four buck a month for a private garbage service only used by rich foreigners. When Jennifer asked him what he does with the garbage, he said that before he can take it out of town to be recycled or dumped, people buy it--all of it. It actually costs him money, because they give the money to the drivers, not him, and then ask the drivers to deliver it, in his trucks.

"Who has boils, chiggers, etc...?" Nobody has anything strange--that we know about. The gastrointestinal adventures are constant, and often involve fever and vomiting like a firehose, but that's all to be expected. Everybody's been sick a lot this winter--even though it's hot, rather than cold--but, again, that's normal. I'm still waiting for a Guinea worm to erupt from my eyeball, like happened to a Fulbright professor Jennifer knew the last time she was here.

Monday, February 12, 2007

daily dose of life, African style

Daily life is hard in Africa--most people struggle to get the water and food they need, and there are constant difficulties with health, shelter, the heat, the government, and in many places rival ethnicities. Privileged western people like us don't have those problems here; but it's still a lot more difficult than in the States. Bills have to be paid in cash--checks and credit cards don't fly, here. And here where only a tiny percentage of people make more than $100/month, everything is far more expensive than in the rich U.S.: gas, electricity, water, etc. You have to run around and pay your bills in person with big wads of cash--now, even for internet service. There's only slow dial-up speed access, but it costs more than broadband back home. This morning at 9AM I went to pay my internet bill, and was disappointed to find only the office manager there, a woman with a conservative, Arab-style head scarf whom I've dealt with before. The men at the little internet start-up are all pleasant young guys from Benin--but in general, I find that if I walk into an office in Niger and find a Nigerien woman with a head scarf, it isn't going to be straightforward, nor pleasant. This was no exception. We asked to upgrade our service to a slightly quicker trickle, from 'Silver service' to 'Gold,' though I would liken it more to upgrading from 'Molasses' to 'Honey.' It took a week for them to do it, but they billed me the whole month. I explained that I'd be paying the lower rate for the time until they changed it. She said the bill was there on the computer and she couldn't change it. "But someone can change it, " I explained. She said, "Oh, it's nothing, a dollar maybe," (it was many times that) "when you leave here you might drop that much in the street!" I explained that if they want to have customers from the US and Europe, they can't do this What's-the-big-deal-just-pay-more thing, and have to be professional and precise. "But Monsieur," she replied, "You are not in the US."

How true. So paying my bill became half an hour of arguing, repeating, and, finally, yelling. When I told her we weren't getting anywhere, and to have the president of the company call me when he got back in town, she said she was going to cut my service off. That's when the yelling started. She was yelling in her African French, and I in my much worse French, which degenerated as I got angrier, until it was like the literal translation you get from using a translation program on the internet.

"Listen good, thou!" I yelled rudely; and she leaned forward, eyes wide and staring directly into mine, and said, "Uh-huh," as if eager to hear what I was going to say.

At this point, while my anger was running my mouth, some part of my intellect was commenting in the back of my head, 'What am I, her morning entertainment? She's enjoying this fight. Why does there have to be a screaming argument every time we pay the rent, or the electric bill, anything? The money isn't going to her. Is this the only way she can find for people to pay any attention to her? Is she that bored? Or, in a Muslim country where women are in a very secondary role, is this the only way women like her have learned to talk to men?'

Meanwhile, I was yelling, "If you want do business to Americans; thou make pay for what service just is!" And after all, what was she doing but giving me the business? I went on,"You have naught but 15 clients! Thou cut my service, I quit and tell all embassy people thou service nothing, behave bad!"

By this point, a quiet technician had come out to listen to what the shouting was all about. He patted the air above my shoulder, and said softly, "Let's be calm." He walked behind her desk and started clicking away at her computer, asking for details and receiving brief, clear answers from her explaining what I wanted. He changed the bill, coming up with a total slightly less than my calculations, apologized, shook my hand, wished me good day, and glided back into his office while she made change and wrote out my receipt. At one point while he was typing she tried to make a side comment to me, but I refused to either look at her or to translate her French in my head. The best way to discourage behavior, for dogs or people, is to pay no attention to them when they misbehave. I sat down and flipped through a magazine while she wrote the receipt, took my change without glancing at her, and walked out, saying "Have a nice day!"

Sunday, February 11, 2007

What are we doing here?

Jennifer got a Fulbright grant to teach and do research here in Niger, where she worked in development 13 years ago. We're here for 10 months, and we're just about halfway through right now. I'm doing my writing work from home, the kids go to the American school connected to the embassy, and Jennifer is teaching at the national university--the only university--of Niger. We're in the capital, Niamey, where there are amenities like power (usually), little supermarkets, slow internet, etc. But throughout most of the country, people still live traditionally, in huts, farming or grazing animals. The countryside is very beautiful around here, and there are wild giraffe just half an hour outside the city. That's our favorite part--or mine, anyway--because the city is ugly, overpopulated and very dirty. Famine over the last five years has driven hundreds of thousands of people into the capital--where there is neither work nor social services. There is no municipal garbage removal, nor septic sewers, so the pollution is everywhere, and the smells. Household garbage is often burned, which in a city of nearly a million makes for almost constant smoke, more or less intense. Well over 90 percent of the people in town are desperately poor, and unemployment is over 70 percent. But crime is surprisingly low--the people are gentle, and abhor theft. In the capital, all of the dozen or so ethnicities of Niger live together, speaking Zarma and Hausa to each other, along with immigrants from the neighboring countries of Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, Ghana. Everyone greets each other with elaborate greetings, inquiring about one's health, family, sleep, work, heat, etc., and they seem genuinely glad when you respond in kind.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

drinking with Tuaregs

The Tuareg people are spread through the Sahara, where they have lived nomadically in one of the most desolate and punishing environments on Earth, raising animals or trading things across the vast trans-Saharan trade routes. I've been learning their language, which has its own ancient alphabet preserved for thousands of years of nomadic life, almost without the use of books. They have a fascinating culture, and one of the first things you learn about it is that when greeting someone at home, water or tea are usually offered. So when the musician, Ibrahim (above), I hired to teach me one of their instruments (the Tehardent, an ancestor of the banjo) comes over, I started offering him water and tea, and unlike Nigerien guests from other ethnicities, he never refuses. After a few minutes of standard greetings--How's your campsite? How's your tiredness? How 'bout the heat? etc., etc.--I bring out a glass of water, saying "Aman da" (There's water!), and he thanks me, picks it up, and drains it in one draught, without stopping to breathe, says "Aahh!" and puts down the glass, saying, "Aman iman!" (Water is life!--the words in Tamajaq are almost the same).

Tea is even better. The Tuareg drink the espresso version of tea--Chinese green tea, mixed with mint and steeped so strong, in so little water, that it's undrinkable without several teaspoons of sugar in each tiny glass demitasse (and almost undrinkable anyway). They pour it from way up high over the glass so that it makes foam on top, which they value like Italians value espresso 'crema.' Then they slurp it loudly when drinking, like wine tasters, to get the full flavor. They describe the flavor by saying, "The first cup is bitter as death, the second mild as life, the third sweet as love."

Friday, February 9, 2007

I was walking with Hesperus in our neighborhood the other day, going to a little artisan workshop where they make great leather goods, to pick up a couple watch straps for my old Bulova automatic--I'd sweated through two already, and I was having some made in local ostrich hide, lizard skin, and natural crocodile hide (something I'd never even seen before). This place has got WHOLE crocodile hides up on the wall--you get to pick the part you want! They live in the Niger River, and the folks upstream from here in Mali catch them, eat them, and sell the hides. Anyway, Hesperus had gone with me to order the straps, and when we went back, two of the artisans who had been charmed by her the last time had made her gifts, a little necklace and a child's belt in a pale leather she had admired. As we were walking home, Jennifer called on the cellphone to tell me that Athena had come home really tired and crabby from school and was having a really hard time at home, so we shouldn't show her H's presents today. Hesperus didn't want to hear that, and we argued the rest of the way home. When she told me, in a familiar tone of voice, "You don't know what you're talking about! It's fine! I'm wearing them and that's that!" I said, "You sound just like Great-grandma Marilynn!" (not that she ever said that to me, but it was the tone of voice she used when arguing with grandpa). Hesperus said (in the same tone of voice), "That's because I'm part of Grandma Marilynn, because I'm part of you!"

Saturday, February 3, 2007

with the harmattan come the flies....

We've just been in the brief cool season, about a month when it's sunny and not too hot, with cool nights and mornings. The downside of which is the harmattan wind that comes off the Sahara, bearing sand so fine it remains suspended in the air. It gets into everything, especially your nose and throat. When I open my laptop, I have to wipe it off the keyboard. Some days aren't sunny at all, in fact; they look foggy and overcast, like a wet coastal town back home, but it's bone dry. Somehow, despite the mild weather, everyone becomes sick--our whole family has been hit, Jennifer several times, and everyone we know, too.

And then there are the flies: affectionate African flies that stay right around your head and face (or right on your food), and shooing them away just makes them dodge your hand and land right back in your face. I killed 13 yesterday right before friends came over--Peter and his kids from next door (Dina was sick...see above), Dean and Sirianna and their daughter Ayla, and our neighbors from across the street, a Swiss woman and her 9-yr-old daughter. We all had a good time, but there were still flies.

The only way to keep flies away is to turn the volume up on your stereo, crank up the treble on the equalizer, and play Devo as loud as you can stand.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

I went walking just after sunset through our neighborhood, watching Hesperus, the evening star, bright in the western sky--violet-grey below, and indigo above interrupted by golden Saturn. Mercury peeked out for a while. The air was warm with low, hanging dust, and some pleasant odors, if dry, musky and bitter as they tend to be here. An incense, some baking, then a momentary reek of pipe tobacco that brought me back 30 years to my grandpa John in his basement in Troy-Del Way, standing in front of the home bar with an open-mouthed smile, holding out his arms. Then the scent drifted away and took the strength of the memory with it--what is it about smell that can make a memory as vivid as life, after decades of oblivion? It made me smile to remember, though long gone.

Tears are the salt of memory. They don't embitter it, but let us savor what has passed away as all things do. With time, they turn sorrow into nostalgia--the 'ache for what is ours.'

Monday, January 22, 2007

The five of us went to a dune just outside town among some mesas, with a dry riverbed alongside that must fill up in the rainy season. It's about 200 feet high and nothing but sand. Our friend Pascale took us there in her 4x4, and the kids played while we had a picnic and watched the sunset.

The hippo we saw from that dugout canoe on the river. Hesperus kept saying, "But he's going to upset the boat!"

Sunday, January 21, 2007

We went down the Niger River on a dugout pirogue a couple weeks ago, and saw hippos in the river with us. Here's the view with Etani on the other side of the boat:

Monday, January 15, 2007

When we were about to leave for Niger, a friend who had lived in Africa told us that for the first two months we wouldn't get anything done except getting everything set up. We laughed--Jennifer had already lived here, and I'd already lived abroad in Italy, which is not the easiest place to find a place and get the utilities working.

She was underestimating.

But the house is in a nice neighborhood, and has a beautiful garden and pool. I swim every day--even the coldest days of the year in Niger are like summer back home. In fact, though I've never wanted a pool before, but having one here and going in each day, I've learned to swim well enough to really enjoy it. There's a rope swing over the pool, too, which makes it the best pool in town, according to the kids.

I set up a tree swing in the yard, and occasionally throw a rope over a limb of the huge gawo tree outside our gate--you can see a picture of this on our next-door neighbors blog:

It's in their entry on "AKA Margulis-di Properzio," and has a picture of us, too.

On our way from Ashland to Niger, we drove to San Francisco, stopping at a playground on the way. This is me and Athena there.

free-range giraffes

Niger has the last wild giraffes roaming in their original habitat--they're not in a game preserve, they just wander around the countryside, among villages of grass huts, not 30 miles from Niamey. As a kid watching 'nature specials,' I always thought I'd go to Africa sometime; but to finally walk right up to a giraffe in its natural environment, in the land where they evolved--and where we evolved--is like taking a step into your own imagination, and finding that all along it's been more real than your everyday life of computers, images, cars and cellphones.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Four kinds of hot

When people ask me about the weather in Niger, I say there are seasons here--but they're just four kinds of hot. Hot, hot and humid, hot-windy-dusty, and REALLY hot.

We arrived last summer in the rainy season, which is 105 F and 100% humidity every day. When the rains stopped in the fall, it was still just as hot.

It's January now, wintertime, so it's hot and dusty, with the harmattan winds blowing off the Sahara, coating everything with dust-sized sand. It goes up to about 90 F, and it cools down at night. We go swimming every day, all winter long. It's the only tolerable season.

The completely intolerable season comes in March, April and May, when the temperature mounts into the 120s, the 130s. It cools down at about 100.