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.