Wednesday, February 22, 2017

it's Rafa

hey elvis, who is in charge of the internet here at the office?
"c'est Rafa" (it's Rafa)
ok, where is Rafa?
"C'est Rafa" (it's Rafa)
yes i know
"no, his name is Cérafa"
huh? oh!

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Art is alive and well in DRC

the night before my trip to Kinshasa we went to the Berlinale to see Felicité, a new congolese movie which won the silver bear. 
i have seen a lot of Congo movies, and they are mostly blurry jobs played at horrid loud volume on a tiny set behind the cashier at the supermarket. Every scene looks the same, either close up faces full of make-up or a 2D scene from the waist up...but Felicité was different, real cinematography and actors whom you can't really determine if they are actors or just real people. which says a lot for a country that doesn't even have any movie theaters. i am not counting the Alliance Francaise which shows french comedies in their courtyard which do little more than disgust the locals with regards to exported european culture.

i arrived at N'Jili realizing two years must have gone by since my last arrival. the buses which bring you to the terminal are intact with two sets of wheels, and there's a whole new terminal and customs area with orderly lines, no more fighting for your luggage and toilets with seats! you can still win the staff over with a smile though, as I did to the guy who wanted to scan my bag containing a drone - ey mbote papa! high five! no scan. 

i was out in the waiting area so quick my driver wasn't even there yet. i was immediately surrounded by yellow vested young dudes asking me questions about europe (i tell them they opened a new airport before Berlin did) and got the scoop on what i missed, the president is an asshole and the opposition guy died. 

anyway, soon omba arrived looking younger than ever. he wasn't even 5 minutes in the parking lot and was charged 6$ at the exit gate- no negotiating! (apparently, you can still park at the old airport where the military guard prices are more flexible).

anyway, i arrived at my airbnb - yes, kinshasa has airbnb now! - to find a beautifully lit garden full of models in tight dresses and big burly dudes quietly clinking glasses. what is going on here?
they are filming a movie!
my grody airport attire would really ruin the scene so i waited outside with my host and a few others until the coast was clear. i was offered enough whisky and beer to speed up the time, and when they packed up the camera equipment (and even the little clapboard "action!" thing) i was told the people who worked on Felicité were still in Berlin. And then, milling around at this little after party, i met the young producer 
"i hope it's ok we filmed a scene in your room?"
not a sex scene i hope...
artists, musicians (you play cello? I will find one! and i said, even if it has bicycle cable for strings kinshasa symphony style i can play it!) and young singers who broke out into impromptu beautiful songs, and then argued with me about reincarnation, and made sweeping accusations like "you women are always making tomato salad." this was after my host jocelyn (a guy with a girl's name?) asked if i needed any vegetables. sure! and then came two tall divas floating through the crowd carrying so-heavy-i-couldn't-even-lift-them plastic bins on their heads with cabbage (salad is now possible!), avocados (ready to eat on thursday), tomatoes, onions, zucchinis, cukes, all of which i picked out over the irregular beats of local music and when i tried to pay Jocelyn stepped in to handle the price mitigation. somehow it took me 10 years to find this little oasis of culture, only 3 minutes walking distance from my office? 
well the art scene is alive and well. i'm hoping i'll get to play some music and i commissioned a new art piece for my bedroom wall...
all of this 3 minutes from the office!

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

the thing with south africa

the thing with a lot of south africa is that you might not notice it right away, but soon you do - all the white people are well off and live in nice houses with high fences lined with barbed wire and go to vineyards and restaurants, while most of the black people you see are wandering aimlessly along highways, driving übers, or live here:

lots of zinc roof township
there seems to be electricity and toilets, but that do not a good neighborhood make...

a colleague from Namibia remarked it first - where are all the black people? Any time we went to a restaurant or shop. they're hanging around in parking lots asking for small change to watch your car. there were some people congregating on a corner. you don't see anyone doing touristy things or leiser. We were at lunch reviewing a list of 30 applicants for a job posting. Among the pool, only one Zimbabwean, the rest: young white kids with fluent Afikaans and German sounding names.

And then, during my stay in Namibia at some old run down Mariott, i go to breakfast and at the table next to me is some fat south african tour guide squinting at his ipad. he goes to serve himself some coffee and then yells loudly and condescendingly at one of the employees about how the milk container isn't labeled. The hot water, coffee, they are labeled but the third container isn't. "don't you think it would be a smart thing to put a label on here to let people know this is hot milk and not something else?" what do you think it is, monkey blood? -was my retort but unlike him i did not yell it. the woman rolled her eyes and shuffles away, at which point he demands that she come back, right now, immediately, label the milk container. with no emotion she takes it away, she waits until the man sits down, and then she brings it back and places it next to the coffee - just the same without a label. attagirl.  

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Cow herding for wives

So we are working on this conservation agricultural project in zambia, and we see a lot of cattle ranchers, or cow herders or whatever. They have lots and lots of cows, huge herds they can barely control and get hit by cars (it's awful, trust me), and the guy who is walking behind them with a stick will always have the most ratty clothes, no shoes, just real dirt poor style. And my colleague Moses #3 (i can't keep track of the moses here) says they often ask for money or donations or whatever. To which he'll say, wait, you have 50 cows! Why are you asking for handouts? Each animal is worth, what, 200$ at least? Why is he asking for donations and not just buying some clothes or fixing his house? It's another paradox. So, having lots of cows is a bit like having lots of money in the bank, only, other people can see your account statement. Which means the ladies are all, hey, i want some of this, or, some guy might want to marry his daughters or something. But well, instead of selling a cow here and there for necessities, it turns out they more often sell them to get more wives. The rest of the time they'll just keep them so they reproduce or die. So cows are sex bartering currency? Which makes me imagine some sort of feminist fantasy where cows=money=women=POWER? Yeah ok not really, just a fleeting thought....   

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Press 1 for English....

This is for my uncle because all of his Gabon stories predate the telephone :)
So we are setting up these cellphones for a project in Zambia and i had to call the mobile service company customer service.
"Welcome to MTN! Press 1 for English.."
And i was curious as to what the other options were so i listened on
"Press 2 for Bemba
"Press 3 for Nyanja
"Press 4 for Tonga
I stopped at 9. 

Now that's modern africa for you. Mind you, if we were in Congo you'd need at least 400 options...

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Myanmar: deep thoughts

Ok so i didn't write much during my trip to Myanmar, as it turns out i was quite busy at the office and often working late, and by the time i would walk home trying not to get eaten alive by mosquitos, hiding out in a noodle shop until they passed, getting home, taking the second of three daily showers, i usually couldn't muster much beyond watching HBO when we had power and cable, or reading some books by candlelight (i finished 5!).
But here are some thoughts: go now before it's too late! Myanmar/Burma is still wild, dirty, gritty, but at the point where in a lot of places white people are a complete novelty, though the asian obsession of white skin and whitening skin products is creeping in. I prefer the thanaka - wood paste stuff they put on their cheeks. But anyway, it's this totally innocent charm, where they think you are a hollywood star and want their picture with you, share tea or food and are eager to know where are you from, why on earth are you here and have you heard about aung san syu ki! At the same time it's getting a bit overrun by the hairy hoards of backpacker dreadlock tourists who expect it to be something like thailand. They wear pants with elephants on them, complain that everything closes at 10pm and then you find them drinking beer on top of a 2000 year old pagoda, which they somehow rationalize because the pagoda is super duper old, dude! Even though it has a well cared for buddha in it, and it's probably the most sacred site on earth for Burmese, and it's written that it's forbidden on little posters all over their hippie hostel and if they ever get caught i hope they'll consider that from a nice filthy burmese jail with a hefty fine on top. On the other side you also have this expensive upscale resort tourism which might be full of chinese? And just doesn't really jive with the whole place.
But there's hope! If there is one thing i noticed, it's the overwhelming optimism. and ok, at first i thought, yeah, we had our obama optimism too, it kinda faded. but what people expect of ASSK (aung san...can't spell it out) is more on par with the new canadian prime minister, their world is going to change...and what's crazier are the higher ups from my NGO are brimming with enthusiasm for how things will change for their environment and that really hit me. I work in a business where pretty much every day is a let down you need a full on miracle to give someone a smile - but here they were saying the positiveness of the new government and already the existing projects  that go beyond anywhere else- a power sector vision, new collaborations with local governments and communities, and an eagerness to embrace change and a positive direction that will make myanmar like it's neighbors in a way (economic development, openness, standard of living) but also not like them (decreasing deforestation, enabling sustainable forestry and other commodities, supporting land tenure) so as not to end up like drought suffering Thailand, replacing forests by plantations Vietnam, closed communist Laos, or runaway deforestation like Cambodia or the overarching chinese influence *cough illegal ivory and wildlife trade. It will take a bit of time to replace the brain drain and lack of infrastructure and capacity but they are moving and they are moving fast. So keep it on your watch list and don't ignore what is happening, or come see it for yourself. 

Oh, and the men wear skirts! Now beat yourself up for not visiting me!

Monday, March 14, 2016

asia speak

one of the unfortunate things some people pick up here is asia speak. i'm not too proud of it, but i can't stop it and hey i'm not he only one.
the asia speak is when you kind of asianify your phrases to make them understood. like i said, i'm not the only one who does this! everyone does and you kind of need it to get by!
so an example is when you are ordering shan noodles and you'll say
"i'd like one order of shan noodles, and can you please put the spicy sauce on the side?"
and the waitress will stare and look down at her hands, or in many cases get scared and run away to find someone else who might speak english, but that person will probably end up doing the same thing so if you want to make your order understood it's best to just say
"me (and point to yourself) shan noodle no spicy"
and well, it works.
for the taxi it's kind of the same thing.
i'll say "central train station"
and if the guy just repeats "central train station" in zombie monotone with no comprehension, it's not a good idea to get in at this point because he will just drive aimlessly until you're like, hey where are we? like i said, zombie style.
so you say "centraah tray stashio"
and if you're lucky he'll say yes yes yes! tray stashio! and then you go.
sometimes i'll say "shine condo?" and then he might even know that, even better!
and well, if none of these things work, then it's taxi charades: i pretend to put on a train drivers hat, pull the throttle and sound effects: chooo choooo! chugachugachugachugachugachuca choooo chooooo! and that, works every time.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

the circle line

So i had a friend from berlin visiting Yangon and we were on the usual downtown tour of tasty shan noodles, followed by weird stinky chinatown markets, ending with fancy toilets and drinks at the Strand Hotel (good to have contrasts) when it was 3:30 and we were considering what to do with the remaining daylight hours. The options were poolbar, the bogyoke market (so that i can feed my fabric obsesssion and also get a shirt tailored - i bought one of these cool traditional chinese style shirts with round buttons assymmetrically down one side, but one of the buttons falls right on my nipple. Gotta fix that), when we instead started talking about the circle line - the vintage old train that puttputts around the city, it's supposed to be a cool way of sightseeing. So the problem with my friends who live here is that we're all just incredibly lazy. Whenever i bring something up to visit it's like, ohhh we have to go all the way there, why not just sit by the pool instead? So my berlin visitor was clearly a bit more ambitious with his 72 hours in Yangon.   
So we went for it - walked to the central train station and bought some water and beers and tickets for 20 cents. My friend was all nervous like, hurry up stop taking photos we're going to miss the train! And i was like, we're not catching the ICE, you know this is burma right? The train moves about as fast as you can walk, so you can always catch it. As he double and triple checked with everyone on the platform "is this is the right train? Is this it?" Clearly worried we could end up on a 29 hour trek to Mandalay.

all aboard the japanese train!
Unfortunately, this wasn't one of the wagons with all the open doors and big windows, but a recycled Japanese suburban train which despite being from the 60s was actually quite modern, and my brother will be pleased to note - still decades ahead of Amtrak or WMATA. I can only imagine what this was like back in the day and quite advanced. I liked the old school fans mounted on the ceilings which gave a nice fresh breeze and all the lights and knobs with japanese text. We found some green velour seats and waited for the scenery to pass by. Except for the small family of french people we were the only tourists. And you can imagine what the locals were thinking. It's like, here you are riding the same bus you ride everyday and a slew of chinese tourists get on and touch everything and take pictures of everybody. Though, if a chinese tourist is reading this and you want to get an amazing cultural experience in the USA - take any bus that rides from Benning road, washington DC down Florida avenue to Adams morgan. That will knock your socks off. If you don't get shot at, you will see a rich tapestry of modern american society at every wonderful stop. Anyway, I had to kneel up on my seat to reach the window to watch the world go by - people hanging out and sitting along the side of the tracks, flying kites along the rails, little solar panels set up on plastic chairs, houses with large communal kitchens, a string of auto shop shacks and all along the way, people pointing at my face - look! And waving. Even the conductors from passing trains. Really amazing. I hear you can go all the way out to rural areas where people live in huts, but as this thing really doesn't go that fast and it started filling up with folks carrying all these giant packages of rice and food and selling apples we decided to get out at one point. I don't even know where it was but it was a sort of deserted station, and on the other side all these fun kids pointing as us and showing off, i saw a baby with totally red hair and everyone just smiling.

We exited the station and it was this delightful pedestrian street market. Now i already know from chinatown that even when you think it's pedestrian it's not - the cars will go through but not here. There were lots of rickshaws though, and they have rigged these extremely loud bike bells that are in fact quite annoying but otherwise the market was totally pleasant. Not a single tourist in sight and everyone totally friendly and wanting to get their picture taken. I bought 10 huge eggplants for 25 cents. And he threw in an extra ear of corn and another 2 eggplant. These ain't no downtown prices. 

Everyone was just so wonderfully pleasant and fun and there was even a little breeze to slow the sweating.  and down one side street i saw a guy with 




Written on his ratty t-shirt. I pointed to it and said great shirt, bro, and he showed me the rest that was tucked into his longgi which read

baby face covered in thanaka

always collecting money for the buddha

happy veggies
they are obsessed with bike bells drrrrrrring!
eat shit fuck that's alll i do bro
Right on, man. His wife proudly presented their kids for photos too. Further down we saw a Hindu temple, one of those really complicated and colorful things with a giant gate with peacocks framing either side. Then we noticed everyone was very indian looking. We sat at a little cafe to drink a coke and this guy had a straight up tandoori oven and cooking fresh naan. he would flatten out of the balls of dough and slap them against the inside and they stuck and cooked and then brought them to us for 10 cents and it was so good i took some to go for sunday brunch. sitting in the taxi home (which cost about 1000 times more than the train) i realized we didn't even go a quarter of the way around the circle line but it was definitely a wonderful little excursion.
I guess the touris all stick to the same 4 points of interest listed in the lonely planet but it's totally mind boggling how much cool stuff there is to see in yangon without even trying so hard! 

Saturday, January 30, 2016

omg it's chinatown in yangon

so the other day we went to the bogyoke market to feed my insatiable appetite for fabrics and baskets. carsten yawned and followed all bored but i told himhe should probably stay home and it's his fault he didn't. we found a post office. open on a sunday! staffed by a nice little lady with no teeth. i bought stamps with photos of the capital on it and sent postcards to my friend's kids kindergarten, who had just learned about geography and the parents are getting postcards sent from all over. so far they've gotten cards from exotic florida and spain, wait till the teacher has to figure where burma is!
then we bought our weekly staple of grapefruit/pomelo. huge grapefruits, ok, but what's even better? These ladies peel them completely and remove the seeds. it's just pure, juicy, plump grapefruit flesh with none of the mess and it's the best thing ever. my brother would go apeshit over this.
we crossed the pedestrian bridge over bogyoke street, past the dude who has little birds in a cage, whom you pay to free the birds. the birds look all stressed and tired and then he kicks the basket every once in a while to check they are alive. i've heard that when they get released they die almost instantly of exhaustion. doesn't really jive with the whole Buddhist thing in my opinion, though everyone is super nice to all the street cats and dogs. they get fed and have their heads rubbed all the time. even the gross mangy ones.

anyway, the other side was chinatown, and i was ending my three day quest for a bathing suit (i forgot mine in bangkok). until now i have seen lots of places that sell totally slutty underwear, and when i say swimsuit and make a swimming motion, they show to a pile of hideous burkinis. like with knee coverings and a turtleneck and frills everywhere. the first time i totally laughed, and felt bad when there was a lady in an actual total face burka next to me. i would have atually bought one to get a good laugh but no one has my size. they do not condone showing skin, apparently. so i'll be swimming in my new slutty underwear thankyouverymuch.
so chinatown. fascinating, depressing. all the cheap as can be electronics, (carsten bought a new smartphone for 50$), pastel colored plastic as far as the eye can see, mis-spelled bags and t-shirts, you name it. i saw a woman, with a mentally challenged child and three other babies in tow, and her shirt spelled "DIRTYFUCKINGKIDS". but it was all in sequins so i guess it's classy. there's a lamp street, a cable street, even a rug and hardware street. we bought a pair of home-made scissors that smell really bad. 

and then there's a food street.
now this was crazy, you have a block just chock full of open stores, and vendors either behind little booths or on the ground all with barely enough room to squeeze by and amidst the people, the carts, and then, in this mess - the fucking cars drive through. i noticed this one night on 19th street, it's a block full of restaurants and patios, and bbqs, where you fill a basket with mystery meats and they cook them for you - well the cars actually come through there. oh, and then honk aggressively while doing so. so every ten minutes you have to pick up your plates and drinks, and grab your plastic table and chairs while some taxi or whatever comes through, horn blaring. game off! wayne's world style. and then game on, you put your drink down and sit down and - damn! another car!
everyone says how two years ago, there were no cars. none. you waited an hour for a taxi. so in 700 days, not only has the number cars soared and choked the streets, but the drivershave alll learned to assholes. there are two points in my daily walk to work where i have to frogger it across four lanes. you can only really do one lane at a time, and often i get stuck in the middle between two lanes and they honk and don't even try to swerve and the rearview mirrors swipe my backpack. it's crazy. i have never, ever, once seen a car let someone pass, even when it's an old crumply hunched over lady who's holding my wrist as she gets ready to RUN. oh man, and do these people HONK. all day, all night, honk honk honk! i often daydream of the upcoming inauguration of aung san suu kyi, where i imagine her proposing to bring peace back to myanmar..but outlawing unncessary honnking.
anyway, back to chinatown. so this is a narrow street with a row of people selling their goods, sitting on the ground and everything in these little backets, some of which are placed precisely in the middle of the street..leaving two tire lanes? yup, so that the cars come and actually drive over everything and no one has to move their goods. i can't imagine what the exhaust, oil leaks do to the live fish, or the chickens with their yellow feet up in the air, but this is how it goes.

honk honk!

all your meat, freshly hacked

more meat and fish, kept warm by exhaust and the tropical sun...

in between these streets i noticed these dark alleys people were coming out of so we took one. inside was a totally trippy covered market, grimy, dirty, dusty rows of meat on one side, cheap fabrics, food coloring, you name it. i have never seen anything like it. there seemed to be barely any customers, but plenty of rathter friendly vendors who were just surprised to see white people who might potentially buy 2 gallons of glue. yes, here in yangon white people are still a novelty, especially in these hellhole parts. on my way home from work i get waived at by little girls all the time who scream haiiiiii! you actually wonder how long this innocence will last...    

Thursday, January 28, 2016

what we eat

so it's safe to say it's actually more expensive to cook at home than to eat out. mostly because you either get your vegetables at the supermarket, which is stupid expensive, or at the little market stands who have no qualms about ripping me off with these totally random prices. the other day i paid 10 cents for some red onions, and the same for a head of cabbage, and then i felt bad because i only had a 1000 kyat note, so added a carrot to round up the price, but somehow it cost about one thousand times more than all the rest. still, i made some noodles and rice once in a while, but the rest of the time, we just eat out.
our vegetarian roommate has shown us the little south indian neighborhood. a little 10 minute walk where you pass through rows and rows of street samosa vendors, and the delicious samosa salad, which is actually samosas cut into pieces with scissors and served in a soup. why is it a salad? then everyone sits on these miniature stools, which i can't wait to see 1m95 carsten on one but these places are a food poisoning gamble. once i buy some activated charcoal tablets we'll be trying that out.
so there's one place, that serves dosas or chapati on a metal prison-style tv platter, with the little compartments. a guy comes around with a slop bucket under his arm and a ladle and dumps as much potato and veggie curry onto your dish as he can. free refills. it splatters all over the place. orange is the new black style. it's best not to look into the kitchen. total cost: 1000 kyat. less than 1$. which is the same price as a watermelon juice. to compensate we'll often go to the fancy coffee place and get a 2500 kyat coffee.
most places have convenient menus of pictures, and no prices. but it doesn't matter because it's all cheap, and your meal costs the same as a beverage.
for lunch i place an order with the office receptionist, who translates whatever i want into myanmar and hands it to the cleaning lady who goes to some street stand nearby and brings everything back in these mini plastic bags with the little handles tied into a slip knot. rice, too. most of it is unbearably spicy, and also meat in a bag is somehow unappealing to me so i've mostly ordered the vegetables. which are delicious. watercress, corn, bok choy, and the cauliflower. sometimes i get a perfectly fried egg, all for under 1000. i was a bit troubled about all the plastic waste (every restaurant serves their take-out in styrofoam, which makes me cringe) so i bought one of these metal hot pot thingies which everyone carries around, especially the monks, like when they walk up to someone's door and start singing, they hand over their hot pot so it gets filled with yummy food.

i got a little one with two tiers and kinda small, which will keep me from stuffing my face like a slob. i showed it to the cleaning lady and via translator asked her to get my meals in it, and she smiled gracefully at my assimilation. it also helped that i was also wearing my new longgi, one of those long skirts even the men wear. but man try walking up the stairs in a longgi, and you step on the front of it on the upper step, and the only way to free yourself is to sit down and walk backwards and did i mention we have this grand stairway in our office like in a mansion? yeah they all saw me. anyway, i put my name on my hotpot and i eat out of it with all the other people who bring their lunch to the office. everyone likes to share and offer me stuff, like, have you tried this sour fish (awful)? how about some spicy beef balls (my face was on fire). but all with a content do-gooder feeling of reducing my garbage just that much. until one day, i saw the lady bringing the food back from the street stall, all in plastic, and then putting everything into my hotpot with her filthy hands. so much for trying.      

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

a typical day at the office...

so i'm in the office, where i sit on the second floor. instead of the air conditioner aimed right at my face i like to open the door to the sunny balcony, and see some of the happenings on the street below. the swaying Palm trees with birds, ladies with painted faces walking by scream-singing whatever they are selling from a big basket on their head. usually pineapple. a utility truck comes and a bunch of guys in uniforms come out and start inspecting the telephone/electric pole which has a huge mess of wires at the top. the guy climbs up in his flip fops and he's perched atop, sifting through each wire like he's untangling a braid. he's almost exactly at my eye level, chilling there, and i see the beads of sweat on his temples. i go back to my emails for a bit, and i look up and he's still there sorting the cables, connecting some, and then picks one and he pulls out a big pair of clippers from his back pocket. he's still sorting, sorting, re-sorting until finally he finds the one and clip!
and out goes the power, followed by a huge grumbling throughout the building as the air conditioners choke up. his colleague now in a mini tractor thing who was digging a hole yells up something, and then he sorts again, looking for the right wire this time. Which is apparently our fiber optic internet cable and so then our people come out, and the dude on the ground gets all angry and so they switch and well, a bunch of other stuff happens but our internet is out for 3 days. and so everyone hotspots their phones and you can see all these wireless networks pop up when you search and you can see who has an iphone. i say to shoon, who sits behind me, you don't have to brag that you have a 6S dude. then he tells me he has a better provider and can stream movies while i can barely send a 6kb email. previously we had a good laugh with shoon, whom you can address by saying "co shoon" which means brother shoon. though with the belgian guy we say "cochonne" and shoon asks what it means and i say well google it with your fancy 3g 6s and a second later i hear, hey, that's a lot of porn. i thought at least a pig would be top billing on the results but it wasn't. who knew.
i went to the bathroom and shoon warned me you can't use it when the power is out. so that's how it goes here, you quickly adjust to things. like eating rice at every meal. every meal! i buy coconut sticky rice from a nice street vendor lady in the mornings for 500 kyat. so after i used up all my data plan in a few hours and the power didn't come back, i went to the fancy shanngri-la hotel for a toilet, a 5$ watermelon juice and the fastest wi-fi i've seen in weeks. you have to know where to find the few things you need to stay sane. like the kushmi green detox tea and aveda curly hair products that were the best gifts ever from mother that keep my stomach and hair in lines but are quickly running out...the cold showers every morning, i actually like them now and was able to stay in for a whole three minutes today. everyone has been warning me, that in less than two weeks the heat will be so unbearable that cold showers three times a day will be blessing. so soon it will be hot, my hair will be a mess and i'll be drinking lipton. i guess we'll wait and see.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

a little trip to Twantay

since we have so much time here in Yangon, we're not in that much of a hurry to see and do stuff. just as content to hang around the apartment and cook cabbage and any weird stuff i can pick up from the street vendors, which i've gotten really good at.
so one sunday, i finally motivated some friends to take a trip across the river, which i have heard is an easy escape to the country side. we took a ferry from a dock downtown, where this little girl came up to us and shows us how to buy tickets, and was eagerly practicing her bits of french, nearly fluent english and we were teaching her german. i was asking her what there was to do on the other side of the river and she was like a human travel guide. my friend john said hey you should come with us, as a joke and she was all, ok i will! for 20,000 kyats! and then we agreed it would be a little strange to have this young girl with us, and she would probably have to ride in the trunk of a taxi since we were already four so we declined. the ferry was fun, full of all these people selling bits of food. these ladies carry around the little stools and when you order they sit in front of you and chop the mango, or put the little hard boiled quail eggs into a bag. there's a "foreigner only" section which we stayed clear from and instead sat in the cool lounger plastic chairs. there were clearly no life vests and the two-level ferry was overwhelmingly full but you try not to think about these things.

the clear waters of the irawaddy

unknown Food for sale
the ride was a short skip to the other side. upon arrival at the dock we were overwhelmed my rickshaw drivers offering rides, people with food, just a mess of people, over which carsten's head towered...throughout the crowd we managed to find a dude with a cool straw hat, very hip arm tattoos and passable english. we negotiated with him and hoped he would be our driver and guide for the day but it turns out he is just a manager/arranger/negotiator for a fleet of taxis. i felt like i was in a cock fight, me and the guy negotiating amidst a circle of spectators, including my useless friends. i finally thought i was getting somewhere when john just pulled out a bunch of bills and was like, let's just go. amateur! he ruined my game and who pays a taxi first? The guy is totally going to ditch us somewhere now. anyway, we get in the all the guy does is just smile, smile this huge smile, he's the happiest. i see a guy on a bike carrying like, 20 chickens and i scream chicken! and he screams chicken! and then every time we see chickens we all scream chicken.
this is the extent of our communication. then he says "snake pagoda!" ok! and then we went to the pagoda in the middle of the lake that was 27 fat burmese pythons and you can barely even see their heads they are just knots of snake. very weird.
nice window Dressing
there were goats and friendly little kids. the taxi driver did not bail on us and in fact he stayed with us the entire day and just brought us places without even being asked to. he kinda just led the way.
goats, snakes, whatevs.

so we did this little tourist tour but saw only one other set of tourists, an old german couple who have been to burma like a million times. they were on motorbikes, poor fools.

our trustworthy Driver

pagodee monkee
my companions got quickly tired of visiting towns, markets, pottery places, and pagoda after pagoda after pagoda, unlike me and so they voted to give the driver the universal sign for "let's drink a beer." so we stopped for a few beers, and the day was clearly winding down, but the taxi eventually stopped on this street and just said walk! walk!
extra large pig crossing

i was sure we were going to have to hoof it or hitchike back to the ferry, but anyway we took our things and walked. there was kind of nothing to see, just some random little villages and stuff until finally we saw some sort of parade, with people all dressed up, gold parasols and pushing these little kids on bikes. a woman at the front is throwing Little bills into the air and all these little kids are scrambling to pick them up.  the highlight was the music float, another bike setup with MASSIVE speakers and some drunk clown dancing in front to this repetitive, awful tune.
bumese Techno Parade

your lucky day, bud
little held me back from wanting to jump in and play the baseball theme because the keyboard was totally on "stadium organ." but we stayed respectfully at a distance, and just enjoying the scene, which was quite the highlight to our day, and to our delight our taxi showed up and took us back. unfortunately, he immediately drove right through this lovely procession, impatiently honking at everyone to move out of the way, which they did, scramling terrified into the dusty roadsie, which was rather embarassing. we found out later it was some sort of ritual for young monks. we drove back 70km/hr to the ferry and hesitated before the thousand or so bike shops, wondering if we should buy one when we thought, eh, we can come back anytime! because we live here!

Saturday, January 16, 2016

So i'm in Burma

Yeah so i'm in Yangon, Myanmar for the next 4 months. Not too sure how i ended up here, and i think i'm still in a bit of culture (and weather!) shock. How to describe this place. It's a fascinating mess of old delapidated magnificent colonial architecture, combined with the chaotic mess of asia. Huge knots of power lines, stinky streets, mangy stray dogs (though everyone is super nice to them), barefoot monks wearing dark red robes and carrying parasols and their lunch in little stacked steel containers, to keep your rice separate from the rest. I'm totally getting one.
Our apartment is an office guest house for visiting staff. It's a david lynch style thing with flickering lights in creepy hallways, and bugs. We live on the 4th floor, with an elevator, in which the 4 button doesn't work. Given the number of power outages i prefer going to 3 and walking up or avoiding it altogether. Our room is on a bustling several lane street on which honking your horn seems obligatory 24h a day. You can't open the windows because of the mosquitos, though my next purchase is one of those tennis racket bug tasers, and a fan. That should do it. 
Despite the relative classyness of the apartment (teak floors, recessed lighting and fake marble tile, and international plugs which accept virtually any socket type), there are a few oddities, like, all the light switches are 10 cm from the floor? Which is great for me! none of the sockets are grounded so shorts are common, which makes ironing rather scary, and it unfortunately afflicted the hot water heater on day 1. i had one warm shower and it was my greatest moment here. Ok, it gets a little better each day but the bitterly cold shower with brain freeze each morning actually gives me nightmares. I alluded to asking to have it fixed and the roommates are all, what did you say little miss mansion fancy pants? The weather is ok now, cool in the nights, but apparently in a few months we'll all want to dip our heads in a bucket of ice cubes.    
The streets are peppered with shops with very weird names, like "most wonderful everything" and "mrs. Cow sorts" though we found our drinking spot called the "double happiness bar." Yes with two p's. And also the ubiquitous little food stands, next to which people eat while sitting on tiny children's stools, with their knees at their ears almost like they are squatting to poop. Why not just get normal sized chairs? I bought a couple for the balcony though, they are cute. 
Things oscillate between normal asian prices and bare bones cheap. A decent dinner is 5€. But i order lunch from the office secretary and she brings back little plastic bags of rice, curry, veggies for 900 Kyat which i guess is about 75 cents? Which hasn't made me sick yet. I'm going to get those steel pot things and ask for dinner, too. Everyone eats lunch together and share all their food from home (which they bring in warm, which means they cook in the morning? We had a myanmar roommate for a few days, she cooked mushrooms and rice and fish for breakfast) but i can't eat any because it's mega spicy. 

I have stopped trying to negotiate with taxis, instead, i just get in and pay them the correct fare. Until now no one has complained. Though i'm interested in testing out the rickshaws, these rickety bikes with sidecars driven by indians who until they have a customer lounge and read the newspaper, until i get the courage to ride my own bike. The way to work is actually quite mellow, through little side streets. I buy my veggies from old ladies and their kids wave to me and there's a spot under a tree where some kittens hang out. Kittens!

Monday, January 11, 2016

Bangkok: so much food on these streets!

i left our house in bangkok one morning to go to an early meeting. all along the way, people sitting outside their little row houses, you can often peek in and see a huge mess and folks sitting on the floor watching tv. so much tv. out front, old guys with no shirts hacking meat, shucking corn, and then, just in front all these little stands with tasty dumplings, women selling fruit, people putting that fruit into blenders to make smoothies, summer rolls, everything! they don't joke when they talk about a street food craze. it's like all people do is eat on the street. i bet they never cook at home, who needs to? 
so i made a mental map of each tasty stop for the way back, to bring some stinky breakfast goodies home. two hours later, i walked the exact same way, but nothing was in the same place, twilight zone, all the people were different, there was no fruit, only nasty meat, stinky spicy curries in big aluminum pots. what happened to noodle lady? i started to think my mind was playing tricks on me, too much jetlag, or maybe i took the wrong subway exit, how could this be? 
well, turns out, this is just how it is. the street food is like an endless conveyor belt of ever ephemeral changing vendors, who come and go like the warm breezes that scuttle through the buildings. even when i asked noodle lady when she comes, i believe she said every day every day! but no one never saw her again. so if you have a favorite, just carpe diem. or carpe waffle on a stick? truth of the matter is stay away from street food anyway, to avoid any potential sidewalk pant explosion. very dangerous for the tummy when toilet paper is as scarce as people with a full set of teeth. i stick with the fruit, blended, and only touched by someone with plastic on their hands. 
yes, scorpion on a stick is food!
my boyfriend carsten however has no boundaries and chose the waffle on a stick. a big long tube kind of thing. there were a few to choose from, chocolate, marbled, he went with plain and when he picked it up the weight indicated that it was certain to explode with nutella-y goodness. one bite and - wait, there's a sausage in it! it was definitely a waffle, and it certainly had a hot dog inside! i'm sure that's not the last secret sausage to pop up during our stay...   
fruit lady

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

cambodian hospital.

so yeah, cambodian hospital has now been officially checked off my bucket list.

i wasn't feeling so well, had this nasty cough, which turned into a truly painful cramp on my side. not good. as i laid there sorrily in my lovely hotel bed, i grabbed my phone to start googling my symptoms and diagnosed myself with either a collapsed lung, an oncoming heart attack or pneumonia. when things didn't get better i then looked up the french embassy and called myself a nurse listed on their site. she sounded quite terrified when i told her my symptoms and showed up in less than 5 minutes. a sweet young girl my age. she was very reassuring, very nice, but said yeah, i'm pretty sure you have pneumonia, but i'm just a nurse, we need to call a doctor.

she calls her doctor friend and convinces her to do a house call, which she never does, but, i guess i was pretty bad, and she made a quick 70$ for prescribing me codeine and general antibiotics, which my thankfully very helpful dutch co-worker, Ludo went out into the dark of the night to find.
the antibiotics started working immediately, the goo coming out of my lungs quickly changed color, a more reassuring chocolate than lime green. but at some point in the night i thought this isn't going away, i'm going to have to be airlifted to Bangkok and Ludo will have to sort through my dirty underwear and just the thought of Ludo and my underwear terrified me more, and made it even harder to breathe which gave me more pain and ultimately, i waited around until the more appropriate hour of 5:46 to call back the nurse. i only had to whisper this isn't good and boom, she showed up, took one look at me and said, nope, and tuk tuk is not going to cut it. she called her other buddy who runs an ambulance service, worked out a bed in a clinic, called my insurance etc..etc..wonderful.
she starts telling me her life story, two kids, a husband, they love phnom penh, trying to make a living, i'm in a huge daze but somehow scramble out of bed because i really wanted to give her a WWF t-shirt? I was loopy, codeine. whatever.

a little later this old barefoot cambodian man with a alpine rope toss hairdo in a white gown is sitting indian style in bed next to me. there's a portable heart monitor and another asian nurse in a mask, lots of other people and stuff. hotel staff, ambulance people. Ludo is in the ajoining room, sleeping through it all. but i let him. the doctor speaks this choppy french and tells me he will take me to a hospital. and in one sweep lifts me up and carries me away like we're on a honeymoon...down two flights of stairs and through the hotel restaurant and onto a stretcher. ambulance sirens, lots of honking, crazy morning rush hour as far as i can tell. the nurse follows us on her scooter.

i got a chest x ray, lots of juice through an IV and suddenly i felt awesome. like a million bucks. lots of nice french doctors and staff, and a little guy comes with a take out menu, i can order whatever i want! iced cappucino and 2 hard boiled eggs? sure.
i'm brought into my own room, and the iv juices keep flowing, there are a million channels on TV, including this fantastic japanese game show re-runs which is my new favorite thing.

Ludo comes in and is all, hey! they have that show in holland, and then we watch funny dutch youtube copies, with wee man and celebrities. i watched hours and hours of animal planet, just smiling.
at one point a nice fluent French speaking doctor came in and encouraged me to "get out and walk around a bit." he pulls the curtain open and i squint and hiss like a vampire - out there is a crazy asia Scene, People cooking on the sidewalks, hacking at fish with giant cleavers, the orange shrouded monks with yellow umbrellas begging for food.
another doctor working the night shift did not speak such good French. he only said two words: pipi caca? and i didn't know if this was a yes no question, or maybe a what Color and texture kind of deal, because really, i just pooped a gay pride flag, doctor.  
lots more visits from Ludo who brought random take-out and assured me "really, it's just smelly asia out there-you're better on the inside." he spends hours on the futon at the foot of my bed, inspecting all the papers they give me to sign. one night my ambulance driver offered Ludo a ride back to the hotel on his motorcycle and it was not only thrilling, but funny because this cambodian guy apparently owns a 70s dutch police jacket, and a whistle.

there are blood tests and more visits from this lady in a turquoise suit who keeps bringing up the bill, my insurance, whom, whenever i call they say, yes, yes, we have talked to the clinic, and the clinic keeps saying no no, money money, and then they take my passport. the nurse comes back and she's like, don't let them take your passport! you won't be able to leave the country until you pay! another colleague comes and gets it back, and finally i'm discharged on a sunday, while i keep telling them, it's still saturday night in Germany, they won't answer, just be patient. finally, they dump all my medical reports on my chest and wheel me out to the fanciest tuktuk i have ever seen. the cadillac of tuktuks. the guy is even polishing it with a cloth.

back at the hotel, Ludo and i lounge by the pool and catch up and order watermelon juice. i go through the medical report and see all the drugs they pumped me with: Xanax. tons of it. no wonder i had such an awesome time! Ludo starts googling all the pills they sent me home with. Ulcer medicine? the nurse calls me hourly, helps me sift through the what i actually need to take, and what i can sell or give away, and i keep saying that she should just come by, and i will pay her, for her time, she really saved my life, doesn't even know me, i'll give her a t-shirt!

when the hotel manager guy comes over and he's all wishing me well and then starts asking for my nurse's phone number. i'm thinking, sorry, buddy, she's married, not for you, and he's all no, no, she was here last night, and well...she never paid her bill. and i'm thinking, this makes no sense, she lives here, why would she come to a hotel? she has a husband, two kids, she knows i was in the hospital, who? what? and Ludo is already rolling his eyes. the manager says he has video footage of her (there are cameras everywhere) but i am presuming this is a case of all white people look alike.

that's when Ludo and i go into sleuth mode: the mystery of the sexy nurse! i keep saying, there's no way, she's a respectable nurse! and so i track down through my phone all the times i called and then she came to see me, and we find her on the hotel cameras, with her red scooter, helmet, we are zooming in and screenshotting just like they do on TV. this is so law & order! we bring up the morning they carried me away! and then...3am saturday night, while i was in the hospital, yes, it seems, she arrives in a hot pink dress, with a man, drinks, goes to a room...and they leave out a back door (which she knew because of me!) on the same red scooter. the hotel manager calls her number, and her husband answers, he explains, husband hangs up. then she doesn't answer my calls. silence. nothing. i sent her a text - really? was it you? come on, i am dying to mystery nurse, this story is better than what's on animal planet!

Friday, May 29, 2015


we are working on some projects with some villages in another province. we invited two chiefs to our workshop. they told me they took a 28 hour ferry down the congo river and are now in the capital. they attend all our pre-workshop meetings with a translator, always dressed in their official color: red. no one else in the village is allowed to wear red. 
one has a christmas sweatshirt and an inner tube covered in red fabric around his neck with real lion teeth on it: passed down from all the previous chiefs. he holds a wand with horse hair to wave away spirits and his hat has red feathers. the other one has a satin red shirt, a wooden baton and women's fashion glasses with rhinestones and a hat with shells sewn on. amazing.   
at one point they told a great long story, how if you want to marry a woman, you have to court her, and show her you are serious about your love. this is how things work in their village. and so if WWF wants to work with their village then we have to prove our love, and prove we are serious.
how do we do that?
we'd like two motorbikes please. we were promised motorbikes, but we have none, and we are tired of walking everywhere.
is that all your love costs? motorbikes are cheap.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015


I found it a bit odd when I called Taxi Papi about our dinner plans his wife Mimie kept answering his phone. And why isn't she at work? And he didn't offer to come pick me up? It's ok, I found another guy with a really nice Japanese car, Vincent. He's a tough negotiator and drives a Toyota with the steering wheel on the right and a gps screen all in Japanese, with cartoon anime sky scrapers on it, like a video game set in Tokyo. This car is literally straight from Japan. He had a lot of interesting stories to tell about his days of driving ministers around and I even recommended him for a job at WWF. He said I was a blessing from God and gave me a pamphlet of gospel.
So I arrive at Papi's building, the trippy tall one with the Samsung sign on top, with amputees and beggars everywhere and Mimie is waiting at the entrance. They have a maze like path to their apartment across balconies and ledges and we walk through a little work zone where a guy is welding one of those cages you put air conditoners in. Sparks flying everywhere, and instead of welder goggles he has sweet aviator Ray-bans. Probably fake ones. I'm trying to take a picture when Mimi stops to tell me the bad news. Papi had a terrible accident, run over by a car on the huge boulevard. They didn't want to tell me on the phone.
We enter and there is Papi, smiling as ever with a huge head wound, foot cast, messy scars, it's absolutely awful. I dress their baby, Melchi in the Deutschland national team soccer jersey I brought and they tell me how it happened..middle of the busy morning, hit and run in the crosswalk, driver took off and they found the car later but can't locate the owner.
Papi looks tired and sore and I remark that at least his face is intact, which is most important, right? The cast on his ankle looks like a child put it on and I can only imagine what level of care the Congolese hospitals provide.
We eat a quiet meal while the baby sleeps in his chair on the floor. They keep trying to make me eat but I can't, because I feel sick and because the dish is full of teeny tiny fish you eat whole and are oh so spicy! 
Later on the extended family arrives and the apartment is full of people and kids trying to lighten the mood. The kids are arguing over the baby's uniform. World Champions I say, Germany! and they respond with Barcelona? Ronaldo? And I'm like, no, not Champions League, World Cup! They look at my blankly. ahhh, I guess DRC never qualifies so they don't care...We are all sitting in the living room in front of the TV. The brother in law comes in full camouflage military gear, and stores his red beret in the flagged flap on his shoulder. I quickly hand him the remote and salute him to change the channel, my colonel, but he's not the laughing type. 
We eat some pineapple and relax a bit but I can see Papi is clearly in pain so I decide to call it a night. Papi says the brother in law will bring me home, who looks at me with his beady red eyes and asks in a deep rumbling voice: "vous n'êtes pas véhiculé?" I am unvehicled, sir. 
My apartment is basically two rights at the intersection where the patachoux bakery is but there is a lengthy discussion of directions in Lingala with hand movements and "nonono! Pas la! Plus loin!" And then more Lingala, until finally he angles his beret on his head: time to go.
We exit downstairs where all the beggars scatter like ants, military guy apologizes for the state of his vehicle: an 80s Mercedes Sedan that is so busted up it looks wrinkled. Color: dull army green.
The door doesn't even close I have to hold it towards me with the handle which itself is barely affixed. The windshield is cracked in so many places it looks like it was pelted with baseballs. You hear all the parts of the undercarriage rattling and wanting to fall off, and I am dreading the turn into my dirt mess of a street which has potholes so deep there are small forests growing in some of them.
We cross all the intersections with non-working lights where you see the pedestrians racing terrified across the boulevard. At least at night I understand accidents can happen but during the day? ...
We turn well before the patachoux and meander through all these streets I have never seen, breezing through checkpoints and even past my old villa near the president's house. The driver is not talking, he is just turning left, and right, and left, and right and I am thinking he probably wants to disorient me before he pistol whips me. Suddenly we are in front of my house. did you do that? My street is a dead end! He shrugs, smiles and reaches over to open the door. I get a beret salute and off he goes. 
The adorable, adaptable, ever surprising and completely undefinable Congolese.