Thursday, December 22, 2011

Pleasant distractions.

My brachioradialis are hella sore from splitting wood all day. So now I'm sitting in front of a fire and contemplating the throbbing ache in my forearms. All of which is to say: I'm done with the quarter and not stressed for the first time in a long time. It's a welcome change of pace (and change of concern) from the usual during school.

Some moments worth capturing from the past week...

Fellowship for winter quarter! (w00t!) What a satisfying result for all that effort. I am now on the path to the Engineer's degree, and looking forward to another 1.5 years of school.

Received an A- in my Decision Analysis class. Go figure, right? This was the class in which I received a -0.43/60 on the midterm. I thought it highly unlikely to make it into this grade cluster, but there you go. Even after my decision to take it Pass/Fail (which was a good one), I continued to invest a great deal of time into the class. I don't mind that the A- won't appear on my transcript even though I worked my ass off for it. This was a tough quarter and it's entirely reasonable for me to take a class outside my department as P/F. (Even after falling below the median for the probabilistic portion of the final... I have no idea how I landed an A-.)

Submitted my NDSEG application on time, with all the necessary materials meeting the deadline. Talk about lucky! The whole GRE scores fiasco really had me going for a day... I did my best, now I wait until April to hear back from them and the NSF.

Almost finished with Fallout: New Vegas. Yes, I'm referring to a video game. I mention it because I haven't played a video game in something like eight months. It's mighty fun to enjoy a game from time to time, and this is a good one. It's also deeply satisfying to waste time and not feel guilty about it. Haven't done that in a while...

Listening to The Road by Cormac McCarthy on the way up to PDX. Holy crap that story is intense. Now I can empathize with Lauren, whom read it in one day because she 'couldn't bear to stay in that world for more than a day.'

Friday, December 16, 2011

Excellent news.

Remember my rant about the ETS and the NDSEG?

It all worked out in the end. (Surprise!) After making some calls, it became evident that there would still be a chance for me to submit my NDSEG application and have my GRE scores show up on time.

Two days ago, they were received by the NDSEG.

Whoo hoo! Funding opportunity not lost! Time to finish up my application and submit it before 2pm...

Monday, December 12, 2011



Oh, it feels so good to be finished with the quarter. Sure, I have stuff to do, but all my fall classes are OFFICIALLY FINISHED.

I think the DA exam went pretty well. Played it relatively safe with the probability assignments, mostly because I don't have much to gain from aiming for the 90th percentile -- and a whole lot to lose. Taking it pass/fail, as I mentioned, really simplified my decision-making process.

Now, to celebrate!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Nearly through.

Hard to believe my quarter is almost finished. Completed my last big assignment for Building Information Modeling (BIM) at about 3pm. Hoo boy that was a major ordeal. I was in charge of the structural modeling for a sample building project. This didn't seem particularly bad -- I have a background in structures and the tutorial shown by our teacher made the structural analysis program (ETABS) seem straightforward. Boy, was I mistaken. I spent at least 10 hours on the homework project. Possibly more. Almost all of it was in troubleshooting mode, which is not a particularly fun mode to be in. At the end of the day, I still couldn't get the model to work properly. Even after working with my teacher for thirty minutes, we couldn't resolve the problem. He eventually suggested a workaround so I could at least get results from the analysis program that I could interpret for my design. I'm more familiar with the program, but oy at what cost? Not like I'll likely need to know ETABS for the future. Oh well, there's something to be said for keeping practiced in the art of learning new programs.

Then went on to study more for Decision Analysis (DA). The second practice final exam went a lot better than the first. 26 / 60 on the probabilistic portion, up from -2 / 60 on the first. (Yeah, ouch.) If anything, I can say that I'm at least learning important habits or tricks for the exam. I have never had so much trouble with a class before... I am so glad to be taking it pass/fail. I would be a complete wreck otherwise. No longer do I feel compelled to answer problems with great certainty in an effort to achieve a high score.

The probabilistic grading method taught me valuable lessons about characterizing my own uncertainty, but it does not gel with my desire to do well in classes. Sure, I have undue certainty in my answers in the academic realm, but I think that blind surety helped get me to where I am today. It reminds me of a quote from Prof. Griggs, my infrastructure professor. He said it's fortunate that humans have optimism bias (i.e. the tendency to underestimate the risks and overstate the benefits in planning), because otherwise nothing would get done; the greatest endeavors of human ingenuity and tenacity would have been left at the drawing board.

By about 8pm, I was wiped. Just didn't have any energy left to do more work. Then I realized: I'm pretty much done. Just the exam tomorrow. Well, and the NDSEG application, but that's a much less of a big deal.

Hoping to celebrate tomorrow. Drinking, perhaps? Dancing, perhaps? Both, perhaps? Whatever it is, I hope it will be in the presence of good friends. Most folks seem to be hella busy, so it will be surprising if people are actually available.

After a fun family dinner with Ithaka, it was back to St. Stevens. It was only 10:30pm. So I've decided to treat myself to something decadent and watch an episode of "Six Feet Under." Watching a whole hour of television - what a notion! It's nice to do something like that and not feel guilty about it.

In case you're wondering...

I'm back in school. Graduate school, at Stanford. Hence why I have not made a new post in three months. Apologies!

Monday, November 14, 2011

An improbable score.


Got a -0.43 on my DA midterm. That rattled my self-confidence in a fundamental way.

Each question is multiple choice with four options. You assign a probability to each option being the correct answer, the total of all of them coming to 1.0. Your probability, p, for the actual correct answer is then adjusted on a natural logarithmic scale: 100/15 * (1+ ln(p) / ln(4)). Thus, if you assign a probability of 1.0, you get full credit. If you assign a probability of 0.0, you get negative infinity. You're thus advised to pick somewhere in between. As you can see from this curve (, it's quite possible to get a negative score if you answer too confidently. I answered too confidently, apparently.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Employing a nation with useless security jobs.

Go to an airport in Africa, particularly Nigeria, and expect to have your passport checked at least five times. It’s not clear why. Sometimes there will just be a guard or airport employee standing in a hallway, inspecting passports, without it actually being a security checkpoint. Airline tickets are checked, double-checked, and triple-checked. Bags are searched at least twice by hand.

It’s particularly maddening that there is no “secure zone” as in the U.S. Each time you arrive at a new location, you must proceed through almost the same rigmarole of presenting your passport and having your bags searched and swiped for explosive power. Most searches are superficial at best, however – they have a lot of people to process – so I doubt they could find anything you were intent on sneaking something past them.

What bothers me about the whole scenario is seeing all the people standing around, doing nothing. Apart from mosquitoes and soul-crushing poverty, security/government officials seem to be the only other thing in abundance in Africa. I can see why those positions are so coveted; not only can you extort bribes, but also you get to stand around and do nothing. It’s entirely unnecessary and ineffectual.

Mali featured a new career path I had not yet seen: house security guards. Many places had them. Not like your average American security guard with proper training, cuffs, and the other tools of the trade. The only trait needed to qualify for a security guard in Mali is a pulse. And a chair. Now, I’m not commenting on whether they make a difference -- my guess is they do – but it’s intriguing to see how virally it has caught on in this city, but not others. (I’m also not knocking security guards; many of the ones I have met are quite nice.) It makes sense how people can afford it: manpower is extremely undervalued because of the surplus in supply. Still, it sets up an unfortunate scenario where people dream to become a security guard so they can sit around and do nothing. Not exactly a setup to drive economic activity and innovation.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Chance encounters.

I'm getting pretty good at introducing myself to strangers. This pleases me, as I have made rewarding connections in this fashion. Also, normally I'm quite shy about so joining a group at random, so this marks a big improvement.

If it weren't for being social, I would not have heard about Yeredon, the school for dance and drums. (This happened about a week ago.) If I hadn't heard about Yeredon, I would not be the proud owner of a djembe.

That's right: I bought a djembe. And a sweet case to go with it. Photos will be posted tomorrow. Learned the rhythms to four dances so far, which should be enough to get me started as accompaniment for some African classes back home. (I wouldn't expect to get paid -- just show me the rhythms and I'll play for you for free. This seems to be a common arrangement.)

My drum instructor (on the right) playing checkers with a local drum student.

After my drum lesson today, I went to La Relax, a patisserie/restaurant in the Hippodrome district (an area of Bamako popular for its discotechques). Rather than sit by myself, I caught the eye of two foreigners that were about my age and asked if I could join.

People I meet here are endlessly fascinating. So far it's been an even split between research workers, Peace Corps volunteers, and non-profit interns/employees. The two women I met today were of the last category; one works in co-op development and the other works in gender equality. They hail from Quebec. The Canadian government is sponsoring their work here through funding development non-profits in Africa. The woman in gender equality will be here for one year, taking a break from a Master's in international development. They have both traveled around the world extensively (although not together -- they just met recently). We enjoyed sharing our experiences, talking about travel, and commiserating over challenges of life in Bamako.

Sidenote: It's probably due to the circles I run in, but there seems to be a large ex-pat / foreign aid worker community in Bamako. Given the high level of development for a West African city, this shouldn't surprise me; Cameroon and here are probably the most popular francophone countries. Still, it's been interesting to encounter so many white people. A very different experience from Brazzaville, where I would only occasionally meet a Frenchman with a passion for African music. I've enjoyed many engaging conversations about the nuances of international development. One thing is for sure: it's not for me. I am not ruling out the possibility of working internationally, but I would almost certainly go batshit crazy working for the prototypical African NGO. Too much crap dealing with politics, social dynamics, inertia, etc., both among fellow workers and the management staff.

By the end of our 2-3 hour dinner chat, we were exchanging phone numbers and making plans to meet tomorrow. They're getting together with other friends for a nice dinner (goat cheese ravioli! mmmm...) and then tentative plans to hit up Le Diplomat, one of the dance venues in town well known for its live music.

Had I not made eye contact and said "Hello," I would still be searching in vain for some company tomorrow evening. I don't like going out to these dance places by myself -- I get too stuck in my own head. Also, it's easier to rally for an outing at 11pm when there are other people involved.

Yikes. One day left in Africa. My emotions are mixed. Definitely ready to go home, see all my friends and loved ones, get back to school, etc. This has been an amazing time. It is the transition to a different kind of life that has me not entirely gung-ho about the return. I have grown accustomed (relatively) to the traveler's life. To living in Africa (relatively). Oh well. There's a time and place for all things. The time for this chapter of my life rapidly draws to a close. I am glad that I can close it with nothing but contentment and awe at this incredible experience.

Taxis know best [addendum]

On my way back from drum lesson today, my taxi driver picked up another lady. She had come out of a bar. We drove around the block and stopped in a back alley. After some discussion, she paid and got out; this was evidently the location of her hotel. She seemed a little confused (and drunk).

As we were backing up, I chuckled. The driver said something about her not being right in the head (I’m guessing).

Then I asked him how much she paid. “1000,” he replied.

We got a good laugh out of that one.

(1000 CFA, or about $2.50, is a modest price for a taxi drive and would be enough to take you for 10-20km.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Taxis know best: economic and negotiation theory.

Payment for taxis -- like everything else on this continent -- is determined through haggling. The cost depends on where you're going, so costs end up falling into tiers based on the zone of your destination. A trip to the NE district across the river will run you around 2000 CFA (~$4.25), while a hop down the road can cost anywhere between 200-500 CFA ($0.50-$1.00).

Taxis are so inexpensive that arguing over price would seem silly, but it's more the principle of the matter: it's about defending against the assumption that all foreigners are saps and should be charged 3-5x the normal amount. Just this morning, a driver quoted me 1500 CFA for a trip that should cost around 300 CFA. I laughed at him and eventually talked him down to that amount. The amusing part was that he told me that I should be paying 500-1000 CFA, that I don't understand how this all works, that he's taking pity on me because I'm a foreigner and cutting me a deal. (At least, I'm assuming that's what he said.) Sure, guy, whatever you say. You know best.

It is important to not be ashamed to take back money given to a person when there is a disagreement about the final price. Take this morning's ride as an example. Originally 300 CFA, I handed him a 500 CFA coin expecting change at the end of the ride. He argued that it should now be 500 CFA because I misdirected him slightly. When he wouldn't budge, I just took back the coin and handed him exact change. He smiled at me appreciatively, respecting the street smarts I've developed in negotiations.

One must be wise, of course, to set a price before getting in. This would likely be a common mistake of foreigners accustomed to being presented a fair and set price at the end of the trip. Your negotiating position is severely undermined once they have rendered a service for you. In negotiation theory, this pertains to your BATNA, or Best Alternative To Not Agreeing. Before you ride, you can always walk away and hail another if the taxi driver demands an unreasonable price. After you ride, that luxury is no longer possible -- unless you want to incite a fight and possible arrest. The act of walking away is a powerful hand to force in negotiations, especially in Africa. People consistently set higher prices for foreigners, taking all whites to be rich people, but they are more than willing to settle for 1/3 to 1/2 the quoted amount. After all, it's either get paid less or not get any business. It's leveraging the internal greed and desire of the person providing services. The cost of conducting business and the value of manpower is so dramatically undervalued, it's pretty easy to negotiate a significantly lower price.

This differs considerably from almost all retail businesses in the U.S., where if you're not willing to pay the price, too bad and you can go somewhere else. When you think about it, this is an impressive phenomenon. Businesses eradicated individualistic thinking for the sake of keeping prices high. That this standard developed without outright collusion strikes me as remarkable. As long as haggling is the M.O. of transactions, costs can fluctuate based on factors such as charisma, bargaining power, and personal economic stability.

But I digress. I was talking about taxis.

Taxis all know where everything is -- until you get in the car. Five minutes later, they're pulling over to ask for directions. This behavior does not exactly inspire confidence in the navigation abilities of the driver. After all, they are just asking any random Joe (what would be the African equivalent of "Joe"?) on the street, who may be equally clueless or acting on vague recollections. I am torn between not saying anything in the hopes that eventually we will reach the destination, and risking the suggestion to ask directions because I have a feeling they're not going the right way. It doesn't help when you don't speak the language, so you are powerless to argue with the taxi driver for a discount when they get you hopelessly lost. A taxi ride that takes twice as long as normal will still cost you the same amount. (This happened to me; a 45 minute trip turned into a 1:30 ordeal.)

One other aspect of taxis to note: they stop on personal business all the time. Without even asking, they will pull over to buy gas, purchase some milk, or stock up on phone credit. Most take a couple minutes, but they add up. I was tickled by the thought of a taxi driver in New York trying to pull the same stunt; the Wall Street executive riding shotgun would probably rip him a new one. Time is such a fluid and undervalued notion in Africa.

Enough talk of taxis and economics. It's time for my dance lesson.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


I was going to post about my adventures in Dogon country.

Instead, I'm going to lie down and hold my stomach. It's not happy with me after eating some street vendor food for lunch.

Who thought rice with peanut sauce could be so threatening?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

On muscle soreness and mosquitoes.


It was just about the only thing running through my mind during my lesson, I was so distracted by the throbbing ache in my neck and shoulders. They have never been worked so intensely. West African dance involves an inordinate amount of throwing the head up and down, often in conjunction with circling your arms.

Making circles with your arms isn’t so bad, you might think. But try doing it, say, 100 times in a sitting, and get back to me. And do it while swinging your head up and down.

By the end of the session, my muscles were so spent that I literally (literally!) could not sustain the motion for more than 10 seconds at a time.

The timing works out quite well. My head is full of new movement, my muscles are completely exhausted, and now it’s time for a break from dance. Now is the ideal time to head off to Dogon country.

My adventure begins tomorrow with 12+ hours of travel to reach western Mali. From there, I embark with a guide on a hiking trip through rural Mali, visiting the mysterious cliff villages of Dogon country. Days are spent visiting towns and trekking to a new village, and nights are spent with the locals. My guide will hopefully be Assigue, a man who works at The Sleeping Camel, speaks English proficiently, and was born and raised in the area.

Still deciding how many days I want to spend out there. Three at the max, but maybe just two. It’s a conflict of desires, between wanting to learn more dance and wanting a more in-depth Dogon experience. We’ll see how it goes.

All this fun does come with at a hefty price, of course. But that’s why I scrimp and save money throughout the year – to enjoy excursions like these.

One final note: I’m getting fucking tired of mosquitoes. Seriously. Mali has broken me. I think it’s because they’re active ALL GODDAM DAY LONG. What the hell? They’re only supposed to come out in the evening in troves that blot out the sun. Instead, here you are assailed relentlessly by the tiny vectors from the moment you wake up until the moment you go to bed (and while you sleep, as well).

Perhaps the most aggravating part is when they bite you through your clothes. There is something downright unfair about their ability to penetrate garments. Then you’re left ineptly rubbing at folds of a pant leg in a vain attempt to get on a good scratch. It also confounds the usual follow-up application of hydrocortisone cream. I suppose it’s a good thing; my one tube is nearly spent. Need to make it last just 11 more days.

Wow, 11 days. That’s not long. Hard to believe I’ve been in Africa for three months now, and my journey is rapidly coming to a close.

Monday, September 5, 2011

New (back-dated) posts.

A couple other posts have been added retroactively. Browse through the recent August and September entries. Included: getting solicited for bribes, and a reflection on the culture of giving and economic disparities in Congo.

"Andre! You are very intelligent!"

That was what my dance instructor, Lassy, exclaimed. He meant that I pick up new material quickly.

(Photo credit: Eric Helgoth)

I can understand his excitement. It is always a pleasure to work with a focused student that takes your dance seriously. And that’s what I do with African dance. I ask him to dance it fully, to not dumb it down, to not present the “American version” as we call it. “Malian. Give me Malian,” I say. This makes him tremendously happy, because he can teach the dance the way he loves the dance: full of energy.

There are definitely moments I wish to settle for just the American version. African dance is hella intense; constant footwork, jumps, and quick upper body movements. It almost (almost) feels like Insanity, except that it lasts two hours.

(Photo credit: Eric Helgoth)

The day after my first lesson, my shoulders were so sore I could barely turn my head – and that was even with extensive stretching, plenty of water, and a few bananas.

(Photo credit: Eric Helgoth)

It's not as obvious in this low-resolution image, but you can see the grimace of effort on my face and my shirt turned translucent by sweat. By the end of a session, my shorts are saturated -- dripping. I can actually wring them out. It's... kinda gross.

As luck would have it, one of the fellows staying at the hostel is a photographer. He jumped on the opportunity to take dance shots of a white guy learning African dance – and doing it pretty well. I'm thrilled to have semi-professional photos of me learning the dance.

(P.S. Apologies for the lack of posts recently. I did not have much opportunity for computer work while in Congo -- there was no electricity at the house, and trips to the cyber cafe typically only lasted an hour. I'm playing catch-up now.)

For more photos, visit here.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Missing the U.S.

When someone asked what I missed about the States, this was my response:
Ice cream, fast internet, cooking for myself, not being assaulted by mosquitoes, bacon, Thai food, Netflix, and air quality regulations.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Cultural clashes: a reflection on my Congo experience.

I originally composed this in reply to Muisi-kongo, my Congolese dance instructor, asking of my experiences in the Congo and the people I worked with. My response took on a greater seriousness than she probably expected, mostly because all of these thoughts had been bouncing around in my head for many days. I thought it appropriate to reproduce it for the blog, with some edits.


Overall, my experience was fantastic. I would not trade it for anything. It felt like a pilgrimage to study the traditional movements and rhythms from local artists.

There were some interesting cultural clashes that cropped up during my stay.

Being hosted by people of a lower economic class than yourself can create unexpected challenges. I became keenly aware of the fact that I do have money (even if it’s not much by American standards). They try very hard to make you comfortable, yet there are some things that cannot be accommodated easily, e.g. having a hole in the ground for a toilet. But in an effort to be graceful and humble, you mask your thoughts and reactions and try to be grateful that there’s even metal sheeting to offer some semblance of privacy.

It was startling to be waited on so attentively by my hosts. The most stark example was when I had just taken an outdoor bath and was lounging around outside. I neglected to wash my sandals, however, so parts of my freshly cleaned feet were smudged with dirt. One of the women noticed and sprang into action. “This won’t do,” I assume she said in Lari (the local language). She grabbed a bucket and a rag (which was really just a scrap of a rice sack) and proceeded to wash my feet. And then wash my sandals. I didn’t know how to respond, caught as I was between emotions of surprise, embarrassment, gratitude, and shame at having some old woman wash my feet when I could so easily do it myself.

“Hosting” is a much more serious commitment in Congo than in the U.S. They feel shame if they do not provide everything for their guest, or find that their guest is uncomfortable. One time while sitting outside under a tree, enjoying a relaxing afternoon of reading and munching on a loaf of bread, I was presented with a plate of oranges. I accepted them gratefully. Later on, I found out the impetus for the gift: the mother was shocked to see me just eating bread for lunch. (This was early on in my stay, when I was still so enamored with the taste of real bread.) Feeling ashamed that her guest was not receiving adequate provisions, she had one of her children go buy a couple oranges for me.

I am a person that does not like to create demands. I am grateful they even provided a roof over my head; the last thing I wanted to do was make them wait on me. And thus an unintended dynamic was created, where I was made uncomfortable by their relentless efforts to make me comfortable. Suddenly I had to be always conscious of how my actions were perceived, to not show any signs of disappointment or need. As a person that does like to have my alone time, this pressure began to wear me down quickly.

Another big challenge was money. I needed to adjust to the Congolese notion of giving and hospitality. Pretty much everything is shared in Congo. Whenever a person has something, e.g. a piece of bread, and you happen to be standing there and looking at them, e.g. conversing with them, they will offer you a piece. This happens all the time without fail.

It also extends to random, unsolicited gifts. This sometimes made me uncomfortable, receiving food gifts (e.g. some oranges, a loaf of bread, avocado, etc.) when I can far more easily afford it myself, but accepted them with sincere gratitude.

I struggled with this principle on various levels. It took me a while to adjust, but I made a definite effort; by the time I left, I developed the habit of buying extra of whatever I was purchasing (bananas, crackers, etc.) for sharing. While they were all considerate about not pressuring me, I could tell that do to otherwise would be considered selfish.

It was an easy adjustment for inexpensive items like bananas – what’s another $1 spent on my friends? Treating myself to something nice, be it cheese or a dinner in the city, however, became an increasingly expensive endeavor.

A culture of giving is quickly complicated by a disparity in economic strata. I try to keep a relative perspective about gifts: a gift worth $5 from a poor individual signifies more than the same gift from a millionaire. However, I still struggled with pangs of frustration when every dinner out automatically doubled or tripled in price because there were others in my company. I could afford it, but I am a student and it’s not exactly like I have money to throw around. Sometimes the culture of extreme giving had a reverse impact on me, driving me to seek isolation so I could just pay for myself and not worry about others.

When a $10 dinner at the snack bar becomes a $30-40 event because there are people with me, it’s hard to justify spending money on nice things. It made me feel like I had less control over my own diet, because street vendors were suddenly the only affordable option. Perhaps it’s just that I’m not used to being financially responsible for someone else, and that made me feel burdened, uncomfortable, tethered – essentially everything opposite of the feelings created by traveling – and that is why they were so unwelcome. It was also frustrating because I had just emerged from rural Nigeria. There were the wonders of a city dangling before me – restaurant food, dairy, meats, ice cream – and I effectively could not enjoy them because I was so self-conscious about the fact that the people in my company could not afford them; while if I bought enough to share equally, I was paying 3-4x as much and could hardly justify the expense. Either way, the pleasure was largely subverted by the cultural complications.

I do believe that the universe has a way to give back to those that give. Even so, there were times I felt like people viewed me as a rich white guy that could be squeezed for gifts and food. That’s frustrating, because I’m not rich; I must carefully conserve money just the way they do – I just do so at a different economic level. The fact that I do have money and I could theoretically give and give to them, however, made me realize that I wasn’t truly sharing what I have, and that made me feel selfish: because I was protecting my status quo. Every day, I was faced with this quandary in some degree: just how much am I willing to give? It’s easy to ignore the common street mendicant, much harder for your new friends that you see every day and care for.

Africans appear fundamentally different than Westerners in this regard; any person with money automatically (and willing) bears the responsibility of financially supporting his extended family and even friends. I wonder if that’s part of the reason capitalism has not particularly succeeded in Africa. The moment a person catches a break with a good job or opportunity, the windfall of fortune is instantly diluted, which reduces the likelihood of reinvestment to climb the economic ladder. It paints a more nuanced picture of the challenges to emerging from poverty; a single person cannot escape because they must try to bring along everyone else.

The extreme socialism – for lack of a better word – made me realize my ingrained capitalist principles (e.g. what’s mine is mine because I bought it with my money and my status is mine to protect because I got myself to this point through hard work), even when I fancy myself a giving individual. This was not exactly a comfortable realization, but hey – that’s what crosspollination of cultures is for, right?

I also did not realize that when someone asks if they may join for dinner, it means you’re paying for them. On several occasions, I was asked by Manasset if so-and-so could join, and I’d say of course, thinking their company would be welcome; little did I know that I just increased the multiplier on my bill. This is one of those other unusual circumstances where the culture engendered feelings of isolation; I had to be willing to cover the expenses of others unless I wanted to be by myself.

On to the people…

Goga is a superb dancer. When he shows a movement, he does it with full energy. I appreciated this, because it gave me more visual information to learn. He was also fairly expensive; he asked for $40/day (usually about 2 hrs of work). At one point, he expressed to me how he struggles to make enough money to pay for his mom’s hospital bills and eventually got around to asking if I would buy him a cell phone. This made me extremely uncomfortable; I like the guy, but I felt like that crossed a line. Again, it presented me with that undesirable conflict: just how much am I willing to give? Technically I could afford to buy him a cell phone, but…

Clavert, the drummer, is great. Good teacher, speaks English reasonably well, and is just fantastically laid back. I liked that aspect of him most: no drama, just friendly and happy to teach. His pay amounted to about $20/hr.

The other drummer, whose name I can’t remember (he was the other guy Pierrick tried to set me up with, he wears dreds and gets around on a mountain bike), was less pleasant to deal with. The one time we had a lesson, he showed up 30 minutes late and proceeded to not work with me because he was busy drumming for the dancers at the dance company. (In essence, he was trying to work two jobs at once.) He also complained about wanting pay for my dance “performance.” Manasset conveyed the story to me: Manasset spoke on my behalf, saying he’s a friend and this isn’t a performance, that he would do the same for Manasset if asked. The drummer replied yes, but this is different because he’s (I am) a white guy and has money, so he wants to be paid. So yeah, he’s not on my good list.

Manasset is a great tour guide. His English is approaching fluency. He is gregarious and energetic. He is trustworthy. He sincerely wants to make everyone happy and create harmony. He is also tremendously forgetful, has an abysmal sense of time, and has yet to be able to prep guests for culture shocks (read: the money/giving issue). All that said, I like Manasset a lot and consider him a good friend.

I did my best to cover all his expenses while he was with me. For that reason and that fact that we were friends, I did not pay him. Again, I struggled with this decision. In the CouchSurfing community, you find people who are tremendously giving and would never accept monetary compensation. In the Congo, it’s clear that a person won’t directly ask for compensation but perhaps wants/expects it. As a student, this created a dilemma between saving money and expressing to him my gratitude. I think it would have helped if my relationship to him was more clearly defined at the beginning. As he was thrust upon me, I didn’t feel like I was hiring a guide; rather, I was making a friend. If he saw himself as a guide, though, I think defining up front that he expects to be paid would allow me to decide whether to contract his services and, if so, for how long. While my French is nonexistent, I do know how to get by and may have opted out to save money.

As a translator, he was generally helpful for coordinating lessons, handling logistics, etc. In social situations, however, he became mostly useless. He needed constant prompting to translate either direction. He has not yet developed the habit of passing ideas back and forth between two languages, and I sympathize with this fact; speaking two languages is only part of the skillset required to be a translator. He is still learning and I tried to offer him constructive feedback and reminders.

Manasset is still learning about the differences between Congolese and Western cultures. He took for granted, for example, that I understood the implications of saying that someone else could join us for dinner. He is learning and this will probably improve with time, so that he can better prep future foreigners. He was good about helping me haggle to get local prices, but did not inform me that haggling also applies to friends, i.e. the teachers. This created some drama, as I would present a wad of money that I was under the impression would be fair, and the teacher would get upset at the discounted rate.

Manasset, for all his energy and playing at being a professional tour guide, is still a young adult of 19 years old. This means he hasn’t developed a solid time management strategy or a system for tracking engagements. I often had to advocate for myself, which was a bit challenging when Manasset was unclear with what social events were happening or when people were expecting me to show up or how long it would take to accomplish a certain goal.

Waiting until the end to discuss money was a source of endless frustration for me. Perhaps it’s the capitalist in me, but it seems silly to render services and then talk about money without so much as an estimate beforehand. It creates an unpleasant power/bartering dynamic, where you owe him something, but he’s somewhat at your mercy to take what you give. It can leave a person feeling cheated, disrespected, etc. I don’t like that. It also doesn’t allow me to weigh the decision to actually partake of their services; as a person that constantly runs cost/benefit analyses in my head (I’m an engineer, what can I say?), this lack of upfront information was endlessly vexing.

All of this said, I realize that it’s how Africa works and there’s little that can be done about it: part of the cultural experience.

Despite the inordinate thought that I’ve given to these cultural differences, I am profoundly grateful for my experience and would not trade it for anything. The challenges taught me much about cultures and myself. I am so awed by the generosity of the Congolese and how Manasset’s impoverished family treated me like royalty. I was humbled by the experience and the opportunity to learn the culture and the dance in such an authentic way.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A classic Congolese departure.

Hard to believe my time in Congo is already at an end. It went by so quickly. I did look into the possibility to extend my stay (and cancel my flight to Mali), but it would have cost far too much; the tickets were non-refundable. In retrospect, I’m glad I kept with the original itinerary. Two and a half weeks is hardly long – especially when you’re trying to learn a dance – but I was beginning to feel the need to move on. Have a change of scenery. Perhaps it was the lack of electricity. Perhaps it was the less-than-ideal control over my diet. Perhaps it was the nuances of cultural clashes (read below) that had exhausted my patience and understanding.

Still, I would miss Congo.

Manasset was kind enough to accompany me to the airport. We woke up at 4am. Catching a taxi is a bit challenging at this hour. There is no such thing as a radio taxi, and consigning one in advance would have been a fortune. So, we stood in the relatively empty streets of Bakongo at 4:30am, waving at every taxi that flew by. Most were loaded with people, bleary-eyed and heading to work. (Taxi’s in Congo, you see, often operate as buses. They follow a certain route and you can get on and off as you please for about 100 CFA.) Finally, we caught a lucky break with an empty taxi that was cruising around, looking for more passengers.

For breakfast, we briefly stopped in an alley populated with people. The area, as it turns out, was where bread was made. Distributors had already arrived to pick up their daily supply. Women spread out blankets on the sidewalk and piled them high with avocados and oranges. I grabbed a loaf and an avocado, then we resumed our progress to the airport.

Manasset and I said our goodbyes in the mostly empty airport. It’s a new facility, which made it seem all the more cavernous at 5am.

Security was amusing. The people were nice enough, but I was solicited twice for bribes. One simply asked if I had any Congo CFA. This was within the realm of normalcy, since it is apparently illegal to export the currency. I had already given the last of my bills to Manasset.

The second encounter gave me a chuckle. A guard who spoke English reasonably well started the conversation by asking where I stayed, what did I do, where am I from, etc. He said he hoped I had a nice stay in Congo and that I am welcome. And then: “So… do you have anything for me?”

“Any what?” I played dumb.

“Any … you know… appreciation. Some money, maybe?”

“Oh. No.” I smiled.

This was my favorite part: the look of surprise on his face. He was genuinely taken aback. “Really? Nothing at all? Are you sure?

“Quite sure,” I returned with a laugh.

“Okay... Well, uh, good day.”

It remains unclear if he didn’t expect me to defy his nominal authority so directly, or if he simply had not been denied before. Or he was trying on asking for bribes and was simply new to the whole process. My guess would be the last, given his overt friendliness and meek request for a payoff. He needs to work on his intimidation factor. Actually, he shouldn’t, because I don’t condone corruption. It gets old, real fast.

At least I can check off being asked for a bribe from my list of Essential Things To Do In Africa.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Dance performance in Congo.

The auspicious day arrived: my dance performance.

It was a crazy process to get to this point. The constant dancing, reviewing videos, studying the rhythms, asking about the history of the dances, watching dance troupe performances… I’ve hardly had a moment to myself. This has been a good and a bad thing, but for now I’ll think of it as a good thing.

Everyone needed to freshen up for the big show. Pierrick got a fresh haircut and shave. I… got my hair braided. It turned into something of a community activity, all of us sitting around, pruning one another.

The result was surprisingly good. I will likely cut my hair when I return home, but I will keep the success of this braiding in mind for the future.

My performance was intended to showcase the work I had done while in Congo. I thought this would have been more targeted to the local community. Instead, the decision was made to stage it outside of the city, near the rapids of the Congo River. This meant a procession of dancers, drummers, and children carrying drums and dance props, all streaming out of the neighborhood. We hailed a couple taxis, piled in (we were squeezing five into the back seat), and departed for the river.

While it was disappointing to lose the personal, community aspect of the performance, the aesthetics of location made up for the loss. There was also a spiritual component: visiting the Congo River, touching its waters, communing with the spirit of the river and the land. (I elected to not go swimming; I’m sure the ancestors of the river would forgive my intense fear of schistosomiasis. I waded in, spoke a silent prayer of thanks to earth and the universe, and then promptly got out and toweled off.)

Then it was time to get dressed. Goga furnished the costumes. The braided skirt accessory is a ceremonial adornment called a “raffia.” I later bought one of my own, a souvenir to bring back from the Congo.

I will upload video of the performance when I get home.

Afterwards, it was time for a quick swim to wash off. I opted out. Goga got a little silly and asked for a picture.

What is Africa without a little naked fun?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Dear Brazzaville: I Am Not Jesus.

Seriously: I am not Jesus. Being white and having a beard does not mean you are.

I know it is done in jest and good fun, but it's getting old. Whenever I go anywhere in the city, I am followed by catcalls of "Jesu! Jesu!" This would not be such a burden if they did not get offended when I offer know reply. I think it would take the patience of someone like Jesus Christ to handle the relentless calls for attention by an entire city.

Tomorrow I will try out putting my hair in dreds. If that does not work, I think it's about time to don a bandana for any outdoor excursion. The headgear diminishes the resemblance.

Monday, August 22, 2011

A day in Brazzaville.

The week started off with a genuine kick in the ass: two-hours of African dancing with Goga, my dance instructor. When you dance African with 100% effort, it’s a friggin’ aerobic workout. I’m glad I did Insanity for the past two months, feeling prepared to handle the energy output required for the dance. He is constantly pleased with my passion, my fast learning, my desire for a challenge, and my base skill as a dancer. I think it’s fun for him, working with someone so eager to study African and executing it well.

We always draw a crowd during our sessions. The rhythmic thumping of a drum accompaniment serves to advertise the commencement of our rehearsal. We spent a little over an hour running through the dances for last time and refining the movements.

Shirtless and dripping with sweat, he beams a smile at me and says something in French. “He wants to know if you finished,” a bystander translates. (The person’s name is Master Cool, as a random aside. What he did to deserve the epithet, perhaps I will never know.)

“No! Press on! More! Kassa-kassa!” I shout. (It means “energy” in Lari.) Goga’s face lights up and he shouts back, “Kassa-kassa!” shaking his fists in front of him as if ready for a fight. “Kassa-kassa!” I return one last time, then we’re on to more dancing.

Lunch of bread+avocado, plus many bananas and oranges. And a couple blocks of chocolate.

Accidentally napped for an hour. Then it’s off to my drum lesson. My teacher was pleased with how quickly I’d pick up the rhythms. It is clear, however, that drums are less intuitive than dance for me. My mild dyslexia gets in the way, so that about a minute into maintaining a rhythm, my hands get confused and mix everything up. Then I have to stop and reset.

We will do a performance of my work before I leave. When I spoke with Goga later in the evening, he said he is so happy working with me. Said he was willing to work for a discount because I bring such energy to the lesson. Also, that I would be ready to tour by the end of our time together. Some of that is probably blowing sunshine up my ass – there’s no way I could compete with the professional-caliber African dancers out there – but boy howdy it sure does feel good.


At my request, we visited a supermarket downtown. It really was like a supermarket, albeit a small one by American standards. Wandering through the aisles, I reminisced of home. Normally I despise supermarkets, i.e. Walmart, and all that they stand for, but I’ve even come to miss these paragons of capitalism from the States. There is something comforting about the wide range of available foods, from jams and dark chocolate to crackers and frozen dinners. All with fancy packaging. When your normal source of salt comes in a small plastic pouch of plastic wrap, it is surprisingly pleasant to see a container properly labeled “Salt.” Or “sal,” as they say. (I think.)

I ate cheese for the first time in 2.5 months. A gouda chevre. Tears came to my eyes, so overwhelmed was I with emotion at the explosion of dairy flavor in my mouth.


Later that evening…

Journaling with a handful of children perched around me, whispering in Lari and French. It’s about 8:30 pm; the compound is dark for lack of electricity. Drawn to the soft glow of my laptop like moths to a lamp, they crowd around the chair. All I’m doing is journaling. It’s not particularly interesting, yet they are fascinated with the process. (They did get quite excited when I showed them the photo from Friday of me with Pierrick, Manaset, Spirit, & co.) Listening to Zoe Keating, which reminds me of home. I feel much more centered today.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A dream come true?

Jean, tied up in an all-day workshop, encouraged me to find someone to keep me company during the day. I pinged Pierrick, who offered to pick me up in downtown and hang out. I met him and his friends, who then whisked me off to Bakongo, their neighborhood. Bakongo is only a couple kilometers outside of downtown and is the artistic hub of Brazzaville. It houses the Marche Totale, a sprawling flea/farmers market that is famous in the city. You can buy just about anything there, you just need to wade through the endless procession of knockoff handbags, shoes, and clothing.

We sat down for drinks at an outdoor café/restaurant. There are many of these such cafes around, typically just a covered space with plastic tables and seating.

Hanging out at these places appears to be a national pastime of Congo. As I’ve come to discover, there are people that just spend their entire day sitting in the shade, shooting the shit with whomever happens to join them. They are not independently wealthy or inept, they’re probably just unemployed and have nothing else to do. It’s interesting to observe the hobbies of a people that have intermittent electricity access and cannot afford books, computers, TV, etc. I imagine that passing time without spending money can be quite challenging.

Back to my story. We are soon joined by a small gang of other friends. Fortunately, one in the midst, Manaset, speaks English almost fluently and was friendly and eager to translate. With his aid, we talked about Congo, its people, native languages, musicians, drums, etc.

Pierrick then asks me if I’m ready to learn drums. I wasn’t sure if I understood him correctly.

“Your drum lessons. Ready?”

Uh. Yes. Absolutely. Abso-freakin-lutely. Then we’re off to the more residential part of Bakongo, an area populated by compounds surrounded with tall concrete walls. This has been a common style of urban planning in Africa. Being intensely family-oriented, people often elect to live in compounds with their extended family. The walls are presumably to ward off thieves, judging from the barbs or broken glass that adorn the top.

We arrive at a compound and enter into a space that could have been Mr. Miyagi’s had he been African. A couple of trees, drums lining one side, and a wide, cleared space at its center to accommodate dancing.

Pretty soon I’m into my first drum lesson, learning how to play the ngoma (a ~4-ft tall drum with diameter of maybe 12”). It is the traditional drum of Congolese dance.

I spent three or four hours there, learning from my teacher (he was the seated man in the far right of the picture), and watching a dancer’s rehearsal. The rehearsal interrupted my lesson, but I was okay with it because I was treated to a showing of many different Congolese dances. (Each dance is determined by the rhythm and has a story behind it; for example, Assombi is an energetic dance originally performed in preparation for war.) I even worked in some video, which I hope to eventually post for private viewing. The highlight was the dance instructor, a rather haggard man of probably 50 or 60 years, a many whose time in the African sun has not aged him favorably. No number of years could prevent this man from dancing. When he demonstrated for his pupils, he did so full-out, moving with a finesse and grace that lived just beneath the surface of his apparently decrepit frame.

By the conclusion of the evening, we had established a plan. I would move in with Manaset and his family, who live in the neighborhood, and take lessons every day in drum and dance from local artists.

This may be a dream come true.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Dancing in Brazzaville: a validation.

Sometimes I wonder if mosquitos can laugh. The way they seem to ignore my bug net, the way they will float around my ear, just to let me know they’re there – somewhere. It must be them mocking me.

Overnight, I got bites on practically every inch of my index finger. It’s swollen to the point that I cannot bend it into a fist.

Later that night, we went out dancing. Joined by Jean and his friend, we met up with Pierrick and a few of his friends. Pierrick is the person Muisi-kongo, my dance instructor, put me in touch with. I was surprised that Pierrick would bring his friends so far out – halfway to Talangai, which is a long trek – but he’s cool like that.

Went into this bar that was deserted, save for the staff and one woman dancing on the floor. Afro-pop music was pumping through the loudspeakers. The entire space felt like a meat locker, with its ten-something A/C units working full-blast. It was a little saddening to see them so grossly overestimate demand. Hope springs eternal, right?

Me and a few of the others got to dancing. It was my first time catching a groove in the Congo, and I’d say I wasn’t too shabby. We were all solo dancing, but playing off one another endlessly. This is the kind of club dancing I can enjoy – one where its interactive. It reminded me of soloing at a blues venue. They immediately picked up on my movements and would mimic it or engage in a call-and-response. Way fun. Pierrick seemed really impressed with my movement.

After an hour or so, we parted ways. I wanted to go back home, but Jean pushed for another bar stop. We picked another – this one with outdoor patio seating surrounding a central dance floor. The seating was packed, the dance floor was empty. Something about being exposed in the round like that makes it very difficult to start the dance pack. You feel like you’re on display. Satisfied with my dance experience, I sat back and nursed a beer while the company chatted intermittently in French.

When it was finally time to go, I got up and happened to be waiting by the door. Out of sight for most, I grooved a bit to the song playing. Maybe 30 seconds tops. Then we’re out the door, but just moments later I’m accosted by a tall man, speaking assertively to me in French. “Uh… uh… no… parlez vouz François …” I was worried I had done something wrong.

Jean translated: “He says he’s extremely pleased by your dancing. You move like a traditional African dancer. He wants to know how you learned to dance so well.”

I returned home and soon went to bed, a smile from ear to ear plastered on my face.

Safe in Brazzaville.

I'm safe in Brazzaville. My friend, Jean (pronounced "John"), whom I met through CouchSurfing, works for the Wildlife Conservation Society, which helps protect gorillas and chimpanzees in the national parks. He's going to give me more info about visiting them. He's super cool, kind, speaks English fluently, and his family is welcoming. I love meeting new people. Their toilet is a hole in the ground, but I'm not complaining: it beats shelling out $150+ / night to be cloistered in a hotel with no real connection to its culture.

More details to come...

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


I am just so pleased with myself. Showed up at 9am with a battle plan in place. The key was to get something in writing from the manager (Mr. Thomas). Knowing that he would likely keep putting it off – as any busy person is liable to do – I drafted the letter for him. In essence, an unofficial report of the events that transpired. With that kind of document in my possession, I have proof of their blunder and can use that as leverage to reach the complaints board.

It took a long time to reach him. Three and a half hours of waiting, repeated questioning of underlings, and ultimately my own resourcefulness of personally contacting his mobile number to reach the guy.

He read it over and gave his signature. Not sure if I read him correctly, but I think he was impressed by my proactive and street-wise behavior. Expressed his sympathies again, promised he would write his official report, and sent me on my way to board. He said he investigated who called me the other night and lied about the manager being unavailable, and will take appropriate actions to reprimand him.

Grabbed another stash of chocolate (I think amounting to about 1kg – yeah, I don’t know if there’ll be more again) and trail mix to tide me over through lunch.

Waiting on the tarmac, about to board, I was surprised to see Thomas striding out in my direction. He was holding something in his hand. He walked up to me and handed a new ticket stub. “Here. I upgraded your flight. Again, please accept my sincerest apologies and hope you will fly again with ASky. I am filing my report with my manager right now; you will receive a copy by the time you land in Brazzaville.”

Signed, sealed, delivered, you’re mine, bitches.

Well, maybe. It means they’re taking me seriously. That’s a step in the right direction.

For now, I’m deeply pleased with myself. And positively giddy about flying first class. Champagne, capacious seating, and courteous attention.

Cheers to me.

Don't read this if you ate recently...

Disclaimer: this post speaks frankly about human bodily functions.

It’s about 11:30pm, a long day finally over. I go out to make use of the outhouse. Jean had warned me that it was “sober,” (he meant Spartan/basic/etc.) which translates to a hole in the ground.

Not any big surprise. It’s better than what I saw in Lagos – a drain in the wall. Not even a hole, so you also have to deal with the urine spatter. I don’t even know what they do about excrement – I timed it to avoid having to find out.

Glancing down while relieving myself, I notice something funny: my urine was fizzing. Since “effervescent” is not a common adjective associated with pee, I took a deep breath and bent over for closer investigation.

Maggots. (Cue the screeching strings background music.) Lots and lots of maggots. Covering every inch of non-organic material in the hole.

I think the only redeeming aspect of this photo is the juxtaposition with a beaming, anthropomorphized orange.

This picture was actually taken the next day; so staggered was I by the sight that I couldn’t rally for an immediate photo op. Too bad, because the first time I looked there was also a C or D dry-cell alkaline battery. It raises the question: who the hell changes their batteries in the toilet? Or, who is taking such a prolonged dump that they bring spare batteries for their flashlight?

Lost In Translation

Immigration could have gone better. I made it to the point where they inspect my documents, visa, etc. I thought everything is in order. The guy starts speaking to me in French. I shrug my shoulders and apologize, “Pardon, no parlevouz François.” He gives me a look, calls over a large uniformed woman. They started talking in French, occasionally pointing at me. Five minutes of conversation later, the woman turns to me and says, “Wait. Here.” She points at the row of seats nearby. Really? That’s all you have to say for five minutes of deliberation? There must have been more to the discussion than that...

Turns out I was supposed to supply an invitation letter. Never saw that in any of the documents regarding immigration to Congo… You’d think that would have come up when I applied for my visa. I suppose it’s understandable; they don’t want non-French speaking visitors wandering around the city and getting impossibly lost. (I think I’d be able to fend for myself, but whatever.)

Fortunately, Jean (my CS friend) was at the airport and came to my rescue. He smoothed things over with the authorities, serving as my advocate. Clearly, he was my invitation; we just forgot to write the letter.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Looking on the brighter side of life.

Being stranded in Togo has not been an entirely unqualified disaster. There have been some fantastic moments to buoy my spirits and carry me through this rough patch.

First: chocolate. I had the foresight to buy 200g at the duty-free shop.

Oh. My. God. I almost cried.

I’ve enjoyed access to chocolate throughout my time in Africa, thanks the stroke of genius that made me pack a large stash. However, the chocolate has always been enjoyed (and shared) in small portions. There is something to be said for relishing a sense of abundance. I venture to guess it was this facet that brought on the waves of emotion: in the face of uncertainty and frustration, a notion of security.

Second: food. The hotel they sent me to is decidedly upscale, particularly for African standards. Meals are in three courses. For example, my lunch today was: (1) avocado with shredded lettuce, hard-boiled egg, and onion; (2) some cut of beef with a mouth-watering sauce plus steamed carrots; and (3) cantaloupe-like melon. And always, as much bread as I wish. French bread. With a hard crust. That doesn’t taste like cake. I just can’t stop eating it. It’s so. Freaking. Delicious.

Third: a hot shower. The first one I’ve had in two months.

Fourth: two new friends. Fellows likewise stranded by ASky’s incompetence, we commiserated over our misfortunes and bonded through a mutual disdain for the airline carrier. Cecelia and Eli. They are both tremendously friendly, inquisitive, and delightful conversation partners. They were also the only two other English-speaking persons in our party. We ended up chatting for hours over lunch and dinner, discussing Nigerian politics, African life, entrepreneurial spirit, and, of course, how we would chew out the management team of ASky. Eli is staying in Kinshasa, a booming DCR city just across the river from Brazza. I may get to meet up with him during my stay in the Congo.

Fifth: fast internet. Oh my god. I’ve missed you so much. Watching videos on YouTube? Hell yes.

Sixth: alone time. My first opportunity to have privacy. My first chance to not be surrounded by people and compelled to socialize. It’s giving me a battery recharge that I didn’t realize I needed until I found myself staying inside the hotel room all the time, despite a bustling city outside worth exploring.

Morons. I've got morons on my team.

Warning: expletives contained herein.

Fuck ASky. (It’s a subsidiary of Ethiopian Air.) First, my flight leaves late from Lagos. They don’t inform us that it will be late, however. At least in the US, there’s that little info window that says “DELAYED.” In Lagos, there is no one standing around to keep you apprised of flight information. You’re expected to just sit there and wait until someone shows up.

The flight was delayed by an hour, which concerned me because I had about an hour-long layover in Lome, Togo. Not to worry, they assured me, the flight out of Lome will be held until you can board.

My flight to Brazzaville did, in fact, wait around until after I landed. It did not, however, allow me to board. “Overbooked,” they told me, waving me aside. Oh, right, of course. Overbooked.

Welcome to Africa.

They don’t go around looking for volunteers to give up their seat; instead, they just decide that I’m the unfortunate one to not get to arrive in Brazzaville on time. Nothing can be done. Don’t complain, you’ll just slow the process down further. They usher me to a side room and tell me to wait with a handful of other passengers stranded for the ineptitude of ASky.

Of course, the flight stuck around long enough for my bag to board. I pleaded with them to retrieve my bag, my only source of fresh clothes. This did not achieve any results.

People seem really good at taking important documents from you (without much explanation), walking away, and then returning after an indeterminate time with no improvement in the situation. It’s stressful, giving up critical documents such as your baggage claim ticket, not sure if they will return. It’s also upsetting to try to keep track of all your important documents that are floating around in the bureaucratic ether.

I had to fight for every little accommodation, often to no avail. Want to call my friend that was kind enough to pick me up from the Brazza airport? That’s your own problem, bucko – buy a Togo SIM card and credit. Want a bottle of water because you’re thirsty? Pay for it. Need deodorant, shampoo, toothpaste? Go buy it yourself.

They were quick to ship us off to a hotel, where we were cloistered overnight. The lack of a contact number was infuriating. There I was, stuck in a bizarrely upscale hotel, pacing back and forth in my room fuming. Outside, Afro-pop blared over massive amps at a nearby corner store, mixed with the steady roar of motorbikes streaming by. I couldn’t call anyone, wouldn’t know who to call if I could, and didn’t know when I’d even find out about my replacement flight.

The worst, however, is dealing with bureaucracy in a place where you don’t speak their language. It’s a fucking nightmare. When shit goes wrong and you’re facing injustice, it’s bloody enraging to not be able to express yourself. It makes you want to resort to more primitive – physical – means to communicate when verbal means break down. You want to grab a person by the arms and shake them violently to get them to appreciate your plight.

I received a call later that evening, telling me that there was no flight to Brazzaville the next day (Monday). The earliest flight was Tuesday. I said how upset I was, that I would not tolerate this, that I demanded compensation. The guy said he could not do anything about it. I asked for his boss. He said his boss was away at a meeting in Washington. What was his number? Didn’t leave one. When will he be back? Don’t know.

Fuck. The “let me talk to your boss” stratagem was deflected with ease.

It struck me: this is why you always pack clean underwear in your carry-on. You never know when they will royally screw you and leave you without a clear pair for several days.

When this happens, you immediately run through the list of items packed in your checked bag. Books? Damn. Shampoo/soap? Damn. Cell phone charger? Double-damn. Socks, boxers, a new shirt? Damn. More batteries for my water purifier? Damn. Damn. Damn.

It’s a good thing I took my laptop as a carryon. (I’ve never actually packed my laptop in checked bag, but I still appreciated this fact.) Otherwise, I’d be bored out of my skull, sitting around all day waiting for something to happen.

Not surprisingly, all the business about the boss was a lie. I went to the airport this (Monday) morning and spoke with the terminal director. Gave him a piece of my mind. Expressed my rage and indignation. This was more than inconvenient – this was unacceptable suppressive treatment. He was sympathetic, which I appreciated. He got confirmation that my bag was safe in Brazza. Then I heard his side of the story, which shocked me even more.

It would have been easy for me to catch the flight to Brazza. In fact, the booking coordinator had been instructed to boot anyone that could be more easily re-routed. He did this to accommodate several other Brazza-bound passengers on the same flight as me, yet did not do it for me. Maybe because I’m American. Maybe because I didn’t scream loud enough. (It’s difficult when you know they don’t understand you.)

The event amounts to more than an inconvenience, a couple lost days spent in dirty, smelly clothes. It signifies an unacceptable level of unprofessionalism. It signifies a failure to uphold their part of a contract, a contract I bought for $1,700 fucking dollars to get around Africa in a reliable manner. It signifies a blundering company that doesn’t know how to efficiently handle complications.

Perhaps the worst: it amounts to a lost cultural moment: today (Aug 15) marks the Independence Day for Congo. I chose to travel to Brazza during this time window so I could experience this special event. Opportunities like this generally do not align so perfectly during travel. And now that opportunity was blown.

I’m going for blood. I was shaking with frustration last night. I have a strong case for how this was a major breach of contract, a failure on their part to adequately handle the situation, a loss of value to my trip, and poor treatment on my part as a customer. Additionally, ASky is a fledgling operation of only two years, so they are likely concerned about consumer relations. I hope so, anyway, because my treatment thus far indicates otherwise. They are new company contracted with Ethiopian Air, which does have a positive reputation; this treatment would tarnish the image they’re trying to set. I bought my ticket with Ethiopian Air, so I should get the same quality of service.

I demanded that they refund flight and pay $500/day for expenses and lost time. It’s two days off my itinerary, seven hours (and counting) spent waiting around for ASky to get their act together, and untold stress to fight for my right as a paying customer. Otherwise I will sing up such a shitstorm on their heads and push for as much bad publicity as possible.

The manager wasn’t able to acquiesce to these demands, citing a lack of authority. He did promise to write up a report and submit it to his higher-up. He suggested I do the same, and offered his contact information. I am skeptical this will go far, so tomorrow I will return to the office and demand he write the report before I leave. Otherwise I could very well be SOL – once they get me out of Lome, I won’t be their problem anymore. But if I have a letter from the manager, things change: I have documentation from within their organization that they screwed up. Fortunately, my flight to Brazza leaves at 1pm tomorrow, so I’ll go in early and kick up more dust.

It’s a fine line to walk between causing a stir and being patient. I recognize there is a limit on authority of managers. I understand there are procedures that must be followed. I am better off with a sympathetic manager on my side to support my case than a begrudging one. I also understand that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, that they will try to brush me off or say they can’t do anything. I also understand that I’m in a foreign country, which puts me at a disadvantage.

I think I’ve handled myself quite well. Acted respectfully when needed, raised my voice sometimes, and relentlessly demanded documentation. Today I received written confirmation that they screwed up the baggage and flight situation. (Plus $125 in incidental expenses, which is a drop in the bucket compared to what I want from them.) I’m keeping receipts of all my purchases. My travel insurance should also help out.

I’m on the warpath. We’ll see how far I get. I really want to gut these fuckers. Planning to do more research tonight about consumer rights and options for litigation.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Backdated entries.

Uploaded my adventures from Calabar...

If you haven't already, read them. They're worthwhile; I put a lot of time into them. Plus, lots of pictures!


For the first time yesterday, Gmail loaded in the standard version.

orly? (Oh, really?) Internetz, you waited until the day before I leave to free me from the quagmire experience using Gmail HTML?

If you haven't, try using the HTML version some time. Except that every time you load a new page, instead of it loading in half a second, imagine that it takes 10-30 seconds to load.

Now, the standard version loads without a hitch. Oy.

Better late than never.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Rainy day.

A quiet day in the world of Anam. The constant rain kept us house-bound for all of Saturday. We found ways to liven things up, though.

It’s entertaining to observe the way other animals cope with the weather. This chicken, for example, took shelter under the cooking table stationed outside the house. He doesn’t look particularly pleased.

Over the past many weekends, I will sometimes kick back to enjoy an episode of This American Life. A favorite side-activity is to make toys and shapes out of colorful pipe cleaners. I now have a large bag filled with assorted fun things, but they’re surprisingly hard to distribute. When we visit a town, we’ll quickly amass a mob of 90+ children. Have you ever tried to distribute toys to that many children? Especially in Nigeria, where the concept of queues is laughable: it’s impossible. You hand out on gift and it’s quickly ripped apart by the tide of grabby hands desperate to acquire the item. And when you don’t speak their language, it’s not exactly easy to convey that there is enough to go around for everyone.

Anyway, I now spring on chances to give away the gifts to smaller groups of kids wandering Ebenebe (the area in which we live). One such opportunity happened today, as a band of four siblings took shelter from the rain on the front porch.

Yeah, I’m white. Get over it.

(If you’re wondering why I was wearing a headlamp, it’s because the power was out and I had been reading – it was a cloudy afternoon around 4pm.)

The food situation has improved (at last)! After a shopping trip to Onitsha, we are again stocked with bread, peanut butter, vegetables, etc. I think the peanut butter makes a big difference for me: it opens up a lot of options for snacking.

The culinary creativity of the other interns – particularly Julia, Stacy, and Sarah – continues to impress me. Today, Julia and Stacy crafted several batches of bread. This one had orange zest filling. They also made cinnamon rolls, sans buttery cream awesomeness. (It was still delicious. Anything can beat the processed, sugary cake they pass for bread in Nigeria.)

Mmm. Dough.

Watched three movies today. Yep: highly productive.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Meal fail.

Breakfast: two eggs on toast. oatmeal.

Snack: small cup of yogurt drink (v. sugary)

Lunch: two bites of rice deep-fried in palm oil, and... oatmeal.

Snack: yogurt drink, two slices of bread with thin peanut butter spread (I'm out now)

Dinner: deep-fried sweet potato chips, and... oatmeal.

What I see in this daily intake: starch, starch, starch, protein, sugar oil, oil, sugar, starch, oil, starchoil, oil, sugar, protein, oil, oil, starch.

Fuck. Sometimes I'm surprised by how closely my diet is tied to my mood, because this makes me depressed. My only reliable sources of protein are a yogurt drink that's loaded with sugar, peanut butter that's loaded with sugar, and oatmeal. I can't do insanity on this kind of diet. I skipped today as well... Major fail. I can't give up... Even though oatmeal is more balanced, it's hard to eat three times per day and not feel insecure about food and sad about the present state of things. (And remember, we're talking instant oatmeal with cinnamon and a little sugar -- no delicious fruits or creative additions.)

... bleh. What a shitty food day. What a shitty mood day because of the food day. Yesterday was a mental fart day. Today I just felt physically enervated. I could've loaded up on calories if I actually ate the lunch they served, but... I really didn't want more oil. I'm so goddam sick of the oil. Oil oil oil.

Bad day.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Nigerian recycling.

Here's sustainability for you: reuse! Apparently the Nigerians have it down pat.

Not really, but it's nice to imagine. I've been staring at these ground nut bottles for eight weeks. Usually they're in generically-labeled peanut jars, but the Smirnoff bottle strikes me as so amusing right now. It is quite common to see creative repurposing of bottles, jars, containers, bags, etc., to sell local goods.

Apologies for no new posts in the last few days. We went on an excursion to Calabar last weekend. It was a blast, but the travel was more exhausting than I expected. Been feeling under the weather this week, both physically and mentally. Hopefully the funk will break soon and I find the focus to recap the last many days.