30 October 2009

Sometimes We Only Have Ourselves

On Monday evening just as we arrived home we received a message. The guards at a friend’s house had called the guards at our house. The housestaff was concerned because they hadn’t seen Madame all day and her bedroom door was closed. Her husband was out of town and not expected back for a few days. We decided to stop by the house to make sure everything was okay. Another friend was with us. We hoped to be just some folks stopping by, all neighborly like, but there was a palpable feel in the car that we were more like a search party.

When we first pulled up to the house, I noticed the outside porch lights on and felt relief, thinking she'd turned them on. But then Mike mentioned that the guards probably turned them on. We banged on the front door, no answer. We banged on side doors and back doors, no answer. I couldn’t be sure, but I thought I heard a faint sound from inside the house. They have a lot of animals, though, including a noisy parrot, so I couldn’t confirm the sound. But Mike heard the definite cry of a person in distress inside the house.

We returned to the front door. It was locked and our copy of the spare key didn’t work. Fortunately for this situation (but not great for other circumstances) Mike was able to break in. He came back around from the inside and unlocked the door to let me in. He’d heard our friend crying from her bedroom. I rushed back there.

She’d been seriously ill all day, vomiting and dizzy. On one hand, we were relieved that things weren’t any worse than that. But on the other, I’m no doctor and with no fever, the symptoms of either malaria or the flu weren’t present, and that was the extent of my amateur diagnosis. Mike called a nurse that I work with. All I could do was provide bedside manner and Gatorade. She was close to dehydration, with all the vomiting and having been too weak to get out of bed for anything to drink all day. She was fairly lucid though, and directed me around the house to make sure all her pets were fed: birds, fish, and a dog.

Once the nurse arrived, I let her take over. My friend kept saying we shouldn’t have come, she’s been sick like this before, she didn’t want people to make a fuss over her. But I say that if you’re so sick and weak that you can’t get out of bed for 10 hours even for a glass of water, that’s when it’s time to call for help. Having guards around the house all the time makes you feel like you’re never alone. Sometimes that’s annoying, but other times it’s nice to know someone’s watching out for you.

The nurse stayed with her all night. We left after Mike did some repair work to the window he’d broken in through. The next morning, she was much better and called me at work to thank me. She still insisted that all the fuss wasn’t necessary, but she did appreciate it. The nurse thinks it might actually be some sort of inner-ear problem. She’ll be traveling through the States next month so will be able to be checked out.

The evening drilled home how much we have to take care of ourselves here. There’s no 911 to call and we’re lucky the situation wasn’t any worse. I feel a constant need to stay up-to-date and refreshed with my first responders training. In the States it’s easy to take for granted the fact that professional help is just a phone call away. But even in the States, sometimes it’s not. Here’s the most practical lesson I learned from the night: Keep your cell phone charged and make sure your contact list is easy to decipher, in case you have to hand the phone off to someone else to make calls. In a time of distress you don't want to waste seconds or minutes trying to find the right numbers.

25 October 2009

How to Pick Up Chicks

We have a new chick. The previous chick died shortly after I announced it to the world. The mother hen, in her exuberance to protect the chick, kept stepping on it. Apparently there have been several chicks that have died even before they were old enough to leave the coop.

A couple weekends ago when some friends came by the house with their kids, the kids stopped and squealed, "A chick!" This was the first I'd seen or heard of it, but there it was. A little yellow speck hopping around after the hen. It already looked larger and stronger than the previous chick, so we had hope for it.

The days have gone by with us respecting the hen and the chick and watching it grow from a distance. It's getting larger and straying further from the protection of the hen, but not too far.

Yesterday some friends came by with their young son, almost two years old. He likes to chase the rooster around the yard but this was the first time he'd seen the chick. The rooster and hen were not happy with him trying to get so close and for a few seconds it looked like they were going to attack him. The rooster actually flapped and squawked and flew right over the kid's head. (Luckily he just laughed, rather than being terrified.) But the hen and rooster, in their attempts to protect the chick, ended up abandoning it. There's a short retaining wall in our yard and while it's a cinch for roosters, hens, and two year olds to scramble over, it's insurmountable for a chick.

Our plan was to catch the chick or at least herd it to another part of the yard where the hen could reunite with it. The chick wanted nothing to do with us, but luckily ran in the direction we wanted him to, toward one of the hen's favorite corners. And under a large bush where no one could see him.

We decided to leave the yard to the chickens so the family could get back together. We went upstairs and watched from the terrace as the hen cautiously made her way down to the bush. The chick started peeping when it realized mamma was nearby. The hen started calling to it. She went into the bush and we expected the chick to follow her out.

Apparently she couldn't convince the chick to leave. She left the bush, and spent the last hour of daylight pacing between the coop and the bush. As the sun was going down, the chick got nervous and started peeping, and even took a few steps out into the yard. But the hen seemed torn between her instincts of going to the coop at sundown and wanting to stay with her chick.

We got headlamps and flashlights in order to make another attempt at catching the chick. The hen was obviously distraught over the situation so we figured the best thing to do was to try and get the chick back to the coop. We came close. We finally saw him, all hunkered down, and succeeded in scaring him out of the bush. Only for him to run too fast for me to catch him without falling, stepping on him, or dropping a flashlight on him. He ran around for a bit, luring us away from the bush, then scootered right back in. By this time it was quite dark. We thought it was best for nature to take its course and wait until morning. We had two social engagements (a rarity for us!) so couldn't spend all night searching for a chick that didn't want to be found.

We were pretty distressed at the thought of losing another animal. Nature, Africa, circle of life, and all that stuff. It gets exhausting after a while. 

Our night guards were having trouble getting the hen and rooster into the coop. They are the ones who close it up for the night and open it every morning. The hen had disappeared and they thought continuing the chick search would bring her out of hiding as well. Mike said to give him 15 more minutes of searching time, then he'd quit to get dressed and go out. He went back out into the yard armed with more flashlights and headlamps for the guards.

I decided not to watch. I could here cheeps and squawks and yelps from inside while I was getting ready. I expected the chick to get stepped on and tragically end the whole ordeal. But after a few minutes Mike came back into the house, announcing victory. 

The hen had returned to the bush to hunker down for the night with the chick. And this time she wasn't letting it go. Somehow Mike and the guards were able to herd both her and the chick together back toward the coop. The rooster and the hen went in peacefully, but the chick decided to hide under it. So Mike and the guards had to scare the chick out of hiding while the hen and the rooster went berserk inside the coop. Eventually the whole family was safe and sound inside for the night.

They are unusually quiet this morning, but I saw the chick hopping around. Everyone seems to be okay, maybe just a little more wary of us.

A little side note: The bush that the chick and the hen kept returning to was full of eggs! She must be using it as a secret nest, and that's why we keep getting chicks even though the eggs are being collected from the coop regularly.

23 October 2009

Soup Trees and Buzzing Bees

When you're out running or walking, and you smell something horrible, and you rule out sewage and burning garbage, it might be what Mike and I refer to as a soup tree. This is a tree that smells terrible when it blooms. It doesn't smell like piping hot tasty soup. It smells like old chicken soup that's been sitting on the counter for three days. 

And there's some kind of local bee that loves it. At least, I assume they are bees. The ridiculously loud buzzing sounds coming from the tree indicates, to me at least, zillions of bees. You know how in the fall in New England you might have a bunch of bees swarming around an apple tree? It's kind of like that, only it doesn't smell like sweet fermenting apples.

It's soup and bee season again. I noticed one smelly, buzzing tree on my run on Monday and a second one while running yesterday. We've also been catching periodic whiffs of them from our terrace. Yesterday when I ran under one, I noticed little green specks raining down from it. Whether they were bee droppings or tree droppings, I really didn't want to stick around and find out. I didn't want to end up smelling like that tree.

I'm not complaining about the trees, simply noting them and how I've never smelled a tree before that wasn't sweet when it blooms. I'm sort of fascinated by them and the bees that love them. 

We don't have gorgeous fall foliage. We have soup trees.

21 October 2009

Check it out

Gluten-free Halloween candy and more this week at What I Eat.

Best Mountain View

Yesterday morning we finally saw the spectacular mountain view that’s been eluding us throughout this so-called rainy season. It gets so hazy during the dry season that we can't see the mountains and it's easy to forget the Congo is just a few kilometers away. I never get tired of the fact that I can see another country from my back porch. (This photo was taken by a friend on a previous wonderful view day from his great back porch view.)

Unfortunately the view is gone again today. This rainy season has brought all of the mosquitos but very little of the nice views and pleasant temperatures that a rainy season is supposed to provide.

19 October 2009

Singing & Dancing with Umudeyo

On Friday night we went to a show at the Centre Culturel Francais. It was a group called Umudeyo, a local group that combines traditional Burundian music and dancing with modern music and dancing. Electric guitars onstage beside gourds and sticks.

It was pretty awesome. The dancers were particularly talented and athletic. The songs all told stories and even though they were in Kirundi it was easy to see what they were saying. They were conventional tales of man-woman relationships, youngsters versus elders, and the ever-present land dispute. Apparently these themes are hilarious to Burundians. While I enjoyed the singing and dancing, I just didn't get the jokes. 

Umudeyo performs at CCF every couple of months. And with the cafe attached, there's a full night of seeing a show and drinking Amstel. 

18 October 2009

A University of Hope in Africa

I collect books and manage an internal library for my office. When my office was packed to the gills and people were still bringing books in to me, my boss gave me permission to find a library here in town to donate them to. 

My French tutor is a professor of English and Theology at one of the universities here, Hope Africa University. The school teaches in both French and English and they are in severe need of all sorts of books, but especially English-language books. The first person I turned to when I had some books to offload was, of course, my tutor. I had two Webster's dictionaries -- one of them a massive third edition -- and some reference books on Africa. He said the students would love them.

On Friday visited the university for the first time. My French tutor arranged for me to deliver the books in person to the headmaster. It was so great to see the school and meet some of the students and other teachers. The headmaster gave me a tour of the three rooms that make up the library. They have plenty of empty shelves just waiting for books. I can't help but have a soft spot for other English majors and their need for books.

There was a catch. The school is run by American Methodists and my tutor is quite religious. I had to attend chapel on Friday morning. I'm not religious but I was curious to see how the students celebrate. Chapel turned out to be a showcase for some very talented communications majors. Musicians, singers, and actors all get involved. It was an enjoyable service.

It was very inspiring to see how hard these students work. You might say I have hope for them. And I can't wait until the next time I have more books to give them.

13 October 2009

Bicycling in Burundi

I have a guest poster. It's Mike! He wanted to share his mountain bike riding adventures. (He posted this on a mountain bike forum as well.) He's got some awesome photos to share at the bottom of the post. Enjoy!

As most of you know, I've been living in Burundi for a little over a year. Living here was an adjustment and work was hectic, and the security situation left us quite restricted. I just wasn't in a place to even think about biking. But things have gotten better and we security goons have been easing back the restrictions for those of us under our provenance. So I reassembled my Turner and rebuilt my Evil into a singlespeed, and we've begun exploring. I take a few security precautions and items of equipment while we're out there, but I still honestly feel that during the day we're just as safe as anywhere else. Medical care and transportation, however, barely exist, so we do play it safe risk-wise while riding.

Burundi is entirely mountainous, except the plain on the lake where the capital of Bujumbura is. There are roads into the hills but the vast, vast majority are unpaved and the main thoroughfares really are footpaths. Outside of a few real population centers, the entire country is evenly rural--very few "wild" places, and pretty much every square inch is lived on/ subsistence farmed by people living in small clusters. There are some larger coffee and tea plantations as well.

So yeah, anyhow, we've started riding up the dirt roads and out into the country and hitting the footpaths, crowded as they are. It's been incredibly liberating and positive and just a damned lot of fun. The tracks we've found have been somewhat technical... tiny off-camber ribbons of dirt with large dropoffs on either side in many cases, and every corner needs to be carefully considered b/c you're liable to run into a dude carrying a bundle of thatch, bananas, or a dinette set on his head.

As soon as we're out, the child network of "Mzungu!" alarms goes out through the countryside and everyone comes running, but we've learned how to handle all the attention and have a good time. We tend to bring big smiles to people's faces, which is nice, and things that seemed aggressive to me months ago I now just know to be business as usual.

We've also hit the roads for some mileage, and really seen how the bicycle is the dominant form of transport here. You see them when you drive, but you just don't see quite how many are parked on the side of the road as you dodge the psycho traffic and motorcycles. We collected a huge peloton of guys loaded with massive towers of bananas, 55g drums, passengers, huge bags of charcoal, etc etc as we headed north on the pavement yesterday. There's a Chinese model of cruiser which completely dominates central/ east Africa. They hook 'em up with rebar cargo racks/ passenger seats, paint 'em with many layers of housepaint, hang decorations all over, and ride these machines everywhere. Having a bike is a pretty big deal. Most of the velo-taxi riders don't even own their bikes, but are working for someone who does.

Alas, during most of this I've been camera-less, and/or just too busy to take photos. But we finally got a camera out on this morning's ride. My battery died before we climbed to the more technical/ singletracky portions, but I did get a few photos from the lower dirt roads/ doubletracks/ wide singletracks. A friend's photos should be available soon and I think he got a few more good ones higher up.

With that, here's this morning's ride:

One of the many portages; erosion is no joke with a heavy rainy season twice a year.

This enterprising kid grabbed my bike and ported it while I was taking the photo, so I let him have a ride.

Taking a short break with some short kids.

Easy spin with mobile cheering and motivation entourage.

(Click on photos to make them larger.)

12 October 2009

Hiking Kibira Forest

Recently we packed up our hats and waterbottles and headed out past the village of Bugarama for a guided tour of the Kibira forest with Burundi's own crocodile hunter, Patrice Faye. The forest is beautiful and amazing. It's one of the only bits of undeveloped land in the country. It's an old forest and has a primeval feeling about it. More than one person made a Jurassic Park reference. I honestly would not have been surprised to see a brontosaurus emerge from the leafy canopy.

We started the walk through a tea plantation. I've started recognizing tea bushes by their alarmingly bright green leaves. The path through the plantation is cut lower than the vegetation, so the bushes hang over you. You know you're in a jungle as soon as you step off the road onto the path. The path is nearly invisible and the tea bushes envelope you. Even Patrice walked by the path and one of the local guides brought him back to it. And he does this trek almost every weekend!

From wikipedia: The Kibira National Park is a national park of northwestern Burundi. Overlapping four provinces and covering 400 km², Kibira National Park lies in the mountains of Congo-Nile divide. It extends from the border with Rwanda almost as far south as the town of Muramvya. It is estimated that around 16% pf the park consists of primary evergreen rain forest.... It is composed of montane rain forest containing several vegetation strata.... It is a zone rich in both animal and plant biodiversity: 644 plant species have been found in the park, as well as about 98 species of mammal (primates, servals, African civets, etc.). Bird life is also rich and varied, with 43 families and more than 200 species identified.... More than three-quarters of the water in the country’s largest dam – providing more than 50 percent of the hydroelectric energy consumed – comes from this forest. Thus the park, situated as it is on the Congo-Nile ridge, plays a fundamental role in regulating the hydrological system and protecting against soil erosion.

As you trek through the old-growth forest it gets dark and cool. It's just like being in a movie, with forest-jungle noises all around you. The Kibira is an area where there are still wild chimpanzees, and spotting one was a goal of mine for the day. Unfortunately we didn't see any. But speaking of Jurassic Park, we saw gigantic worms, snails, and slugs. We also saw two vipers. One was an adult, but it was dead. It was very cool to be able to see it close up, harmlessly. The other was a juvenile, but very much alive. Patrice scooped it up to take home. He milks snakes for their venom in order to make antivenoms. 

Patrice Faye runs several guided tours throughout Burundi, including a pirogue trip in the Rusizi delta in search of Gustave, the world's largest Nile crocodile. We will definitely be calling on him again. We'd love to spend another day in the forest searching for chimpanzees. I'll leave Gustave alone.

Photos at my flickr album.

11 October 2009

Careful, there's a beverage here

Last night we had our much anticipated and much planned La Fete Lebowski, a celebration of all things Big Lebowski. We wore robes, we (Wii) bowled, we watched the film, and we made white russians (which we call mzungus here), a drink with which no Lebowski celebration can be without.

We stockpiled vodka and Kahlua for months. When I traveled through Nairobi earlier this week I grabbed an additional bottle of each from the duty-free shop and it's a good thing, because we opened those last two bottles. They can both be purchased here but can be quite expensive and may not be top quality.

When making white russians in a country where you can't run down to the Ralphs for some half-and-half, it's important to test your recipe ahead of time with the different milks you have available. As far as I'm concerned, white russians made from irradiated pouch milk are utterly disgusting. We decided to use our fresh milk source and everyone raved about how great our white russians were.

In a place where beverage options can be mind-numbingly limited at parties--Coke, Fanta, Primus, Fruito, Amstel grande and Amstel petite--expect that more people will choose to drink your signature drink than, well, you expect. We bought a lot of extra milk for the party and didn't think we'd go through it all. We assumed that the cream, sugar, and alcohol content would keep folks to one or two white russians each. (I certainly couldn't have had more than two without yakking.) But a novel beverage choice was extremely popular and by the time the movie ended we were out of milk; folks were adding dry milk powder, Lebowski-style, to straight Kahlua.

Mike and I took turns tending bar and used a simple, basic recipe:

1 part Kahlua
1 part vodka
1 part full-cream milk
over ice

Some people added additional splashes of their favorite ingredient.

Vodka and other distilled beverages are widely regarded as gluten-free. However, if you're unsure, find a potato-based vodka with no additives. Most sources state Kahlua as being gluten-free. (It sneakily contains dairy, which is what gives some people a reaction; however, if you're drinking white russians I certainly hope you are dairy-tolerant.)

I actually didn't get to drink much white russian. The one that's in the photo is one I made earlier in the day, while we were prepping for the party and testing proportions. I only took a few sips because I didn't want to be wasted before the party even started. Then, later, I made one to drink while watching the film but I put it down on a table for a minute and it disappeared. After the film I tried for the third time, just to discover we were out of milk. And I didn't relish the thought of milk powder so I gave up for the night.

We have enough Kahlua and vodka so that the next time we buy milk I can make a white russian to sit and enjoy quietly.

Cross-posted at What I Eat

04 October 2009

Mall Culture Shock

I'm in Nairobi for a couple days. I arrived this afternoon. Tomorrow I'm taking a work-related exam that I've been preparing for for weeks. Nay, months probably. Today should be a day of relaxation and mental preparation. I was doing fine with the relaxation bit until I left my hotel this afternoon to explore the shopping center next door. It's been a long time since I've been in a big mall-like atmosphere and I was looking forward to the change. 

I barely lasted an hour in the mall-slash-food-court-slash-supermarket -- with a movie theater, gym, water slide, and mini-golf course -- before I'd had enough. While I enjoyed the novelty of shopping in a gigantic grocery store and picking up some Thai take-away, I didn't enjoy the crowds. A mall is a mall, and the crowd in Nairobi is just as obnoxious as the crowd at Potomac Mills in Northern Virginia. At the time I was there, the mall seemed like it sprawled on forever. But now that I think about it, I don't think it was anywhere near as big as Potomac Mills. 

I spent most of my time wandering around the supermarket. It was like a Wal-Mart, with food and other groceries alongside electronics and other household goods. I just wandered around, marveling at how much stuff there was. There's so much stuff out there to buy! What do you do
 with it all? Where did it all come from? I've found that I don't notice I'm missing things in Bujumbura until I go someplace else and see them. I realized that there were many things I wanted, but very little that I actually need. I was completely paralyzed by all the choice. I managed to remember the snacks I'd intended to buy, just before throwing up my hands in frustration. I'm at the point in overseas living where I can't tell the European brands from the American grands anymore. But I did get a kick out of the Malaysian version of Pringles, Mister Potato. (Unfortunately they contain gluten, just like their American cousin.)

But even as I was trying to ward off panic attacks, I was still thinking about how I want to go back to eat dinner at either the Chinese or Japanese restaurant tomorrow night. And how I want to pick up a few groceries for Mike since I have the opportunity. I'm hoping that just like in the States, Monday night at the mall will be a tad slower than a Sunday afternoon.

(The photo is from A Geek in Korea. Mall security guards where eyeballing me all over whenever I pulled out my camera. I decided Mister Potato wasn't worth jail time or anything. I managed a couple shots of the mall, which I'll show off when I get home and have my uploading cable.)

01 October 2009

"Bring me the ranch dressing hose!"

--Homer Simpson

We're heading into that time when we seriously think about where we'll move to next. We probably won't find out until December but we have lists of cities to ponder and we can submit some preferences. Some of our top choices in Africa and Asia have already been taken, which is disappointing. But we have plenty to choose from and I think we'll pretty much be happy anywhere we end up. We can keep ourselves entertained.

I did a super-scientific analysis of the list based on benefits and perks from Mike's employer, deliciousness and gluten-freeness of local cuisines, and warmth of the weather. The winner of my analysis was Havana. Rum! Yucca frita! Graham Greene! It's actually on our list of preferences, but not near the top. 

In researching cities, I'm alarmed by the number of TGI Fridays that are popping up India. I'm also concerned by the number of people who complain about the cost of ranch dressing in Asia. My method of analysis seems quite different from other Americans. I can understand missing some of the comforts of home. I'm going to Nairobi this weekend and I'm thrilled at the chance to restock my supply of Milka bars. But lack of Milka bars isn't the first thing I'm going to tell someone when they ask me about living in Burundi. I want to learn about culture, history, and local cuisines first. (And how easy is it to import a cat?) Availability of American, or even European, goods, is a minor detail I'll worry about when it's time to actually pack. I guess I just expect that no place is going to be the same as the United States, so there's no sense worrying about it.

And isn't that sort of the point of living overseas?

I'm playing our top choices close to the chest. I hate to talk about a place too much and then not get it. I'm in the mode where I've made my preferences known to Mike and I'm ready to sit back, forget about it, and be surprised. And after I'm surprised, I'll share the surprise with you, gentle reader.