Sunday, May 28, 2006

El O.C.
(snapshot of life in Costa Rica)

- As we hunkered down for the telenovela, Teresa* took great pleasure in explaining the characters to me. “Ella esta mala,” she pronounced when Freda came on the screen. Freda twitched evilly because she was la loca as well. Tavio and Cristina were the protagonists, an unbelievably attractive and aristocratic couple with two adorable sons, one who was switched at birth and secretly belonged to Freda, la loca.

Freda’s lover, a guy who for no apparent reason dressed up as Napoleon, shared screen time with his hot brother, confined to a wheelchair after an ill-fated bullfight but miraculously recovered just in time to save his mother from rape. Because the program was produced in Mexico City, a portrait of the Pope watched over the set. Surprise relatives entered in every week.

When I had difficulty keeping track, Teresa helpfully explained. My Spanish improved. Sometimes we had ice cream, Dos Pinos bars from the pulperia down the street. Life was good.

(* "nom-de-blog" used for privacy purposes)

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Yoff Beach
(snapshot of life in Senegal)

- During the week, the fishermen took their boats out. When the catch was not good, a sacrifice was made to the sea goddess, who, according to legend resided on the island not far from shore. A coworker swam in the ocean occasionally, and I never had the heart to tell him of his chances of brushing up against a random bit of severed goat.

Live critters defined the beach as well. Random dog packs wandered and sidled up to the toubabs, expecting affection that the flea-savvy locals didn’t yield. They skulked among grass-roofed shelters that lined the beach, available for daily rent when the day became too hot. Here random vendors and artisans – varying in aggressiveness – would approach and were best deterred by a confession of having no money. Or claiming membership in the Corps de Paix, upon which poverty was automatically assumed.

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Border Disputes
(snapshot of Washington)

- Virginians stick to Virginia, District residents scorn the suburbs, and Marylanders, myself included, prefer their own fair state.

How true that was, I discovered. My soul is slowly being sucked from my body, I’d moan dramatically weaving through the tall buildings and McMansions of Reston. How can anyone live so far out? I’d wonder, making the long foray down I-95 to Manassas to visit old college friends.

Maryland was far superior, I’d assert to friends over cocktails. We had Baltimore, the rowhouses, Fourth of July fireworks over the Inner Harbor. Maryland’s scenery, crab shacks, beaches and even the distinctive accents remind me of childhood visits to my grandparents in Wilmington. I like the state because it reminds me of Delaware, I realized.

In the words of an Arlington-living friend, that was one of the saddest things she’d ever heard.

You guys have Civil War reenactments, I retorted. We have the nationally respected Silver Spring AFI theater.

“I dated a guy from Silver Spring once,” said another friend, wrinkling her nose to express just how pleasant of an experience that had been.

Majority rule meant most happy hours are in NoVA. People are very blond in NoVA, I noticed at first (because, of course, I am so very ethnic in my own appearance). But then I started to enjoy myself, despite the long Metro ride. If I can journey halfway around the world to Africa, surely hopping across the Key Bridge every once in a while is not unreasonable.

(snapshot of life in Senegal)

- Fatou,* the project’s administrative assistant, epitomized Senegalese style. Every day she trotted out a new Vogue-worthy outfit, sometimes modern, sometimes traditional, and often a new hairpiece or hair extension. Many Senegalese women, I learned, kept their scalps nearly bald, allowing them the versatility of a Halle Berry flip one day, an “I Dream of Jeannie” ponytail the next. You’d spot the discarded hairpieces every so often walking down the street, ratty and tromped over with dust.

One day Fatou’s mother stopped by, a shy, traditionally dressed woman. We met her young niece as well, a toddler Fatou let play with her computer keyboard and cell phone. “La executive,” the family observed with pleasure. Fatou’s many kin lived in Medina, a historic old neighborhood crowded with stalls, shops and goats around which Dakar’s French architecture had evolved, and later 1970s-vintage banks, hotels and NGO offices.

As was true for many in the area, in shallah was Fatou’s guiding philosophy. If you needed office supplies, Allah will provide. Or, eventually, you made a trip to Score, downtown Dakar's equivalent to Target.

Though full of muus, or cleverness, she carried out her responsibilities with what one might perceive as a touch less efficiency than an American admin. She approached problems and requests in her own sweet time, ruled by a seemingly random hierarchy of priority. One afternoon, a stack of no more than five papers rested on her desk. “Je suis fatigue a les papiers!” she sighed at random, vexed as we all were by the sheaves of development world paperwork. “Je suis fatigue!” was her catchphrase, usually accompanied by a dramatic handsweep across her stately brow.

Yet things always did get done in the end. For example, one day a new stove appeared in the downstairs kitchen – never mind that we’d been operating quite well with the propane tank and never mind the apparent lack of gas hookup in the building. No problem there – the stove soon was hooked up to the propane tank and functioned quite well.

The week after New Year’s, Fatou was mysteriously absent from the office. Was she sick? On holiday? Neither, Madame explained. Fatou was at a Linux workshop.

(* "Nom-de-blog" used for privacy purposes)

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An Intellectual Property Dispute
(snapshot of life in Costa Rica)

- Randy* could get a touch paranoid when he drank. Maybe this was the effect of his year spent living in San Jose, the rough-edged capital. One night at this bar, he brought me in to translate a conversation with the bartender that had exceeded both of their respective languages. The discussion concerned a Nicolas Cage DVD Randy was trying to sell. The bartender, its prospective buyer, had asked to take the disc home, allegedly to “inspect the quality.”

“He was gone over an hour,” Randy complained over shots of guaro, Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer” wailing in the background. “I bet he copied it. I watched that movie 18 times. The quality is just fine.”

The bartender returned to return the disk and face Randy’s ire. After much heated discourse, I finally eked out a translation of his motivation. The DVD itself hadn’t been lacking in quality, merely the movie. Lame script, poor acting.

(* a "nom-de-blog" for privacy purposes)

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Air Traffic Control
(snapshot of life in Senegal)

- A month later, Corman*, a graduate student temporarily joining our project, had been scheduled to fly back to the U.S. on a Friday sunrise flight via South Africa Airways. When I went to brew up some pre-breakfast Nescafe, I found him still there, pacing around the house with a perplexed and angry expression.

“What happened?”

Quite a tale, as it turned out. The following is a summary of the recap from a South Africa news site, with our interjections that didn’t quite make the international media.

Passengers on a South African Airways flight were stranded in Dakar, Senegal after their aircraft was damaged while in an airport parking bay, SAA said on Sunday. The SAA spokesman said flight 203 flying to New York from Johannesburg via Dakar was damaged by an Alitalia aircraft parked in a bay at the airport. No one was hurt in the incident, but the aircraft’s fuselage and rudder were damaged.

The guy on the runway had been waving the Alitalia flight in, and apparently did not see the large South African Airways jumbo jet taxiing nearby. (Perhaps it was temporarily invisible, like Wonder Woman’s plane.) This oversight continued until the wing of the Alitalia flight cut into the side of the South African plane.

Imagine the passengers looking out of the window on both planes.

“Um…excuse me…um, Mr. Pilot, pst – hey there…I think there’s something you should check out…”

The SAA flight had been due to land in New York on Sunday. The 180 passengers had been accommodated in a local hotel. They would continue their journey on Sunday
evening when another SAA flight to New York via Dakar would collect them. Some travelers due to travel on the flight from Johannesburg on Sunday night would be redirected on an SAA flight from Johannesburg to Atlanta, United States, via Cape Town. There would be no flight from New York to Johannesburg on Sunday. There would be a flight on Monday and passengers due to fly on Sunday from New York would be split between Monday’s flight to Johannesburg via Dakar and the flight via Atlanta, then Cape Town, to Johannesburg.

This convoluted verbiage confused us all, particularly Corman, who thought he was getting a free trip to Cape Town.

During Corman’s three hour wait at the airport, he first consulted the airline ticket counters. All the staff had fled. He then went to the police booth, where he found the officer sleeping. Eventually, some kind soul put him in touch with the actual pilot, who himself had waited two hours for information and kindly gave him his personal cell phone number.

“We do not know the extent of the damage to the plane yet," the spokesman said. "We will only know this after our technicians have assessed the damage. SAA technicians would fly from Johannesburg to Dakar on Sunday to inspect the aircraft.”

Probable inspection conversation: “Hey, what do you think is wrong with the plane?”

“There appears to be a hole in it. It looks like a wing went through the side.”

“Thank God we have our team of technicians from Johannesburg here to check this out!”

(* a "nom-de-blog" for privacy purposes)

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(snapshot of life in Costa Rica)

- On one of my final nights in the country, I gathered with my colleagues, expatriates and locals alike, in the notorious black-walled dive bar. “Tribute to Freddy Mercury” played on the big-screen TV for the hundredth time, followed by a big-haired Bon Jovi concert. Martin* the Carpenter attended with both his son and infant grandson – a three-generation bar night. Our table overflowed with half-empty Imperial bottles and bowls for the rapidly melting ice.

I talked to a new guy who’d just moved back to town. He had lived and worked in San Jose, remaining there even after being brutally mugged and knifed at the ATM a few years back. Earlier, in high school, he’d spent a year in Atlanta as an exchange student. Swimming against the tide of Latin Americans hungry for U.S. work and citizenship, he chose to return to Costa Rica.

“I liked Atlanta. But I like this town even more,” he told me. “In the United States, everyone was always wanting a bigger car or a bigger house. Here, we don’t have much, maybe only a couch and a chair in the living room. But people are happy.”

Then it dawned on me. During my six months in Costa Rica, no one had asked me what kind of neighborhood I lived in, what level job I’d held in the United States or where I’d gone to school. I had no elevator speech prepared, because none was necessary.

(* a "nom-de-blog" for privacy purposes)

More from Costa Rica

Public Transport
(snapshot of life in Costa Rica)

- During a ride up into Nicaragua, I shared a tiny school bus bench with a family of four. A small-boned family, true, but four nonetheless. The aisles were packed, too. With so many crotches at eye level, one swiveled one’s head at one’s peril.

Maximum occupancy signs could be found taped up by the rear-view mirror, somewhere beside a glittering bumper sticker ensuring Jesus’ protection, but these remained a mere, and ignored, technicality. Every time a bus stopped, more passengers squeezed on. Even with the seats stuffed and the aisles crammed, the passengers magically rearranged themselves. Room would be found, even if it meant patiently standing the entire four-hour ride to San Jose. The stairwell to the entrance became a perch. So did the dashboard.

On the rocky ride from the Paquera ferry to Montezuma, I was that lucky dashboard rider, delicately contorted between the windshield and steering wheel, inches away from sexual congress with the gearshift. Of course you prayed for a safe journey in such circumstances, a little of that Dios bumper sticker magic. But, given Costa Rica’s track records for highway safety, you always prayed for that anyway, wherever your seat.

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Homeland Security
(snapshot of life in Senegal)

- Most aspects of life remained tranquil in this Muslim, West African land. People treated us with respect, even as our appearances proclaimed our nationalities ahead of us. Mixed groups talked about politics calmly and rationally, perhaps with even greater candor than I remembered in the United States. Locals invited us to celebrate their customs and holidays, explained to us the tenets of their faith.

The only exception we witnessed unfortunately was a vivid one: the Osama Bin Laden bumper stickers.

“What’s going on? Why?” we asked Alhassane*, unsettled by the sight of the hollow-eyed, bearded, all too familiar visage staring back at us from the window of a taxi or car rapide. Needless to say, we walked the other way when one approached us bearing such a sticker.

The eternal diplomat, balancing the desire to explain with the desire not to offend, Alhassane hedged. “People see him as edgy, out there, radical. He wants to shake things up. People respond to that.”

Edgy? That was a word I’d previously associated with advertising campaigns, independent films. It seemed a bit… weak for this situation.

Yet the Bin Laden stickers were not the most popular in Senegal, Alhassane quickly reassured us. He pointed out the rear view windows and bumpers of other taxis and car rapides speeding by. Far more bore the likeness of a pouting “Borderline” era Madonna.

(* a "nom-de-blog" for privacy purposes)

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Le Mouton
(snapshot of life in Senegal)

- The Tabaski holiday soon was upon us. In the days leading up to the holiday, the streets of Dakar bustled with mouton – strapping, snow-white, freshly brushed. A car would drive by with mouton tied to the roof, muck like skis or a kayak would be in Colorado. Tailor shops scurried to keep up with the demand for holiday boubous for the occasion. A downtown nightclub even announced a contest for the occasion: Gagnez votre mouton! Technically, a Muslim could sacrifice a lesser animal, even a chicken, but most Senegalese would have none of that. Money saved throughout the year was splurged, loans even taken out.

On the Sunday morning of the feast, the streets fell eerily silent. The men prayed at the mosques, the women swept off the porches and patios, hosed down the beasts.Alhassane*, Madame, our former host family and other associates all invited us to the proceedings. An animal sacrifice. We hesitated. Michelle* was a vegetarian, and I a queasy wimp who preferred to keep a wide mental berth between my steak and its source of origin.

“I cannot do the ram,” I ultimately decided after days of deliberation.

“I understand,” Madame responded quite sympathetically. “It’s a bit different of an experience for those not accustomed. We’ll prepare a plate of food for you to pick up later.”

Michelle and I fled to the Hotel Sofitel that morning. In the cab we averted our eyes and blocked our ears, fearing we would not reach the toubab refuge before the slaughter. Yet once there, lounging poolside, a more disturbing sight greeted us: French men in Speedos. “The horror! The horror!” Michelle shrieked when she sat up and removed her eyeshade to face these Speedos at eye level.

“We should have gone with the ram,” we reflected.

(* "noms-de-blog" used for privacy purposes)

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Immigrants, Tourists, Expatriates

- A Central American woman takes stock of her savings, perhaps a bank statement or more likely a wad of bills painstakingly obtained. She eyes her hometown knowing she’s going to leave and not knowing when she might return. Her vision of the future is one informed by television, by tourists she’s met or only glimpsed, by the letters of friends and family who’ve already made the journey across the border to a better life in the United States. Her plans might involve long lines at the government administration offices, with waits extending into months or years. They might involve a man – “I can learn to love him.” Or maybe not. Her plans might involve a perilous journey – by bus, plane, foot or any combination of the three.

Concurrently, an African man similarly might be taking stock of his situation. He examines a map. At some point, he inventoried his surroundings and realized he must leave. He’s college-educated, but jobs are few, and the one he works has made him the de facto ATM and go-to man for dozens of relatives and friends. He’s seen the movies, heard the stories, too. Maybe he dreams of London, maybe Paris or New York.

At the very same moment, a young American sits in front of a computer screen. Puritanical, imperialistic, materialistic - he’s disgusted with his country. This could be triggered by yet another event on the news or by an existentially revelatory trip to the mall. He finds himself bored, unfulfilled. Perhaps he downloads an application for the Peace Corps. Or maybe he wheedles spending money from his parents for a summer in Europe. They think he’ll study languages and art. He knows he’ll be smoking pot in Amsterdam.

Across the world, a common theme emerges: somewhere, some other place is better than here.

I Had a Sunporch In Africa…
(snapshot of life in Senegal)

- Thanksgiving in Senegal ended with a small midnight party on a windy apartment rooftop overlooking Ngor Island. The crowd hailed from the United States, Italy, Mali, Burkina Faso and, of course, our host country. It began with a backyard potluck. The founder of a language and cultural training in Dakar also hosted a mélange of expatriates, among them myriad young students, some quite earnest and serious as they talked about their research, and others quite giddy.

A gaggle of girls arranged a group photo. The photographer among them motioned for them all to stand closer to one of the thatch-roofed shade huts.

“We have to make the picture look more African!”

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On Being a Well-Known Stranger...

- An American can go nearly anywhere, speak English and get by. Not so true for the tri-lingual Senegalese conversant in Wolof, Pulaar and Jolo. Across the world, American entertainers - 50 Cent, Eminem and J-Lo - are universally recognized. Not so for Celia Cruz and Orchestre Baobab, musicians with several decades experience. Everyone knows when George Bush chokes on a pretzel. Not everyone can name the president of Togo or Nicaragua. I’d hazard to guess that quizzing random American teenagers on “What is Dakar?” might yield a few responses: “A cologne for men.”

“Gringa!” As I lounged, hung over, outside a friend’s cottage in Costa Rica, a small girl labeled me as such, proudly pointing at me from the backyard sink as her mother scrubbed her hair.

“Toubab!” Walk down any street in Senegal, and the children announce your presence, jumping up and down with frantic enthusiasm. Even the ones on their mother’s backs struggle to shape the word. Even at night. Apparently we reflect.

The Values Workshop
(snapshot of life in Senegal)

- At the beginning of the session, our instructor asked to list traditional US values. This page in our workbook, titled “American Values” followed by a vast blank space, was unintentionally entertaining in itself.

“Money equals power equals God!” declared one young student, her Caucasian cornrows flying around her enraged pink face. She expounded upon the evils of capitalism.

“Interesting,” our instructor mused.

Later, as we formally introduced ourselves, we learned about the Ivy League university sponsoring her semester abroad.

Once taught the words for traditional Senegalese values, we were encouraged to discuss examples.

Jom – Work ethic, being able to bear pain and suffering without complaint. Here a staff meeting came to mind. When we mentioned malfunctioning electrical outlets in our apartments, Madame laughed that we needed a bit more jom (“This is not the United States. We don’t have Home Depot here.”) and threatened to stick us in a bush village for a couple days. I don’t think she was kidding.

Kersa/Fayda – Respect for others coupled with shrewdness in finding, and taking advantage of, opportunity. The cute child will curtsey and shake your hand. Then she’ll ask you for money. Because you can’t count on jom all the time.

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