Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's in Holland

Here is what I am eating right now, that I must wipe off my fingers frequently in order not to gunk up my keyboard: Oliebollen.

Here is where we have been for the last week: Marix and Mary Heersink's House in Dieren, Holland:

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This is what two crazy-cute nieces look like singing "Silent Night": (videos now on YouTube instead of Facebook, so even people over 40 can see them!)

This is a toilet with a little platform so that you can examine your poop before you flush it away!

This is me standing next to Van Gogh's The Sower at the Kröller Müller Museum. (This probably didn't need to go to YouTube, but the still camera was out of batteries.) There was a poster of this painting -- from the Met's Van Gogh in Arles exhibit -- at Spring St. since 1984. It gave me quite a flashback:

Here is the Heersink family hockey game in progress in Arnhem. Twenty Heersinks battle it out for dominance of the ice and bragging rights until the next game:

We will be leaving the land of free high-speed internet Saturday morning and returning to Kenya. We have so many great DVDs that Bridget's parents brought -- hopefully they will last us for a while! We miss the dogs and the sun, though our time in Europe has been filled with hospitality, generosity, and copious piles of high-lipid foods. We are filled with gratitude! Gratitude and meat!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Germany is not Kenya

The first day we arrived in Germany we were so jazzed just to eat in a restaurant. We made a little video to commemorate that blessed event:

Actually, the instant we landed in Berlin's Tegel Airport it was clear we were fully submerged in capital-c Civilization again. But it's somehow more civilized than America, so it's more like all-caps CIVILIZATION. Here are some things that we like about Civilization:
  • Running water
  • Running HOT water
  • Mercedes-Benz taxicabs (with integral seat-warmers) that whisk you – in a leathery, silent, but thrumming embrace – to your hotel
  • Electricity
  • More specificaly: lights at night. Lights at NIGHT! Like, not from petrochemical lanterns, or battery-powered headlamps, but from hot tungsten filaments connected to a municipal power supply that – if you can believe this – never turns off.
  • Refrigeration
  • The produce is huge. Like mutant huge: The Incredible Carrot; The Incredible Fennel; The Incredible Bunch of Cilantro that Ate Cleveland!
After our two-day transitional stay at the art'otel, our first hosts were great, thank you Lynn and Eric! We were the first houseguests to crash in their Prenzlauerberg apartment, as they only recently moved to Berlin. Their couch was awesome and the six-floor walk-up was a much-appreciated way to warm up after being out on the frigid streets.

Our second hosts, Utz and Silke Schernikau (plus children Jacob and Lara) were also awesome. People are awesome! We have noticed that German kitchens should have three faucets: one for hot water, one for cold water, and one for Nutella, which everyone we've visited has a GIANT jar of Nutella in an easily accessible place in the kitchen. And if you finish the Nutella, in a late-night spoon-snack scenario? You will wake to find it replaced with a full jar, as if by elves, by the time you wake. German morning magic!
  • Nutella
  • the meat aisle of German supermarkets, which hopefully I will photograph tomorrow. 
Stay tuned.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Wherever you go, there you are

Yesterday we were in a cafe having a delicious, expensive, gourmet lunch. I had nothing to do but enjoy myself and spend time with my brand-spanking-new husband tootling around a beautiful European city and spending money given as wedding presents. So, I figured it was a good time to do some existential worrying about those pressing questions, like: what is the point of life? I mean, do any of our efforts really make a difference -- what would it even mean to "make a difference" -- like, a difference in what? What would I even be shooting for if I could magically produce any outcome I wanted this instant? You know, things that need to be figured out here, today, at this cafe table.

At times like this, I can really experience being my own worst enemy. There was this irritatingly audible, vapid-seeming young American girl at a table next to us, telling in syrupy tones the poor young German man (who either was unable to perceive her vapidity on account of her foreignness, or whose foreignness was obscuring his own vapidity from me) that "you can't run from yourself," which, despite being trite, is nevertheless true. Even having everything I could imagine wanting at this moment, I am still just myself.

It's illuminating to shift suddenly through such different cultures. In those last days before we left Kenya, I romanticized my projection of Europe, a place where everything works and we can get everything we want and I won't be frustrated by what I was experiencing as this insane apathy on the part of the Kenyans, this sort of radical acceptance of suffering that seemed to allow for the unacceptable. For example, riding a matatu into Nairobi is the equivalent of a 90 minute mechanical bull ride: do you picket the president's office in outrage about the state of the country's roads? No, you accept that this is how things are. Someone breaks your dog's leg: do you get bent out of shape and start trying to change the way people in your town treat animals? No, you just hope that the dog's leg gets better. Or, fuck it, get rid of your broken dog and get a better new one. I mean, you didn't even give him a name anyway. The educational system is based on slavish regurgitation in preparation for the incomprehensible standardized exam that will determine the entire future of your students: do you demand changes to this archaic and unreasonable system? No... you get the idea.

But now, here in the lovely city of Berlin, there are just a new set of circumstances that grate on me. The air hurts my body and makes going outside unpleasant; the sun barely lightens the gray pall of the sky, making everything the weak color of despair; I feel useless, like my only purpose is to take pleasure, to use up stored "happy capital" when my instinct is to hoard and save it for some hypothetical "later." It reminds me of the following poem:

The Obligation to be Happy
by Linda Pastan

It is more onerous
than the rites of beauty
or housework, harder than love.
But you expect it of me casually,
the way you expect the sun
to come up, not in spite of rain
or clouds but because of them.

And so I smile, as if my own fidelity
to sadness were a hidden vice—
that downward tug on my mouth,
my old suspicion that health
and love are brief irrelevancies,
no more than laughter in the warm dark
strangled at dawn.

Happiness. I try to hoist it
on my narrow shoulders again—
a knapsack heavy with gold coins.
I stumble around the house,
bump into things.
Only Midas himself
would understand.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Chocolate, Cheese, and Hot Running Water

We are experiencing a little bit of Africa burnout. It started, as I knew it would, as soon as the school term ended and our day-to-day feeling of usefulness was harder to sustain.

Little things that wouldn't have irritated us before all of the sudden seemed almost intolerable, like the intermittance of the water supply to our house. When we arrived, we expected no water! We washed our dishes in buckets for the first two weeks! But ever since it started raining a tiny bit more, we've come to expect an unfettered flow.

Whatever: my point is that we are on edge. We have started to be WAY critical of the people and culture around us. We are starting to feel like colonialists, looking around and thinking "This is not the right way to do things! Here, let us tell you what you are doing wrong!"

Time for a break. Tomorrow we fly to Berlin. A week and a half later we go to England, then after Christmas we go to Holland. With ubiquitous access to wireless internet, it is possible you will see more posting from us over the next three weeks. But it's also possible that we will be too busy eating chocolate-covered cheese while soaking in tubs, and we will not post at all.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


For a while there, just after it got dark, we could see the constellation of Scorpius really clearly on the Western horizon from the porch of the house. It was bright, obvious, harmless, and helped me learn to find Saggitarius.

None of these things were true about this guy:

...who I found on the porch, lurking under my rain boot as I prepared to go to the computer lab at 8am this morning. I "found" him using a sophisticated technique wherein I reached for my rain boot and, with the lightning-quick reflexes that have elevated my species to the top of the food chain, extracted the poison from his barb with the pad of my left ring finger. That's the finger on which I wear my wedding ring, so I knew he'd go for it -- scorpions are notorious romantics.

So then I said "Shit! Fuck! God damn it!" and went back in the house.

Bridget hates it when I walk back into the house shouting obscenities for no apparent reason, because she always expects that something Really Bad has happened (decapitated student, black mamba bite, government overthrown by military coup), but usually I've just forgotten to bring some mildly-important piece of paper with me.

But this time I was shouting obscenities because I'd been stung by a scorpion. I wasn't shouting because of the pain (which hadn't started yet) but because literally one minute earlier I had made a joke wherein I predicted that our rain boots, so long unused, had probably been colonized by giant, mutant, hybridized Spider/Scorpions in the interim -- and that I'd better shake them out extra-well and be prepared to do battle. It was a classic early-morning not-very-funny joke that seemed funnier because we had only just had our coffee and our brains were only functioning at the level of like gibbons.

Which is how I explain going from joking about scorpions to being stung by one in under 60 seconds. Under-caffeinated gibbon-brain.

To be fair, I had already assiduously checked and shaken and banged around my first boot, and was satisfied that it remained uncolonized by arachnids. I was about to repeat this procedure with boot #2 but the sly scorpion seen above, probably awakened by and in a state of high alertness as a result of the banging and shaking of boot #1, got all UNDER the boot instead of inside it.

Anyway, one trip to the clinic and almost 10 hours later, it still hurts, but I have to assume it hurts less than it would have without the local shot of lidocaine to the sting site, the IV shot of hydrocortisone, the Aleve, and the Panadol.

The guy above is dead, by the way. My mercy has its limits. (Not really. I just wanted to bring his carcass to the clinic so they could see what had got me.)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Teacher frustrations: the same everywhere

There are many rewarding things about being a teacher, but there are also things that make you want to pull your hair out, no matter where you are.

One of the main things I am here to work on is the writing programs at the schools BEADS works with. I have been trying to compile some of the best student writing to put in a little booklet, because we figure the students will be inspired by seeing their work in print. But I'm feeling a little irked by the local standard of good writing. It seems as though what is most prized and encouraged in the students' writing -- the skill they work hardest to hone -- is the lavish use of similes. Not original similes, but a sort of standard list that everyone must get issued at a "here's how to write like the pros" seminar held sometime around fifth grade.

Also, in sifting through eighth grade writing I was given, I was at first amazed by the number of really exceptional experiences these students have had, such as multiple homicides, gang violence, terrible accidents, mysterious deaths -- until I realized that no one writes about things that have actually happened. I think the usual assignment consists of giving the students the title of their story ("A Narrow Escape" seems popular) and having them loosely transcribe the plot line of a week's worth of Guiding Light. Kind of like this:
I awoke and jumped from my bouncy bed and went to the frog's kingdom. I took a shower as cold as ice and then felt as fresh as a daisy and as cool as a cucumber. I was as happy as a lark when I sat down to a breakfast fit for a king. I was as busy as a bee washing the dishes. It was as quiet as a grave. Then I heard a noise and shook like a leaf [where might be added in red pen "on a tree in the wind"].
I will spare you now, but that's a taste of the agony. The thing is, the little kids, the ones who haven't yet "learned how to write," there are some great stories from those guys. For these, there is yet hope, and in such hope we soldier on, and may God have mercy on our souls.

Boring list of animals we've seen in Africa

...with a bonus puppy picture to keep you interested.

We've seen more than this, but check out the awesome pictures of the dik dik and klipspringer.

African wild dog, camel, cow, dik dik, dog, elephant, giraffe, goat, hyena, impala, klipspringer, maribou stork, olive baboon, ostritch, pygmy falcon, sheep, superb starling, Thomson's gazelle, warthog, waterbuk, white-bellied go-away-bird, zebra.

(L-R) Bridget, Rufus, Piglet.

Sunday, November 8, 2009


When it comes to puppies, the old phrase "one is too many, a thousand is never enough" seems to apply. After spending a few days with our yet-unnamed dog (Winston? Doggert? Egon? He hasn't responded reliably to any of these) we realized he would be a lot happier if he had a friend from his pack to be with -- something to bite and chew on other than my arm, and to jump around with or cuddle with as the mood strikes.

So, we went by the house where the dogs were and asked after another -- a girl, so we could name it Sonmi-451. The first dog they pulled from the box was runty and shivering, and making very soft pig noises, like that first scene where Fern gets Wilbur and he's all wrapped in the blanket and stuff. And then they pulled out another girl, a grey with bluish eyes, bigger, beautiful, and sturdier seeming, and then we asked them to please stop or I would want to take every one of them home. How can you look into the tick-swarming eyes of a malnourished pup and say "yeah, I think I liked the other one better"?

We decided to take the first one, as she seemed more in need of attention, and more submissive, which might have just been a state of hunger-induced lassitude; she gets feistier with each bowl of kibble. She is adorable -- see picture of her tiny body next to Jeremy's hand -- but she likes to crawl around on my head and bite my hair in the night when I'm sleeping. Hard. Like she's trying to eat my brains through my skull. I don't really like it. We found out that the puppies are only 6 weeks old, so they are just getting weaned and she's probably trying to suckle my follicles, which is disappointing for everyone involved. Tonight we'll try again to get the sleep situation worked out, as I don't do well with sleep deprivation. How will I ever have human babies? I've heard they're even more demanding than dogs....

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

New Puppy

Yes, we went to Amboseli National Park and assisted with BEADS's famine relief efforts. Yes, it was a moving and inspiring and beautiful experience.

But then we got back to school and within three hours of our return, we were presented with a small, flea-covered puppy:

So I went and bought some flea shampoo and the only dog food they have in town, a noxious dry mixture of grains and bonemeal called TOP DOG which must be mixed with water and boiled for 5 minutes before it is fit to serve to a discerning canine.

Dogs are mistreated in Kenya as a matter of routine; people throw stones at and kick them... just because. As a result, most mature dogs you see flinch and retreat if you so much as look at them. This has made us sad. So when a group of students hands us a tiny, unspoiled puppy, it takes a hard heart to tell them to put it back in the gutter in which they found it mewling pitifully.


So now the dog lives with us. When we thought it was a girl, we were going to name it Sonmi-451, after our favorite character from Cloud Atlas, which we just finished reading. But now we kinda think it's a boy, and none of the male characters in Cloud Atlas have good dog names.

What the hell are we going to do with this dog when we go to Europe for three weeks in December? What about the months we're in India, Nepal, SE Asia, and road-tripping back across the USA? This remains unclear. Once, while working on a movie in New Mexico for a month, my girlfriend Rachel and I did not tell a stray puppy to scram. It lived with us and the rest of the movie crew for a month and when it was time to return to Los Angeles, we abandoned it. This memory makes me sad. I do not want to make the same mistake.

I mean look at this thing. All it wants is to be cute and to steal some of your body heat.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

It's Highway Butchery, I Tell You!

This joint is on the main drag in our town.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

New, More Upbeat Famine Relief Video!

BEADS asked us to make more hopeful video about what people can do to help! Here's what we came up with:

If you are so moved you wish to make a donation, try the functional beta of my new, supereasy, user-friendly BEADS for Education Famine Relief Donation Page!

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Singing Club's First Song!

As a break from "look how different Africa is!" posts and depressing famine-related video, I offer you the first recording of the Top Ride Academy Singing Club!

You Won't See Me

Be patient... the first eight seconds are silent.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Safety First

There are a lot of things that are different about the way children are treated in Kenya. Almost every day Jeremy and I go “Oh, my god, I can’t look at that” as we watch three-year-olds clamber up a pile of precariously balanced building materials, or two-year-olds in soiled miniature prom dresses holding hands while walking unattended down the road as a truck comes careening over potholes and speed bumps directly at them. I do a double take when I see the children in first grade grasping at their neighbor’s hand which clutches the double-sided razor blade they use to sharpen their snacked-on pencil stubs.

I ran into a friend yesterday who said she was checking on her daughter, just 'cause she recently got Typhoid. When I expressed condolences she seemed aware but unfazed. She assured me it was just because the small ones put so much dirt in their mouths, and they play around the latrines and whatnot, and she assured me her daughter was better already -- as if I needed to be reassured rather than her. I sometimes conjure up the ghost figure of a Manhattanite Jewish mother and imagine what she would say/do if she could get a load of her child doing any one of these things -- or even what I would do if I felt their well-being were actually within the sphere of my responsibility. I think I would never cease saying “no” and/or “stop.” And yet, the children seem to generally be just fine. On a campus of 401 kids, many of whom are under 10, or on the streets of Isinya, or around the rubbish-pile playgrounds, you almost never hear a child crying. They smile up at you from their dirt-castles, run after you calling “wazungu!” like you are a circus train pulling into the station. They seem so… happy. Strange, isn’t it?

Dueling Famine Videos!

Bridget and I made our first lo-film -- that is, a video self-shot with no plan, self-edited, and released to the public within days. Morgan reminded me that this is the kind of thing to mention on the blog.

It is a little darker than your typical lo-film, but it is for a good cause. We made two versions. We don't care whose you like better. We like both.

Coming soon: an EASY way to donate money to BEADS for Education towards its famine relief project.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Religion, rain, and the snake story

Yesterday, while the bulk of the students in my scheduled singing group attended the biannual Catholic Mass that happens when the priest decides to visit the town, I spoke at length with a teacher named Cecilia about rain, religion, and animals.

It was a little weird to talk about religion; in fact, Bridget and I had decided we should maybe avoid the topic. But when someone asks "what is your religion?" it's hard to just say "I'm not comfortable discussing it." The thing is, when people here ask what your religion is, they really seem to be asking "what kind of Christian are you?" Since the closest answer I could give to that is "Quaker" (or maybe "Unitarian Universalist") I usually say that. But despite the fact that Wikipedia says Kenya has more Quakers than any other nation, there is no Quaker meeting house in Isinya (there like 50 other little corrugated-metal churches) and a lot of people here seem dubious when Quakers come up, like they either haven't heard of Quakers, or they don't like what they have heard. So maybe I'm going to stop claiming to be Quaker.

Anyway I changed the subject to rain, because the lack of it is always obvious. We talked about how the drought affected the animals around here, how cattle were dying in droves. Then she told me about her cow.

(NB: Keep in mind that many of my stupid-seeming questions arise from the language barrier. Almost everyone speaks fluent Swahili, some English (with British flavour), and a tribal language. But it's common enough to ram up against some misunderstanding or mistranslation -- Bridget listened uncomprehendingly while her students repeatedly described a person in a book as wearing "spectacles"; when I asked shopkeepers in town if they sold "butter" they kept quizzically replying "what size bottle?")

CECILIA: I had a cow. But it died. It was walking around the compound and it got bitten by a snake.
JEREMY: I'm so sorry. When was this?
CEC: Last week. I was very sad.
JER: It was a small cow? A calf?
CEC: No. A grown cow.
JER: Geez. How big was the snake?
CEC: Very big snake. (Makes vague "big" gesture)
JER: How big?
CEC: Very big. Sometimes they eat sheep.
JER: Like, baby sheep?
CEC: No, grown sheep. After they bite, they wrap around you and crush your bones so they can swallow. (Makes much more vivid enveloping/rending gesture.)
JER: ...
CEC: (Sighs.) They killed the snake after it bit my cow. They had to use an excavator to kill it.
JER: An excavator? Like a shovel?
CEC: No, no. Very big machine. A... tractor.
JER: ...
CEC: And the snake, he still try to fight the tractor.
JER: The snake attacked a giant steam shovel?
CEC: Yes. And if had bitten the driver, he would have died.
JER: Wow. Well... Isn't there an antidote for the bite? Anti-venom?
CEC: No. Your only hope, if you get bit? You must be rushed to the hospital, where they must amputate the leg that was bit.
JER: I see.
CEC: Yes and there are many Hindus in that area, who will not kill the snakes because they worship snakes.
JER: Hrmph. Is this nearby?
CEC: No, no. On the other side of the greenhouses. (She points to the flower farm's greenhouses, less than a mile away.)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

I have a good story about a snake, but....

...I don't have enough battery to type it today AND watch Kill Bill Part 2 tonight. I will type it tomorrow. In the meantime, I will just gloat about another home-cooked meal.

I know this shit is boring. I've read food blogs before and wanted to fork my own eyes out. But when you make peasant food in New York it's different from when you make peasant food because you have no choice. So! Tonight I made gnocchi and Bridget made a sauce out of butter and the rosemary that grows in front of our house. Bridget steamed up some unidentifiable greens we got for 5 Kenyan Shillings (about 7 cents) and I sliced a tomato. It was alllll delicious.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Baby Animals are Being Born in our Backyard

Today we spotted a herd of cows in our backyard. See, last week some workmen unstrung a bunch of our barbed-wire fencing -- we presumed to fix it in some way, though what was wrong with it we could not say -- and they have yet to finish their task and restring our wire. But who knows, maybe unstringing it and making a big hole in our fence WAS their task. They're not telling; we haven't seen them in four days.

Anyway so there was a herd of cows back there. Cows are big. We waved to the old Masai herdsman (mzee is Swahili for "old dude") and he waved back. But when he saw me taking a video of the herd, he excitedly waved us back outside and made a series of confusing hand gestures and we were mightily confused, at a communicatory impasse until, with good old fashioned figure-it-outiveness, Bridget divined that a baby cow was just over yonder.

Here is a video of that cow:

But that wasn't all! He then urged us to trudge just a little farther into the hot, dry flatness and we were rewarded with a view of this freaking just-borned baby goat! Feast your peepers:

Africa is freaking CUTE.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Gender Bending Couple Shocks African Town

When Jeremy was first coming to visit me in St Thomas, my friends liked him a lot. They told me what a great guy he was, and always invited him to be the sole guy at girls' night out and stuff -- but one day, a friend of mine told me, "It's cool that you and Jeremy are going out, but you do realize that he's gay, don't you?" No matter what I said, I couldn't convince her that a man who can talk about feelings, cry at a movie, and doesn't consider fixing a leaky faucet the extent of his commitment to housekeeping could also be a heterosexual.

Interactions like that, even amongst people who are from essentially the same culture as me, remind me that our relationship doesn't really fall within the bounds of the stereotypical, gender role-wise. Here in Isinya, it's more pronounced for both of us. I think I am the only woman in town who wears trousers. When I wore a dress the other day, I was greeted with "you look smart!" and nearly audible sighs of relief from teachers, who just seemed kind of unsettled, rather than actually offended, by my insistence on dressing like a man from the waist down -- like seeing some hapless foreigner wandering your town with their shoes on the wrong feet or mittens on their ears or something.

The other day Jeremy went to pick up some groceries at the stalls of the "mamas" in town; when our friend Jacky at the Mpesa phone store saw him, she left her store -- you know, to keep him company during his errands, giving him helpful pointers like "put your yoghurt in your bag -- don't just carry it around in your hand," by which we later realized she meant to save him from the embarrassment of being a man buying foodstuffs (other than a side of goat).

Last night we brought dinner over to eat at Jacky's, where she lives at the back of the phone kiosk. We were talking about our one month anniversary, and responding to her question about how our marriage is "going," when a couple of male friends of hers stopped by. I was saying how my wonderful husband brings me coffee in the morning, and we almost made the guys barf up their nyama choma. More than disgusted, they just seemed... well, baffled. David, a Masai, said "in my culture, a man never cooks for his wife -- even if she is sick, he can call his mother and have her do it. If my father saw me in a kitchen, he would ask me if I had lost my mind." And my wonderful husband said, "if my dad saw me in the kitchen he'd ask 'What's for dinner?'" David told us that in his culture, a man's wife is like another child, which seems to me like it would just be sort of boring. Who wants to have only other children to talk to? All in all, it was a really interesting conversation -- no rancor, no problem (which actually is hakuna matata in Swahili). It was just some people chatting about the different ways of seeing a thing like marriage. As we walked home arm in arm in the spectacular moonlight, talking and laughing together, I felt so grateful that we got to be who we are -- husband and wife because we are partners and friends first.

We Eat Better Here Than We Used To

Seriously. Check out tonight's dinner:

...All homemade from local produce, homemade by US, without help! By lanternlight! Clockwise on the plate: a pile of fresh avocado chunks; a vegetable curry topped with homemade onion relish; sukuma wiki (sauteed kale); a Kenyan spiced rice dish called rice pilau.

To give you and idea of how cheap this all is, the avocado cost us about US $0.20 and the total cost of the meal's ingredients must have been under $5. And it was freaking delicious.

Most importantly, however, I feel like I am learning how to cook for myself in a way that I have always wanted to learn, but was too lazy (scared?) to try. You listening, Paula? I have a newfound respect for the way that you cook, with your "buying vegetables" and "making food out of them." Hooray for learning!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Time Moves Quickly!

How much do I hate it when I write a big, funny post only to have it get gobbled up by the internet? I hate it a lot. But no worries. I remember most of it! Ahem. Begin again.

I bragged when we arrived about how I was impervious to jet lag, but apparently mine was just a late-onset variety. For the first few days in Isinya I would be overcome with fatigue in the middle of the day, passing out for an hour at a time, unable to be roused. I had trouble falling asleep at night and I woke frequently to the sound of a single helicopter-loud mosquito (mbu in Swahili) on the other side of the net. Per my travel doctor's orders, we had dipped the net (as well as all of our clothes) in a solution of Permethrin, which is supposed to kill insects on contact. But they seem gleefully undisturbed by it.

Since then we've settled to a good sleep pattern. Sleeping late is not very easy because on one side of the house the sun rises with the strength of a hammer hitting an anvil, and on the other, the first shift of flower-farm workers (1,500 strong) uses the road right on the other side of our fence, and they are very chatty with each other. But that's okay; we don't need to sleep late. We have opted for the sun. Clang!

Many people shared their horror stories about nightmares caused our antimalarial drug, Lariam (aka mefloquine), which we take weekly. My friend Kate told us of an acquaintance who woke to find herself being strangled by her spouse, who was in the grip of particularly bad Lariam-induced night terrors (which: thanks Kate!). But so far, we have experienced nothing scary except for Stephen King's The Shining, which I am reading aloud to Bridget a chapter or two a day. Other friends, concerned for our sobriety as well as our sanity, warned us of mefloquine's hallucinatory effects, but so far we have seen nothing remotely trippy. So what gives? Did we get a dud batch? We bought it stateside so we're fairly sure it's not counterfeit. I guess we'll just see if we get Malaria.

We are learning to cook with the locally-available produce, which does not offer a huge variety. But we can get and cook with tomatoes (nyanya), carrots, onions, potatoes, rice, dried beans (soak for six hours, cook for 1.5), kale-like greens (sukuma wiki), and tiny hot peppers (pili pili). UHT milk needs no refrigeration, and we use a mountain-climber-style french press for our coffee. My doctor (who Bridget thinks is an overly fussy alarmist, probably of weak moral fiber) also advised us to soak local produce in a dilute bleach solution for an hour before eating it. Unless, of course, we boil it. Anyway -- we are eating well and have suffered no drastic gastrointestinal distress.

Ah yes, the entire purpose of our visit! This topic deserves its own post -- probably several. I will just say that I am excited about having gotten myself up and running to the point where I can now reliably connect to the internet, keep my computer charged, and even print out documents on the one local (laser!) printer. The local PCs still need a lot of work and care, and hopefully some of them can be resurrected.

Tonight, I will teach my first special class (i.e, not just guest-teach an existing regular class). We announced our extracurricular offerings yesterday (which the kids will have to take during the afternoon "games" period) and my Tuesday singing class drew a huge crowd. Our first song will be "You Won't See Me" by The Beatles. I am nervous! Wish me luck!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009


It is difficult to get on the internet in rural Kenya. We knew this would be true, but the fact that it is not impossible makes the difficulty more irritating.

SUNDAY: Hey Aunt Debbie, back home in the U.S. Can we get on the internet? Yes, there is a satellite modem thing kicking around. Can we have it? Yes, ask Rukia; it should be in your house. Hey Rukia, where in the house is the modem? It is not in the house. Lawrence has it; ask him.

MONDAY: Hey Lawrence, do you have the modem? Yes, it is at my house, I will bring it tomorrow. Great. So we will be able to use it with our computer? No, you will have to use the computer in the computer lab. [The "computer lab" is one of the only rooms on the school grounds that has electricity. It contains ten computers, only two of which seem to work, though I hope to change that.] The modem won't work with our computer? No, you will have to buy a new modem, because to prevent theft, each modem is keyed to work with only one computer. Very smart, I admit. Can we get a modem in the local town? Wah ha hah! No. You will have to go to Nairobi for that.

TUESDAY: Here is the modem. In order to make it work, you will have to put money on its SIM card, just like the phone. Oh and how do we do that? You walk to town and buy little cards in small denominations and punch a little code into your phone. Okay, so that's for the phone, but what about the modem? I do not know. Ask them in town.

WEDNESDAY: Jacky, at the store in town that sells minutes, can I put 2,500 KSH worth of minutes on my modem's SIM? Yes but the largest denomination I have is 100. And I only have 14 of those so after that you will have to key in 50s.

I will spare you more complainy details because -- if you are reading this -- it seems like the modem is working! I can't stay mad at you, Kenyan internet!

Watch this space for updates unrelated to technological obstacles.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Baby Wipes

Here is what 90% of people who have been to Africa will say when you tell them you are going to Africa: "baby wipes." They will look very serious when they say this. People who have not been to Africa will ask you if you got all your shots. But seasoned travelers to the dark continent will look at you as if your fly is undone and say "baby wipes" until you nod knowingly.

All of these people know that Bridget and I do not have a baby. So why do we need baby wipes? I refuse to demonstrate my ignorance by asking. But I have some theories:
  • In Africa, you are expected to wipe off other people's babies.
  • Holding a baby wipe in each hand while waving your arms is an internationally-recognized distress signal.
  • Storing fruit in baby wipes keeps it fresh when you have no refrigerator.
  • Baby wipes are accepted as local currency in certain regions.
  • You can make a delicious emergency crêpe by filling a baby wipe with hand sanitizer and malaria pills.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Getting ready

Packing stuff for a trip is like trying to do a jigsaw puzzle by imagining where all the pieces go before you start moving any of them -- trying to picture what I might want to wear six months from now to teach a writing class in Isinya or to work in the garden of the Zendo or to walk around Pokhara. Will I be hot? Cold? How modest or formal should I be? What can I imagine washing in a sink, or wearing 20 days out of 30, or wearing to a Hindu temple or on the beaches in Malindi? Packing is the manifestation of my desires to control the future, which is still unknowable and beyond my influence. I want to be able to pack everything into these two suitcases- the security of my home, my friends and family, my favorite foods, fellowship and recovery, sanity, safety, comfort. But this is not how it works.

My grandfather used to say "take less stuff and more money", but one also has the feeling that it might be difficult to obtain what we want in the isolation of Isinya -- unless we are looking for kangas or pangas or school uniforms.

If I step back to look at what we are actually about to do, it all feels a bit abstract and overwhelming but also incredibly exciting. I have had the experience before of tossing myself into the waves, diving headlong into an experience and hoping for the best, but now it is the two of us standing on the high dive, staring down into that abyss that seems unfathomably far and dim, holding hands, starting the countdown -- ten, nine, eight....

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Pre-travel introduction

Though our big travels haven't really begun, Bridget and I got married 4 days ago in Adirondack State Park in upstate NY, after having driven there from Newburyport, MA and Brooklyn, NY, respectively. We drove to and honeymooned briefly in Mystic, CT. To get back to Brooklyn, I did my first real long-distance drive operating a standard transmission, which Bridget basically tricked me into by going limp, civil-disobedience-style, whenever I suggested she drive. It was tough love, like tossing your infant into the pool to trigger his ancient, ancestral memory from when we were water apes. I made it the whole way stalling only once, surviving a trafficky Kosciusko bridge and a parallel parking job.

Tomorrow we are supposed to drive 7 hours to Lake Winnipesaukee, NH. We travel a lot.