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After a rocky start with too much noise and bustle, we finally hit our stride today with Holi. Upon arriving in the early afternoon in one of the boroughs bordering Colaba, we were soon pulled into a roving band of young men who snuck us round a corner for a clandestine beer and shoot the shit about whether the US ought to bomb Pakistan.

Much dancing ensued and after getting well colored and wished Ha Holi Kho Li Bah (“Enjoy the day of Holi”) about 200 times we ended up in young Kedar’s house for a second (and quite delicious) lunch.

Ta Dah!

After lunch there was a bit of friendly strong-arming as drum bearing gangs of bare-chested boys stormed the houses in search of donations. They were storming their own houses though, so it was all in good fun.


There were a few different groups of guys and the ones we were with told us that there was a conflict brewing and we best go “chill at our hotel.” I have a sneaking suspicion though they just wanted to separate us from the bottle of tequila we brought to share with them.

After an interesting run in with the neighborhood drug dealer, we ended up back at the hotel. We both have lasting pink and purple splotches (and perhaps a slight chemical burn) to remember this entertaining day.

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Being Seen

I spent most of yesterday wandering aroung the hanging gardens. I’m not really sure why they’re refered to as “hanging” since all of the plants were growing up from the ground like the run of the mill gardens I’m accustomed to.

So far I’m not terribly impressed with Mumbai as a city. It’s the same bustle and hurry I see in large American cities, just the people are a different color.

There was one exception. Walking down the street I passed one old guy who actually looked at me. I don’t really know how to put it in words, but most people see me as a Westerner or a guy or an American or whatever. There’s some handle they have on who I am and even for strangers I can see a hint of it on their face.

In some inexplicable way, that didn’t seem to be there. I have a theory that because we spend so much time deciding who we are and who the people are around us are, we take resources away from the actual business of living. This guy seemed to be running at a higher resolution somehow.

It’s strange to think that that there are systemic cognitive issues that perhaps affect the functioining of my entire society. What I would like the most is to find someone who is completely comfortable being themselves and talk to them about what that is like. I have a hard time imagining what it is like living without justification.

Like I said though, most people here are like the people back home. A bit nicer and generally more brown, but the basic processes are the same.

I met a fellow named Naved yesterday who is wanting to practice his English. I’m going to try to catch up with him later today and see the “Ranibag” which he said has tigers and crocodiles, so I’m betting it’s zooish. Maybe he can help me in my search for an honest man.

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During our wandering last night Jenni attracted the attentions of a little girl who gifted her with a garland of flowers. When she attempted to give her a few rupees for food the girl said the money wouldn’t do her any good.

She was too young to explain herself, but as we walked with her to the store, one of her friends joined us and explained that because they are outcasts, no one will take any money that they touch.

It amazes me that in this country which is so revered for it’s recognition of spitiruality that such a deeply ingrained injustice has survived for so long.

While Jenni was in the process of understanding how much the shopkeeper wanted, the little girl absconded with the bag of rice. Certainly less that ideal, but I have a hard time getting too upset about eight year-olds stealing basic foodstuffs.

I’ve been thinking about Nancy Kress’s Beggars In Spain. The internet is way too slow for me to pull a quote, but the title refers to the problem of a good natured traveler wandering the streets of Spain.

A beggar comes up and wants some money for food, so he gives them some. Then there’s another and then another, until eventually the traveler is left a beggar himself. The story puts the question as an unanswerable one.

Which I am realizing is completely foolish. There are lots of affluent stores here complete with all the frivolous luxury we have in the West. The resources are available, and the irony is that the broken resource distribution systems that create the inequality ultimately perpetuate the instability that leaves everyone without security.

I’m not outraged at the injustice so much as I am baffled by the stupidity. The whole system is connected and few people seem to get that.

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A Dollar’s Worth Of Luck

Jenni and I are safely nestled in the Hotel Bentley after our 17 hour slog across the ocean.

Not all that much to mention as of yet. We didn’t get in until 3am and slept till 1pm, so we’ve only just ventured forth from our air conditioned cave.

Lunch was a delicious red goo with chunks of what I’m pretty sure was okra in it. No idea what it was called, it was the chef’s recommendation for something appropriately spicy for a puny American pallate.

Our next adventures are certain to turn out propitiously as we were waylaid on the street by a couple fellows who, for the bargain price of $1 apiece, painted dots on our heads and tied strings around our wrists guaranteeing a future we would be happy with.

I figure the dot marks me as a rube, but I’m hoping it’ll be like the newspaper the Shriners sell. (The Shriners stand at stop lights selling newspapers for disabled kids or something. When they sell, they’ll blanket an area for a couple weeks, so you buy your Shriners paper and put it on your dash to get the Shriners to leave you be.) I’m going to tell any future purveyors of good fortune that I’m full up already.

(I can’t spell worth a damn and this dusty version of IE has no spell check, so I apologize in advance for any errors.)

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Methodists vs. Universalists

I went to the Methodist Church this morning to get back in touch a bit with my childhood roots.

To some extent I was comparing it to the Unitarian Universalist Church I went to last weekend.

Accessibility: This one went to the Methodists hands down. They’re right by Vandy, and what is more important they’re accessible by bus. To get to the UU Church I had to walk through the lawns of a string of $500,000 houses because they’re half a mile down a busy road with no sidewalk from the closest bus stop. (I’m giving my car to MPP.)

Friendliness: This was what bothered me the most at the UU church. I stood around for a long time and almost no one said “hi.” How a community treats strangers is important to me. In the Methodist Church I had at least half a dozen people say “mornin'” to me or introduce themselves. In fairness though, I was at the morning service at the UU church, and a good percentage of the folks there were guests themselves.

Study: This one I’m not really fit to judge. The UUs have a meditation room open between the early and late services when the Methodists have Sunday school. Sunday school was somewhat interesting, but we didn’t really dig into anything. I didn’t try the meditation room. I’m really wanting to talk to people and understand their positions as of late. I just want them to be a little older than me (which the average college student isn’t).

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You know the game where you spin around in circles while holding your head on a baseball bat? At one time there was a government program where they trained an orangutan to play that game. It was a highly secret program and there are few records of it, but one can see clear evidence of it in that only staggering simian could have laid out the infernal rats’ nest that is the road system in DC. That or they taped a pen to a hamster and shot it up with massive quantities of meth.

I made it up from Tennessee in about seven hours even with my stop for an oil change, but then spent an hour wandering in circles trying to find Haydee’s. Once Happy Hour was over I gave up on trying to find the place and decided just to head to Cat’s.

On the cover of the Hitchhiker’s Guide it says, “Don’t Panic.” Critical advice for any traveler. I managed to spend another hour and forty-five minutes wandering around trying to find Cat’s. After much beeping, many forced on ramps and the closest I’ve come to tears in quite a while; I managed to make it. Tomorrow I brave the city again. I’m considering just renting a hotel room out here so I don’t have to face that damned mess again.

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Wandering Home

I only got back to Tennessee Saturday morning. Before that my schedule went something like this:

Date Trip Period Summary
2005/12/26 Nouakchott – Casablanca 3:00 I went to the Christmas party at Obie’s, enjoyed a fabulous meal, passed on a copious porn collection and bid farewell to Mauritania at 3am.
2005/12/26 Casablanca – New York 8:00 After doing a little shopping with Cailin during my layover I headed back Stateside.
2005/12/26 New York – Cleveland 1:45 I ran harried through customs in an attempt to compensate for my flight being two hours late and made in through in about 30 minutes only to find my next flight delayed for an hour.
2005/12/26 Cleveland – Dayton :30 Not understanding that a single flight could involve changing planes (and thus not expecting the stop in Cleveland), I had told my family to come late making for a bit of a wait when I arrived in Dayton on time. I had missed Christmas, but I got to do show and tell before everyone headed out the next morning.
2005/12/30 Dayton – Cleveland :30 Having spent an entertaining three days hanging out with Uncle Ted and Mema, I headed out.
2005/12/30 Cleveland – Boston :45 Sat in yet another airport playing with the phone my mom lent me.
2005/12/30 Boston – New York 1:00 I pulled into New York having neither a place to stay nor the slightest clue as to where anything was. I rode around on the train for a bit and finally found Valentin in Chinatown. We had some Chinese food and went to a pool hall to await the evening when Nick and Beth came in from DC and we all met up with Carl, Adrian, Caroline and Maggie. Maggie was awesome and put Marc and I up for the night after the lot of us drank a good 20 gallons of beer in a half dozen different bars.
2005/12/31 New York – Montpelier 5:30 Maggie being both brave and amazing lent Marc and I her car and we headed up to Ben’s house in Vermont. The other folks we’d been with had already rented a car and headed up on their own. Once there we met up with Nate, Racey, Dan, Geri, Bouli, Bintu, Danny and Megan. Kegstands and shots of Black at 5pm bode for an interesting evening. My brother Matt came out and did surprisingly well with this group of miscreants before heading back home for another party.
2006/01/01 Montpelier – Stowe :30 Matt came back down and picked me up and I went to visit chez lui. He lives in a really cool old barn. We got some chicken and ice cream and just hung out for the evening. (The sun goes down at 4:30 in Vermont.)
2006/01/02 Stowe – Montpelier :30 Matt took me around the mountain and I turned in a job application at the mountain since I really liked the place. Then we went out to this huge frozen waterfall before heading back to Ben’s.
2006/01/02 Montpelier – New York 5:30 Having said goodbye to Matt; Marc, Nate and I headed back to the Big Apple. Maggie was cool as always and put us up for the evening after we’d all gone out for burritos.
2006/01/03 New York – Arlington 4:30 Marc and I took the Chinatown bus that goes between the Chinatowns in New York and DC. The bus left at 1:30 which in Chinese means “whenever its full” as it was gone when we got there at 1:10. No problem though, the next bus was to arrive at 2:00 which is Chinese for 4:30. After paying as much for the cab ride to Marc’s brother’s house as to get to DC ($20), I crashed out in the basement.
2006/01/05 Arlington – Alexandria :30 I interviewed with the MPP people on the 4th and they asked me to come by and interview the next day. Marc though was worried about trouble in the homestead, so I called up Cat and she agreed to put me up for a night.
2006/01/07 DC – Wythville 7:00 My extended stay with Cat and Lesley was productive: I made my interview wearing a tie I’d bought 20 minutes before in Union Station on the condition that the guy behind the counter tie it for me. I went out to sushi with my cousin Cindy. I mocked Lesley when USC got whooped. I was chastised by Audrey for being a poor communicator. I watched Wedding Crashers and gifted people with cookies. But it had to come to an end, so I headed to catch the 10am bus which I missed by 15 minutes, so I spent my 10 hour wait wandering the streets. Eventually I ended up in the Wythville bus station at 3am listening to people tell stories of having their children taken from them, doing coke and getting shot.
2006/01/08 Wythville – Bristol 2:00 Bright and early I finally made it home and mommy, daddy and myself all headed to Shoney’s for a welcome breakfast buffet.

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Shake It All About

Day number two of my Saint Louis sabbatical.

2005/06/14 Rosso, Mauritania Rosso, Senegal 0:30 300um

I headed out bright and early the next morning. The border opens at 8 and the ferry crosses for the first time at 9, so I figured I hit it right around 9 and get right across since my passport was stamped from the day before. Silly me…

I get to the border and there is a guard at the gate. This is not unusual, but the 500um entrance fee he is asking for is. The Senegalese guy next to me just pays it, but I decided instead to tell him that I was in here yesterday and many times over the last two years and there is no such fee. He just grunts and stands there. I just stand in front of him and glare. After about five minutes he tells me that there isn’t really a fee, but he’s hungry and wants breakfast money. He asks me if I’m ok with giving him some money for breakfast. I tell him that it isn’t normal to pay to come in and I’m not giving him anything since he already lied to me. We then resume our standing for a bit.

Eventually he just sort of moves out of the way and I push by him. He decides not to push the issue. Amazingly the ferry hasn’t left yet. I’m quite pleased and start heading toward it when a guy with one of the guards starts hissing at me. I know what he wants and it would have been the smart thing to just walk on and make them come after me. (Since there’s about a 50% chance they wouldn’t have bothered.) But I’m dumb and so I went over to talk to them. It was the same guard I spent ten minutes discussing the fact I’d be coming through this morning with the night before. I explained it one more time and he let me go. Just in time for me to see the ferry pull out. Son of a bitch.

I go down to where people are loading pirogues to cross over and try to get in one. The guy first tries ignoring me and when I actually put my foot on the boat he tells me I can’t go. I ask why, but he just goes back to ignoring me. I really wanted to know some Wolof so I could call him nasty names. As it was, all I could do was more glaring. I went over to the bank and sulked for a bit over the bad start my day was off to.

Eventually though I made it across. The Senegalese police were no problem at all. I made it to the garage and into a car pretty quick. There was another half hour wait for the car to fill, but there were lots of beggar kids around who I entertain myself by carrying on one sided conversations in English with them. It’s sort of like talking to plants except the baffled looks make it much more entertaining.

2005/06/14 Rosso Saint Louis 2:30 1750cfa + 250cfa
Saint Louis Carefour Saint Louis Hotel de Poste 0:15 300cfa

I rolled into Saint Louis about 13h and found the hotel and the pool at the Mermoz. I splashed around for a bit with the birthday girl and another volunteer before we headed back to our hotel on the island.

Once back at the hotel we found the Kaolack crew already checked in and waiting for us. I was pleased to get to see Leah again. I’ve not seen her since the Kaolack party (at the end of the Nikola-Kolba trip I never finished writing up). Our interactions have always been interesting because we share two unfortunate characteristics: neither of us knows exactly what we’re doing and both of us deal with that by pulling back and being quiet. It makes for lots of uncomfortable silences whenever we see each other.

I’d not eaten since my nyechna the night before, so I broke out the first of Kathleen’s presents: Apple Biskrem.

Biskrem are tasty cookies from Ãœlker in Turkey. There is a chocolate variety that is pretty easy to find in both Mauritania and Senegal. In the RIM though we have other rare and elusive varieties of krems. One of our big grocery stores recently got a shipment of apple at just about the same time that K told me that was what she wanted from Mauritania. There are fig as well, but I’ve not seen them since some serendipitously showed up at a shop as I was stuffing a Nalgene with sweets to send to Leah a couple months ago.

I stole some of the Biskrem, but I was still pretty hungry and so we went en masse to find some eats. Our restaurant of choice was closed so we opted for beer and waiting. I grabbed a sandwich from a street vendor since dumping beer into my empty stomach would have been less than bright. We sat around and I mostly listened to stories about people I didn’t know. A couple times the conversation would turn to parties I’d been to, but it was mostly gossip.

After an hour and three beers our restaurant was open so we got cleaned up and headed out. Beers generally run about 1000cfa apiece, so I had already spent 3000cfa ($6) or about double my daily budget in Nouakchott. Our restaurant was pretty nice and so I asked the waiter for the cheapest most filling thing. He apparently only get the cheap part since he came back with a few pieces of lettuce and some emaciated popcorn shrimp. Fortunately, I split a bottle of wine with K which, when combined with the previous beers, kept me from caring very much.

We went back to the bar that we were at before and met up with an Englishman and his friend. Mostly it was more talking. K and the Englishman set off on a discussion of development that was interesting, but decidedly not my cup of tea at that point. The truth of the matter is that lots of people were starving to death right at that moment and there’s pretty much nothing that can be done about it. Different development and aid programs are going to change things, but some people are going to die in any case, and any solution is both complex and time consuming. I try not to think about those people when trying to have a good time because though it is important, it is also horribly depressing.

After a bit and me wandering out for fresh air a couple of times I went and got my CDs. I’ve got a mix that started with the St. Paddy’s Day party and has been evolving since. The dance moment of the evening definitely belonged to K with her moving performance to that hallmark of the early 90’s: Sir Mix Alot’s Baby Got Back. It was amazingly entertaining and inspiring to the point that I even got up and danced a bit to Lil’ John’s Get Low even though I was with a bunch of relative strangers; an environment where I generally try not to make a fool of myself.

The rest of the evening is a bit fuzzy. I remember paying for four more beers (which is who it’s fuzzy) and heading back to the hotel. I managed to corner Leah in the bathroom and chat for a bit. Being slightly lit helped me with my whole lack of confrontation thing and we talked for a bit. She was a little miffed at the frivolity of our recent correspondence. I apologized and told her I’d been shooting for frivolous because I thought that was what I was supposed to do. I yet again professed my cluelessness and got her to beat my head against the wall a bit. This was entertaining for me and I’m pretty sure confusing to her.

I went to bed cursing both my complete inability to be suave and her attractiveness which made the situation significantly more depressing.

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Grosso Rosso

This past weekend I headed off to Saint Louis, Senegal for a friend’s birthday party.

2005/06/13 Université den Nouakchott Garage Rosso 0:20 500um
Garage Rosso Rosso 2:30 3000um

Showing a normal lack of foresight, I showed up at the garage around noon. I was thinking that the border would be open at 3:00 and so after the two and a half hour drive I’d get there about when it opened up. What I forgot is that the schedule for the garage is fairly Mediterranean. It is hot as hell in the middle of the day so everyone hides out in the shade somewhere from about 11:00 until after the late afternoon prayer. This was a bit of a problem since the border was going to close again at 6:00 and I didn’t especially want to have to bribe someone or get arrested again.

Fortunately there were a couple Senegalese people at the garage who also were looking to cross and we all went down patrone style in a car with only four people. It was a little expensive, but the car was nice and I had enough room that I took myself a nap.

2005/06/13 Rosso, Mauritania Rosso, Senegal 0:20 150um

Before leaving Nouakchott I’d equipped myself with both Sentel and Alizé sim cards. I didn’t know for sure when my friends were headed to Saint Louis, so I was going to go to the border and send some text messages to find out the plan. Much to my disappointment, once I was in the network I found that neither card had any credit on it. Not only that, but the two Mauritanian networks (Mauritel and Mattel) were both out in Rosso. So, I went ahead and crossed the river and put credit on one of the cards only to find that they weren’t coming til the next day.

2005/06/13 Rosso, Senegal Rosso, Mauritania 0:10 100um

I didn’t really feel like wandering Saint Louis by myself, so I headed back across the river for the night. Here I ran into a small problem. My passport is pretty much full. I’m trying to avoid having to go to the embassy to get more pages in the off chance that they inquire as to how I’m crossed the river about fifteen times only having taken four vacations in the last two years. So, as I came back across I explained the situation and asked them not to do any more stamping. That was surprisingly easy.

I headed to the Rosso house to watch some DVDs, but found that the Mauritanian from which the player was borrowed had reclaimed it. So instead I did a little writing.

I’ve recently finished The Brothers K by David James Duncan. I really liked the writing and it has inspired me to write sometimes on my own. More so in homage rather than imitation since my own wordcraft is crippled by my inability to maintain focus on a subject for more than thirty seconds at a stretch.

After the rains, Rosso becomes a Venice gone disgustingly awry. One volunteer postulated a vile plot on the part of someone in the city planning department because, “it just isn’t possible to achieve a drainage system this inefficient by accident.” After having abandoned my hopes of going to Saint Louis for the evening, I attempted to pass the night at a volunteer’s house in town. My attempt was nearly thwarted by an enormous cesspool of a lake spanning the entire street.

Since many of the houses are dug out some below street level, people were having to sandbag their doorsteps to keep their houses from filling with water. I eventually circled the block and made my way into the house. After dumping my stuff I realized I’d not eaten all day and went in search of sustenance.

Sensitive to the damper that the 90% humidity put on Rosso’s normal charm, some industrious soul attempted to brighten the atmosphere by disemboweling a cassette tape and decorating both a tree and the cow tethered to it. The cow seemed largely nonplussed by the effort as evidenced by the consumption of what looked to be a goodly portion of the decoration along with its feed.

The stand I usually get sandwiches from was surrounded entirely by water and closed. So, I wandered on and eventually found a house serving “nyechna” (or at least that’s the best understanding I got before I grew embarrassed after asking to have it repeated four times). It was a sort of rice paste with bits of fish ground up in it. I wasn’t sure on the fish from the taste, but having to dislodge a couple scales from between my teeth confirmed it.

The entire meal I avoided the ice water sitting on the table because I know the Rosso is one of very few sites in Mauritania where the volunteers don’t drink the water. That and a recent cholera outbreak in the region. At the end of dinner I went and bought some tchakri from her. Tchakri is yogurt, couscous, nutmeg, raisins and crack cocaine. Well, I’ve not actually seen them add the crack, but given how strongly I crave the stuff it’s a pretty safe bet. As she was making it she called for the pitcher and dumped a bunch of the water I’d been so scrupulously avoiding into the mix. This particular tchakri was made with kosum which is more like soured milk than yogurt. I needed my fix so bad though that I threw caution to the wind and ate it anyhow.

Then it was back to the house for some Margaret Atwood and sleep in preparation for more travels in the morrow.

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Faissant de la Contrebande

Last weekend saw me off on a trip to the South. Mauritania is generally booze free except for a few restaurants and bars catering to expatriates. Since we are all pretty poor, we have to be a bit industrious to get our swerve on properly. This most frequently means picking up a bottle or two of cheap Senegalese booze when coming back from trips. It is not especially legal, but border searches are rare and it’s really the only option.

Sometimes though, when one wants to do a larger event, special steps are needed to provide a sufficient quantity. This was my mission for last weekend.

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