Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The cold sting of defeat

Today is the first day of, what I gather is, a week-or-so-long celebration of Thailand's Songkran festival. I don't know what this festival is about, or what historical event it purportedly celebrates, but a glaring component of the festival is that children (and adults) stand on the roadside and throw buckets of water at passers-by.

I have been told, for many of the tourists present in the country, Chiang Mai is the place to be for celebrating this festival; thanks to these Farang, Chiang Mai also attracts a higher than average number of Thai nationals to likewise partake in the higher than average revelry.

No thanks. Not interested. Not really in a position to go, either.

I would wager, due to the higher volume of current visitors, there aren't many rooms available in Chiang Mai; and if there are, they may only be available at the Travel Lodge or the Downtown Inn Hotel. Not only that, but according to what I read in the paper this morning, there are to be expected on average 50-60 road fatalities on each day of this week, and yesterday alone - the festival not having really started - there were 400 injuries and 29 deaths.

An emphatic double no thanks.

But as this is a Thai national holiday, a lot of my Thai co-workers are on vacation: visiting their home cities and villages; celebrating in what I gather is the true way to celebrate this holiday by visiting family. It seems like a sort of Thai Thanksgiving (a likeness that should be understood by any of my Canadian or American readers), even though it purports to be a sort of Thai New Years.

Our office is only 'officially closed' tomorrow (which is not to say I won't necessarily be here), so any of my colleagues who have chosen to leave have had to cash in some of their annual leave. I have other acquaintances who 'work' in Mae Sot whose offices/schools are closed for one or two weeks due to Songkran. Lucky kids.

As our office is open, I'm at work, dutifully working away at whatever it is I do here (though not right now - I'm writing this weblog entry).

Yesterday, one of my colleagues also still present informed me that should I encounter some children wielding buckets of water, I should just outstretch my arm, display my palm, and the children should retreat. I had an opportunity to test this theory after eating lunch today as I rode my bicycle back to my office from the intersection opposite the Mae Sot Hospital - not much more than 500 meters from my office, though in densely populated area from the hospital intersection. Today is a relatively sunny day - it's been overcast of late - but the street was streaked by water from the various shops I passed by, so it seemed I would have ample opportunity to test the theory.

To the first group of children I encountered - little girls, who stood with buckets of water at the ready, dripping wet hair and clothing, and smiles stretched across their faces - I extended my hand and watched both their buckets and smiles retreat. An emboldening first victory for me.

Cross 100 dry meters of cycling off the itinerary.

To the next group of children I encountered, 50 or so meters further down the road, there would be no repeating that first taste of victory. The ring leader of the group, who was awaiting my arrival outside my field of view on the opposite side of the roadway, had other ideas.

I outstretched my arm to the children, showed them my palm, and as the smiles began to fade, and the buckets began to lower in the hands of this second group, the ring leader - a man whose mustache made him appear to be older than I - came charging into the roadway and at the top of his lungs he announced his call to arms. As my head turned toward him, his bucket of water was the first to hit me, and I winced in his direction at the sting of its coldness. The water from that second group of children arrived less than a second later, rendering the front side of me soaked through to the skin from head to toe.

Further on up the road, as I approached a third group of children, it no longer mattered. I'd already been defeated and was soaked to the skin. I think they could sense my lack of conviction so their smiles weren't quite as big; but, apart from the absence of that initial shock I experienced care of the second group, their ice cold water still stung just as much.

Nothing beats spending the afternoon sitting at your desk in soaking-wet trousers.

Friday, March 11, 2011

No Farang at the KFC

I've left this blog dormant for the last few months, though with every intention of restarting it to chronicle my current set of adventures in Thailand; I just haven't known how to start or what to write. Part of it has been disinterest; the rest of it has been a combination of things I'm not sure how to describe.

Two things that happened over the past few days have contributed to a renewed effort, so in the absence of a compelling narrative for today's blog entry, I've decided to briefly describe them here.

The first contributing factor was something my mom wrote to me by way of email a few days ago. The message was as follows:

Hi Bud...just got the mail and you came in 3rd in the short story contest...you won $75. and a nice letter.

When I returned to Canada from Djibouti way back in September 2010 I was occupied most days (to lesser and greater extents) on preparing my report for the work I'd been doing there. This went on for close to two months, followed by a long period of nothing. No place of work to attend or job to do; no real reason to put on pants in the morning. So I was reading a lot.

I'd also received a lot of positive feedback about some of the entries on this blog, and had received positive feedback about some of the other adventures I'd chronicled through other media, so in addition to reading I thought I might also take up writing. At the time I literally had nothing else to do during the long empty periods between job interviews (which, by the way, never amounted to anything). There also happened to be a short story contest at the Burlington Public Library.

I decided to adapt one of my blog posts to a short story and decided on 'The Grasshopper and the Spider' as it provided me with the best opportunity to easily apply Kurt Vonnegut's eight rules of creative writing.

Kurt Vonnegut is a great writer. He's one of my favourites. He also happened to be self-taught. So I thought, "why not I?".

Well, in addition to Vonnegut, I started reading some other books available in the Burlington Public Library about the craft of short story writing, written by a bunch of guys I'd never heard of. In hindsight, I'm sure I'd never heard of them because they'd never written anything of note. Thus, I should not have taken note of them in this endeavor.

The end result was a convoluted story filled with excessive exposition and description, all of which contributed to repeatedly offending the cardinal rule of "show, don't tell".

Ultimately, the story placed 3rd in the competition - which gives me plenty of room for improvement for next time - but I never felt very good about the thing I'd submitted. For a long time I was reluctant to pick up the pen. Now that I'm $75 richer, with the added affirmation of having some potential, I'm ready to pick it up again.

The second contributing factor to my resuming this blog was a conversation I had with a Thai colleague over dinner last night. To set the scene, it was about to start raining, I was on my bicycle, I was already in the 'downtown' area of Mae Sot having just dropped off my laundry with my laundress, so I stopped at the Krua Canadian restaurant - affectionately known as "Dave's" by the people who eat there - to have some farang food and read my book. My Thai colleague showed up a few minutes after I arrived.

A few notes on the above paragraph. First, the book I'm currently reading is Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. I'm completely absorbed by this book.

Second, 'Farang' is the generic Thai word for a Westerner. Every place I've ever been has some generic word for Westerners or foreigners, including, but not limited to, 'Obruni', 'Firangi', and 'Qallunaat' (a term used in my own country no less). I usually take offense to the word's use at the beginning of my stay, first to the word's being directed towards me and then to other Westerner's having embraced it and adopted it for themselves; but eventually I embrace it to such an extent that I become someone prejudiced towards other farang (as if I'm no longer one of them).

Over dinner, my Thai colleague informed me that she didn't typically come to Dave's because she doesn't like farang food - and there are too many farang there. I found myself agreeing with my Thai colleague, in part. Importantly, I couldn't disagree more on the topic of farang food. I can't get enough of the stuff. I just like to read my book while I imbibe.

But, in agreeing in part, I said out loud to her, "I sometimes like to avoid the other farang by going to the KFC so I can read my book while I eat and altogether avoid being social." Something along those lines. While saying that, I realized it's something I've been doing more and more lately - as many as three or four times a week (it being KFC, it's something that worries me on several levels).

My realization that I'm going out of my way to avoid other farang probably means a lot of things, some of which I am well aware of but dare not say; however, the one realization I'm hanging my hat on and relating here is that I'm at that point in my current travels where I've started spending a lot of time crawled up inside my head and should therefore start working my way out - via my weblog.

If you accept the assertion that 'practice makes perfect' (I love catchy slogans and will readily accept them for the truth of their contents), and the recent news that a small segment of the writing community has accepted me as having the potential to be a brilliant writer (I'm extrapolating here), then all signs point to it being time to start writing again.

To digress for a second, I went out for lunch today with three of my Thai colleagues - one colleague from dinner last night; another colleague also from the Protection Unit; and one of the office's drivers. The driver selected the restaurant, as being the restaurant with the best-tasting dog's-breakfast-of-a-fish-and-noodle soup in Mae Sot, and the Thai colleague from last night treated us all to it.

I really didn't care for the soup but the new experience was welcomed.

Indeed, I could write an entire short story about today's lunch. By the mere fact of it being from my outsider, farang perspective, I'm sure it would have great potential for comic relieve for the folks at home I know to read this (hi mom). I note this because there are so many interesting things happening all the time that are worthy of my commentary but have to date been denied the opportunity of having that honour.

So, to borrow one of those $100 phrases from my previous life working in law offices, it is my intention to write more "on a go-forward basis".

(There are a few adventures and misadventures kicking around in my head already.)

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Fallacy that is 'Free Will'

I've never considered myself to be a 'man with a plan'. Rather, I'm a man of ideas. Indeed, the idea for this blog entry came to me while walking to Williams this evening, and the words that follow just poured out of me in the span of an hour.

Ideas can be powerful things. They have the power to take over your life. Where plans can be constricting, ideas are free to grow, and change, and take you places you never dreamed. "A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on. Ideas have endurance without death." (It was John F. Kennedy who said this, inter alia, in a way that only he could.)

Moving on, "you have to have an idea of what you are going to do, but it should be a vague idea." Pablo Picasso said that. To be true, I can recall an episode of the program South Park where underpants gnomes had an ingenious idea whereby the stealing of underpants could lead to wealth beyond their wildest dreams. The idea went a little something like this:

Phase 1: Collect Underpants.
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Profit.

See what I mean? Powerful stuff, however vague.

Returning to the quoting of giants upon whose shoulders I am standing, Oscar Wilde has purportedly said a great many things, one of which being, "we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." Stephen Fry is fond of reciting this quote, which I am reminded of each time I see his cameo appearance in a second series episode of the BBC comedy Extras. But I digress. What does it mean? I can take an educated guess - but it has very little to do with what I am writing here. What matters \ is that this is one utterance of Mr. Wilde which has stayed with me through the years and now takes me to this other, more prescient utterance: "an idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all." Very true.

Looking back almost seven years to the day, an idea occurred to me that I should attend law school - to what end, I don't know, but I'll try to describe it in a moment. The idea did not spring to my mind through a process of spontaneous generation. No! I'm sure very few ideas - if any - ever come about that way. This idea was placed in my mind by one of my professors partway through a lecture on Fluid Dynamics. Odd? Yes. To all of us in the lecture theatre as well. Due to the way the various gears and sprockets of his mind were connected at the time, on that occasion, in that lecture, he professed to us the utility of having both an engineering degree and a law degree: how very indispensable we would all become to our employers, and how very much money we would all be sure to make. The idea, which took at least 20 minutes to convey, went a little something like this:

Phase 1: Combine our mechanical engineering degrees with law degrees.
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Profit.

Pratt & Whitney fit in there somehow, as the company did in many of his ideas, though as for how: your guess is as good as mine. I understand he's done some work for them. Maybe they were on his mind that day. If ever a man could be accused of 'prattling on', he could. In any case, the grandiose ideas he conveyed from time to time were generally lost on all of us, with the exception of this particular idea, on this particular day, on this particular individual. Thanks to me, it wasn't lost on two of my classmates either, who then formulated a plan which included yours truly.

Was this a dangerous idea? Well, danger is in the eye of the beholder. But as Oscar Wilde was purported to have put it, "an idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all." What follows is pure profit.

To bring this up to speed a little faster, and without dwelling on too many of the details, I successfully wrote my LSAT; applied to the law program at UWO; and began my concurrent degree program the following September. I quickly assumed the herd mentality of a first year law student - which was thrust upon me in the first few days of law school - and, without much delay, I began offering my services to law firms as a first year law student. Given my technical background, the law firms that expressed interest and scheduled interviews saw me as a candidate for their 'intellectual property' practices. It is only in this last year that I have even begun to understand what exactly 'intellectual property' is, and if you asked me to define, it I would say it is a nebulous concept that probably includes copyright and patents. But I couldn't even say that in first year law school.

Needless to say, I did not get hired as an intellectual property lawyer by any of these law firms, so by December (indeed, only three months in!) I gave up on the prospect of becoming a captain of industry under my original idea. I was stuck on Phase 2.

As it happened, at about that time there was a tsunami off the coast of Southeast Asia, so a new idea occurred to me: I would drop out of school and join some kind of rescue or rebuilding operation in Southeast Asia. I relayed this idea to a friend of mine, and he liked it, but he had a better idea: we would wait until the summer and we would both go to Africa and dig wells. Brilliant! So, the following April, he and I went to Africa, and while we didn't dig wells, we did other humanitarian work that planted the seed in me that has taken root and irrevocably altered the course of my life.

This new idea was that I would use my law degree to become a 'human rights lawyer' (whatever that is) and, paid or not, the last five years I have been doing whatever I can to get the necessary experience to make that possible. This new idea was so good, it was almost a plan: only the details were missing. If expressed as an equation, it would have looked something like this:

Get international human rights experience + Time = You will become an international human rights lawyer

Ask me what 'human rights' are? I can't answer that. Not any better than I can answer what 'intellectual property' is. The concept is so nebulous that a consensus of nations can't agree on what should be included. But I've put in the work, I've put in the time, and now it seems I can't get a job that doesn't have something to do with international human rights. Seriously.

But get this: before I go any further - and I do apologize, for this is proving to be one of the longer blog entries (and has very little to do with Djibouti or my being there) - I want to briefly relate three conversations I've had over the last year with three gentlemen working in the public international sphere: be it human rights, development, or other humanitarian efforts.

The first conversation was with a man I met in Djibouti who had lunch with me at the end of a conference on migration patterns in the Horn of Africa. He told me that I was at a crossroads in my life and it would be the decisions I make now that determine where I end up and who I'll end up with when I'm finally his age (he claimed to have about 20 years on me, and I believed him). He told me that when he was my age, he was married; he began having children; and he was all the while taking international posts with various international and intergovernmental organizations. Some posts were family friendly, and some were not. He told me it all worked for the first few years; his wife accommodated his career (to the detriment of her own); and his family followed him to the posts that would allow it. But he told me that, eventually, the day came when his career and his family life could no longer coexist and he had to make a choice of one or the other. His wife also wanted a career and she wanted some stability for her family. He's divorced now, he continues to work in exotic and exciting (and dangerous) places, and he sees his children from time to time.

The second conversation was with a man I was marooned with on a beach in Djibouti past a place called Doralei. We had just been snorkelling through a coral reef together and were then having a snack, watching the sun set behind the mountains. He told me that when he was in Spain and still married he used to go to work when it was still dark, sit in a room with no windows, and leave for home after the sun had set. This was his life, six or seven days a week. He told me he very rarely had an opportunity to do things like spend a weekend at the beach and watch the sun set behind the mountains. He said it was inconceivable that he could trade what he had now for his old life away from the sun. He said we were lucky to be doing the things we were doing and that people back home didn't know what they were missing (though, to be true, I've tried to convey some of it in this blog).

The third conversation was with a man I met in Canada - a friend of a friend - who has a similar life path to mine and, moreover, seems to share certain of my traits. He told me there are lawyers in Toronto that he went to law school with who do things like 'mergers' and 'acquisitions' and make a lot of money doing them. He told me they say things like "I wish I could do the things that you do," but he says that they can't because they're stuck where they are. He told me he'll never have a lot of money - and I agreed that I would never have a lot of money (what would I do with it?) - but he loves what he does and the choices that he's made have left him free free to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. He can put a sign on his door telling people they should find some other lawyer and he'll go to Africa for a week or a month. He said he and I are both young (I would argue I'm much younger) and there'll be plenty of time for each of us to worry about having families "years from now".

What do these three conversations amount to? More ideas to ponder.

It is now 2011, and I am not an engineer. I am a lawyer - an international human rights lawyer. I am these things because of a couple of ideas. Without a plan, or a prayer, I let these ideas of mine take root and here I am: unable to get hired to do anything that isn't 'international human rights', whatever those are. So I've accepted a job in Thailand, and barring anything unforeseen, it looks like I'll be heading there any day now. I'm to be the Associate Protection Officer. I'm excited and anxious and afraid that 'free will' might just be something intellectuals concocted to give themselves something else to argue about. My ideas - put in my head by other people - have taken root, taken over, and it seems I'm heading back overseas.

From time to time I worry that I'm not making the right 'choices' right now; but I also worry that maybe the idea that there is any 'choice' in the matter - any matter - is utter nonsense. These days I look back and wonder what might have been had I not been present in that Fluid Dynamics lecture and made the 'choices' that have lead to my becoming a 'human rights lawyer'. What might have happened had those ideas not been planted. I think about the conversations I've had with greater men than I and wonder what will become of me. But I can't see that far ahead. All I have are ideas, and Phase 2 is still a big question mark. The ideas take root and I somehow find myself a few years older and in Phase 3, whatever it is.

Does God have a plan for us all? Some people think so. Some people derive a great deal of comfort from that premise, so I use it as a reminder when I have nothing better to say. As for the voracity of that claim, I and others are still waiting for evidence beyond speculation, conjecture, and argument rooted in supposition. But when I find myself in Phase 3, confused as to how I got there, I wonder.

I should write a discourse on the fallacy that is 'free will' but I'm going to save it for another day - and another blog. I think this one is finished now. If I start writing somewhere else, I will post the new address in a new entry here. Warm wishes to everyone for 2011. Keep your sticks on the ice.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

One last sea turtle

Towards the end of August I received a call on my mobile at around 9:30am about going to the beach.

At the time I was already up, sorting through laundry, and had been expecting the call. At the time I was staying in one of the spare rooms of my supervisor, which she graciously allowed me to stay in shortly after returning from the field and finding myself without a a place to stay. As it happened, her daughter was in Belgium visiting her grandparents, her daughter's nanny was in Ghana visiting her friends and family, and she therefore was in large house with rooms to spare. At the time I was very lucky to have a colleague with room to spare (and also lucky to have another colleague looking out for me, making arrangements for me to stay in the empty rooms of colleagues).

The proposed beach trip was to be to the same beach that I had previously visited with my Spanish and Italian friends. I was thus required to attend because I was the only one who knew how to get there. In truth, while I could visually picture the route we could take, I couldn't recall names apart from the need to pass through 'Doralei'. Beyond that, I knew we needed to pass on the left when the road forked and became unpaved; I also knew we'd need to pass on the left when approaching the Sultan's Palace, and that as the road leads down the mountain towards the beach it becomes incredibly steep and appears to further erode with every rainfall and we would need to proceed cautiously and slowly (at the time there had been many a rainfall).

The five of us who would be attending at the beach were to meet at my Spanish colleague's house at 10am. The five of us included a Spanish colleague, her uni-lingual Spanish son, an American-Romanian colleague, a Swiss intern, and myself the Canadian. The previous evening there was an interruption to the water supply which may or may not have been city-wide. I discussed this with one colleague, and the possibility of a cessation of water services potentially lasting until October, and our imaginations ran wild with how unsettling the prospect of six months without running water seemed (until that point, I had been without running water while living in the field, but I was carrying buckets from a running water source: I could not imagine what would happen without a running water source from which I would carry buckets).

On the way to the beach we stopped at a fruit stand and purchased some bananas and a very large watermelon to take with us. I sat in the front seat and navigated as best I could. Sure enough, my directions proved correct, and we established ourselves at the same tent, table and chairs as I'd used the previous weekend.

After we set up our chairs, some of us tested the water and some of us tested reading in the sun. Once my colleague and her son had been in the water for a while, Fabien and I borrowed two sets of goggles from them (though just one tube, which Fabien used). Right away I spotted a sea turtle in the same bed of weeds in which I'd spotted one the previous week - it could very well have been the same turtle, but that would only be speculation, and the identity of the turtle is truly immaterial. Fabien and I followed it along the weeds, until it dove down and perched on some coral about 15 feet deep. Fabien hovered around the surfaced and I kept diving down to take a closer look (despite years of smoking I'm still an incredible under-water breath-holder). The turtle put up with us for a few minutes longer before finally having its fill of us and propelling away like a jet engine.

We arrived back on the beach at about 11:45am to find that the three land lubbers had ordered lunch (there are two 'restaurants' on the beach, though no power supply to speak of, and I later learned that food and ice are brought to the beach every day and that it is best to phone ahead to alert the restauranteurs of your intended presence so that they know to bring enough on any given day). Three courses of lunch - and two rounds of desert - arrived around 1pm for each of the three land lubbers, of which none was prepared to finish; Fabien and I gratefully wound up eating half of it.

Around 2:30pm, while I was still in the water, two of our Spanish friends arrived (one of whom had previously worked in my office, and was then working for one of our implementing partners). They were both there for snorkeling, so I and Fabien returned to the beach to each retrieve a mask and tube and join them. It didn't take long for me to break away from the larger group to test the waters and see what I could see on my own.

I guess I spent about an hour in the water, and when I got back found out that the group with whom I'd come to the beach had all left without me; fortunately for me, and I must presume that my previous companions had figured as much (though, to be true, this was never confirmed), my Spanish friends were in a position to offer me a ride home. The driver, whom I had attended the beach with the previous week, informed me he had actually planned to spend the night sleeping on the beach - an idea he got from a Scotsman at the beach the previous week - but because his Spanish companion was pregnant he acquiesced to returning to Djibouti that evening (I was good either way, but returning to bed and food was in all likelihood the more preferable option). I had the remainder of my bananas, the Spaniards shared some sardine and tomato sandwiches, and together we watched the sun go down behind the mountains before leaving.

On the way to the car, one of the local Djiboutians working at the beach asked us for a ride into town, so the two Spaniards (both fluent in French, and therefore conversing with the local) asked if I would be okay with that. My response was that "I was totally fine with anything, it's his car, and I'm also just hitching a ride." We left and, as noted, the road in and out is treacherous like you wouldn't believe. Before coming to the main road, the driver spotted a partridge at the roadside, so he stopped the car to take a picture of it. As it happened, just before seeing the partridge, some guy had waved to us trying to get a ride, though we didn't stop for him. Some 50 meters later, our vehicle - the object of his wave's desire - by coincidence stopped so the driver could take a picture of a partridge. The guy, having no reason to think otherwise, ran to the car for his ride. We all laughed, agreed that the partridge was God's hand interceding on behalf of this man, and allowed him to travel with us. So now I was in the backseat with two Djiboutians (who, it seems, have their own difficulties with accessing water with which they might wash themselves), and everyone in the car was speaking either French or Spanish.

We dropped each of the Djiboutians at different places and in so doing I received a mobile call from Fabien: he informed me he was sitting at the Hotel Alia, so I asked if he wanted to meet at Saba Restaurant for dinner - to which he agreed - and he suggested I invite our Spanish friends - which I did. We all got fruit smoothies and remarked on how they could pass as entire meals, and how they are so great, and how we wish they were available (as readily and at such low prices) in our own countries, etc. Fabien and I were the only ones to eat.

After dinner, Fabien and I walked to the house of the colleague with whom I'd been staying for the purpose of collecting my things. Fabien had wanted to walk, mostly to try to capture the lightening on his camera, and I had no reservations. Before we arrived, as his internship was ending in a few short weeks and he'd not done so to that point, Fabien asked if I wanted to visit the 'Sky Bar' with him at the Kempinski Hotel. I said sure, and we went to the 'Sky Bar', which is on a rooftop terrace overlooking the ocean and the city. We each had an $8 pint of Stella Artois and reminisced about our shared experiences with our colleagues, our office, and the country. Fabien asked for one of my cigarettes, which he awkwardly attempted to smoke in front of me (I've never seen him smoke since arriving in Djibouti, and he says he smokes very infrequently, but when he was trying to light and smoke the cigarette, it's as if he'd never smoked or even seen another person smoke a cigarette before: it was truly a sight to behold).

After an hour of reminiscing, and attempting to capture lightening with a digital camera (note: this is difficult), we left the 'Sky Bar' and the Kempinski Hotel and wandered over to our colleague's home so that I could grab my belongings. We carried the things back to Fabien's studio apartment, which overlooks the city's train station where it appears every homeless person and urban refugee in Djibouti congregates in the evening. Fabien watched some of the movies I'd transferred to his laptop, and I took a shower and attempted as best as I could to sleep on Fabien's vinyl couch-like love seat.

(This is, in all likelihood, the penultimate entry for this blog, and happens to be the entry I'd intended to include at the end of August. Due to circumstances, as they were, I left Djibouti on 4 September and completed my final report from a library in Canada. I intend to write at least one further blog entry - perhaps two - to wrap my experience as best as I can and provide some final thoughts on what I'd hoped to get from the experience, what I in fact got from the experience, and what I plan to do with it all.)

Friday, August 20, 2010

Two Evenings in Djibouti (and One Day Outside)

Last Thursday evening - two Thursdays ago - our plans were almost rained out. Some people in the office made plans for a select few of us to go bowling, and I invited everyone under the sun to join us, including a friend from CARITAS (she just got back from Italy, with sister in tow).

Just before we were about to leave our office that evening, the skies opened up and the city began to flood. Fortunately, after 30 minutes or so, the rains let up and a taxi was able to come and get us.

To our chagrin, the bowling alley had also flooded. The employees of the alley kept telling us '10 more minutes'; '15 more minutes'; and after a little over an hour of that we were finally able to hit the lanes.

And then the ants came.

They were everywhere; they were huge; they were flying; and they bit! I got a nice bite on my left shin, but was otherwise alright (one of my colleagues got multiple bites on his neck).

We all had terrible bowling scores, but as no one among us was particularly adept at bowling, most people thought we did rather well (I'll note that none of us broke 100, and if you're not very familiar with bowling, the best possible score is considerably higher than that). There were pool tables in the entrance area of the bowling alley, and my Italian friends remarked that it was unfortunate we didn't try 'billiards', as they are much better at that.

After bowling, we went to 'The Melting Pot', where several other expats - all Italian - joined us on the patio. We were originally to be eight, so a table was reserved for us inside; but we arrived as eleven, and eventually became fourteen, so our only option was to be seated at a ridiculously long table on the patio.

I was seated next to the sister of my friend from CARITAS, and at one point in the evening, she leaned over and asked me, "why don't you learn to speak French while you are here?" It was a straightforward question, deserving of a straightforward reply, but I've always got to be 'the funny guy', so I remarked "because French is an ugly language and I refuse to learn it." Before I could say I was kidding, and that I have just been delinquent with my studies, to my surprise she was in complete agreement with me and wished that everyone at the table would stop trying to speak with her in French. Incroyable!

By the time our meals were served it was relatively dry on the patio, the wind was no longer as intrusive as it had been, and apart from the miserable weather early on - and the ants - it was a rather nice end to a rather interesting evening.

Last night - which also happened to be Thursday - I went out with my friend from CARITAS with her sister in tow. Our first stop was for some burgers at 'The Beverley'.

'The Beverley' is a place which is a very tiny elevator ride four floors above some kind of eatery, or convenience store, or pharmacy - I'm not sure which - that has very mysteriously, and misleadingly, borrowed it's name and logos from 'Planet Hollywood'. 'The Beverley' doesn't have a washroom inside the restaurant: one is required to pass through the entrance, follow a series of signs that say 'Toilet' - all with arrows pointing in surprising directions - until one walks through a construction zone and arrives in a tiny room with a toilet, a sink, and a bucket filled with water (because there is no running water, obviously).

Before our meal arrived, I journeyed to the washroom adjacent to 'The Beverley' and when I returned to the restaurant, our waiter - whom I'll describe as being 'super jazzed' - asked me if I wanted a serviette (he said the word 'serviettes' with an inflection at the end, so I could only assume it was a question concerning serviettes and my desire to have one). I answered in the affirmative. He put a small plate on the counter, placed some paper napkins on that plate, and smiled at me. I thanked him for the paper napkins and returned to my table; I told the girls I had no explanation as to why I was carrying a small plate of paper napkins, but that our waiter was super-jazzed.

The burgers were pretty good; the waiter was a riot. I'll recommend 'The Beverley' to anyone.

The evening's post-burger activities were advertised as 'billiards', and there were two places my Italian friend and her sister said we could go: to one place with 'red and yellow balls', or another place with 'numbers on the balls'. I opted for the numbered balls and showed them how we play 'billiards' in Canada (Final Score: Canada 3, Italy 0).

After billiards we went to 'Scotch', one of the local, seedy, discotheques, filled with Legionnaires and 'ladies of the night' (a typical Thursday night, really; we may substitute bowling for billiards, but we can always count on plenty of Legionnaires being around Djibouti-ville after dark, and on the red lights being turned on). We didn't stay there long, as we really just spent our 20 minutes sitting uncomfortably in one of the booths, gawking at everyone enjoying themselves on the dance floor in whatever way they might.

On leaving, my Italian friend and her sister wanted to go to another, equally desirable place, but as it was [enter some excuse for not wanting to go to another discotheque here], I said my good-nights and walked home.

Earlier that evening I'd agreed to join them on a beach adventure the following day - that day being today, which is Friday. They'd already formulated the plans, but offered to include me in them, which I willingly accepted.

Today - Friday we congregated around 'Planet Hollywood' in the city centre and at shortly after 10:00 we left for the beach. We spent close to six hours at the beach (the name of which starts with a 'K', has two words and three syllables), and I spent probably 2.5 hours snorkeling spread out over two visits to the water (there were other visits to the water but only two for snorkeling).

On my first snorkel, a solo snorkel, I went about 100 meters out, another 100 meters left, and discovered a coral shelf with an astonishing variety of fish (I wish I could tell you what each one was called, but I can only describe them as ranging from the size of my pinky to the size of my arm, and being assorted combinations of every colour imaginable).

On my second snorkel, this time accompanied by a new Italian friend (we were six Italians, one Swede, and one Canadian in a convoy of two Japanese SUVs today), I came upon a sea turtle grazing some sea weed. I came upon him first and motioned to my Italian friend to join me where I was. He was a good size, with a shell diameter of almost one meter, maybe more given the distance between he and I.

The turtle saw me.

I don't know if turtles are capable of thoughts beyond 'hungry' and 'afraid', but when I looked at this turtle, I could definitely sense alarm, and deduced this turtle's thoughts had migrated from the former to the latter.

The turtle slowly started moving, with me in hot pursuit and my Italian companion in tow. As I was using a borrowed snorkel and mask, my mask was not sealing correctly, and by this time had slowly filled with water. I breached and emptied my mask as quickly as I could, but when I returned under water the turtle had vanished.

I breached again, along with my Italian companion. She remarked how incredible it is to see the turtle take off as fast as it does. "Yes," I remarked, "that must have been incredible to see."

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Hello Kitty

I attended at the CARITAS compound this morning, which is located a few kilometers away from our branch office, as a member of the reception team for urban refugees. Interestingly, the only refugees I received this morning are registered in the Ali-Addeh camp, but I'm beginning to realize it's not uncommon for refugees in the camp to spend the majority of their time here in the capital.

The morning began as reception mornings typically do, with members of the Protection Unit standing outside the gate screening refugees. Many of them have appointments and are allowed to enter for their appointments; many of them have expired attestation papers and are allowed to enter to renew their attestations; many are just waiting for appointment slips, which we fill out, and which they take and leave. Many, however, are refugees from the Ali-Addeh camp who want to be received here in the city. They are advised to return to Ali-Addeh to be received there, though this is advice to which they are not overly receptive.

Today is the first day of Ramadan so all of the Muslims in this country, in theory, are fasting. My supervisor thought this might mean that most refugees would stay home, but the refugees at the gates were just as numerous today as they were last week (though not nearly as aggravated).

My reception interviews today were four: one refugee from Ali-Addeh who has been in the capital for some weeks now, in part due to a security concern in Ali-Addeh, and in part to attend to some medical concerns with his children; one refugee from Ali-Addeh who is here attending to some of her own medical concerns at the hospital; one refugee who is here attending to some medical concerns of her children; and one refugee with his own medical concerns who actually resides here in the capital for reasons I won't get into (but will note my interview with him was the most colourful of the morning).

After four or so hours of receiving the refugees, for want of a vehicle (these are difficult to come by for one reason or another), my interpreter and I set off on foot for our office. Yesterday was quite cool - or relatively cool - as there was a strong breeze in the morning; today the air seemed dead so the walk was unbearable.

After a few minutes of walking I suggested to my interpreter that we just stop at a convenience store for some water and then I would hire us a taxi to take us the remaining few kilometers. He was amenable to this. We walked into the convenience store, I grabbed two bottles of Tadjourah water (this is premium Djibouti water, but at the YES Market it is priced the same as any other water); but as today is the first day of Ramadan, my interpreter informed me that he is fasting and unable to drink the water. On informing me of this I felt a little sorry for making him walk as far as I did in this heat.

As I've noted before, my work space in the branch office is located in the second floor annex with the program staff. When we returned to the office I walked into the area where the members of the Protection Unit are located to brief someone in the Unit on my activities of the morning. One of my colleagues appeared to be having some difficulties around the printer, so I went over to greet her but as I passed her office door I caught the eye of some other colleagues and went in to greet them first.

I walked over to shake one colleague's hand and in doing so heard a shreik from the colleague at the printer. We all went into the hallway to take a look at what the commotion might be. It turns out a cat had a litter of kittens in the cabinet on which the printer is located. What the cat was doing in the cabinet with a litter of kittens is anyone's guess, but a number of my colleagues, as we stood around gawking, commented on seeing the cat coming and going from this office but thought nothing of it.

How is a cat coming and going from this office an unremarkable event?, I thought to myself. But this piece of information didn't seem to pique the interest of anyone else.

Some people noted that if the kittens are touched by anyone then the mother will abandon them; others noted that there's no harm in a litter of kittens remaining in that cabinet. I stood by with a huge grin on my face, unsure of what the culturally appropriate response might be.

My other supervisor attempted to employ rhetoric to get everyone on board with removing the litter of kittens from the office but no one was biting. Action was required. We found another cabinet, moved the printer onto it, and wheeled the cabinet full of kittens out to the front entrance. The kittens were not at all amused by any of this and became alarmingly vocal; but my interests lay elsewhere so I returned to the annex.

Sometime later I returned to the Protection Unit and in doing so passed by the entrance to the building. The cabinet had been removed and the cries of the litter of kittens were no longer present. I attended at my supervisor's office to brief her on the events at CARITAS but she interrupted me before I could start. "One moment," she said, as she stood and opened her window. "I just want to check on my kittens."

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Chicorée Café

I've already noted how French is not my lingua franca.

When I first went to Ali-Sabieh I stayed at the Hotel Palmeraie with my colleagues from Nairobi; thereafter I stayed in the guestroom at the LWF compound. In between I returned to the capital for a few days and, while there, purchased a few things from the 'Cash Centre' (this place, and 'Casino', are the two places in this country that mostly closely approximate the grocery stores I am used to in Canada).

I'd been drinking far too much Coca-cola in the morning - throughout the day, really - so I was determined to resume drinking far too much coffee instead. I attended at the 'Cash Centre' and purchased an electric kettle and what I thought was instant coffee. The packaging was a little different from what I was used to, and it purported to be invigorated with various vitamins and minerals. Inside the container was what appeared to be dehydrated, instant coffee.

On returning to Ali-Sabieh I awoke the next day to make instant coffee that first morning back. To my surprise I discovered I had, rather, purchased a delicious chocolate breakfast beverage. On further examination - trial and error, really - I discovered it could be mixed with either water or milk, hot or cold.

While this delicious chocolate breakfast beverage was a welcomed surprise, it was not the hot caffeinated coffee-like drink I'd planned to have purchased.

The next trip back to the capital, some three weeks later, featured another trip to the 'Cash Centre' and another attempt to find instant coffee. I did manage to find it in a small aisle of all those things you might associate with coffee: filters, sugar, coffee whitener (probably), and tea. On comparing the different brands available to me, I selected to one that not only provided me with the best value (the brand name appears to be 'Le Prix! gagnant'), but one that also appeared to be the most fancy.

The picture on the jar looked more exotic than regular coffee - one of the reasons I purchased this brand over the others (not being able to distinguish between them by what was written on the labels). In Canada I typically drink coffee, where possible from Tim Hortons. There are fancier places, serving coffee-like beverages with fancier sounding names, which come in cups of fancier sounding sizes. I'm really just sure about what coffee is, though, and I'm not too sure about those other things; and if it is just coffee, why it's just not called coffee.

I never actually used the instant coffee after returning to Ali-Sabieh; I'd already formulated the routine of Coca-cola and canned mango-drink in the morning (I think you have to call it 'drink' when it's mostly made from sugar - but the cold mango pulp and sugar beverage is really quite good). Part of my breakfast routine of buying one or two baguettes from an old woman who show's up at Ali-Sabieh's roundabout at 7am or so, then buying my Coca-cola and canned mango-drink, before I head to Ali-Addeh for the day.

As I've already related in an earlier post, I've since relocated from Ali-Sabieh and am now back in the capital, having largely completed my field research in Ali-Sabieh. I returned on Tuesday to collect my things. I might have returned on Sunday or Monday but over the course of the weekend (last weekend, not this weekend) I came down with my first case of food poisoning since arriving in this country. The early part of last week was consequently a write-off.

In the capital, at the branch office, I've been assigned a new desk after having played musical chairs during my last few visits: I'd begun in the resettlement office; was relocated to the protection office; and now finally find myself sitting with the Associate Liaison Officer to IGAD in an area I refer to as the Annex. I keep my electric kettle on the floor, behind my desk, and I keep my instant coffee in one of the desk drawers along with a variety of other things. (Wednesday or Thursday of last week was 'Toilet Paper Ration Day' so I have two rolls in one of my drawers to get me through the next month.)

Yesterday, Saturday, I came into the office to do some work. I like coming in on the weekends because it's a little more quiet and I work on the weekends because I'm boring. But because it's my own time I can also occupy myself with whatever I might choose to occupy myself with (like a child who sees something shiny, I'm easily distracted by any foreign stimuli).

On paper I seem pretty exciting, having travelled to far off places and having done some pretty interesting things. Pictures of me posing with cadavers and live crocodiles exist. In practice, however, I'm really quite boring. Thursday after work I went out bowling with some colleagues, and while I won't say what any of our scores were, I will say that I had the highest one. But when left to my own devices I prefer to sit with an internet browswer open on my laptop so I can look up whatever might come into my head.

Yesterday, in the office, while making my coffee I came to wonder what it was I was preparing. I entered the name into Google and was directed to my favourite place to spend time (though en francais, as I wasn't yet aware of the proper English translation).

Evidently, whatever it is I'm drinking, it's just fancied-up poor-man's instant coffee. On learning the history of 'chicory', and how it has been used as a coffee substitute for poor people and in war time conditions, it doesn't seem so fancy anymore.

I don't think that really matters though. I think chicory is always going to taste a little more exotic than just plain coffee, because I now associate this different-tasting coffee with an odyssey of multiple trips to the 'Cash Centre' and arduous research in the Annex. It will always remind me of Djibouti somehow.