Archive for the 'On the road' Category

Doors closing and opening

After a sleepless night at the very last row of the plane, I am now in Paris in the K-hall lounge, dizzy with sleep. I was too late to get the complimentary face massage from Clarins – all 20 minute sessions booked for the morning. I probably would have gone to sleep. One has to get in on the first flight in the morning to get a slot it seems. Word has spread about this nice part of the lounge experience.

I am trying to use up my global upgrades that Delta offers to its frequent flyers. All four of them go ‘poof’ at the end of September. I am waitlisted and competing for three open seats in B-class to Boston- calling on the powers in the universe to get one of those.

The same boss who gave me the news of the termination of my position has now resigned herself to take up a post in Geneva. She is leaving a week before me. Strange how things can change on a dime – and probably a good thing we don’t have a crystal ball.

I am drawing on my daughters’ experience with rate setting and contracting – it’s a new world for me and I want to start it right – no regrets later, oh I wished I had…But it is causing some anxiety,

Of the three jobs that I thought I had in my pocket just weeks after I had been notified of my departure from MSH two have been cancelled already. I will not go to Saudi Arabia (hoping for next year) and I will not teach an online OB class this summer for Simmons College (not enough registrations). Only the very brief Japan trip in September is on.  I have been given the go ahead to buy my ticket.

Each time a door closes another one opens. Soon after the cancellation of the Saudi project I was invited to compete for a contract of an organization MSH has partnered with and competed with in the past.  And within a day of learning about the Simmons cancellation a former colleague who now works elsewhere in the global health space has approached me about a gig in Senegal. This is my new reality – welcome says Axel as he’s been there. The question now is, how many days of the year do I actually want to work? And do I want to continue going to hot and dusty places, leaving beautiful Lobster Cove during the best months of the year?

Rallies, rupture and selfies

Political rallies were announced the other day for Friday. I knew this before I heard about them locally because I received several emails warning me. The previous rally had turned bad with several people wounded, and enraged more people, so more rallies are in the making. The emails reminded me to not go to these rallies and take pictures. I wasn’t planning to – but I had one more assignment in my scope of work that required another trip across town to a state agency I was supposed to work with. When I learned this morning that it was not a good idea to travel across town on Friday, especially since more spontaneous demonstrations could develop, and also that all the people in the agency that could make decisions about governance were all at some rally in Mopti, I decided to change my flight home.

My colleague was amazed I could actually arrange this in about 10 minutes – he had discouraged me to even try. But I was motivated – the heat and the food arrangements had started to get to me, and there was nothing else to do. Spending another day in my hotel room sitting in front of my computer was simply not appealing anymore. I had done too much of that already.

My reports written and reviewed, we made one more trip across town to see progress on the manual (and there was, quite significantly, and not ‘de la literature!’). The roundtrip once again took over two hours (heat, filth), while I was munching on ‘beschuit’ and drinking oral rehydration liquids – to replace lost fluids and avoid upsetting my stomach again (unfortunately mangoes were no recommended foods).

I returned to my hotel to pack, get cash (credit card machines never work here), pay my bill, say goodbye on Skype to my US-based boss who is leaving MSH tomorrow and sort out some administrative stuff. The driver picked me up early to go to a communal breaking of the fast (‘la rupture’) at a fancy Bamako hotel – I was invited to partake in the meal before he would take me to the airport. I had some simple communal meal in mind, like we had last week at the zoo/conference center but I was wrong. Everyone was in their best and most colorful outfits, white and light blue for the men and all colors of the rainbow for the women. The setting was an impressive buffet, all manners of dishes and delicacies. Here I was in my travel clothes, but warmly welcomed by colleagues I had never met. We sat around the table waiting for the sign that the fast for the day was over.

There was some comparing of smartphone clocks before a round of kinkeliba tea was served and the dates were passed around.  People had told me that, this far into the month of fasting (it’s over next week) people had gotten used to not eating from 5AM till 7PM and their stomachs had shrunk. And so I expected people to put small portions on their plates. Not so. First they piled their plates high up with rolls, beignets, mini pizzas, pain au chocolat and such. Then they filled up plate after plate with stews, skewers, fried potatoes, couscous, and then there was desert. If this is restrained eating, then I wonder what regular eating is. Actually, I kind of know.

And now I am at the airport, watching two teenage girls preen and posture to continuously improve their selfies. It’s kind of entertaining to watch. They don’t seem to get tired of looking at themselves, try out new poses. Smartphones have democratized style and beauty – anyone with looks can now be a glamour girl, pretend to be on a magazine cover that is her own phone.

Garbage and other unmentionables

On Monday I started the second part of my assignment, working with an impressive Malian NGO that is getting ready to take over the functions of our project, which means instead of us, they will be assisting other less advanced NGOs to get their organizational management and governance in order. For them to do this they have to get their own house in order and this means, among other things, bringing their governance practices up to American standards – they hope to get American tax dollars in due time to help them pay for their assistance to others. The senior leadership team participated in last week workshop and now they are getting their governance manual together – something they realized was lacking.

We had given them a generic outline of what a governance manual needs to contain. They immediately set to work, very systematically – see what they had, someplace, and what they did not. They asked us for advice on these missing pieces and we asked them a bunch of questions, such as, how do people get on or off the board, what requirements are there, who votes and how, etc. It’s a big task that, with the French tendency to write literature whatever they do, required some nudging towards conciseness and simplicity.

The NGO is across town and it took a full hour to get from where we are to where they are; straight through the congested market, narrows streets blocked by 18 wheelers filled with yams or potatoes or onions and the smaller camions, carts and strong lean men that take the wares to other parts of the vast market. And where there is a market there is waste. A huge and horrendous garbage pile sits right at the edge of the market and next to a residential/commercial district. Garbage pickers are pushing their way through the mess to discover treasure – kids barefoot, skinny women and men. I could not look at the scene.  Onwards we went through lots of potholed or unpaved streets lined by various small scale commercial enterprises. The town is filthy beyond filthy – I remember times when it was not, or maybe my memory fails me.  But we certainly produce more filth because there are more people and more cars and no one fixes anything it seems. One wonders about city government – it appears to be entirely absent. One also wonders what urban planners are doing – there must we at least some. But as my colleague says, the only way to get something done or get away with not doing something is to pay someone off. It’s a thriving side business for countless people I suspect.

Back in the office, another hour later, my colleagues sent for a sandwich from a local sandwich shop, a beef shawarma. It tasted delicious and so I didn’t notice right away that something was amiss. But by the time I was dropped off at the hotel I didn’t feel that well, and after that I was up all night trying to get rid of whatever toxins I had ingested. I didn’t sleep a wink and called in sick the next day. There was no way I was going to endure two more hours in traffic and driving by the garbage heap without some form of physical upheaval.  The combination of very high temperatures, food not being consumed during the day because of Ramadan and the regular power outages made for a perfect intestinal storm. I bought oral rehydration salts (a gift from the American people, our project logo on the box, bought by retailers at a subsidized price and selling for 45% over the price advertised on the box. From the American People for the American People. It got me back on my feet.

A Sunday outing

Today my Quebecois friends told me at breakfast he was not feeling well and would not join me, and so I went by myself. I asked the taxi man (we are now considered friends because I pay him well and I negotiate only a little) whether he was willing to accompany me in the park, since I had no idea what the park was like and decided having a male companion might be a wise thing. He reluctantly agreed. At first I thought it was because of the entrance fee and I told him quickly I’d pay for him. Later I realized it wasn’t that (only). He is fasting and it was over 90 degrees and on such days most people just stay quietly in a cool place, like under a tree. Instead I dragged him around the park and up a hill and then to visit the neighboring zoo. I usually don’t like to visit zoos in developing countries because they are too sad, but people told me this zoo was very nice and the animals well cared for. This turned out to be true.

I was kind of excited when we arrived at the chimpanzees, the very few animals that were actually visible. He kept saying how human they looked – they are like us, look at their hand and feet, he kept saying. I told him they were our ancestors and that we looked a lot more like them some 200.000 years ago. He looked at me in disbelief, you mean before Jesus? Yes, long before Jesus I told him.

We also stopped by the lions – it was like one of those ‘Where is Waldo’ pictures – the guard told us there were 9 lions in the very large lion enclosure – we looked and searched and found about 6 of them, the rest hidden in shady places. The enclosure has a fence around it that seemed adequate but my driver got obsessed with people falling over. You’d have to be very dedicated to falling into the enclosure, said the guard, but my driver thought it would be easy; and then, I could see his mind running away, the lions would eat you. I told him that I’d thought the lions looked rather well fed and would probably not eat him, probably just sniff and then walk away, but he was convinced he’d be a goner. Most of the lions in Mali are gone now – killed. My driver told me that this was normal as the people who killed the lion would otherwise have been killed. He was clearly preoccupied with the killing nature of the lions.

Since most animals were asleep and/or out of sight we retraced our steps back down to the park and then to the museum. He declined my invitation into the museum where I hoped it would be cool. It was now the hottest part of the day.

The museum is small and could use some display help but the textile exhibit was nice. The old and new videos of traditional practices and rituals that accompanied the collection of masks, were interesting but I didn’t stay very long as the temperature inside was only slightly lower than outside.

I was beginning to visualize myself sitting at a lovely restaurant terrace looking out over the Niger with a large bottle of cold water and a glass of very cold dry rose. Since that part of the trip had not been negotiated the night before there was a little more haggling before I found myself exactly as imagined at the Brasserie Badala. Looking out over the slowly moving Niger River, seated under an umbrella that sprayed a fine mist of water every minute over the tables, I had the glass of ice cold dry rose, a bottle of water (I drank all 1.5 liter during my meal) and a salade nicoise before heading home. The combination of heat and rose wine called for a nap. And now, even though the day is fading, the temperature is still at 97 degrees, suggesting an afternoon swim.

Knowing Truth and the taxi man

Last night I went out with the two Dutch guys who are lodged at the hotel and my Quebec friend joined us at the last minute – a good thing. It reminded me why, all these years ago, I traded in my Dutch husband for an American one. There is something about the Dutch I meet abroad that irritates me. They know everything, they have an opinion about everything (with particularly strong opinions about the US) and they are always right. This I have come to associate especially with Dutch men (former husband included) – although of course I know others, not Dutch, who exhibit some of these traits.

My new Dutch acquaintances are here to work on security issues with the Dutch embassy. They are military men, seconded by the ministry of defense. They are sent all over the world to deal with threats. They just came from Kabul, so we had something to talk about. When I mentioned I had lived in two powder keg places (Lebanon and Afghanistan) I was told that there is a more serious one I had not mentioned: the Sahara/southern Libya/northern Mali and Niger powder keg. That’s why they were here – but they couldn’t say much other that they dealt with ‘special’ stuff. One has been an air marshal in the past. I have never met an air marshal as they fly incognito, but I know they are always on my plane. And so I got to ask the question I always wanted to ask an air marshal: don’t they want something to happen, on these long boring rides, see some action? He laughed but I didn’t get my answer. I think such information is not be made public on a blogsite no doubt.

I had negotiated a price for taking us to a lovely restaurant, just a tad too far to walk. My compatriots, upon hearing what I had negotiated laughed and said I had been suckered into much too a high a price. And then they started to talk about a bad experience they had had with the same driver earlier in the week and how they told him, basically, to go screw himself, implying basically that I was naive. I told him that I had no problem overpaying a bit (it still is small change for me, and surely for them) because the end of Ramadan feast is approaching and everyone needs money and that I didn’t feel I had been taken for a ride. They had some faint excuse that they were here on the Dutch taxpayers account and that therefore they should pay as little as possible (this did not apply to meals and drinks of course). I told them they should take another taxi if they didn’t want to contribute to his overpriced fare. In the end we all piled into the taxi but I noticed an icy silence from the otherwise talkative driver.

When we returned from a fabulous dinner they hesitated about contributing to the fare. I waved them off, no need to waste Dutch taxpayer money on a poorly negotiated deal (a waft of Trump?). But they did contributed something in the end.  The taxi man was very agitated and waited until they had disappeared through the hotel security gates, and then, with only my Quebecois friend and me in attendance started to rant about how they had treated him. He was visibly shaken but I told him I didn’t want to hear anything about his experiences with them and that we were negotiating with him on our terms, a bit more favorable to him. We hired him to take us to the national park, the zoo and museum for a Sunday outing. He agreed as long as it was not with them. I am sure the price we negotiated was ridiculous in the eye of our Dutch military men – but it what fine with us, from the North American continent, proving their general disdain for anything (north)american.

Along the road

Roadside advertisements here are of a kind that I don’t think you’d see in the US anymore. I think they may have been common in the 60s and 70s, but advertisers probably wouldn’t get away with them nowadays, at least not in the US or Europe. But here all is up for grabs. Advertising that alcohol consumption makes you smart and successful (la bière de la réussite), or that sugar is good for you. One billboard for a line of sugary sodas shows a young boy kid picking up the front end of a small truck with one hand while holding the sugary drink in his other; or there is the one billboard that encourages people to ‘find the lion inside you’ advertising a line of candy. Of course now, because of Ramadan, many billboards wish people a blessed Ramadan showing happy beautiful people drinking or eating specific products, including one of a family eating in front of a Shell station (Shell wishes you…). And women empowerment is not forgotten either: Maggi reminding people that every woman who uses Maggi in her cooking is a Star.

This morning during my morning jog on the treadmill I listened to an NPRs Hidden Brain podcast (This Is Your Brain On Ads) about how ads to which one was exposed at an early age hold sway over anything that the intelligent grown up now knows is nonsense or plain wrong, like nutritious breakfast that consist for 80% of sugar. But those were advertised to the innocent and credulous young mind, with the help of cartoon characters. The message got engraved somewhere deep in our brain and trumps everything we know to be true.

Large electronic billboards are also starting to emerge. They are quite common in the big cities in Asia and I had seen them in Kenya (not always working properly), but last night I saw the best one ever. It is permanently displayed on the main drag near my hotel. It says (most visible at night) in English, in large white on black letters:

  • Mouse not found
  • Keyboard not found
  • Fatal error
  • System suspended

It is a frightening message if you don’t know what these words mean.

But the best thing I saw today was the man with a plastic bag that has the picture and name of our previous president on it. He is still on people’s screen. The plastic bag is also, unfortunately, made with chemicals that don’t dissolve in a hundred years, so his picture will be around a bit until the bag starts to fray as it flaps in the wind from trees or fences, along with the millions of black plastic bags that dot the landscape. This way even our honorable last president will eventually contribute to clogged drains. The Rwandan president did well to ban plastic bags (you are told upon landing in Kigali to leave all plastic bags on the plane). But here it looks like such political will is not on the horizon yet, especially if the current president gets his way and stays on beyond his mandate. Malians are protesting many other things the current administration is not doing, and maybe plastic bags are not quite up there with things like the economy, security and transparency.

Waiting for our daily bread

Every morning it’s the same ritual. Breakfast is at 7, but the bread arrives usually at 7:30, so I learn and go to the refectory at 7:30. But this morning the bread was late because of a big rainstorm that hung over us for most of the night. Rain is badly wanted here but it also disrupts things, especially where roads are not paved and/or the drainage system can’t manage the abundance of water.

And so we sit with the handful of people who are not fasting waiting for bread. It sounds nearly biblical. They are not fasting because they are too old to fast or they are Christians or have some other reason. One of our staff has just returned from maternity leave. She is breastfeeding. I was surprised to see her fast. Apparently she has tested whether she can fast, and she decided she can. It’s hard to imagine in this hot weather to deprive oneself not just of food but of water. I wonder whether the baby is getting condensed milk.

This morning the contents for the bread were eggs, pre-fried. It’s better than spam. But now there is also every morning butter and jam for me, because I asked for it on spam day.

One of the ladies (it’s mostly women who are not fasting) starts to speak in English and the topic turn to language, one of my favorite topics. English is now taught as early as Kindergarten. Still, French remains problematic because most parents speak the local language with their children and it is only in school that they speak French. I proudly brag of my Chinese speaking grandson. Soon the intention to speak English disappears, it is too difficult and one cannot have the conversation I would like to have over breakfast. We return to French and many return to Bambara.

One of the women has a bag full of the menthol throat lozenges that I remember from my childhood; they are grey candies in red celophane wrappers, disguised as medicine. The bag is handed around and the women drop a couple of the lozenges in their tea – sugar and mint, all in one, while we contiue waiting for our daily bread.


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